When Vincent Connare invented the typeface Comic Sans in 1994, he never set out to offend anybody. The typographer designed it for some of the first Microsoft home computers: it was intended for the speech bubbles of an animated cartoon dog that would help people navigate the Microsoft Windows interface for the first time.
"I said, 'Comic dogs don't talk in Times New Roman,'" Connare recalled. So, he developed an alternative; a playful, friendly font inspired by comic book type, designed to look handwritten and targeted at younger users. "My original idea was it was going to be used for kids. It wasn't made for everybody to like it," Connare told Live Science.
Unexpectedly, Comic Sans began to spread, appearing in formal documents, on signs, in advertisement — even on billboards. But then, when two typographers started a "Ban Comic Sans" movement in 2002, it gained worldwide traction as other designers began to voice their derision for the goofy font. It got bad enough that when Connare was asked to give a talk at the prestigious Design Museum in London, there were complaints that he shouldn't be presenting there. "I think I had a bodyguard!" he recalled, humorously.
Today, Connare is amused by all the attention that his humble, friendly font has received since he invented it almost three decades ago. But what exactly makes most people despise Comic Sans so much?
Rugged and beautiful fonts
A single typeface carries multiple nuanced cues — and we're surprisingly good at picking up on them. In a series of studies published in the early 2000s, academics at Wichita State University in Kansas revealed that people perceive typefaces as having distinct personalities, and that they're able to drill these down to precise traits.
"Results showed that people's perceptions of typefaces boil down to three main factors: their 'ruggedness and masculinity', 'perceived beauty' and 'excitement,'" said Barbara Chaparro, who led the research when she was the head of a usability research lab at Wichita State University at the time. (She's now a professor of human factors and behavioral neurobiology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.)
Later studies showed that when people were asked to rate the suitability of these typefaces for formal documents like résumés, they typically chose typefaces rated as clearly “legible” and more "beautiful,", over those that were more "excitable," and “loud”, Chaparro told Live Science. This suggests that humans are good at determining when a typeface suits a given context.
These qualities are cued by multiple subtle traits of the design. For instance, serif fonts have tiny extenders on the ends of letters, which lends them a more refined and elegant quality to the average eye. Consequently, "more professional documents tend to use serif fonts," Chaparro said. San serif fonts, on the other hand, don't have these elegant extenders, and tend to come across as more casual. Asked why we read these subtle cues the way we do, Chaparro said that's hard to know for sure. But, "from the typewriter days, there is a history of serif fonts being used for business documents," she said. Perhaps, over time we have come to link these visual cues to formal writing.
One thing is clear to typographers: "Comic Sans is a sans serif typeface — designed to be informal, casual and used for that kind of material — like a comic," Chaparro said. "I do not think it was ever intended to be used for serious documents."
And this, it seems, is where the problem lies for most people who despise its goofy characters. After the invention of Comic Sans, people started to use it in contexts that it wasn't intended for — such as, in formal documents — giving it a disjointed quality that some found jarring. "People, especially typographers, get upset when it's used improperly. For example, if someone sends an email or writes a document using it," said Chaparro, "it results in a mismatch — an informal, childlike, 'funny' typeface for a potentially serious topic."
Naivety and novelty
Connare has a theory about why that occurred. In the 1990s, when home computers started becoming the norm, they gave people a sense of agency that they hadn't had before. Suddenly, anyone with access to a computer could choose from a variety of fonts with which to personalize their documents. "This was the first time that people had a choice, so they were picking crazy things because they could do anything," Connare said. Essentially, it came down to naiveté and novelty, he explained. "People didn't have much experience, and so they just picked what was different." With its unusual, playful style that mimicked handwriting, Comic Sans had mass appeal, triggering its rapid spread.
"This typeface was taken up by a number of non-designers in their documents — things like homemade flyers, homemade invitations, websites that were done by non-professionals," said Jo Mackiewicz, a Professor of Rhetoric and Professional Communication at Iowa State University who has done research on why people perceive different personalities in different typefaces. "I think a lot of the reasons people hate it is that it's seen so often, and in places where it should not be used. The fact that it was being used outside of its rather limited purpose — that became obnoxious to people who knew better."
Mackiewicz also thinks that because of the ubiquitous and informal use of Comic Sans, it became associated with other bad design elements, "like centered types, or all caps, or underlining" — features that make typographers' skin crawl. As others took up the cause against Comic Sans, it grew into its reputation as the pariah of the typography world — and marked those who used it as lacking in taste.
"Comic Sans is a special case because so many people do hate it," Mackiewicz told Live Science "So using it now is particularly problematic because people can just discount you, outright.”
Where does this leave the beleaguered — but eternally cheery — typeface and its maker?
These days Connare lives in the French countryside, where he grows olive trees and practices calligraphy in his spare time — not overly concerned about people's opinions of him, or his font. But he said that when he meets people and talks about Comic Sans, surprisingly, many confess to him that they are fans. So, for all the offense it has caused, perhaps it has a secret following.
"Most people are friendly and nice about it," Connare said. "It's like it's a song that they don't want anybody to know that they like."
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Emma Bryce is a London-based freelance journalist who writes primarily about the environment, conservation and climate change. She has written for The Guardian, Wired Magazine, TED Ed, Anthropocene, China Dialogue, and Yale e360 among others, and has masters degree in science, health, and environmental reporting from New York University. Emma has been awarded reporting grants from the European Journalism Centre, and in 2016 received an International Reporting Project fellowship to attend the COP22 climate conference in Morocco.