Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan has an excellent overview of several UI innovations that have later taken bad raps, “Who Designed Clippy? The History Behind Four Legends of Early UI“. It reminded me of one of my pet peeves: the ridiculously emotional modern response to the font Comic Sans.
I started authoring websites way back in the history-times of the early 90’s. My future bride and I had moved to Boston several years earlier and as I was teaching myself HTML I created a website dedicated to Boston, “Virtually Boston”. It had the basics: pictures, visitor information and historical data. (Although I still own the domain name, vboston.com, the site had been defunct for years but you can still explore it, more or less, on the Internet Archive Way Back Machine.)
Web technology was in near constant flux. When Cascading Style Sheets were introduced I jumped. When Microsoft introduced the Core Web Fonts project, a set of standardized fonts usable for free, I jumped. I chose Comic Sans for use on Virtually Boston and used it happily for many years. I wanted a light, pleasant, conversational vibe: it was perfect. The site design was so successful, in fact, that it was featured in several books on web design and magazines (back then were actually paper magazines about the Web).
Later I even had a pleasant email with the designer of Comic Sans, Vincent Connare, who contacted me out of the blue:
Hi, thanks for using Comic Sans MS. A historical note. I am Vincent Connare the designer and TrueType hinter of the Comic Sans MS. I was born in Longwood Hospital in Boston just a long foul ball away behind home plate at Fenway. It is so appropriate a native Bostonian designer’s font is used on your page. I hope this is a great surprise.
It was a surprise and I was gratified by his effort. So what happened with Comic Sans?
The Core Font pack was available and aggressively marketed for every major platform. This made Comic Sans , literally, the only informal font that was both completely free and (nearly) universally available. In many ways it remains so to this day. In short it was a victim of its own success.
The complaints about Comic Sans are never about its quality. They’re never about its design or indeed any technical or artistic aspect of it. All of the complaints boil down to two related things: misuse and overuse. While these are legitimate complaints they can’t reasonably be laid at the feet of the font.
When flipping through the minimal set of fonts that shipped with most computers Comic Sans just plain stood out, especially to amateurs. The rest of the fonts were either special purpose (monotype or symbol fonts) or relatively subtle variations on the serif or sans serif themes. As well designed and individual as they may have been to professionals they tended to blend together into a bland lump for more casual users.
Comic Sans stood out. I would suggest that reason, more than any other, is the root of its PR problem. People used it when they shouldn’t have and they used it all the time. More than that Comic Sans is friendly. It’s an attractive face with a purposeful hand-drawn quality. It was meant to be fun, informal and approachable and it accomplishes that incredibly well. People liked it and that made them use it. All the time.
Besides, what other option was there? The number of fonts included on most computers has grown but is still the slimmest sliver of the universe of typefaces available. Windows 8 and OS X come with more fonts that any versions prior but, with a few possible exceptions (MV Boli and Apple Casual come to mind) Comic Sans is still one of the most commonly selected. Fonts are a tool, just like any other and the wisdom of “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” definitely applies.
Those fighting Comic Sans are misdirecting their energies. Would they really, truly be happy if every instance of Comic Sans was replaced with, say, Textile Regular? Of course not. What they’re really, ridiculously, upset with is the idea of amateurs choosing fonts. They direct their anger at the misused tool rather than the behavior when directing anger of any kind is pretty god damn useless overall.
So, would I use Comic Sans if I were starting Virtually Boston today? Probably not. It absolutely is over- and mis-used and this gives it an air of amateurishness and cheapness. It’s not worth, or deserving of, hatred. It’s not worth spending time and energy whining over. It’s just a great font made sadly irrelevant by its massive success.