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Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider. Via CERN.

Co.Design

The Higgs Boson, Announced In Comic Sans, Reveals A Failing Of Modern Type

CERN scientists set off a supernova of Twitter rage when they presented the Higgs-like discovery in Comic Sans. But as type designer Nadine Chahine argues, maybe they just didn’t have another choice.

The recent discovery of an elusive Higgs boson-like subatomic particle wasn’t just a watershed in the annals of science, it was a landmark moment for typography. Only not in a good way. CERN physicists set off a supernova of Twitter rage when they chose to present their findings--findings that could be key to uncovering the very secrets of the universe--in Comic Sans. Many type designers, myself included, expressed deep disappointment, and armchair critics railed against the scientists for making such an important announcement in one of the most hated fonts in the world (and perhaps the entire universe). It was the typographic equivalent of showing up to a board of directors meeting in flip-flops. Sure it was informal and friendly, but was it appropriate?

Click to enlarge.

We’ll get to that in a moment, but first, let’s speculate on the rationale here. Of the Microsoft Windows core fonts with which people are familiar, Comic Sans is without a doubt the most casual. This also makes it the most approachable. It says, “I am speaking to you as another human, and not as a corporation.” It talks to you, not at you--a resonant feature at a time when digital communication has supplanted much of our face-to-face interaction. Love Comic Sans or hate it, you have to appreciate its human appeal.

Which makes it hard to dismiss the decision to use Comic Sans as an accident. In explaining the vexingly inexplicable Higgs boson, it is possible that, on some level, the scientists wanted a typeface that could communicate to us, human to human, in the humblest of voices. Comic Sans is the antithesis of grandeur. It suggests a degree of accessibility that no Times New Roman or Adobe Jenson can--a public service, to be sure, when researchers are trying to articulate something they themselves don’t entirely understand. There is a second, more obvious, rationale: Comic Sans is designed to look like the fonts used in comic books, and there is no shortage of superheroism in the work presented at CERN.

Seriously, though: Was there nothing else they could’ve used? Nothing that would’ve conveyed the same ideas? Strange as it sounds, the answer is, probably not. When Vincent Connare designed Comic Sans for Microsoft in 1994, no one thought that computer users would ever need access to more than a handful of fonts. That has turned out to not be the case. We are living in a world of constant, instant communication, and we need the tools--and the typefaces--to express ourselves in ways we never dreamed of 20 years ago. As designers and foundries, we often find that when we pick up the pen to draw, we think of corporations and brands. They are our clients, after all. But as the Higgs boson dustup makes clear: We need to think of people, too.

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56 Comments

  • Matt

    Who
    up-thumbs this kind of thing?  Why on earth am I stumbling it?  Are there really people that think about this all day?  These are the kinds of far-out questions
    that great scientists should bend their minds to next.

    I
    would have written this post in comic sans but the comment box only allows the one font.  I even tried pasting it in from Open Office.  I really feel like I do not have access to the typefaces I need to express myself in ways I never dreamed I would need to.

  • Spiritia

    We really love the font that you used on this page to write the articles.  What is it? We to use it for a school project..... thanks.

  • James

    As a physics graduate student, I read the title of this article and shook my head in shame.  This was a landmark discovery for the field of particle physics, and you're critiquing the font?!  Have you no respect whatsoever for the millions of dollars and man hours put into this?

    The fact is, we're physicists, we aren't people that typically obey social conventions.  Heck, in my head when I think of a physicist, I think of a man with a beard, long hair, who never wears a tie, and always wears sandals when he dresses up.  The funny part is, if you meat a physicist, a fair amount of them have at least one of those features.

    I suppose the part that upsets me the most about this article is that you accuse us of demeaning this landmark discovery because of the font.  I ask you, when future generations write about this discovery (I hope not in comic sans) do you think they'll comment on the type face, or how thousands of people worked day and night analyzing terabytes of data to find and start to complete the standard model of physics?

    - James

  • Jakob Trollbäck

    More likely, they didn't think about it at all. It is just what happens when everybody can be a typographer. 
    Let's hope that designers won't get their hands on those accelerators.

  • Albert Yee

    My mother in law is a physicist and she tells me that scientists just have this odd love affair with Comic Sans. Comic Sans everything!

  • mikeandroe

    And life becomes more TMZ'ier.  Thanks Nadine, this is some top notch journalism you're doing!!

  • Aromaremedies

    loved your comment about this being the equivalent of showing up in flip flops! LoL.. I wish I had more fonts I just have the ones that come with Microsoft Word..I think that having to buy fonts at such expensive prices is wrong and mean spirited. Everyone should be able to buy a big library for a reasonable price. Why is this field so elitist? Think of how many people would jump at the chance to have a great library of fonts? They would sell millions upon millions. Can you explain why it is all so costly to the average person?

  • GB

    You know, there's a certain symmetry here with the choice of Comic Sans.  Physicists have given quirky (quarky?) names to some of the most fundamental elements known:  Gluons, charm, quark, strange, leptons, up, down... and of course, the Big Bang.  I mean the beginning of the universe is called the Big Bang.
    In that light, Comic Sans was the only choice.

  • Nicole Fichera

    This means that someone should design a contemporary human-centric typeface and call it Higgs Boson or CERN Sans or something science-y and clever. Then they should publicly present it as a gift to CERN for future use in presentations. Then open it up for sale as the official font of CERN.

    DO IT, SOMEBODY! DO IT!

  • Seneska

    Actually I'm told she just likes the font. That said, it minimised the amount of people who would just try to lift the slides without credit. Everyone in the world who is interested already knows those slides. She couldn't have made them more distinctive.

  • Sebastian Zetko

    I hardly disagree about comic sans being so "humane" and "casual" to be suited for that kind of use. I personaly take that kind of font-use as iliteracy in terms of new-media communication. Using comic sans for scientific explenation is like talking phylosophy in slang - it's just not suited for that.

  • jsmscaleros

    Most scientists and engineers - like most people - couldn't care less what font they choose for presentations. Designers should really stop complaining about the design 'mistakes' of the masses, because that's why people hire us - we're the only ones who need to care.

  • Triangle Dimes

    I wish people would stop theatrically groaning about comic sans. It's become so cool to dislike it that it's garnered WAY more hatred than any sort of font should ever have. It's a way to present words. Spare me, for just a minute, the paragraph most typesetters will have loaded up about how fonts mean emotion and civilization depends on them, and just realize that it's gotten to the point where we need articles like these.  That is insane.

  • Winski

    Nadine... Three issues... I say this as an OLD lover of type from the lead-set-in-a-makeup-holder age  from an old, long-gone legal publishing firm in Chicago...
    1) you're right that 'type' has failed us... It started failing us a LONG TIME AGO and was kinda re-born when Steve Jobs started his journey with calligraphy many years ago in his quest to find better fonts. That was, and still is, a long quest.
    2) even as technology advances at a pace that none of us can keep up with, it seems this problem is getting WORSE instead of better. How do we change that?
    3) CERN is a real bad example to use, for us to try and leverage, given how far down the list of 'important details' the research team at the LHC places 'fonts'.

    I understand your point... CERN is NOT the vehicle...

  • Simon Field

    Why is it so cool to hate Comic Sans?

    I mean sure it's not exactly a work of typographic genius but I suppose people will find anything to latch on to (I guess Twitter in general is a perfect example of such behaviour) as evidenced by people complaining about the choice of typeface rather than congratulating those involved in the discovery.