Comic Sans: The Unloved Typface

Love it or hate it, the Comic Sans typeface makes amateur typographers of us all. People don’t normally talk about the fonts they use. Most of us only notice typefaces when they are atypical or inhibit our ability to read. Comic Sans is different. It divides opinion among those who don’t usually identify as typeface enthusiasts.

In 2014, Australian designer Craig Rozynski created Comic Neue, a similar typeface with some key differences that were supposed to make it less unsightly. Rozynski claimed on his website that the typeface “aspires to be the casual script choice for everyone including the typographically savvy”.

It's safe to say that the redesign did little to resurrect Comic Sans' terrible reputation. So why does everyone hate Comic Sans in the first place?

The unloved typeface

If you have been near a computer in the past 20 years, you have likely encountered Comic Sans, the “fun” typeface with rounded edges that appears to be written with a felt-tipped pen.

If you are an amateur designer, it’s the go-to typeface for just about any occasion that requires a relaxed approach. If you are an experienced designer, it’s the last typeface you’d ever use, unless you want to be ridiculed without mercy.

The typeface, now in its 23rd year, was originally designed by Vincent Connare for Microsoft Bob, Microsoft’s 1995 interface for various iterations of Windows.

Microsoft Bob came with a dog that would interact with the user. In the initial version of Bob, the dog offered assistance in speech bubbles using Times New Roman. Connare decided that comic dogs probably wouldn’t “speak” that way, and went to work designing something more interesting. He used the hand-drawn characters found in popular comic books like The Dark Knight Returns and the Watchmen series as inspiration for what would later become Comic Sans.

Since then, the typeface has been used for everything from physics presentations to papal documents and its popularity is only matched by the disdain some people have for it. People feel so strongly about the typeface that there is even a website devoted to banning Comic Sans entirely.

Friendly font

The Comic Sans is a sans-serif typeface designed to appear casual and friendly. There are numerous different characteristics of the typeface that convey this tone. Generally speaking, the more a typeface resembles handwritten text, the more it is perceived as casual.

Each letter, or character, in a typeface is comprised of a series of straight and curved lines called strokes. While some typefaces change the width of a stroke drastically, each stroke of Comic Sans is the same width throughout. This creates what designers call a mono-weight typeface. These mono-weight strokes mirror the strokes you would get with a pen or pencil. The end of each stroke also comes to a rounded point, which again mirrors handwriting.

Certain characters, such as the lowercase a and g also tell us a great deal about the tone of a typeface. These specific letters have two different variations, known as single and double story.

Single story letters have one enclosed or mostly enclosed space, called a counter. Double story letters have two counters. Single story letters are considered more casual and friendly.

All of these casual attributes can be found in both Comic Sans and Comic Neue. What separates Comic Neue from Comic Sans, however, is the perfection found within each character. Where Comic Sans strokes are often crooked, Comic Neue strokes are exact. The vertical strokes are perfectly vertical and the counters are uniformly rounded. These small changes, combined with a thinner stroke throughout, convey a slightly more professional tone.

Know thy enemy

Comic Sans is arguably the most misused typeface in history. It incites laughter in some people and rage in others. While tweaked variants such as the aforementioned Comic Neue have contributed to a more professional tone, there is no way to tell if the typeface will ever be more socially accepted.

The reputation of the comic typefaces may well be irreversibly tainted forever. Some might argue that is a good thing. The internet enables access to a seemingly endless selection of “comic” typefaces: Janda Manatee; Smart Kid; Action Man; Cartwheel; Rudiment; or even the rather unwieldly-named Year Supply of Fairy Cakes. But few of these have ever made it into the mainstream.

Yet other much maligned typefaces are regularly used. Papyrus, a font which many hate as much as Comic Sans, remains a mainstay for many designers.

So can legitimacy be granted to a family of fonts that, by their very nature, are designed for fun? The remains to be seen. In short, do we really need a comic font for that all-important business document?*

*We probably don’t.

The Conversation

Robert Honnell, Graduate Student, Auburn University and Derek G. Ross, Assistant Professor, Master of Technical and Professional Communication Program, Auburn University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.


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