How Comic Sans Became the World’s Most Notorious Font
Vincent Connare, the creator of Comic Sans, has only used his font once.
“I was having trouble changing my broadband to Sky so [I] wrote them a letter in Comic Sans, saying how disappointed I was,” he confessed in a recent interview with The Guardian. For critics of the font (and there are many), forcing the company’s customer service representatives to read a letter printed in Comic Sans was the best revenge Connare could have concocted.
Since it was completed in 1994, the typeface has become notorious enough to spawn its very own anti-fan club. The founders of the group, known as Ban Comic Sans, once described the font as a “blight on the landscape of typography.” But is this reputation deserved?
Graphic designer Yoonjai Choi, who teaches a course on typography at Columbia University, believes the answer is more nuanced than Comic Sans’s detractors may think.
“At least to my students, I always defend it,” Choi explains. “The typeface wasn’t designed to be critiqued in the same way that other ‘serious’ typefaces were designed. I mean, it’s called Comic Sans. You know it’s not a serious typeface.”
Sticker from the website “bancomicsans.com,” via Wikimedia Commons.
Rover from “Microsoft Bob,” via Steve Lovelace.
In fact, not being serious was precisely the point. In 1993, Microsoft was finalizing a program called “Microsoft Bob” that was supposed to make it easier for new users to navigate its forthcoming Windows 95 operating system. The software transformed the computer screen into the interior of a home, with certain objects corresponding to applications—click on the pen and paper to open word processing, for example, or the clock to open the calendar.
Users were guided around the house by a cartoon dog (the precursor to Microsoft’s now-infamous Clippy), whose speech bubbles were written in Times New Roman. Connare, then a member of Microsoft’s typography team, was taken aback. “Dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman!” he said. “Conceptually, it made no sense.”
So he decided to whip up a new font, this one based on comic book lettering. Using Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as models, Connare drew out each letter on his screen in a process that took just three days. He wanted Comic Sans to be friendly and approachable, with an air of what he describes as “wonkiness.” (For her part, Choi calls it “jaunty.”)
Screenshot of "Microsoft Bob" via toastytech.com.
Despite Connare’s efforts, the font was finalized too late for Microsoft Bob. Instead, Comic Sans got picked up by Microsoft administrators who used it for office birthday party invites. And when Windows 95 was released the next year, Comic Sans was one of the system fonts.
Suddenly, “I started to see it everywhere,” Connare recalled. “And then the backlash began.”
While Comic Sans may be appropriate for an elementary school project or a Beanie Baby’s heart-shaped tag, it lacks gravity. So when the font began to appear on defibrillators, warning signs, and even tombstones, typographers were aghast.
In her lecture slides, Choi includes a photo of a sealed document envelope with the message “Important Papers Enclosed” emblazoned on the outside in Comic Sans. “There’s this weird feeling of paradox,” she says. “The message contradicts itself.”
The issue is not with the font itself, Connare believes. “People use it inappropriately. If they don’t understand how type works, it won’t have any power or meaning to them,” he explained. “I once heard a guy at a Rothko show say, ‘I could have done that.’ He clearly doesn’t know anything about art. He’ll probably use Comic Sans without realizing it’s wrong in certain circumstances.”
In part, Choi says, its omnipresence explains its notoriety. “If it wasn’t designed by Microsoft,” she explains, “if it was designed by some independent foundry somewhere, I really don’t think it would have the reputation that it does.”
Image via Comic Sans Project Tumblr.
Image via Comic Sans Project Tumblr.
Now, it’s become so entrenched in typographic history that she teaches it in her graduate course. “I think honestly the campaign against Comic Sans has been somewhat successful,” she says. “When I talk to my students and the Comic Sans slide comes on, everybody just laughs. People understand that, oh, if you’re a serious professional, you should laugh at that typeface. You shouldn’t even consider it.”
Part of the reason Comic Sans is so unappealing in a professional setting is its irregularity. Unlike most typefaces, letters such as the “b” and the “d” are not mirror images. For most people, that means it is also more difficult to read—which, as it turns out, might not be a bad thing. Studies have revealed that difficult-to-read fonts actually increase retention.
For people with dyslexia, the situation is completely reversed. Irregular letters actually facilitate reading, since the characters are easier to tell apart from one another. Today, several national dyslexia associations list Comic Sans as a recommended font.
And Choi readily admits that there’s no other font that’s achieved such name recognition. “Talking about typefaces or even having an opinion about typefaces—it’s for a very small minority of people,” she says. “The fact that Comic Sans is even in the public discourse in the way that it is, I think that actually says a lot about it. In some ways, I think it should be commended for being so recognizable.”