In my ongoing, inadvertent quest to alienate myself from the design industry, I must now tell you all that Comic Sans is a good typeface.
A lot has been written about this much-maligned typeface, both criticizing and defending it. To cover the overall situation:
- It was created by Vincent Connare for the Microsoft Bob Operating System (OS) as a purpose-built typeface.
- Microsoft included the typeface in its Windows OS, giving a large population access to it.
- Many people repurposed the typeface for their own needs, due to its friendly appearance.
- Many designers feel disdain for the typeface, seeing it as simplistic and childish, and joke about and judge its use.
- This disdain has managed to enter into the mainstream pop culture discourse.
- In spite of that, many people feel the typeface helps them read, as the distinct letterforms may help with some Dyslexia concerns.
- Some people also feel changing the typeface helps them write and edit, as it shifts their reading context.
So, there you have it: a purpose-built typeface adopted by the masses that is both viewed negatively, but also helps people read and write.
Scorn and disdain
Perception of Comic Sans as an inferior typeface is a bit of a self-reinforcing phenomenon in the design community, and that’s a problem.
Designers hear from other designers that it is a bad typeface, so they parrot the statement in order to appear legitimate to their peers. The flip of this is also true: if you don’t vocally hate Comic Sans like your peers do, you risk being perceived as not a “real” designer.
This helps to enshrine a hegemonic, homogenized view of what design is. This, in turn, does its part to help shape what we consider “good design.” The notion of what good design is carries an incredible amount of power, as it helps to shape how we interact with systems.
This perception of Comic Sans also creates artificial friction in situations where it might be a good typeface to utilize. Given its popularity in the disability and writing spaces, it would be a great typeface to have in a feature where a user can select from multiple options (my e-reader comes immediately to mind).
Let me be clear: disdain for Comic Sans usage is both elitist and ableist. Usually, criticism on Comic Sans hatred stops here. I’d like to take it one step further.
Preventing legibility is an access barrier, yes. There is also another important aspect to consider: infantilization.
People—including designers—who see other people using Comic Sans in either a creation or consumption context may view the person as being less-than-capable or incompetent. This observation is a pre-formed, often instinctive conclusion. This conclusion is then assigned to the other person, devoid of their context or background.
This projection may ultimately affect how a person is treated, negatively affecting their opportunities and agency.
A quick sidebar about Dyslexia
Comic Sans is not a silver bullet. It does not “solve” Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, and other language processing conditions. It may help some people read, but that does not mean it works for everyone. More on this in a bit.
Language processing conditions manifest in many different ways, and the disability community is not a monolith. It’s also bad practice to think about disabilities as a problem with a binary solution, as well as a problem to solve altogether.
The best way to know if your design works for Dyslexic people? Ask them.
The best typeface is no typeface
Most interfaces need words, and words need a typeface to display them.
As a user experience designer, selecting a typeface means making an informed choice that balances legibility, thematic appropriateness, language support, and bandwidth considerations. There is a tremendous amount of power in this act, and it is one I don’t make lightly.
Even though I put a lot of effort into selecting typefaces, I’m not precious about it. If someone changes the typeface, its font size, line height, letter spacing, and color to meet their needs, I’m delighted! It means that they’re interested enough in the content to expend effort to make it legible.
Changing the typeface might mean using Comic Sans. It might also mean Verdana, Thesis Sans, Baskerville, or any other of the hundreds of thousands of other typefaces out there in the world.
The thing is, you can’t know what works for someone’s access needs, but you can provide mechanisms for them to help themselves, and that’s totally fine.
I view being resistant to this kind of thinking as being more interested in decoration than usability. It’s an antiquated, egotistical, top-down controlling mindset that is thankfully becoming more rare with each passing day.
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- Type Tuesday: Two Polarizing Typefaces Combine in Comic Helvetic PRINT Magazine
- Best Font for Online Reading: No Single Answer Nielsen Norman Group