The Medium as the Message: Not All Type Is Created Equal


Designers often crack jokes about the two typefaces that have become the bane of our existence: Papyrus and Comic Sans. (Arguably, Trajan, aka “the movie font,” could also be added to the list.) We might even become a bit melodramatic when encountering said typefaces, whether in the real world or the digital one. As a result, there seems to be a perception that our general distaste for these particular fonts is rooted in some sort of cognitive understanding that only makes sense to fellow typophiles. On the contrary, simple Google searches lead to sites such as bancomicsans.com and papyruswatch.com that aim to “document and expose the overuse of the Papyrus font.” You can even sign a Comic Sans Criminal Pledge. (One of my all-time favorite links, which comes with a "might not be suitable for work" warning, captures the perspective of the much-abused Comic Sans in a written rant by Mike Lacher.) Clearly, these typefaces have made an impact within larger culture whether for good or ill.

But the question remains: Why is it “bad” to use Papyrus and Comic Sans? Is this just some silly rule made up by a group of snobby designers?

Working so closely with letterforms on a regular basis, I can tell you that despite the plethora of fonts made available online, not all type is created equal. Typefaces like Helvetica and Garamond were painstakingly crafted, and subsequently tweaked and refined for the digital era; the process of developing an entire font family, including bold and italic versions along with a variety of weights, involves paying a great deal of attention to individual shapes as well as spacial relationships.

The same cannot necessarily be said for the free, downloadable font options. And, unlike Papyrus and Comic Sans, traditional typefaces tend to be more versatile, capable of speaking to a range of audiences. When people ask for names of “good fonts,” my recommendations are based on my knowledge of the quality of the design of the typefaces in question and how well they’ve withstood the test of time.

Much like people, typefaces also have personalities. An elegant script like Sloop makes a very different statement than Clarendon or Univers. Consequently, finding the right typographic fit for corresponding content is important. We would have trouble navigating public transportation systems or reading mobile devices if the text was rendered in a delicate way that made it challenging to read from a distance or on a small scale. Additionally, the visual characteristics of a script would convey a sentiment that is at odds with the sense of movement and efficiency we associate with being "on-the-go."

Papyrus and Comic Sans certainly have personality. To put it delicately, however, the qualities that make them unique limit where and when they are most effective. When Chris Costello developed Papyrus in the 1980s, he never imaged that it would be used so indiscriminately. As the designer himself states, the extensive use of Papyrus has detracted from its “original appeal.”

There is nothing inherently awful—or at least, comparatively, more awful—about Comic Sans. Similarly to Papyrus, however, context is everything. Just as Papyrus appears everywhere, regardless of how well it conveys the information being communicated, the use of Comic Sans knows no limits. Very few of us would type an e-mail message to a prospective employer, client or colleague in all caps. Yet somehow we are collectively less discerning when it comes to employing what can best be described as a casual, child-like script for any number of applications, whether personal or professional.

Case in point: the now infamous, angry open letter to fans penned by the Cleveland Cavaliers owner, Dan Gilbert, when LeBron James went to play for the Miami Heat, written entirely in “less-than-intimidating” Comic Sans. Ironically, in this case, using all caps might have been a better option.