Fontroversy: What’s the Deal with Comic Sans?

When I wrote my type/appropriateness article, I never expected to encourage multiple conversations on the topic of one typeface: Comic Sans. I’ve gotten into a few debates over comic sans, sure, but I’m also pretty opinionated. I’m especially opinionated over topics I LOVE, and since typography is one of those topics, I could write ad infinitum on the subject. And since comic sans is apparently a hot button typographic item, I thought I would spend some time considering both sides of comic sans: the ubiquitous everyman’s casual font choice, or the perpetual thorn in the designer’s side.

First some background info on this fun-loving bad boy (that’s right, a typeface)

Designed for Microsoft Bob, but missing the final deadline, it was left in pop up displays and bits of information. It was then bundled into a Windows 95 font pack, which in turn established its place within the standard version of the Windows 95 operating system. And here we are today.

Although this is the commonly understood story, I did some further digging and came upon Vincent Connare’s own site, to discuss the impetus for comic sans in his own words:

“Comic Sans was designed because when I was working at Microsoft I received a beta version of Microsoft Bob. It was a comic software package that had a dog called Rover at the beginning and he had a balloon with messages using Times New Roman. ”

Connare continues, “Comic Sans was NOT designed as a typeface but as a solution to a problem with the often overlooked part of a computer program’s interface, the typeface used to communicate the message.”

“There was no intention to include the font in other applications other than those designed for children when I designed Comic Sans. The inspiration came at the shock of seeing Times New Roman used in an inappropriate way.”

Wow, talk about irony!

Here we are in 2012 discussing the usage appropriateness of a typeface created in 1994, which was created in response to that very same problem.

I believe that designers are only truly railing against the typeface due to its overuse, and complete disregard for how it looks in context.  I will let the eloquent defenders of typographic purity, elaborate:

“Like the tone of a spoken voice, the characteristics of a typeface convey meaning. The design of the typeface is, in itself, its voice. Often this voice speaks louder than the text itself. Thus when designing a “Do Not Enter” sign the use of a heavy-stroked, attention-commanding font such as Impact or Arial Black is appropriate. Typesetting such a message in Comic Sans would be ludicrous. Though this is sort of misuse is frequent, it is unjustified. Clearly, Comic Sans as a voice conveys silliness, childish naiveté, irreverence, and is far too casual for such a purpose. It is analogous to showing up for a black tie event in a clown costume.”

I thought now would be a great time to defend the designers, and since this side of the argument is slightly (completely) closer to home, I’ll just save the disclaimer and tell you flat-out I’m biased.  I  came across a ton of articles discussing how much this specific font is totally and completely abhorred. Even beyond most others; even papyrus, my personal arch nemesis. I’ve seen apps that transition all of its fonts to comic sans when the free trial version is over. You can still use the app, but you must suffer the visual hell that is reading comic sans on a mobile device!  When you pay for the full version, all is restored. That’s one hell of a motivator.

I listed out some of  my favorite sites that deal with the font here, and if you’re REALLY interested, I included a site that compares the technical mumbo jumbo that defends typographers arguments against comic sans:

News & Features | NOT FUNNY

Coding Horror: Comic Sans, the Font Of The Gods

Comic Sans: The Font Everyone Loves to Hate

Todd’s Blog » Blog Archive » Comic Sans Font Examined

This last one is a new site that was sent my way by a commenter on my other typography article on usage. I’ll treat this site as more humorous than serious, but the gist of it is showing traditional logos reworked in Comic Sans. When I first looked at the site I felt it actually was proving my own argument outright,  but only through unintentional means. Taking a look at the different logo examples, Kodak film, Mtv, m&m’s, and the horrible collected examples of HP through Warner Bros, I feel as if I’m looking at an episode of The Simpsons without the hilarity. These logos have lost every ounce of professionalism, but I’ll give them that they all look casual and “hand drawn”.

Just because you change the word you typed it in, does not change that the whole essence of this font is built around childlike hand writing. That framework will always be present, it will always have a heavy-handed effect on the tone and voice of whatever is being typeset. And can I remind you that the overuse/misuse of any font, be it Comic Sans, Helvetica,or Times New Roman,  was very much the reason for the creation of Comic Sans? I really don’t think that fact can be stated enough.

The problem with this argument is the understanding, or lack there of, for the tools in the field of design. Typography is simply another way to add emotional context to what is being communicated. It’s similar to understanding what roles tone plays when you’re trying to understand what’s being said. Different fonts are created to convey particular sets of moods, for a multitude of purposes. When you begin to argue defiantly against what seems like every designer’s voice in unison, it just seems you are arguing what you don’t understand. This isn’t an argument over whether comic sans is “good” or “bad”, it’s in reaction to how it’s being used. No designer will care that you used comic sans to advertise a child’s birthday party, but if you’re starting a business and need to be taken seriously, using a fun and casual font is the wrong choice no matter WHAT font you use.

As designers we spend a long time in the trenches learning the rules the rigorous and torturous way; you know the ones that build character. It instills in us unwavering opinions passed down through countless hours of technique and the beloved process. It’s not that we all need to be pretentious modernist snobs, it’s that there ARE rules. For most, this is more than a hobby, and with that comes knowledgeable opinions backed up by research, theory and experience. Maybe it’s because we are in the age of information where everything is transparent and instantly available, but would you argue with a tailor over her selection of cloth meant for different articles of clothing? How about a construction worker or carpenter on the hammer and nails he should use while building your cabinets? You leave the skilled worker to their work and you trust in their expertise. Perhaps fonts, and design should be treated in the same vein.

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