Ask a Nerd: What’s the problem with Comic Sans?

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From our “Ask a Nerd!” files, this question came in from “Steve” (whose real name is actually Steve; we just had some extra quotation marks lying around). Steve’s comments are in bold, with responses below.

Steve: In your book you come down hard on Comic Sans, saying it is an over-used default font that is very cold. I’ve avoided using it, Marker Felt, and Chalkboard, but for a different reason. To me they seem childish and informal, and I feared they would undermine my message, giving it less authority than it deserves. Do you think that a default font acquires coldness simply because it is used often?

IBD: Steve, let me say first that these fonts will undermine your message, so you have good instincts. The problem with Comic Sans is not only that it is used a lot. It’s that it’s almost always used inappropriately, which has caused its original intent to be lost. It was designed with a specific use in mind (to represent speech from a cartoon dog on the Windows 95 operating system), but now it is ubiquitous.

Much like the word “Smurphy,” Comic Sans loses its expressive quality (and becomes cold, which is what we’re getting at in the book) because it is used so much in so many different ways (in one famous instance, it was used on a gravestone; see the photo by Cory Doctorow above). When I see Comic Sans used, I feel that very little thought has gone into the design and it makes me think less of the site or organization it represents.

Steve: Would that apply to Helvetica and Times as well? Why or why not?

IBD: I believe Helvetica and Times are different because they were designed in a classical tradition, more for legibility than for expressiveness. It’s considerably more difficult to pick out Helvetica (which pops up all over the place) because it was designed in the modernist tradition not to be expressive, but rather purely functional. Times was designed specifically for use in newspapers and is often poorly used, but because it’s a traditional serif typeface, it tends to blend into the background. (See “Get to Know a Typeface! Times New Roman”)

Steve: I conducted a very unscientific study, asking a few people (fellow interpreters and general public) what comes to mind when I show them a few sample fonts, including these. None came up with anything like coldness for the printing emulation fonts.

IBD: First, it’s a great idea to show typefaces to others and get feedback, so kudos to you for doing that.

I’m sure that most people will not say “cold” or “impersonal” when asked to identify the expressive qualities Comic Sans tries to achieve. The design of the typeface itself actually is friendly or childish. However, it is so readily identified by even the casual observer, its inherent aesthetic qualities are overshadowed because anyone who sees Comic Sans on your communication has probably already seen it many times over that day alone.

As an interpreter and a designer, your task is to create meaningful communication, and using a font that has lost its meaning due to over-use does not help you do that.

Steve: I still feel if I needed to use a font to convey a very young or informal point of view I’d consider using one of these fonts. Convince me I’m wrong.

IBD: Don’t give in to the temptation! Remember, your nonpersonal media represents your site or organization. Even if you’re promoting a program for kids or a friendly community gathering, choosing the same typeface that countless others have used for take-out menus, personal e-mail, or garage sale flyers looks lazy and unprofessional.

7 thoughts on “Ask a Nerd: What’s the problem with Comic Sans?

  1. I don’t mind extra punctuation when it is a pair of quotes, usually extra punctuation applied is more like “that @#$%^& Steve”!

    I better understand your point, part of my confusion was semantics. When I say cold, I think of a meaning shaded towards hostile, rather than simply devoid of feeling.

    Your reply brings another point to my mind. There is something which is implied in a lot of the interpretive literature, but which I have never seen stated explicitly. I think it is important enough it ought to be principle of interpretation in its own right. “I am not normal.” As interpreters we have abnormal interest, knowledge, and feelings about our resources. Yet we must strive to interpret for our (relatively) “normal” audience, interpretation is about them, not us. Keeping the idea that I am not normal helps me to focus my interpretation away from myself.

    I mention this because I wonder, do you think as a designer it is possible you might be overly sensitive to this font? The font has this meaning to you, but if most people would not sense the same meanings, if at worst the font would evoke no feelings rather than the desired feelings, is it really as bad as you think (from the perspective of our audience)? Would Helvetica (which I agree evokes no feelings) really be a better choice, or would it be better to get the desired impression to those that would feel it? The gravestone evokes a feeling in the family that chose it, isn’t that all the reason needed for that font to be the right choice?

    For the two examples you use, promoting a program for kids or a friendly community gathering I think you envision using it as the body font. My postulated use was to express an informal or very young viewpoint, in that I imagine it as a contrasting font to an authoritative font. In the above post you used bold to indicate the parts quoted from my question, proving a contrast between our two roles in a conversation. Imagine a display that mimics a dialog between a child and an adult, say with a picture of a son holding hands with his father as the sun set.

    Font: Comic Sans – Where does the sun go at night?

    Font: Helvetica – appropriate interpretive response

    Wouldn’t using one of the dreaded fonts convey the innocence of the question to a greater extent than bolding, italicizing, or other typographic device? If you still think I should not use the font in this way, what would you suggest as an alternative?

    “Steve”

  2. Again, Steve, you raise excellent points. First, let me concur that we are not normal (designers or interpreters). I once attended a conference for the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) where the mere mention of Comic Sans during a plenary session caused 5,000 participants to erupt in laughter. So yes, designers might be a little more sensitive to this issue, but our hope is that the interpreters who frequent this site will begin to think like designers.

    On the other hand, there are certain issues out there (like the use of Comic Sans) that cause even the so-called “normal” people out there to rally. Look at the site http://www.bancomicsans.com or simply Google “I hate Comic Sans” and you’ll see that the disdain for this typeface extends beyond the design community. (For the record, I don’t hate Comic Sans. I just believe the instances where it is an appropriate design choice are extremely limited.)

    That said, I am not trying to steer designers away from expressive typefaces altogether. I certainly do not recommend substituting Helvetica in instances where you’re tempted to use Comic Sans. Instead, go find a typeface that is not a computer default.

    As I said in my original post, using Comic Sans can look lazy. It’s available as a default on nearly every computer. We’re asking interpreters to put as much thought into their design decisions as they do their interpretive programs. Go find another typeface that suits your needs exactly online. (Sites like http://www.myfonts.com and http://www.freemacfonts.com offer free downloads.) We suggest that you use expressive typefaces sparingly, but when you do use them, make them your own! Don’t let Bill Gates or Steve Jobs make your design decisions for you.

    If we were to write a theme statement for this website, here’s what it would be: In a world of synthetic, mass-produced solutions, it is the designer’s responsibility to seize control and reinstate the value of the unique.

  3. I agree with Paul by saying you make some excellent points. You are right, designers are overly sensitive about Comic Sans. Every group has punching bags, for designers it’s Comic Sans. I imagine that it could be used effectively in various situations but as interpreters we must be aware of perceptions. If there is an audience that is overly sensitive to the use of Comic Sans or any typeface, image, style, color or concept we should avoid using it in order to make sure the message is conveyed. As interpreters our priority needs to be the message and that it is not clouded. As designers we should only enhance the message and not take away from it. Comic Sans can take away from the message.

    It all begins with the decision making process. If we can choose typeface that doesn’t interfere with the message and that doesn’t exclude audiences, we have succeeded. Your questions are a great illustration of a portion of the decision making process. I question Paul all of the time.

    By the way, I have less disdain for Comic Sans and more focused contempt for Papyrus. My perceptions of Papyrus were developed for many of the same reasons designers dislike Comic Sans…it’s a default and it is way over used.

  4. Also scouted around fonts.com and found Pls Print Brush and ITC Kirsten Com Normal… But don’t let me deprive you of the fun of font-hunting on your own!

    Joy

  5. Pingback: Interpretation By Design » Get to Know a Typeface! Papyrus

  6. Pingback: Graphic Design for Non-Majors « The Roaming Naturalist

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