Comic sans and Brexit

Where I make the tenuous comparison of Brexit to my feelings about Comic Sans. Contains opinions.
March 29, 2017

Back in the halcyon days of recession Britain in 2011, I attended the first Ampersand conference, a conference dedicated solely to web typography. Web type back in those days was still pretty ground breaking stuff and most of the technical bit went straight over this designers head, but it was still a great day and it’s a conference I look back on fondly. As with most conferences the best bits are the socialising and learning off of people in the industry - <name-drop> I spent the evening chatting type design over a few pints with Tim Brown and Jason Santa Maria!</name-drop> But the highlight of the event was listening to Vincent Connare talk Comic Sans.

As with most designers at the time I despised Comic Sans. It was a rite of passage to hate Comic Sans. ‘Why do you hate Comic Sans?’ ‘ARGH, it just looks SHIT’. Yeah man, good argument. I had an irrational dislike for an idea and I couldn’t fully articulate why. In all honesty, it mostly had to do with what my peers thought of it, and that concept has it’s own term in today's society: Groupthink.

For those who don’t know, Vincent created Comic Sans for a children’s programme by Microsoft back in the 90s. He created a typeface that was suitable for children and easy to read. It’s context was appropriate and it proved popular. As Tom Stephens puts it nicely in the recent Guardian article:

'It’s almost an anti-technology typeface: very casual, very welcoming… When you use Comic Sans, you’re making a statement: “I’m more relaxed, more creative. I may be working in this area, but this job does not define me.”’

When I heard Vincent articulate as much at Ampersand it had a profound effect on me. Yes, it ‘blew my mind’. I’d been thinking about Comic Sans and, typography in general, all wrong. Not long out of film school and working in a job that - at the time - had a tendency to pull out the insecure and defensive side of me; I was arrogant and jumped on design ideologies that I aligned with vaguely and defended them single-mindedly. I felt above people that chose Comic Sans to write their children’s birthday party invites in. Now, I felt a fraud. I felt a fool. Who am I to judge that parent who has no technical design knowledge about the context of their font? Get over yourself, Nathan.

Yeah, ok, I’m not going to design my next clients logo in it, but it still has it’s place. It’s place is children’s party invites, children’s programmes, the 99p Store, graphic novels… 'Type should do exactly what it’s intended to do.’

So, why Brexit? Well, frankly, I get the same feeling about Brexit as I did Comic Sans. Every political bone in body rejects the idea of Brexit, in much the same way as it did Comic Sans. Ok, granted, there’s hell of a lot more at stake here! But, my point comes down to my own knee-jerk reaction to a differing viewpoint without context. As a nation we are more divided than ever about an idea and whilst we should celebrate our differences we must also be able to listen and place ourselves in context of those differences. It’s hard - damn hard sometimes. Not everyone shared my opinion about Comic Sans, not everyone knew about typographic best practices, and not everyone has the whole picture on the political machinations and implications of leaving European Union. When I found out that members of my own family and friends voted a certain way, my reaction was typical: knee-jerk post-rationalisations, blocking out of their opinions. It’s too easy to do that. What’s important now is that we try to understand context for differing opinions. We may not agree - I’m not saying we all need to be on the same page - but we have to now walk the same path whether we like it or not.

Asides: I had a thought that inspired this piece originally: I might start writing Brexit in Comic Sans to take the edge of it, but I got a feeling the reverse will be the case! There’s a chrome extension for you. Thanks to Laura Kalbag (@laurakalbag) for her blog post that reminded me of the parts of the talk I had lost long ago!