How Comic Sans got useful

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Whenever I want to impress someone at a party, I let them know I’m distantly related to Eric Gill. There’s always a pause as it sinks in. You know, Eric Gill. Eric Gill, for God’s sake – yes, the Eric Gill! They’re usually too polite to make a big deal of it, but to make sure they feel comfortable around me, I often end up doing most of the talking from then on in.

Well, he invented the typeface Gill Sans. It’s a sans-serif font and a British font – indeed, it would be hard to find a more British font. Its clean lines permeate the railways, the BBC, Penguin Books and the Church of England, and it has meshed itself with the establishment so deeply that it was a surprise to everyone to discover, in the late '80s, that its inventor once shagged his dog.

Yes. This font has a dark, dark history. So dark, in fact, that on unearthing it last year, Digital Arts magazine announced an immediate boycott, along with every typeface Gill ever molested (Perpetua, Joanna), in a piece titled “Art versus Evil”.

Digital Arts, I apologise for him. And perhaps you are right to leave this beautiful, clear-cut lettering out of your publication – but not necessarily for the reasons you think.

A recent paper by Daniel M. Oppenheimer entitled, pleasingly, “Fortune favours the Bold (and the italicised)” delivered a blow to lovely fonts everywhere by demonstrating that we absorb information better when it is a little hard to read. It seems our eyes just skim over Times New Roman and Helvetica, but stick when we reach a smudged, cramped line of type, finally ready to engage.

The researchers took classroom material and altered the fonts, switching from Helvetica and Arial to Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicised and Haettenschweiler. The teachers already taught each class in two sections. One section was taught using the “fluent” texts, the other, the “disfluent”. After several weeks, the researchers put the students through some tests. They found that those taught using dirtier fonts retained information significantly better.

To the experimenters this was a challenge to one of teaching’s basic assumptions - that when learning is easier, it’s better. Rather, adding a few superficial difficulties to the reading experience is more likely to make pupils engage with the text. This ties in with other studies in “disfluency” - which show that a slightly challenging delivery can make people process information more carefully.

Difficult by design

The results are counterintuitive, and not only for the world of teaching. Neuroscientists expanding on the study note that the field of digital advancements also relies on the same idea - that the easier and more fluent our access to information, the better. But perhaps our oversensitive brains demand a strategy with a little more nuance.

The novelist Jonathan Franzen touched on the problem recently when he said that e-books make for a less fulfilling reading experience. He associates this with the permanence of books (“A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around”), but perhaps the feeling is also something to do with the uncanny ease of moving the text into view. Words presented to us with the effortlessness and clarity of motorway signs demand shallow engagement. A screen’s familiar form presents no mental barrier between an advert for Starbucks and lines from Shakespeare.

Perhaps then we should take cues then from Gill’s life, if not his works, and seek out our information in unfamiliar and dog-eared forms.

Gill Sans.

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.