Type Casting; or, The Comic Sans of Errors

Typefaces resemble actors. So which typeface is which performer? And who is Comic Sans? Read on to find out!

Calligraphy by Stefanie Weigele

A very common question in my first-year seminars is also a popular question in the design community: “why is Comic Sans considered to be such a bad typeface?”

Discussing typefaces with people who have just started to learn and practice design is tricky. There are good and bad typefaces. But there are also personal preferences and aversions. For a teacher — and a professional designer — it is important to differentiate the two different perspectives correctly.

There are obviously criteria for good typefaces — consistency, efficiency, elegance, versatility, robustness, etc. It is important to learn about the functional and aesthetic qualities of letters as well as the production quality of a typeface. Students and professional designers should be able to judge typefaces based on these criteria.

But choosing a typeface is not just pragmatic. As with so many other things, there are also personal favourites and dislikes. To be clear: bad type does not suddenly become great just because you think it is “cool”. But in order to choose between all those quality typefaces out there, you need more than technical specifications. You need taste and a sense for style.

Taste is personal. You might like a typeface that other people think is a bit bland. And you might hate a typeface that everyone else reveres. Sometimes the devil is in the details. Helvetica is not bad — sometimes it is even quite pretty. But I deeply and passionately hate the capital R in Helvetica. I consider it one of the ugliest letters out there.

Choosing a typeface is about appropriateness. There are always functional criteria — but they are usually not so clearly defined that they reduce the options to just one possibility. Typefaces have to feel right for the occasion. They have to convey a certain manner.

I like to compare typefaces with actors and actresses — they have obvious similarities. Actors do not simply speak the words of the play or the script. They turn an abstract role into a true and believable individual.

So type and actors have a lot in common. They give written language an identity and they give a face to an idea. Just like actors, typefaces do not only convey a subject matter. Their personality strongly shapes the way content is perceived. One typeface / actor can be a bit neutral, flexible and versatile while another is more personal, specific and meaningful.

The comparison between type and actors has a number of interesting consequences which lead to compelling thought experiments. You could cast Arnold Schwarzenegger for the role of Hamlet. But it would be very different from casting Benedict Cumberbatch. You could typeset Hamlet in Eurostile Extended — but it would be quite different from being set in Walbaum.

Helvetica is a bit like Tom Hanks. Mr. Everyman, no extremes, could work for the government or in a big company — but would still be a good neighbour with nice kids.

Meta is a bit like Emily Blunt. Quirky, edgy and authentic but also pretty and cool.
Walbaum is Benedict Cumberbatch.
Akzidenz Grotesk is Charlize Theron.
Copperplate is Samuel L. Jackson.
Galliard Italic is Lauren Bacall.
Univers is Kevin Spacey.
DIN is Michael Fassbender
Eurostile Extended is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Bodoni is Tilda Swinton.
Rotis is Klaus Kinski.

I could go on for a while…

(It is actually quite fun to compare typefaces with actors and actresses! Maybe something for your next designer meet-up?)

So, big question — who is Comic Sans? I have to admit that I am struggling to find the proper actor that represents Comic Sans. On the one hand side, every red-blooded typographer considers Comic Sans to be silly, awkward and embarrassing. So Jim Carrey or Benny Hill come to mind. But then again that’s not quite fair.

The surprising thing about Comic Sans is that while it is strongly disapproved by designers and typographers, it is quite popular with school teachers, particle physicists, family and non-designer friends. Why is that?

In order to stay in my analogy, I suggest that the actor that can be compared with Comic Sans is “Uncle Bob”. This is not a specific person but a type of person we all know. He is an amateur actor, a really nice guy and lives down the road. On weekends, he and his troupe perform stage adaptations of Agatha Christie crime novels. Nobody would compare him to Marlon Brando. But it’s fun — though a bit embarrassing — to watch him act. And he is a nice bloke and approachable and after the show you can go to the pub with him and have a bit of a laugh.

I would like to defend the people out there who use Comic Sans. They do it because it feels right to them to use a well-known, approachable, uncomplicated typeface. Also — they lack alternatives. They are kind of stuck with uncle Bob.

In any case, I think comparing typefaces with actors and actresses is a delightful way to talk about typography. Not only within the design community but also with the wider public. Everyone knows actors — but only few people know and understand typefaces.

So — who is Futura? And who is Bembo? Gill must be a British actor / actress. But who exactly? Who is bland enough to be Arial or cosmopolitan enough to be Thesis? And — of course — which typeface has the coolness of Uma Thurman?

I welcome your comments and suggestions.

This essay was reviewed by Mr. Interface Typographer Frank Rausch. Frank is the designer and developer of V for Wikipedia and knows everything about screen typography. Many thanks for the feedback! We had good fun finding the right pair of typefaces and actors. Meta was really tricky…