You know what? Comic Sans isn’t really such a bad font.
It has an interesting little history – it was not actually ever intended to be a system font, rather it was the font for a training program intended to help children learn how to use PCs. The program was called ‘Microsoft Bob’.
An attentive reader has pointed out to me that I have my chronology wrong. I mis-read an article and picked up the creation date of comic sans as being much earlier than it actually was due to what it was based on (the font used in the comic book series ‘Watchmen’, 1985–86). I’ll correct the article when I have time but before then, be aware that the first few paragraphs of this post are historically inaccurate. Thanks.
The program disappeared quickly and Comic Sans would have disappeared with it were it not for one thing – Bob came out at almost exactly the same time as the first Apple products shipped with pre-installed fonts. Before that, there were no aesthetic choices available to the everyday people using computers, but suddenly, fonts became a competitive advantage.
And so, rushing to ship any kind of font set at all, Microsoft picked up a hastily assembled range of fonts including the friendly little one from their training program and popped it into Word.
But fonts weren’t the only invention making their way into the home and office. Enter the printer.
With a printer, people were able, for the first time, to make signage for themselves without relying on either their own handwriting or professional designers.
Karen in accounts was now able to make her own sign telling people that the front desk was unattended from 12:30 to 1:30 and that was a power she was more than willing to use. The people finally had the ability to print whatever they wanted, and they wanted to print comic Sans.
This, I think, is the real reason designers hate it.
Comic sans becomes emblematic, not so much of poor design, but of power being taken away from designers. They used to need us. They couldn’t get things done without us. But then they had the power to do what we do, and according to our lights, they were doing it wrong.
But who cares?
If all that Karen needs is to let people know that the desk is unattended between 12:30 and 1:30, who cares? It’s fine. Design isn’t what it looks like, it’s what it does, and Karen’s sign does the job perfectly well. Lost cat signs, instructions about how to return books to the library, it doesn’t matter what font they are in if they do the thing they are supposed to do.
If, on the other hand, Karen is in charge of a building site where live wiring is exposed, and the only thing keeping people from reaching out and accidentally electrocuting themselves is a ‘don’t touch’ sign printed on a piece of A4 stickytaped to a wall a couple of metres away, the job is not done. Not at all.
Similarly, if Karen was writing a form in such a way that it could result in someone’s insurance claim being processed wrong, or drawing up the layout of a kid’s vaccination record that didn’t make it clear the kid had missed booster shots, or any number of potentially dangerous things (Jonathan Shahariat has written a book full of examples), then there’s a real problem.
And here, I think, is why we designers need to train non-designers in basic design. Not to make them designers, but to educate them about when its time to call us in.
Because you know what? A lot of the time, they don’t need us. They really don’t. As Jared Spool says, anyone who influences the design is a designer. It’s out of our hands, and it does no-one any good to be prissy about it.
But there are circumstances where professional attention really is required. People need professional designers, just not necessarily as often as we professional designers think they do.
You don’t teach specialist skills to a non-specialist in order to turn them into a specialist.
You teach specialist skills to a non-specialist in order that in the future, they’ll realise when they need a specialist.
The most important thing that a non-designer can understand about design, in my opinion, is when the job in front of them with in their skill set and when it is not. Where the boundary is between the ‘opening hours’ sign and the ‘danger of death’ sign. But to understand where the boundaries are, it is first necessary to understand what the boundaries are. And that is something that requires training. It is something that has to be learned.
So my question to my fellow designers is this: what are we doing to help?
Sneering at someone and telling them that their favourite font is rubbish isn’t helping. Getting irritated when people wander into what we think of as our turf isn’t helping. But letting dangerous designs go unchallenged because well intentioned people did not have the professional knowledge that we have is not helping either.
We know the difference, and it’s part of our job to teach others.
Part of educating people about what we do has to involve educating them about what they can do, too. And it is a lot more than we often give them credit for.