Why Sans Serif is a Problem for AI

Jan 10, 2018 · 4 min read

You can call me “Al.”

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Let’s look at some headlines:

People Don’t Trust AI — Here’s How We Can Change That

The future of AI will be female

Game on! How AI is transforming video games forever

These articles were published mere hours before I wrote this post. There are countless more like it. There will only be more to come.

That’s a problem.

The problem isn’t with Artificial Intelligence, though the idea of extremely sophisticated machines enabled with intelligent software able to mimic or surpass a human’s cognitive abilities surely merits further study. The possibilities associated with Artificial Intelligence are wonderful and terrifying (wondrifying).

The problem is with sans serif.

If you’re not familiar, sans serif (“without serif”) fonts are a category of fonts that do not have the little flourishes, embellishments or, to get technical, squigglies on the letters.

Yes, this just became about typography.

You are probably aware of Times New Roman, a staple of Microsoft Word and resumes around the country. Notice the extra lines on the top and bottom of the “T.” The top looks like a bracket pushed on its side and placed on top of a column. The bottom looks like the base of a fancy column on an old building. Those extra little lines make Times New Roman a serif font.

You might also know Arial or it’s more highfalutin and praised cousin Helvetica. These fonts are clean, straight and do not have any extra additions to the letters. These are sans serif fonts.

Sans serif fonts are modern. They’re sleek. They take up less space and, conveniently, fewer pixels on a website. Sans serif fonts are everywhere (except in Medium posts like this, apparently). Look around you right now; you’re bound to find more sans serif fonts than serif.

Why is this a problem? Because practically every online article that talks about AI looks like they’re talking about someone named Al.

Yes, with sans serif, a capital “I” looks like a lowercase “L” or the numeral “1.” So “AI” becomes “Al” or “A1.”

Looking at the headlines above, this Al person seems very important! But he’s untrustworthy! Actually, he’s a she! Either way, Al is a great video game designer!

(And before you ask, no, I don’t think of A1 steak sauce when I see these headlines. That would be absurd.)

I’m guilty of this myself. The headline of this post is in sans serif font! Is sans serif a problem for Al? I don’t know, ask her!

Artificial Intelligence is a relatively new concept, especially when it has to do with our everyday lives. Full AI integration might not be here (though it might seem like it is). Black Mirror isn’t a documentary. Yet. But AI is coming.

That means there will only be more and more articles and headlines where I can confuse “AI” for “Al.” I do not want to keep thinking Al is the cutting edge, or Al will drive my car, or ask if Al will be a pal or like HAL.

And until we become more comfortable with saying “AI,” or until AI becomes smart enough to change “AI” to “Artificial Intelligence” automatically, I think we should go back to serif fonts.

It’s much easier to discern an “I” from an “L” with serif fonts.

Serif fonts have lost their luster, to be sure. But in a way, they’re making a comeback. Think of the Stranger Things title font. Think of the stately and necessary journalism of the New York Times or the Washington Post (in print, at least). Think of most books. Serif fonts denote seriousness and importance and monsters.

So please, let’s forget about the AI revolution for a moment and start the Stray Eye Revolution (trademark pending). Let’s bring back serif fonts, banish our computer confusion and regain our digital dignity.

But there’s one more reason why we should go back to serif fonts. It’s the most important reason of all.

If I can mistake “AI” for “Al,” think of the mistakes artificial intelligence might make.

That could lead to serious problems.

Unless AI can actually be smarter than me.

That would be a problem.

TL;DR: “AI” looks like “Al” with sans serif font. Also, I’m an idiot.

-Created automatically with ScanNSkim, an AI-assisted blog-summarizing bot.

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