"Ban Comic Sans," illustration by Dave and Holly Combs, 2004
Ah, Spain, homeland of Dali, land of bullfighting, tapas and epic siestas. Visitors to Barcelona and the Costa Brava are somewhat obligated to acclimate to the mysterious Catalan dialect, a cross between Spanish, Portugese and pidgin Esperanto, where every third word seems to begin with the letter "X." In this coastal region slung just below the Pyrenees, one might expect to see evidence of the enduring cultural tensions between Spain and Catalonia — different kinds of signs or symbols, for instance — but on the surface at least, no such rift is exposed. Instead, the country clings to a visual language that celebrates the goofy: this is a country awash in Comic Sans.
"Goofy" is a subjective classification, often targeted by typographic elitists (Gadget and Sand come to mind) but in all fairness, Comic Sans is in a class all its own. And Microsoft's not the only culprit: "Ban Comic Sans" Founder Dave Coombs attacks Apple's lookalike typeface, — Chalkboard — on the grounds that it's a poseur font, lacking the angular components which offset the vertical stress of the main strokes in the lowercase characters such as m, n, and h.
None of this, however, stops the public from loving it. In Typophile's online forums, a designer rightly observes that the vast majority of laymen love Comic Sans. "Why do you think it's all over the place?" he asks. "No 'decent' corporation cares what a minority of specialists thinks."
And he's right. Who cares if a small minority of deeply principled letterform diehards care about the wanton proliferation of a font that single-handedly throws typographic evolution back, say, a few thousand years or so?
Clearly, there's no accounting for taste.
Some time ago on the web, the Comic Sans Appreciation Society (designated by an "I-heart-comic-sans" banner prominently positioned on its home page) proudly noted that Comic Sans was at one time the font of choice over at NASA. (The implicit suggestion here is that once we start colonizing on planets other than our own, Comic Sans will be the common currency.) NASA has since upgraded its online typography — though not, it should be noted, the type on it's kids' site.
On this particular topic I have my own Comic Sans pet peeve, which is that it has become the default typeface for anything associated with children: every school newsletter, every ad aimed at kids, everything that smacks of the 12-and-under crowd. It used to be that just a wobbling baseline did that (I guess it suggested that real children couldn't possibly be expected to write straight, so they couldn't be expected to read straight either) but once Comic Sans came along, there was enough wobbliness in the letterforms themselves to leave the baseline just as it was. After years of rigorous brainwashing, my children are mercifully Comic Sans averse, just as they know that anything with 4% real juice isn't actually juice and that Barbie's feet are orthopedically deformed. Cartoon characters — and the typefaces that accompany them — are all very well and good, so long as they come with good typography.
Which brings us back to Comic Sans.
On his website, Comic Sans designer Vincent Connare offers a public apology. "Comic Sans," he admits, "was never designed as a typeface but as a solution to a problem with the often overlooked part of a computer programâ€™s interface, the typeface used to communicate the message. The inspiration came at the shock of seeing Times New Roman used in an inappropriate way." (No doubt Stanley Morrison was already turning in his grave over that one.) A quick search on Flickr reveals that Connare is one of the most prolific posters in the Comic Sans Pool: his documentation of its wide dissemination across Europe and the United States certainly reinforces the font's ubiquity, leading one to conclude that there is, apparently, no inappropriate way to use Comic Sans. Which is maybe what makes it so inappropriate.
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