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Comic Sans, No One Likes You Except Computer-Illiterate Women

Sarah Celentano Parker
August 4, 2011

Taken from a comment on the Huffington Post website,1 the titular quote in its entirety reads, “Die Comic Sans! no one likes you except computer-illiterate women in their fifties who are planning their grandchildren’s birthday party.” The font is for “middle-aged female office managers in Indiana,” “bake sale flyers” and is commonly found in “email forwards involving puppies” sent from an aunt in her “favorite shade of pink,” according to sentiments turned up by a quick Google search. These disparaging associations of Comic Sans with older and middle-class women reveal an unsubtle stereotyping of the font grounded in gender.


Unknown Author, So I found this flyer for a bake sale in Kern County, 1992. From Redditt.

Microsoft designer Vincent Connare developed Comic Sans in 1994 to articulate the speech of a cartoon dog Office Assistant in Microsoft Bob, a Word interface for children and inexperienced computer users.2 After Bob’s demise in 1996, Comic Sans filled the speech bubbles of a perhaps better-known Office Assistant: Clippy, the anthropomorphic paper clip. Though Comic Sans seems perfect for these cutesy cartoon characters, Connare looked to some pretty dark material for inspiration: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, two comic series that evoke anything but bake sales and “eternal love” chain e-mails.3 Yet when Comic Sans is divested of its gritty setting, bake sales and chain e-mails from women are the first connections that many readers make.

Helvetica, often considered the foil to Comic Sans, is lionized for its timeless, urbane and “honest” qualities. Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann designed the font in 1957 for the Haas Type Foundry. Striving for a post-WWII ideal of openness and universality, its designers believed that they had created a neutral typeface that made information visible while remaining nearly invisible itself.4 Yet form—even when it supposedly depends on function—inevitably embodies someone’s values. Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes famously demonstrated that, at best, a work’s “neutrality” is just one context for understanding it among many others, an idea that’s now an old chestnut of undergraduate seminars. Helvetica currently serves a diverse and extensive group of companies ranging from Fendi to JC Penney. While the font’s form supposedly says nothing, it in fact says many things; Helvetica is a palimpsest for a multiplicity of desired identities, many of which imply the consumer’s assertiveness and intelligence. So, while JC Penney uses Helvetica to sell sensible slacks and other affordable fashions, Helvetica also presents the public with material symbols of supposed dissent such as Macintosh computers (“Think Different”), Urban Outfitters and American Apparel, companies that tell the consumer how to be cool and then assist her in the execution of said coolness.


From PassiveAggressiveNotes.com, "Most Popular Notes of 2010," posted December 21, 2010.

Although it isn’t disliked nearly as much as Comic Sans, Helvetica has received criticism since the 1960s. The “Fuck Helvetica” Facebook group sums up many typical condemnations of the font: it’s boring, overused, and overrated.5 It lacks the hand-drawn aesthetic that many graphic designers esteem, an aesthetic particularly present in Comic Sans.

Comic Sans compels its reader to imagine a writer; in this regard it’s similar to Cy Twombly’s use of line. The characters’ rotundity suggests concentrated pressure from an inexperienced hand—their rounded terminals invite one to imagine a felt-tip pen bleeding into the paper. The mark-maker is unsure, overly cautious and inexperienced. Twombly first started drawing in the dark, divorcing the hand from the eye’s direction; thus many of his paintings appear as if the artist created them with his non-dominant hand.6 Connare used a similarly disorienting process to create Comic Sans: he created the characters by tracing them with a mouse onto a computer screen, hence their imperfections.


Cy Twombly, Tiznit, 1953; white lead, oil-based house paint, wax crayon and lead pencil on canvas; 53 1/2 x 74 1/2 in.; copyright CY Twombly; courtesy of MoMA.

Creating a visual record of physical activity by separating drawing from empiricism and control, Twombly underscored the tangible residue left by any act of mark-making and the immanent physical encounter between the mark-maker and viewer.7 Similarly, while Comic Sans isn’t actually subject to the idiosyncrasies of handwriting, it nonetheless imitates handwriting. Some characters lean slightly to the right, and the entire font defies uniformity and control. The letters of a word typed in Comic Sans do not fall along a level horizontal plane. The letters’ minims are of unequal lengths and not perfectly parallel, instead leaning at various angles. This human presence-in-absence does not—or isn’t supposed to—exist in Helvetica’s sharp and symmetrical rendering.

Studies in neuropsychology have determined that particular forms elicit specific reactions in their viewers; for example, in a study conducted using fMRI technology, Larson et al. found that acute downward-pointing V-shaped forms (▼▼▼) read as signs of threat more than any other shape.8 Rounded objects, on the other hand, tended to convey softness, safety, and nurturing,9 qualities that often factor into oppressive stereotypes of women. These results suggest that it’s the roundness of Comic Sans that elicits associations with bake sale flyers created by “middle-aged and middle-class moms.” It’s a font that can’t be assertive. Case in point: in July 2010 the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert, composed a scathing letter concerning the departure of star player LeBron James. Within hours of the letter’s release Gilbert was a laughingstock, mainly because he’d composed the letter in Comic Sans.10 The Internet didn’t hesitate to highlight his snark FAIL, and Gilbert became yet another addition to the “Ban Comic Sans” meme.11

 
Dan Gilbert, Open Letter to Fans from Cavaliers Majority Owner Dan Gilbert, 2010; from Geekosystem "Cavaliers Owner Dan Gilbert Addresses Cleveland in Comic Sans: Why We Facepalm."

 

Conversely, Helvetica’s “sober and serious” qualities are deemed appropriate for male-oriented uses, such as advertisements for the Gillette M3Power razor.12 This is perhaps due to the font’s alleged “neutrality,” as the characteristics of those in power frequently inform a society’s default categories; “white maleness,” for example, so often serves as the normative position in Western cultures.13 If Helvetica is taken to represent the “neutral,” and therefore male category, Comic Sans can serve as an example of the notable, marked and non-default female counterpart. The vitriolic language of the “ban comic sans” meme is therefore misogynist to some degree, even if the disparaging references to “middle-aged cat ladies” weren’t already an indication. Furthermore, the ubiquity of Helvetica in advertising might itself be a symptom of misogyny: in her revision of Freud’s Oedipal theory, Julia Kristeva posits that children reject the maternal and gravitate towards the paternal in order to construct an identity, and that societies construct identities in the same way, but on a larger scale.14 The abjection of Comic Sans—anthropomorphized as the “soft” and maternal feminine—in favor of “masculine” Helvetica, which brands many of the status symbols through which people in fact construct their identities, suggests that Kristeva’s theory applies not just to interhuman relationships, but also to a society’s relationships with its material culture (which, insofar as works are relics of their makers, are interhuman encounters).

* * *

Perhaps one of the more extreme demonstrations of devotion to the experiential quality of hand-rendered text is Stefan Sagmeister’s 1999 lecture poster for AIGA Detroit, for which Sagmeister had an intern carve information about the lecture into his arms and torso with a knife. He then had himself photographed in front of a red velvet curtain, where the dark fabric highlighted the whiteness of his body and threw the text into high contrast. 

 
Stefan Sagmeister, Poster for AIGA Detroit, 1999; photographed by Tom Schierlitz; courtesy Sagmeister, Inc.

There is much to say about how the topography of Sagmeister’s body—the curvature of his pelvis and the hollows of his arms—mediates our experience of the text written in his skin. Most interesting to me, however, and most relevant to my thoughts on Comic Sans, is how this image combines admiration for the physical experience of writing with historical ideas of gendered power. Sagmeister’s choice to apply a band-aid beneath his left breast—supposedly where Christ was pierced with a spear during his crucifixion—suggests that the poster is an irreverent play on Man of Sorrows imagery, a late-medieval visual tradition in which Christ displays his wounds to the viewer.

Sagmeister’s specific use of the body as document recalls yet another late-medieval devotional trope: the carta Christi (Charter of Christ), wherein Christ’s flesh is envisioned as parchment inscribed with his oath to save humanity. In the text (translated here from Middle English), Christ exhorts the reader:

 

How many letters there be!

Read, and you might witness and see:

five thousand four hundred fifty and ten

Wounds on me, both black and bruised.15

 

Soon after strained upon a tree

as parchment ought to be

listen and you shall know

how this charter was written:

on my face fell down the ink

when thorns in my head had gone sink.

The pains that the letters were with written

were the scourges that I was with beaten …16

 

In both cases, text refers to the very body supporting it. Interestingly, late-medieval Christians feminized this tortured and textual body of Christ precisely for the penetration and suffering it endured. While Christ is biologically male, late-medieval Christians attributed female biological phenomena to his post-Passion body: he gave birth (to the Church), fed with his body (the Eucharist), and bled (this one is obvious).17 In the carta Christi tradition, the faithful often envisioned Christ’s side wound as a vaginal wax seal that was broken—penetrated—as the document was read.18 Signifier and signified become one here, as they also do in the “Stefan Sagmeister” sprawling across Sagmeister’s chest.

None of this is to say that Sagmeister had these medieval traditions in mind—while he possibly was exposed to them while growing up in Austria, there’s no reason to assume he knows about them—or that there’s anything religious about this particular work despite its borrowings from Passion iconography. What’s striking is that someone has so explicitly abridged the conceptual gap between hand-rendered text and bodily presence, and in a way that resonates with historical identifications of this textual body as nurturing, vulnerable and, most notably, feminine. Sagmeister’s mutilation is an extreme example of the physicality inherent to both reading and writing and suggests that debates such as “Comic Sans vs. Helvetica” are about more than readability, the merits of clarity or what have you. For its evocation of a vulnerable body, Comic Sans is abject. Aside from its associations with women, the font has also been scorned as queer—but personified only as a gay man, never as a lesbian—and at other times as Christian. To consider the intersections of these various Others in an adequate manner would require a more extensive discussion than can be offered here. For now, it’s sufficient to say that the otherness assigned to a feminized Comic Sans reveals a desire to create order through sexing the inanimate and shows the disappointing degree to which gender norms remain firmly entrenched.

 
  • 1. “‘I’m Comic Sans, Asshole’ the Animated Version,” Huffington Post, July 19, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/19/comic-sans-asshole_n_903392.html. Retrieved July 20, 2011.
  • 2. Michael Newman, “Bob is Dead; Long Live Bob,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 23, 1999 http://www.post-gazette.com/businessnews/19990523bob6.asp>. Retrieved November 15, 2010.
  • 3. Emily Steel, “Typeface Inspired by Comic Books Has Become a Font of Ill Will,” The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 2009, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123992364819927171.html. Retrieved June 29, 2011.
  • 4. Beatrice Warde, “The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should be Invisible,” in The Crystal Goblet, Sixteen Essays on Typography, (Cleveland, 1956).
  • 5. “Fuck Helvetica,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=10149439479&v=wall. Retrieved June 27, 2011.
  • 6. Roland Barthes, “Non Multa Sed Multum,” in Cy Twombly: Fifty Years of Works on Paper (New York: PAD, 2004), 28.
  • 7. Ibid., 29.
  • 8. Christine L. Larson et al., “The Shape of Threat: Simple Geometric Forms Evoke Rapid and Sustained Capture of Attention,” Emotion 7 (2007): 526-34.
  • 9. For a summary of psychological associations of shapes, see “Psychological Effects of Shapes,” CSU Stanislaus, http://www.csustan.edu/oit/WebServices/SupportResources/PsychOfShapes.html. Retrieved Nov. 7, 2010.
  • 10. Robert Quigley, “Cavaliers Owner Dan Gilbert Addresses Cleveland in Comic Sans: Why We Facepalm,” Geekosystem, July 9, 2010, http://www.geekosystem.com/dan-gilbert-comic-sans/. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  • 11. Begun in 1999 with the eponymous website run by Holly and Dave Combs: Ban Comic Sans, http://bancomicsans.com/main/. Retrieved July 8, 2011.
  • 12. Roderick Munday, “Comparing the Formal Features of Two ‘Gendered’ Websites: A Report,” Aberstwyth University December 4, 2004, http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Students/ram0208/ram0208.html. Retrieved July 2, 2011.
  • 13. Lisa Wade, “Examples of the Marginalization of Women and Girls” Sociological Images, April 24, 2011. http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/04/24/35201/. Retrieved July 16, 2011, and Gwen Sharp,  “Male as the Neutral Default,” Sociological Images, May 24, 2010, http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2010/05/24/male-as-the-neutral-default/. Retrieved July 16, 2011. Wade’s and Sharp’s examples focus on different ways of labeling goods for men vs. those for women. For example, a red and blue “T-ball set” vs. a pink one labeled a “girl’s T-ball set” or a pair of “binoculars” vs. “Girly Girl Pink Binoculars.” For a discussion of the invisibility of whiteness to white people, see Eric Liu, “The Unbearable Being of Whiteness,” Slate, June 15, 1997, http://www.slate.com/id/2450/. Retrieved July 5, 2011.
  • 14. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), 11-14.
  • 15. The Minor Poems of the Vernon Manuscript, Vol. I, ed. F.J. Furnivall (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1892), 644, lines 87-90.
  • 16. Long Charter of Christ (B Text), Cambridge, University Library Ii.3.26, fol. 235v.
  • 17. Carolyn Walker Bynum, Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 129-35.
  • 18. Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 306-08. For the vaginal connotations of Christ’s side wound, see Karma Lochrie, Constructing Medieval Sexuality (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 191-192.
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