The Jar Jar Binks of Typefaces

The Comic Sans debate and ‘vulgar’ crimes against good taste

In the view of some, the most abominable thing that Microsoft has foisted on the world isn’t bug-infested, not-fit-for-purpose operating systems; the X-Box platforms’s obscene in-game financial extortion; the blue screen of death; criminal monopolistic business practices; Bill Gates; or Clippy (the annoying paperclip “assistant”): it is *drum-roll* the Comic Sans typeface.

The beginnings of the typeface can be to traced to 1995, as a friendly bubble-text for a talking puppy in the Microsoft Bob program. Microsoft Bob was conceived as a cheerful graphical interface and training aid to help people (especially, young children) get familiar with navigating a Microsoft Windows environment.

One of the type designers on the Microsoft Bob project, Vincent Connare (whose portfolio would go on to include parts of Wing Dings for Microsoft Explorer and the Ministry of Sound logo) noticed that the puppy providing tips, clues, and other needless interference was talking in text-bubbles of Times New Roman.

He thought (quite rightly): “Dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman”.

Inspired by comics and graphic novels, particularly Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, he set about designing an informal typeface. Comic Sans’ design origins place it as comics lettering scrawled by a child with a crayon. The characters of this typeface are, for these considerations, deliberately demented, in the same way Jar Jar Binks was based on Goofy and Buster Keaton.This was obviously a fun project for Connare, as he got to break all the formal rules concerning alignment in traditional typeface design. While Microsoft Bob got panned and quickly sunk upon release, Connare’s informal typeface for a talking puppy (that he titled “Comic Sans”) took on a life of its own.

Gracing everything from tombstones to police look-out notices for pedophiles, this typeface has come a long way from its innocent beginnings. It is now so ubiquitously misapplied that people have demanded it be banned. Connare acknowledges it is the world’s most hated and loved computer font.

The strong emotions that Comic Sans stirs up is a reflection of the concerns around “vulgarity”. To really appreciate the strange psychological and social terrain that the term inhabits, the sensitivities and complexes involved, check out this Google Arts and Culture feature based on the Barbican exhibition “The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined” curated by fashion curator and exhibition maker Judith Clark in collaboration with the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips. According to Phillips:

‘The vulgar, like fashion, is always a copy. It invites us to imagine the original and exposes what has been lost in translation. In this way, the vulgar restores our confidence in the purity of the source. So the only that that interests us about the about the vulgar is what’s wrong with it, because it is pretending to be something that it is not. Vulgarity is wanting something that you can’t be, or can’t have.’

At play here is a simple mistake: the use of an ornamental typeface when a “jobbing” one is required (a jobbing typeface can be understood to be one where the typeface’s function is to aid legibility, especially as body text). It is perfectly understandable that many people don’t understand the difference, typography requires an extremely refined sensibility, capacity for abstract thought, and many years of study to master.

Back in the day, sans-serif fonts were considered ‘gothic’ because they were considered offensively nude like bare-breasted tribal people in grass skirts, and an affront to everything good, Christian, and holy. However, contemporarily, we live in the age of Helvetica, a sans-serif typeface particularly favoured by design houses, art galleries, and other such organisations who derive their legitimacy from possessing good taste, and sans serif fonts are considered well suited to the age of industry, jet engines, space rockets, and self-determination. However, for many type professionals, the misuse of Comic Sans reflects the coarsening of print design because computers allows anyone to do it. What typographers are protesting, when they protest the inaccurate use of Comic Sans, is that people untrained in a complex art form are play-acting at being artists and designers. There is a bit of snobbishness here.

But popular revolutions can often be a deliberate affront to good taste and accepted views. When Michael Gove, a typical example of a British snake-in-the-grass politician declared, “people in this country have had enough of experts”, he echoed the frustration of common folk against taste-makers: people who professionally try and influence what is considered fashionable, proper, and in the common interest but in doing so, end up inadvertently maintaining social hierarchy.

The demagogue promises a revolution and the eradication of this hierarchy by installing the ‘vulgar’ view (making an imaginary border impermeable; “taking back control”; reduction of a minority to second-class citizenship; criminalising sexuality; etc etc) as culturally acceptable. Of course, everything stays the same at the bottom. In fact, culture is used to get people to vote against their own material benefit. Who knows? Someday a politician could run on a platform promising to ban Helvetica, and making Comic Sans the only government-approved typeface from everything to street signage to Supreme Court documents!

It is interesting that despite the public backlash, both Connare and George Lucas are quite proud of their “vulgar” creations. Lucas, upon the sale of the Stars Wars franchise to Disney, invited to comment upon his favourite character in the franchise, chuckled and said: “Jar Jar Binks”. Similarly, Connare explains:

Type should do exactly what it’s intended to do. That’s why I’m proud of Comic Sans. It was for novice computer users and it succeeded with that market. People use it inappropriately: if they don’t understand how type works, it won’t have any power or meaning to them. I once heard a guy at a Rothko show say: ‘I could have done that.’ He clearly doesn’t know anything about art. He’ll probably use Comic Sans without realizing it’s wrong in certain circumstances.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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