What is wrong with Comic Sans?


There's a great TEDxExeter talk by a colleague of mine, Simon Peyton-Jones, about the recent advances in the English lower school 'computer science' curriculum. Like all of his slide decks he uses Comic Sans throughout. Depressingly, though inevitably, one of the YouTube commenters berates him for the font choice, stating that his use of Comic Sans is "the design equivalent of putting a giant image of a middle finger on the screen; an insult to education". This prompts a further comment that points to 41:32 in another of Simon's talks where Simon is asked by an audience member why he uses Comic Sans. Here is Simon's reply:

This is a very funny question, "Why use Comic Sans?" So, all my talks use Comic Sans and I frequently see remarks like 'Simon Peyton-Jones, great talk about Haskell but why did he use Comic Sans?' but nobody's ever been able to tell me what is wrong with it. It's a nice legible font, I like it. So until somebody explains to me ... Ah, I understand that it's meant to be a bit naff, but I don't care about naff stuff, I care about being able to read it. So if you have got a sort of ... some rational reasons why I should not then I'll listen to them. But just being unfashionable? I don't care.

Simon is talking off-the-cuff here, so I think by "rational" he means affecting legibility, reading speed, comprehension, and things like that. Are there any studies relating fonts across those kind of measures? If so where does Comic Sans come in the ranking?

(N.B. I cannot help thinking it is a good design choice that he's made. He has deliberately chosen a font that no-one versed in the design of slides would choose. It suggests, in my mind at least, a kind of authenticity; but the argument between brand adherence and authenticity is one I keep losing.)

1/5/2018 3:39:00 PM

At its core, There isn't really anything wrong with Comic Sans. It was designed for a purpose - comic-book-style speech bubbles primarily. It did a good job at that - if you're going to have Microsoft Bob talk to you on a screen, Comic Sans feels more 'right' than Times New Roman.

Three things have contributed to Comic Sans' unpopularity, in my view.

First, exposure. It shows up everywhere, and it's distinct enough for people to notice. Your average person doesn't look at Helvetica, Arial, Gotham, and Franklin Gothic and consciously perceive them as all that different, but Comic Sans was comparatively unique and readily available. Sometimes when things become really popular really fast, there is backlash from people who don't like popular things.

Second, and this is more of a legitimate critique, is appropriateness. The Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta, etc. - these are formal documents with a high degree of gravitas about them. If Jefferson had passed the quill to the nearest child in the room, the result would have been something that the King wouldn't have taken seriously.

A Gothic blackletter is fitting for the masthead of The New York Times. Comic Sans would not be. Conversely, having your average superhero talk with a Gothic blackletter in a comic book would also feel inappropriate.

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So why is Comic Sans "appropriate" for certain situations? It most closely resembles informal handwriting, and thus conveys informality. If humans didn't write in cursive and we never saw any font other than Comic Sans, we'd never know the difference! But we do and we have, so such a connotation exists.

Without knowing anything about this guy, it seems like he'd be the kind of person who'd wear socks under his Crocs because it's comfortable and he doesn't care. And that's fine - Crocs are indeed lightweight and comfortable, and protect you from the heat and irregularities of the road. But if you're running for president or trying to get a job in the C-Suite of a Fortune 500 company, you put on dress shoes because that's what people in that setting do.

A third reason will sound snobby, but I think would explain a lot about how designers tend to think about this sort of thing. Imagine that you're a wine connoisseur and, everywhere you go, you see people not only buying boxed wine, but saying it's great wine and that they know something about wine because they found this box in the state store.

The idea is that trained designers don't really like people using Publisher anyways, so they're more inclined to hate on designs that are done by amateurs who pick Comic Sans because "it looks fun" or whatever. Then, once you've established that it's cool to pick on Comic Sans, everyone gets lumped into that group.

8/5/2015 2:29:00 PM