A Story Behind Comic Sans, (Probably) The Most Notorious Typeface
Some font types are well-recognized by almost all computer users, be it designers or non-designers, because of how they are liked and widely used. One example is “Times New Roman”, the classic font type commonly used in formal letters, academic papers, and other official documents. However, some font types have interesting stories beyond their use. The infamous Comic Sans MS, for instance, is probably considered as the least serious font type in Microsoft’s default typeface list. Despite its notorious reputation in the design community (source), this typeface is still one of the most popular typefaces known, namely the second most complained subject on Twitter, beating Justin Bieber and is only defeated by complaints about airlines (source). In this article, we will explore the unique story behind Comic Sans.
History & initial target/ purpose
The typeface was publicly released in August 1995 as one of Windows 95’s default type space. As quoted directly from its designer, Vincent Connare (the same guy who designed the popular Trebuchet), Comic Sans was initially designed for Rover the dog, a precursor of the infamous Microsoft’s Clippy. Back then, the dog talked through balloon set in Times New Roman. As a designer, he felt that it was just not right that a dog talked in Times New Roman. In addition, the dog appeared in Microsoft Bob, a comic software package designed primarily for young users — making the font seem less proper.
Thus, to fulfill the need of providing a proper typeface for children, he designed Comic Sans. The design of the font was based on a comic-style text, inspired by the text used in Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns graphic novels. Unfortunately, the font could not be made ready in time for Microsoft Bob release. Instead, the font was used by Microsoft’s office administrators in emails, especially by the young women who tend to make everything fun. Following up its popularity, the font was included in the Windows 95 plus pack in August 1995.
Development of usage and development of its reputation
Upon its release to the public, the backlash began towards the type space. Several websites and groups claim it as ‘the world’s most notorious font’ or state that everyone loves to hate this font. There is even a campaign to ban the font that has been started since 1999 (source) LOL. However, those hatreds could not instantly validate Comic Sans as a bad font. Though it is confirmed that the typographic fundamentals of Comic Sans are very poor (i.e.: mismanagement of visual weight and poor letterfit), Comic Sans was never intended to be used in high-resolution situations. As it was initially designed for children, the font was intended to be used in non-formal, cheerful, playful, and casual.
Throughout the 24 years since its release, Comic Sans has been being widely used in too many ways. It was used on the kids comic movie program, 3D Movie Maker, that was released for both Windows and Mac OS. That was an example on the proper usage of the font: for children. Furthermore, it was also a font option in Internet Explorer and in lots of other programs. Since its release to the public, there was no exact guidance on how to use the font properly. People then started to use Comic Sans for anything that they wanted to, including for things which were not supposed to be typed in Comic Sans, such as formal letters, warning posters, or wayfinding signages. The font is strongly disapproved by designers and typographers, yet it is relatively popular among school teachers, scientists, and non-designer family and friends. Why so? It might be because the font is well-known, approachable, uncomplicated, and most importantly: it is in their default typeface list. The hatred towards the font was actually triggered by the massive scale of inappropriate usage, rather than due to the unsightliness itself.
Aside from the hatred, Comic Sans is claimed to be a helpful font for children and people with dyslexia. Several national dyslexia associations have listed Comic Sans as a recommended font due to its irregular letters. This irregularity has been found to facilitate reading better because the characters are easier to differentiate. However, there is no quantitative evidence to back up this claim. For example, dyslexic.com stated that some people find it as “too bold, too childish, or too informal.” This statement, nevertheless, does not affect Comic Sans’ reputation as the potential best font for dyslexics, quoting American Institute of Graphic Arts, for its “character disambiguation” and “variation in letter heights”.
With all the love and hate towards the typeface, it is undeniable that the font has gained popularity and is very recognizable. This font deserves to be commended for such reason.
How to use it in the industry
Using the right font type is important, as the design of words and sentences has a deep impact on the message delivered to the readers. Good consistency, efficiency, elegance, versatility, and robustness are the criteria to be fulfilled to define a good typeface.
To address this concern (i.e., usage of proper typeface), several websites exist to educate people regarding the proper use of Comic Sans. Comicsanscriminal.com, for example, explains briefly the purpose for Comic Sans’ usage along with examples of its improper use, links to alternative fonts, and form to report any “Comic Sans criminal” to be educated. According to the website, Comic Sans is only proper to be used for the following audience: (a) under 11 years old, (b) comic readers, or © dyslexic people who have stated that they prefer Comic Sans. Recalling its initial design purpose and its development of usage, the website is true to some extent. Comic Sans is not a terrible font, after all, if it is used appropriately as its initial purpose.
To be able to use Comic Sans appropriately, a designer should first understand the audience and the message they want to communicate. Furthermore, design literacy should also be spread publicly to help stop inappropriate use of Comic Sans. Using Comic Sans as an official font of an accounting firm brand, for example, is clearly a bad idea. On the contrary, using the same font to help children design or share comic books might be a good idea. The idea of Comic Sans is to create a more relaxed impression. It is suitable for novice computer users who might want to find something that is neither too classic nor futuristic. It is very casual, relaxing, and welcoming. It is not as bad as the internet says, or as the haters say; Comic Sans could still be fit, as long as it is used for the right message and audience.
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