A few years back, a pair of researchers set out to study the emotional effects of different typefaces. They found that one in particular possessed an unrivaled ability to rile people up:
Wrapped up in the uneven kerning and the playful curves of its sans serif lines was an incredible power to both disturb and delight.
The researchers, from University of South Alabama and Brigham Young, compared Comic Sans to riding a roller coaster. With other types, people's feelings tended toward one emotion (Arial: organized; Market Felt: amusement; Futura: focus), but Comic Sans instead elicited a range of reactions. Among the researchers' subjects, it invoked, in equal measure, agitation, amusement, distraction, stimulation, focus, diversion, determination, calmness and concern.
"The typeface sends viewers in all major emotional directions at once," they wrote. "We're both agitated and amused, but calmly concerned about it."
Science says there are many different reactions to Comic Sans. But popular culture would probably lead you to believe that most people's reaction is one of disgust. Comic Sans, easily, is the most hated type in existence.
A decision to use the typeface usually leads to derision, no matter the context. When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat in 2010, team owner Dan Gilbert’s teardown of James went viral not just for his childish ranting but for his child-like choice of type.
Likewise, when scientists unveiled the discovery of the Higgs boson particle in 2012, their breakthrough in particle physics was undercut by their Power Point's liberal use of Comic Sans.
When Uber fired 15 contractors in 2014, it made international news simply because the termination email was written in Comic Sans, "the world’s most reviled and visually offensive font," as The Observer put it.
Comic Sans is a poorly-dressed, deranged villain, the Joker to Helvetica's slick-caped Batman. It is a villain that many would like to neutralize. One ad agency created a first-person shooter game that urged players to "do the world a favor" and kill it. Since 1999, an Indianapolis couple has spearheaded a movement to ban it, chronicling offensive Comic Sans use on their blog and speaking out publicly about why it should be annihilated.
MS Comic Sans was created in 1994 by Vincent Connare, then a designer at Microsoft. The company had just rolled out new desktop software that featured a little cartoon dog named Rover who helped guide users through the system. Rover originally spoke in Times New Roman speech bubbles, but Connare thought the typeface was all wrong for a dog's voice. So Connare created Comic Sans. Inspired by comic books, he thought it was the perfect typeface for a cartoon dog, and that it might be used in computer programs for kids. It was never meant to be the sort of typeface you print birth certificates in or use to post workplace announcements—it was not a lettering for the everyday.
Alas, destiny had different plans for Connare's Frankenfont creation: thanks to beginning with the letter "C," it is a top-ranking choice on dropdown menus everywhere, making it easy to wind-up with for nearly any typographical circumstance. (Had Papyrus been named "Ancient Scroll" perhaps fate would have worked out differently.)
"Comic Sans bothers people for two reasons," Connare told me by email. He said it's overused and used for situations it wasn't intended. He was flabbergasted to see its appearance in the Higgs Boson Powerpoint and tweeted at its creator to chastise him, "What's with the shit slides?"
Connare doesn't regret creating Comic Sans; he just says people are misusing it.
"People hate lots of things," Connare said. "Justin Bieber is both hated and loved."
Like the Canadian crooner, Comic Sans has Beliebers in addition to haters. Just as some people enjoy the feelings of fear and chaos as they hurtle through a rollercoaster's dips and turns, some people too enjoy the rollercoaster of typefaces. Zealous admirers have created a typewriter that prints in Comic Sans, a web app called "Happy It" that turns the entire internet into Comic Sans, and a host of copycat Comic Sans typographies. There is even a song, urging us to reconsider Comic Sans. "How can you hate a font that's so fantastic?" it begs. "It's the best font in the world… Best used in moderation."
Ever since I got my very first AOL e-mail address in 1995, I have been in the Comic Sans hater camp. Comic Sans is my mother's favorite typeface. For twenty-some years, every time I opened an email from her, it has caused me untold amounts of irritation. Her email address shows up in my inbox, and I cringe, knowing the font that lurks within. More than once I have explained to my mom that her choice of default type is extremely uncool. People with good taste who don't want to embarrass their daughters just don't use Comic Sans.
Then, a few months ago, I found myself on the end of an annoying email chain and decided to use Comic Sans in my response as a kind of nuclear option that I hoped would kill the chain. It felt great. With its thick stroke and uneven lines, Comic Sans was a bold statement. It declared that I had been pushed over the edge. My emotional response to the typeface suddenly shifted from agitation to delight. It didn't kill the chain, but my daring, rainbow-colored Comic Sans did seem to charm its recipients. It had character. It had pizzazz!
In a world overrun by a fetish with clean design, Comic Sans is punk rock. It has defied design evolution to endure in an era of Helvetica's reign. Comic Sans is notorious but iconic. I decided to embrace it—and to see if I could convince others to reconsider their own seething Comic Sans hate. For a week, I decided to use Comic Sans wherever I could.
I started texting my friends with Comic Sans. It wasn't easy. Apple forces Helvetica Neue onto its customers, a type, that like all things Apple, I can only assume is meant to instill in users a sense of order and calm. To use my new typeface of choice, I had to type my messages first into Google Docs, screenshot them and then send the text as images on my phone. To me, it seemed fun—like Lisa Frank or jelly shoes, a throwback to my '90s youth. In the iMessage chat log, Comic Sans appeared as a bold rebellion, a breath of fresh air. My friends did not seem to agree. Mostly, they were annoyed. Eventually, some of them stopped responding altogether.
There is a long tradition of associating character with typography—before emoji, if you were communicating in writing, typeface selection was the best way of getting a mood across. The Ancient Greeks saw the definitive strokes of serif letters as "symbols of the empire" and sans serif letters as "symbols of the Republic." Certain typefaces became so tied to certain countries and cultures that in the 1920s the "new typography" movement sought to eradicate nationalism from type. Some of the earliest research on type, back in 1923, found clear cultural associations with certain types. Century Bold, for example, conveyed utility and strength, making it good fit for advertising products like cars. In his email to me, Connare wrote in Typewriter, a typeface that a former boss had once told him makes people take things seriously. He is also a fan of Century Schoolbook as an all-purpose type, since it is "sturdy" and "scholarly."
The impact of a typeface extends far beyond whether it is legible or pretty. Research has found that certain visual characteristics in typography invoke specific emotional effects: open letter shapes, like script typefaces, for example, tend to feel "friendly." In the 2012 study that found that Comic Sans evoked variable emotional responses, researchers determined it was because of the haphazard nature of its design. Its strokes are uneven. Its kerning is a mess. Its axes slant in all directions. Simply put, the brain looks at Comic Sans and is not quite sure what to think.
Why people wind up loving it or hating it is less easy to explain.
When I polled my friends online about their feelings towards the typeface, most of them responded with either sarcasm or dismay. One friend said that she loved using it for its "fun" vibe until she realized how much others hated it. My mom, of course, responded that she adores its "readability" and "casual feel." An uncle said he likes to use it to "be different." (So far there is no research into whether predisposition to liking Comic Sans is genetic.)
It is certain that there are times when Comic Sans seems more appropriate than others. When I e-mailed Nicole Amare, a Southern Alabama University professor and the co-author of the Comic Sans study, she seemed to bristle at my choice of type. "Your emails are in Comic Sans, but the purpose of your message is not amusement but rather to get information, so the typeface choice does not match your content's goal or purpose, creating a disconnect and possible agitation. :)," she wrote.
Just consider the Comic Sans in this image, in which Connie Lawson, the Secretary of State of Indiana, is urging you to get out the vote. Doesn't the silly typeface make it feel like maybe it's okay not to take voting seriously?
And how does Comic Sans make you feel about booking a night or two in this otherwise perfectly charming Reykjavik hotel?
Once, as an education reporter in upstate New York, I was handed a labor contract for a local school district written in Comic Sans. It made me immediately suspicious of the district's intentions. From then on, I scrutinized every piece of news from that district with intensity.
As I typed this story in Comic Sans, I found it so hard to take myself seriously that halfway through I had to switch back to Times New Roman. Writing an email to a congressional office in Comic Sans I felt embarrassed and downright silly. Even my mom doesn't use it in her professional emails.
Graham Lee, the creative director at the Canadian ad agency T1, once, like me, cringed every time he encountered Comic Sans in the wild. His reckoning with the type began after someone in his office left a “passive aggressive dirty dishes sign" in the kitchen in Comic Sans. Who would do that? And at a design firm???
But as he dove into the history of and use cases for Comic Sans, he decided it was actually incredibly useful.
“People who don’t like Comic Sans don’t know anything about design,” Lee said at an hour-long lecture he gave on the value of so-called 'bad design' like Comic Sans. “Just because it’s not stunning doesn’t mean it’s not working.”
The kitchen sign, he said, was effective in getting the message across without sounding too angry.
"Bad design," Lee told me, "isn't always actually bad."
Sure Comic Sans is ridiculous and silly. Comic Sans is the drunk guy wearing an unfortunate Hawaiian shirt at the party, making a fool of himself but having a great time doing it. Most of us can appreciate that guy, for one reason or another.
"We kind of love to hate it," admitted Holly Combs, co-founder of the ban Comic Sans movement. Overtime, she said, they have grown to appreciate it in spite of all of its flaws, or perhaps because of them.
"It will never die," she said. "Twenty years from now we’ll still be seeing Comic Sans."
Mike Lacher, author of "I'm Comic Sans, Asshole," a monologue from the point of view of Comic Sans that is one of McSweeney's most viewed articles ever, told me he actually kind of loves it.
"It's timeless," he told me. "It's more iconic than Helvetica. It may be the most iconic typeface of our time."
Comic Sans irritates because in a world of crisp lines and clean white backgrounds it is loud and obnoxious. But that is also why it persists—choosing Comic Sans is to declare that we are people mediated through the screen rather than just strings of disambiguated type floating around in the cloud. To type in Comic Sans, in a sense, is to declare, "world here I am."
I, too, came around on Comic Sans—though not on any particularly aesthetic principle. Now, when I see Comic Sans on a street sign, or in a note from my mom, I am instantly aware of the human who made that design choice. Comic Sans, after all, is never a corporate default. Someone, somewhere, at some point went to buy a sign for that Reykjavik hotel and thought, "You know what, I like Comic Sans." Comic Sans connects us to what the best design should: our humanity.
Sorry Helvetica, I think I'm defecting to Comic Sans.