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.