Ban Comic Sans

Dr Christopher Scanlon Dr Christopher Scanlon
Email: c.scanlon@latrobe.edu.au


First published in the Canberra Times 29 November 2008

An audio version (MP3 6.51MB) of this opinion piece read by Dr Christopher Scanlon is also available.

Chances are, the name Vincent Connare doesnt ring a bell, though in the world of typography and graphic design, Connare is a well known and, for some, a contentious figure. The reason for the contentiousness is one of Connares typographical creations: Comic Sans.

Comic Sans, which resembles the lettering in comic books or a blackboard is one of the most used and abused fonts in the world. The font has found its way onto everything from childrens birthday invitations, restaurant menus, business emails, and, if the photos on the photo-sharing website Flickr are to be trusted, memorial benches and gravestones.

Those managing John and Cindy McCains business affairs are fans of the typeface too. Scans of business records for the John and Cindy McCain Family Foundation recently turned up on a blog showing that the presidential nominees staff use the font on the McCains financial statements.

Comic Sans detractors

While many people clearly love it, others particularly graphic and typeface designers loathe it. Comic Sans detractors have taken their campaign to the web with the Ban Comic Sans website. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, the sites creators proclaim:

We call on the common man to rise up in revolt against this evil of typographical ignorance. We believe in the gospel message ban comic sans. ... By banding together to eradicate this font from the face of the earth we strive to ensure that future generations will be liberated from this epidemic and never suffer this scourge that is the plague of our time.

Similar sentiments are expressed over at Typohile.com, a website devoted to all things typographic. The consensus among Typophiles members is that the use of Comic Sans is never, ever justified. As one member, photographer Rob Mizell, puts it Id prefer any number of bad typefaces over Comic Sans. What a terrible terrible society polluting creation.

English graphic designer Richard Weston put it more bluntly. On his blog Found type, print and stuff, he declared Comic Sans to be unquestionably shit.

If that sounds a bit strong, its nothing compared to the deep-seated hostility that the typeface can provoke. On her blog Squid and Beer, for example, shing expresses her horror at learning that an ex-boyfriend used Comic Sans in his email signature.

I didnt know, because I disabled rich text and HTML for years in all my email applications, wrote shing who, all available evidence to the contrary, claims not to be a type snob.

It truly bothered me to realize that a relationship that went on for far longer than necessary, and did me no favours (although it was not an unpleasant relationship) could have had about a year and a half shaved off it by merely having different preferences in my email client.

Comic Sans was developed to represent the voice of a dog

While judging a potential life partner based on their choice of typeface is extreme, its worth noting in his defence, that Comic Sans creator never intended the typeface for general use. Connare developed Comic Sans while working at Microsoft as a font designer in the 1990s. Comic Sans was specially developed for a product called Microsoft Bob that featured a cartoon dog called Rover who guided novice computer users through tasks like creating and saving files.

Rovers instructions were originally rendered in Times New Roman which Connare felt was too formal and inappropriate to the fun nature of the product. He created Comic Sans as a more appropriate replacement.

Microsoft Bob was discontinued although Comic Sans lived on and was included with Microsoft's other products, including the ubiquitous Office software. Since then, to the irritation of graphic designers everywhere, Comic Sans has taken over the world.

Why does font matter anyway?

But do typefaces really matter? Or are heated discussions about typefaces yet another sign that many of us in wealthy Western consumer societies have way too much time on our hand and that our priorities are seriously out of whack?

Melbourne-based graphic designer, writer and typographer Stephen Banham, who sells t-shirts bearing the message Death to Helvetica from his website as a witty criticism of another much overused typeface, says that serious discussion about the merits of typography is both legitimate and a healthy development.

Perhaps the best metaphor for typography is to think of each typeface as a voice, each with its own pitch, volume and intent says Banham. Typography will eventually be regarded as a perfectly valid cultural expression, alongside architecture, fashion, art, and theatre. Public discussions about typefaces such as Comic Sans are a necessary part of this process.

For Banham, choices about typeface are anything but trivial. For graphic designers, and particularly typographers, it involves a well-considered choice of an appropriate, practical and aesthetically harmonious voice to communicate the textual content, he says.

In the same way that an architect wouldn't use cardboard and staples to build a hospital, trained graphic designers consider the power and appropriateness of particular typefaces as the building blocks of a strong visual communication. This opens up infinitely rich possibilities.

The democratisation of design

Heated discussions about typefaces are perhaps more an expression of the way that design has been democratised. The emergence of software like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, for example, has placed powerful design tools into the hands of non-designers. Where design might once have been the preserve of a tiny subset of the population, now anyone, no matter what their level of talent, can try their hand at graphic design. And like any democratic process, the end result is frequently messy and ad-hoc.

Indianapolis-based graphic designers Dave Combs who with his wife Holly, is behind the Ban Comic Sans website agrees. Comic Sans is just sort of a case-in-point of what happens when you turn over graphic design tools to the masses says Combs.

The democratisation of design is a double-edged sword. Its a good thing that more people have access to tools which allow them to express their creativity and artistic vision, but then theres the proliferation of poor quality design.

Combs makes clear that the campaign to ban Comic Sans is more about education than outlawing typefaces. Were not advocating that design is something only for the highly-trained elite or anything like that. We just want people to be informed and appropriate when making their font selection. You dont have to go to design school to do that.

If the ban comic sans campaign causes people to consider their font choice a little more, Id say its successful.

Vincent Connare, who left Microsoft and has been working for design house Dalton Maag since 2001 where he recently launched a new typeface called Magpie, is unruffled by the response to Comic Sans.

Nevertheless, he maintains that Comic Sans was appropriate for the screen interface it was originally designed for. A font that solves a problem is a good font. It fits the brief and delivers the intended message in the correct way. A typeface should be designed for a specific user in mind writes Connare in an email interview.

I'm not that bothered when I see Comic Sans or Trebuchet used on the news on TV or in a film or on the menu. I sometimes wonder who made the decision on how it was used.

Whether you know Vincent Connares name or not, next time you go to use Comic Sans, stop and think and remember that it was designed for a dog.

Christopher Scanlon teaches journalism at La Trobe University and is online editor of www.arena.org.au

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