Your last words…in Comic Sans?

When I started writing this, Eric Garner’s words — “I can’t breathe” — had just been seen around the world as NBA players and others wore shirts printed with his dying plea.

As a designer, I got caught up in the idea that many of the shirts used the font Comic Sans, constantly ridiculed by designers, and now by the public. (Google “hate Comic Sans” for a half a million articles.)

That debate seemed important: I love typography. I have an opinion. Yet now, as Eric Garner’s death has been eclipsed by more deaths, even more bloody and brutal, talking about a typeface seems as pointless as theologians arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Still, if you share a love of typography you may find what follows interesting. Be sure to read the last paragraph, where I try to put this argument into perspective. Tell me if you agree or disagree.

The best choice?

In December, fans of the LA Lakers saw Jeremy Lin and many teammates wearing shirts like this:

Photo: USA Today Sports/Jayne-Oncea

Don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want my last words shared with the world in Comic Sans. Looks frivolous. But writer John Brownlee writes in Fast Company that he’s more than OK with it. He’s enthusiastic:

“Not only does Comic Sans work to great effect here; there isn’t a better font that could have been used for the message” (emphasis mine).

I’m happy that Brownlee made a case for Comic Sans. As he points out, designers too often have a knee-jerk reaction against this typeface that we consider childish and unsophisticated. But while Comic Sans might not be so bad, it’s far from the best choice.

I have no problem with the start of Brownlee’s argument:

Typefaces lend printed words a character they otherwise might not have...[they] can impart authority, irony, silliness, or tragedy to even the most mundane sentences.

And I agree with his description of the challenge:

“I Can’t Breathe” isn’t a mundane sentence…It hits you right in your solar plexus; to read the words are to feel in small part for yourself what Garner felt as a New York City police officer choked him to death for no reason at all.”

But I can’t fathom his conclusion:

It [Comic Sans] perfectly conveys Garner’s utter helplessness as New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo strangled him to death.

What’s at stake

The right typeface captures at a glance the mood and emotion of the words. The typeface can amplify, neutralize or diminish their meaning. With Mr. Garner’s words the stakes are even higher. We’re not selling underarm deodorant. We’re dealing with a real person’s pain, suffering and all-too-real death.

This is a challenge for any designer, but fortunately he/she has thousands and thousands of typefaces to choose from. In making this choice I’d say at the very least the words demand respect, something not offered by the casual, friendly Comic Sans.

Watch the horrifying video of Mr. Garner being wrestled to the ground by several officers, one with his arm locked around Garner’s neck. Listen to Garner plead “I can’t breathe!” Would you agree that Comic Sans perfectly conveys his desperation?

A better choice

I agree with Brownlee that a clean, corporate font like this undermines the pain and suffering of Garner’s words:

Photo: AP/Ann Heisenfelt

But Comic Sans is only a slight improvement. The words deserve more than innocence. They are a cry, a plea for help, not a friendly invitation to talk. We can do better.

I spent about a half hour on a popular typography website and looked at about half of the 3,000 fonts categorized as “handwritten.” Any one of them helps to humanize the message. I’d argue that most are more suited to Mr. Garner’s words than Comic Sans.

You could use something quiet:

Typeface credit

Or loud:

Typeface credit

Or desperate:

Typeface credit

But beware of trying too hard, lest it seems like parody:

Typeface credit

Death, protest and profit

But what’s the point in finding the right typeface? Once we print the words in any typeface onto t-shirts and hawk them online we’ve turned outrage into a fashion accessory. Again. Already at least one person has applied for a trademark on the words “I can’t breathe” to be used on t-shirts and other clothing.

Possibly the best design solution: make Eric Garner’s words your words. Like Cleveland Brown John Bademosi did, make your own damn shirt.

Photo: Getty Images/Jason Miller

So how many angels, exactly?

Designers by profession work in the world of media, sales and celebrity. We care about aspects of our craft that may seem insignificant to the rest of the world. So be it.

I’m wondering, though, once we fix the typeface, can we do more? Can we use our talent to bring more light and less heat to the often hate-filled clashes in our society? Public discussions and media portrayals of race, religion, violence, and inequality often turn toxic. At the very least we shouldn’t make the poison more potent.

Our job is sending messages to the public. So let’s do it. But let’s provide clarity, not dogma. Focus on questions more than answers. Invoke generosity and hope instead of anger and hate.

Many questions, few answers. What do you think?

I look forward to your response, even if you send it in Comic Sans.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Professor Design’s story.