Comic Sans: the typeface that came in from the cold

The jaunty, rounded font is now most associated with shabby invitations to children’s parties, badly spelt emails and passive-aggressive PowerPoint presentations. 

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Funny Farage: one of the Comic Sans-centred
posters created for Cancer Research

Vincent Connare, who designed the Comic Sans font, tells me that he has only ever used it once. “I wrote an angry letter to Sky Broadband, telling them I wasn’t happy with them,” he remembers. What hope is there for the world’s most hated font if even its typographic engineer doesn’t use it?

On the 20th anniversary of the font, perhaps it is time to revise its much-maligned reputation. Although the rounded, jaunty letters are now most associated with shabby invitations to children’s parties, badly spelt emails and passive-aggressive PowerPoint presentations, it has also tapped in to the top tiers of typography. It once appeared in Time magazine, on the BBC and in Adidas adverts. Two years ago researchers at the Cern nuclear research laboratories in Switzerland used it to announce their discovery of the Higgs boson.

Connare, who created Comic Sans in 1994 for a product called Microsoft Bob, insists that people who say they hate it “don’t understand what it is to make typefaces; they don’t realise that it’s not a personal taste thing. You need an audience, a client, some purpose to make it.”

Microsoft Bob was intended for novice computer users. It had a cartoon background with characters giving the users tips and instructions in speech bubbles. Connare decided that Microsoft Bob’s cartoon-dog protagonist was unlikely to speak in the product’s stiff default font, Times New Roman, so he created an alternative. Comic Sans then ended up on Windows 95, an operating system that coincided with the mid-1990s boom in home computing, making the font suddenly ubiquitous. But why, in this brave new world of word processing, were people choosing this particular font?

“People using it don’t really think about using a typeface; they pick what they like and they use it. That they’re using Comic Sans for some serious reason, some serious letter – they don’t think about it like that,” Connare says. “It’s obviously a good design, because I was making it for the Microsoft consumer division, who were selling to children and mums and dads and people who didn’t know a lot about design. They seemed to love it; I haven’t had many of them say it’s terrible.”

And just as happened with thick NHS glasses, typewriters and Rubik’s Cubes, Comic Sans is now being written back into the mainstream by a generation that grew up with the font and sees it as an emblem of its childhood.

Cancer Research has put together a poster exhibition based on the font. Hundreds of artists have collaborated on the project, called Comic Sans for Cancer, which launched on 20 August in an artistically dishevelled exhibition space in Hackney, east London.

The font evidently captured the artists’ imagination, with posters ranging from a lurid red image of Nigel Farage’s grinning face with “COMIC SANS” written across it (“A ubiquitous source of amusement and pure horror. Just say no,” the curator explains) to a Roy Lichtenstein pastiche of a weeping bride: “I said ‘I do’,” pleads her husband. “But you said it in Comic Sans,” she replies.

Connare is not entirely sure why his creation is enjoying such a revival in the creative East End of London. “It’s probably because everybody’s very internet-savvy now, and a lot of people who were growing up during 1995 are now adults, and they’re realising that what happened is a bit of a retro thing . . . I don’t know. Because it’s on every computer, it gets used everywhere.”

What does its creator envisage for the future of this font? Connare smiles and sighs, “I would just hope it would slow down.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 27 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The new caliphate