Comic Sans and Friends: The Rise and Fall of our Favorite Fonts - Word Week

QWERTY keyboard
Photo courtesy Hejwazzup

It would be safe to bet your bottom dollar that the majority of people that have used word processing software have taken a look at the drop-down list of different fonts that are available to create their message. The list seems endless with all of the different versions of Helveticas, Arials, Lucidas, Menlos and so on. These same people most likely have experimented with typing in the most obscure styles before going back to the serif or sans serif that makes them comfortable.

Perusing this list can make it easy to forget that each of these fonts has a history behind them. The style of each letter has been handcrafted by a typographer; the age-old practice of designing a typeface used for visual communication.

One of the titans of the font world is Times New Roman. For everybody tapping at QWERTY in the 90’s, when Netscape was still a thriving company and fax was used more than email, chances are the words were coming out in font a la TNR. Every sign, business card, resume, essay and cover letter was undoubtedly typed in this style. It appeared that computers and TNR were both conceived by the same hands, but the font has its roots decades before Gates and Jobs stepped into the game.

TNR began with the Times of London. The publication had been composing their articles in Times Roman which was criticized in an article written by Stanley Morison as being outdated and badly printed. Their response to this was to commission Morison, who was currently working for the font foundry, Monotype. His mission was to develop something new that would be easy to read and include thin lettering so the newspaper could easily fit words into their columns. Morison completed the task in 1943, which, lo and behold, dawned the birth of Times New Roman. However, it does not end there; no good typography story goes without controversy.

Fast-forwarding forty-five years to 1987, a Canadian printer named Gerald Giampa happened to find some brass plates with familiar looking lettering when he purchased materials from Lanston Monotype – a company that focuses on typesetting and design. The plates were labeled “Number 54” and, after having an expert examine them, were the exact same style as TNR. However, they were created by an engineer of boats and planes by the name of William Starling Burgess. Prior to his career, Burgess dabbled in typography. He began developing a font to be used in his shipyard company and worked with Lanston Monotype to begin the typesetting. They made it as far as creating some brass plates of his design then Burgess abandoned this endeavor to work with an up-and-coming duo named the Wright brothers.

Burgess did try to sell his font to the Times in 1929, but the publication declined. Giampa’s findings suggest that the Times might have been in cahoots with Morison who plagiarized Burgess’ font. This claim is widely disputed in the world of typographers with people lying on both sides of the argument. No matter what the truth is in the creation of TNR, the font’s glory days may be coming to a halt. It was so widely used for such a long period of time that using it on documents today is like requesting “Free Bird” at a concert. It might have been great decades ago, but it is now played out.

There is another font floating around in the typography cosmos that is controversial simply by existing. Comic Sans is one of the most recognizable styles of writing and has been used throughout the world, but in many circles, it’s thought to be as taboo as kissing your sister.

The origins of this typesetting began in 1995 when Microsoft designer, Vincent Connare noticed that a test program with a cartoon dog had a text bubble, in style of a comic book, with the words laid out in Times New Roman. Seeing this as an insult to the world of graphic novels, he developed a font that would stop taking life so seriously. Thus Comic Sans was born and because Microsoft took a liking to it, it became a standard font in all Windows Operating Systems from then on.

A short time later, CS was everywhere. Businesses, marketing campaigns, flyers, logos and so on were written in this font and spreading from town to town. The critics talked about it like it was Frankenstein’s monster wearing clown makeup.

Comic Sans example
Photo courtesy of Comic Sans

Experts say that typesettings should not be noticeable. Their mission is to bring the reader some style to the underlying message without bringing too much attention to themselves. Comic Sans does not accomplish this and is recognizable before the words are processed, which is a typography no-no.

One group of individuals despise CS to the point they started the website, whose about page states, “We are summoning forth the proletariat around the globe to aid us in this revolution. We call on the common man to rise up in revolt against this evil of typographical ignorance. We believe in the gospel message ‘ban comic sans.’ It shall be salvation to all who are literate. By banding together to eradicate this font from the face of the earth we strive to ensure that future generations will be liberated from this epidemic and never suffer this scourge that is the plague of our time.”

Whatever the opinion is of Comic Sans, the font will not be going anywhere if people continue to strive to make their letters look like they are having a good time.

So, if Times New Roman and Comic Sans are no longer socially acceptable for word processing, what font should we be using? Of course, there are plenty of options that programs like Microsoft Word provides, however there is a smiley face looking at all of styles giggling to himself as he as becoming a predominant use of communication within the last twenty years.

Emotional icons, more commonly known as emoticons, have swept the world one smile at a time with the growing use of instant messaging. Even though we are now seeing them more and more, emoticons can thank a computer scientist from Carnegie Mellon University, named Scott Fahlman, for inventing them in 1982. Fahlman came up with the idea after realizing the difficulty conveying sarcasm through the use of words. In order to clear things up, he proposed people start using “:-)” to mark where they are joking.

His mission was a success and the proof is in the pudding. For example, if someone were to say, “Chris Brown is a stand-up individual”, they might get a different reaction than if they were to say, “Chris Brown is a stand-up individual ;-)”.

Emoticons were seen here and there after their conception, but it wasn’t until AOL’s Instant Messenger included them in its interface that the yellow facial expressions took a stronghold on the internet. Skype soon followed suit and kicked it up a notch by including other options such as animals and a person mooning the reader. This paved the road for the symbols we now are able to use via smartphones over text messaging. The numerous options give people the power to send symbols instead of feeling the need to type actual words. Why say “yes” when you can send an icon of a thumbs up?

As we continue to evolve the way we communicate through the use of new technology and the changing tastes of the masses, the style of our fonts will move along with it. Times New Roman may have crossed over the hill a long time ago and Comic Sans may have had its last laugh, but these fonts will never truly die. As long as they can be chosen from the drop-down list in whichever word processing program we are using, their styles will continue to be seen on our computers screens, printed on our papers and thrown across our buildings. All the while, emoticons will continue their not-so-silent invasion.

You never know, decades down the line, we may only talk in symbols 😉 :O :P.