Up there with today's most controversial topics, from climate change to data privacy, is the grave issue of Comic Sans. Yes, my friends, I am indeed referring to that seemingly innocent typeface that has, for over twenty years, been at the core of much dispute, particularly among designers and typographers.
Making an appearance in website design, birthday cards, warning signs, formal letters, and more, Comic Sans has gone through quite a journey since its initial release in the mid ‘90s. But the question remains: why do people hate Comic Sans so very, very much?
In this article, we’ll take a look at the origins of this notorious typeface, examining its history and the way people’s perceptions of it have changed over time, as well as the link between Comic Sans and dyslexia:
The history of Comic Sans
The story begins in Microsoft’s offices back in 1994. The company was about to release Microsoft Bob, a user-friendly interface for their operating systems in which a friendly yellow dog (a.k.a. Rover) guides the user with helpful tips that pop up in a speech bubble.
When font designer Vinnie Connare saw they were using Times New Roman in the speech bubbles, he disapproved, famously saying “Dogs don’t talk like that.” He felt that the interface’s typography needed to better match the context. Vinnie wanted to create an inviting, unthreatening typeface that would evoke fun and play. Taking inspiration from comic books, he spent three days creating a draft of what would later become Comic Sans.
Due to technical reasons, Comic Sans didn’t end up being used for Microsoft Bob. However, it was later made available in the Windows 95 operating system, enabling people worldwide to use Comic Sans to their hearts’ content.
The typeface became increasingly popular, popping up everywhere from signs to emails and even business cards. What was initially designed as a playful, lighthearted font was being implemented in contexts that were far off from its original purpose. Its cheerful appearance made it a somewhat inappropriate choice in certain contexts, like the sides of ambulances or warning signs, especially when used in conjunction with excessive exclamation points and underlining.
Why do people hate Comic Sans?
Somewhere in between one too many wedding invitations printed in Comic Sans and its use on a defibrillator (true story), the extensive misuse of this typeface had taken its toll on designers worldwide. It seems that Vinnie Connare himself wouldn’t approve of these uses, mentioning in an interview for The Guardian that “type should do exactly what it’s intended to do.” Gradually, Comic Sans became the object of much ridicule.
Another more recent event in the world of Comic Sans occurred when John Dowd, former Trump attorney, wrote a legal letter representing two of Rudy Giuliani’s associates in - you guessed it - Comic Sans. This scandalous act brought on outrage throughout the world, and not just amongst designers. The notorious typeface trended on Twitter, bringing it to the forefront of public attention once again.
Whether John Dowd wanted to “subtly” mock the issue at hand by using a clearly inappropriate typeface, or he is simply a fan of Comic Sans, his motive remains unclear. What can be said, though, is that typography definitely holds a certain power over us, and is apparently not something to be taken lightly.
Graphic designer couple David and Holly Combs know all about that. They fell in love over their shared hatred for the typeface. After being asked to create an entire gallery guide in Comic Sans, the duo decided it was time to ban the font altogether, claiming it was a “blight on the landscape of typography.”
The ‘Ban Comic Sans’ movement certainly indicates the gravity with which typography is perceived. The couple are strong believers in the power of typography, striving to call out inappropriate uses of typefaces. And indeed, choosing the right font for your website, CV or email is critical. Typography plays a huge part in the sensations evoked in a certain design. Whereas the impact of color psychology in design is fairly well known, typography still has some catching up to do.
Comic Sans strikes again
Like many things that were a big hit 25+ years ago (bell-bottoms, platform shoes and tattoo choker necklaces, for example), Comic Sans could well be on the brink of revival. In fact, since the Combs first launched their wildly successful campaign, things have changed. So much so that in 2019, the couple re-named the movement ‘Use Comic Sans.’
What started out as an inside joke meant for designers had simply gone too far. In May 2019, the couple posted on the movement’s Facebook page, saying “We were wrong. Ban the Ban and Use Comic Sans!”
Perhaps it really is time for Comic Sans to join our other much-loved items from the ‘90s and make a return. After all, it seems that the ‘90s have made a comeback in areas other than fashion. These kinds of retro aesthetics are cropping up in various design fields, from graphic design magazines to some of the best portfolio websites out there.
Comic Sans and dyslexia
While Comic Sans has been poked fun of from every possibly angle, there’s one thing that cannot be denied. As opposed to many other fonts chosen to cover our newspapers, websites and various interfaces, Comic Sans is a recommended font for dyslexic readers, as listed in several dyslexia organizations.
Comic Sans meets almost all the requirements of dyslexic readers, such as good letter spacing and differentiation between similar letters and numbers (for example capital I, lowercase l and the digit 1).
In fact, disability advocate and design strategist Liz Jackson, speaks of Comic Sans in relation to inclusive design. In April 2019, she launched the ‘Comic Sans Take Over,’ urging brands that want to “engage in disability as a creative practice” to adapt their logo design by swapping their logo font to Comic Sans. Shifting public opinion on a font so loaded with history and ridicule is not an easy task, but when paired with such a strong backbone, Liz Jackson shows us it’s possible.
What’s ironic in this whole Comic Sans story is that Vinnie Connare never really took it too seriously. While the world was at war, Connare says that it never bothered him, holding true to his belief that “People who don't like Comic Sans don't know anything about design. They don't understand that in design you have a brief.” And clearly, Comic Sans matched the brief.
Text Dana Meir