Shower thoughts, typewriters, the US State Department and hate for Comic Sans. You’re in for a treat.
I’m the kind of person that occasionally has those shower thoughts. You know the ones, you’re standing there, the hot water splashing off your back and your mind wanders to things such as “Did I leave the garage door open?” or “What do I feel like for dinner tonight?”. This morning, I had one that kind of went like this: “I type a lot, but where did all these fonts come from? I mean, who in their right mind came up with Comic Sans?”. And since my editor has given me free reign to ramble, I thought we could have a chat about it. Word of warning; if this seems disjointed and all over the place, it probably is. Regardless, welcome to the wonderful world of fonts, where anything is possible and why you should never, under any circumstances, use Comic Sans.
We start our journey through typefaces with, of all things, the humble pen. See, back in the day, we had these sticks full of ink that you used to write what we call “words” on pieces of tree we call “paper”. But some bright spark came along and said “I can make something better than this. It’ll have buttons and levers and go ‘click’ when you press one.” And thus, in 1874 the typewriter was born. A fantastic invention, which sped up the process of getting thoughts and poems written at 3AM after a third of a bottle of Scotch onto a page. But two problems quickly arose.
Problem one: They jam. A lot. Typing fast caused the actuating levers for the inked letters to strike one another, and they’d get stuck. So, you have to clear the page from it, un-stick the levers, re-feed the page back into the machine and slow down so it doesn’t happen again (I could draw some parallels with printers here, but I’ll save that for an upcoming blog). Problem two: You were stuck with only one style of lettering, or “typeface”. It was angular and boring and, if I’m honest, a little hard to read. But it was good, it was new, it was expensive and everyone wanted one.
More than a few years later (try 70) the first fully electronic computer arrived to no fanfare whatsoever and was immediately put to work breaking German radio communications at the height of the Second World War in Bletchley Park, Great Britain (God save the Queen). The aptly named “Colossus” was destroyed shortly after the war due to secrecy and its creators were deprived of taking the credit for shortening the war by half a decade through the intelligence they gathered. It’s a shame really. In any case, after this, computers really started taking off and by the 1950s IBM, who were making electric typewriters at the time, stepped into the game and went “I could make this better. Why don’t I make these letters look all pretty and nice?” And so, the “Courier” typeface was born in 1955.
“Courier” soon became the de facto standard for most English typewriters around the world, due to a monumental move by IBM – they commissioned the typeface for their use, but intentionally didn’t copyright, trademark or seek legal exclusivity for it. Fast forward to today and it is still in use, though in an electronic format named “Courier New” and for more niche applications, such as screenplays for film and TV. The US State Department kept using the font up until 2004 when it was replaced by another typeface named “Times New Roman”.
Moving on from that little timewarp, let’s touch upon another typeface, one that’s garnered more infamy and hate than any other; Comic Sans. This absolute mess of a font was designed by a bloke called Vincent Connare and released in 1994 by none other than Microsoft with their Windows 95 operating system. Oh, Microsoft, how I love thee.
Originally designed as an informal script for casual usage (children’s books and the like) it has since gained a reputation for being used in the most inappropriate places, like shopfront signage, a Dutch war memorial, printed advice for rape victims and even legal documents. Like, proper court documents that you would bring to a court room. In front of a judge, who would probably laugh you off the stand for using Comic Sans. It was in such ubiquitous usage that it was the main font used for “The Sims” by Maxis back in 2000, there are websites dedicated to helping people find similar fonts that aren’t completely horrible and even CERN is in on it, posting an April Fools message in 2014 that all new official correspondence will be presented in the font.
As with anything, though, Comic Sans is not without its supporters. It’s been advocated for its high readability by people with dyslexia, the Netherlands informally celebrate the font on the first Friday of July every year and studies have shown that people retain slightly more information from text displayed in it than a more readable font like “Arial”. Even the designer himself has defended it’s use, stating that’s it’s critics should “get another hobby”. No, I’ll dislike Comic Sans as much as I please. You don’t tell me what to do. You’re not my real dad.
There’s a lot of fonts that come bundled with Windows, but there are a lot more fonts out there on the Internet that look much, MUCH better. And that list is growing all the time. So, if you need a font choice, jump on Google and have a browse, because there’s bound to be something that’s up your alley for basketball jerseys or an ATM splash screen. At any rate, please, PLEASE do not use Comic Sans.
Unless it’s for memes.
About the Author
Put together from bits of scrap electronics sourced from various junk yards, Ross is the ITShop Chief Technical Officer and blog post writer for all things regarding tech. Avid consumer of caffeine-based products. Hates trains. Is an actual wizard.