If you love it [Comic Sans], you don’t know much about typography. If you hate it, you really don’t know much about typography either, and you should get another hobby.
—Vincent Connare, Inventor of Comic Sans
I’ve been thinking about fonts lately; in particular, unfashionable fonts. If you search for bad fonts, you will discover a core set of fonts that no professional will admit to liking. The obvious offenders are Comic Sans and Papyrus—they make everyone’s list. But there is surprising agreement on several more, including Copperplate, Arial, Impact, and Brush Script. Others find their way onto both best of and worst of lists. For example, Trajan, Times Roman, Gill Sans, Courier, and Helvetica. All of this reflection brought to mind an encounter I had a few years ago. A musician friend of mine had just bought a new synthesizer and was showing me all the cool sounds he could get from it. As he showed me what this new instrument could do, I mostly ooh-ed and aah-ed at appropriate moments, but one of the sounds was so thin and strange sounding that I told him I couldn’t imagine using it anywhere. Without saying anything, he played a track he was working on. It sounded great, and right in the middle was a passage using that same sound. By itself, this sound was pitiful, but in context, it was exactly right. We used Papyrus for the chapter numbers in one book, and I thought it worked fine. It also didn’t bother me in the main title of the movie Avatar. However, I wouldn’t use it again if we did a second edition of that book, simply because anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to fonts would immediately pick it out as an amateur move. Comic Sans on a warning sign or legal document is not a good idea. Comic Sans in a cartoon speech bubble could work (maybe not Batman). One of our books used a rounded version of Arial for the title page. The rounded version looks a shotgun marriage of Arial and Comic Sans, but in context, that is in a cover design that is a whimsical cartoon, I think it worked well. Would I do it again? For this book, yes, because in this case, Arial Rounded (which I’d never heard of before) seems to fly under the radar of the font police. So context is (almost) everything. There is a place for (nearly) any font, even Comic Sans and Papyrus. But both of these are essentially off limits in design, not because they are inherently bad, but because they are unfashionable and because they will distract some part of the audience from the message. A while back (Publishing Perspectives: The Robustness Principle), I wrote about the importance of keeping grammatical potholes—those points of questionable, or even correct, language that cause people to pause as they read (this parenthetical inside of another parenthetical is an example of such a pothole)—out of your writing. Fonts are another place where you need to be at least aware of what is fashionable and what isn’t. Frankly, I don’t like that. I’d rather look at Papyrus, Comic Sans, and the rest of that lot for their qualities, rather than their popularity. But that really isn’t an option. Using Comic Sans in your slides will drain the seriousness out of your STC Summit keynote as surely as wearing bell bottoms and a tie-dyed tshirt. Sometimes, the medium overwhelms the message. Unless the message is ironic or retro, an unfashionable font choice will take your audience away from your content and obscure your message. Richard L. Hamilton is the founder of XML Press, which is dedicated to producing high quality, practical publications for technical communicators, managers, content strategists, and marketers and the engineers who support their work. Richard is the author of Managing Writers: A Real-World Guide to Managing Technical Documentation, and editor of the 2nd edition of Norm Walsh’s DocBook: The Definitive Guide, published in collaboration with O’Reilly Media.
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