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?
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.