What's so wrong with Comic Sans?

Comic Sans typeface

Comic Sans, that unassuming jaunty typeface lurking inside millions of computers, has become the target of an online hate campaign. Simon Garfield explains why normally mild-mannered people are so enraged by its use.

How did schools ever advertise their Christmas fairs without it? Has a homemade birthday card ever looked so friendly written in anything else? Have type lovers ever found anything they loathe as much?

If you wrote these questions in Comic Sans you'd have something that was warm, inoffensive and rather unsuitable, a typeface that's gone wrong. And you'd also have something guaranteed to provoke a howl of protest.

Comic Sans is unique: used the world over, it's a typeface that doesn't really want to be type. It looks homely and handwritten, something perfect for things we deem to be fun and liberating. Great for the awnings of toyshops, less good on news websites or on gravestones and the sides of ambulances.

Last year it stuck out like an unfunny joke in Time magazine and Adidas adverts, and even the BBC wasn't immune, choosing the font to promote its Composers of the Year during the Proms.

What can be done? One can buy the "Ban Comic Sans" mugs, caps and T-shirts, and help finance a documentary called Comic Sans, Or the Most Hated Font In The World.

Black-tie do (not)

Holly and David Combs, the husband and wife cottage industry behind bancomicsans.com, argue that the misuse of the font is "analogous to showing up for a black tie event in a clown costume". Some of what the Combses have to say is tongue-in-cheek, but it is hard to disagree with their claims that type - used well or badly - has the ability to express meaning far beyond the basic words it clothes.

The bunny gets it Bunny boiler - just a taste of the antipathy

But why, more than any other font, has Comic Sans inspired so much revulsion?

Partly because its ubiquity has led to such misuse (or at least to uses far beyond its original intentions). And partly because it is so irritably simple, so apparently written by a small child. Helvetica is everywhere and simple too, but it usually has the air of modern Swiss sophistication about it, or at least corporate authority. Comic Sans just smirks at you, and begs to be printed in multiple colours.

Perhaps the most comic thing about Comic Sans is that it was never designed as a font for common use. It was intended merely as a perfect solution to a small corporate problem.

It was created in 1994 by Vincent Connare, who worked at Microsoft with the title of "typographic engineer".

Mrs Gates' role

In 1994, Connare looked at his computer screen and saw something strange. He was clicking his way through an unreleased trial copy of Microsoft Bob, a software package designed to be particularly user-friendly. It included a finance manager and a word processor, and for a time was the responsibility of Melinda French, who later became Mrs Bill Gates.

Typesetters in the Olden Days Typesetters of old - perhaps unlikely to have received it warmly

But the typeface it used was Times New Roman, which Connare judged to be a strange choice. It was a little harsh and schoolmasterly, not to say boring. It was not something that would hold your hand in a welcoming way.

Connare was a fan of the graphic novel, and was inspired by the speech bubbles to create something simple and rounded, letters that might have been created by cutting with blunt scissors (the truth is he used a popular font-making software package).

His font, not yet called Comic Sans, was rejected for technical reasons (it didn't fit the existing grids), but not long afterwards was adopted for the successful Microsoft Movie Maker. It was then included as a supplementary typeface in the Windows 95 operating system, where everyone with a PC could not only see it, but use it.

Better than Times New Roman

And thus it became a global phenomenon, something that would inspire attention from Design Week magazine to the Wall St Journal. Connare later explained why it worked so well: "'Because it's sometimes better than Times New Roman, that's why."

Comic Sans' inventor

When Vincent Connare designed Comic Sans he wasn't looking for worldwide notoriety. He began life as a painter and photographer, but has since established a reputation as a serious but entertaining graphic communicator.

His other typefaces include Trebuchet and Magpie.

He accepts all the anti-Comic Sans fuss with good grace but, alas, without royalties (he was a staffer when he made it).

When people ask him at dinner parties what he does, he tells them he designs type. 'You might have heard of Comic Sans,' he suggests. And everybody says yes.

One thing the Comic Sans debate has demonstrated beyond doubt is that one's choice of font is now a serious affair.

Twenty years ago fonts were not something most of us gave much of a second thought. Unless we were in the print or design industries, fonts were something we accepted rather than chose.

The pull-down menu on our computers changed everything. Here was a way of expressing our intentions and emotions in a new way, a choice that stretched from digital updates of Garamond from the 16th Century up to modern screen fonts such as Georgia and Calibri.

We could employ the efficient Gill Sans for job applications or the more elegant Didot for wedding invitations. We could become familiar with the differences between serif faces and sans serifs, the former with feet and tips on their letters, the latter usually with a less formal air. And we could unleash a seemingly harmless childlike new font on a defenceless world.

Almost inevitably, the Comic Sans backlash has produced a backlash of its own. There are already signs that the font may be becoming retro-chic, in the same way that we now embrace 80s fashion and pop. Most significant of all, it has become highly regarded by those who work with dyslexic children - one of the better uses for which it was never intended.

Below is a selection of your comments

It does have a use: rather like Dan Brown books or baseball hats with beercans attached, it marks the user out as someone to be avoided.

Tim Footman, Bangkok/London

Why must the BBC continue to give this font the oxygen of publicity? Can't we just let it wither away?

Mark Scott, Basingstoke, UK

The main problem I have with Comic Sans is that it makes everything written in it look like a parish newsletter pinned to a noticeboard outside the local church. It also smacks of faux joviality - you can imagine the CEO of some multinational using it memos to make himself appear approachable. However, children like it - so perhaps like blunt-edged play scissors its use should be restricted to the classroom.

Chris Limb, Brighton, UK

There's a great Hitler Downfall video deriding Comic Sans - apparently a new SS recruiting poster is going to use it. No prizes for guessing the font used for the subtitles.

Ian, London, UK

As a teacher Comic Sans is an easy to read font, especially for pupils with learning difficulties as it is the only font to use a 'hand writing style' letter a.

Louise, W Midlands

When we did brand and identity work for a new special needs high school last year, we were requested to use a 'dyslexia friendly font, like comic sans.' Comic sans has appeal to the masses. The communicator has the choice, long may it be so...

Mark Turner, Mold, UK

Comic Sans takes all the received wisdom flak but the ubiquity of Impact is just as bad. Making free/system fonts both elegant AND readable for web-browsing or decorative graphics is still quite a challenge to this day (only Arial and maybe Georgia really work for me). I'm using Twitter in Chrome and the default font of Helvetica Neue Condensed renders so badly.

Gabbo, London

I like it. I wouldn't use it in a business e-mail, but it's my choice of font for less formal conversations in the corporate version of MSN that's used where I work. I was completely unaware that it was controversial!

S Weekes, Cardiff

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