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19 June 2012

How Comic Sans got useful

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

By Martha Gill

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.

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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.