Recording engineers and music producers have a saying: "Shit in, shit out." It refers to the idea that no matter how much studio trickery you try to apply to a sound, it’s not going to sound great if the source recording was done shoddily. Or, put another way, it’s imperative to start off by capturing the original sound well — that way you have the widest spectrum of possibilities still in hand.
Similar ideas abound in digital visual media: If you want to end up someplace beautiful and rich, you generally need to start with a high-resolution image or a high-quality something or other.
Generally. But because I’m a bit of a contrarian, I’m interested in creative projects that make beauty out of garbage—projects that manage to transcend the limits of their raw materials. And since hating Comic Sans is a public sport for designers and non-designers alike, I thought it would be fun to try to make something with it.
I started by really looking at it. I’m a versatile designer—I've designed everything from infographics to a MIDI keyboard—but I’m not a type designer, so I tackled this in a pragmatic way, thinking of these letter forms simply as shapes, divorced from the rigid rules and craft of typography.
For my first exploration, I thought I’d take a dumb-smart approach and literally chop off the most offensive parts of the letters. For example, the top of the capital "C" is hideous, the way it clumps together like a blood clot. Off with its head! But there are very few parts of the character set that aren’t downright ugly, so I needed to do a lot of cutting.
The "I" is incredibly random-looking. It looks drunk, basically. The "M" has joints that are both lumpy on the outside and awkwardly sharp on the inside. I took the machete to various parts of the letters, but overall, they have this kind of lazy, wobbly, supposedly handwritten character that still overrode my harsh edits. So, my next idea was to bring my type treatment into a 3-D setting, and shoot the scene from an extreme low angle that would mask these flaws. I thought a bit of light and shadow would also distract the eye from the awful truth.
Here’s what I came up with:
The cuts, along with the doubling up of shapes, create a techy, metallic, futuristic look. It’s probably not the most gorgeous typography you’ve ever seen, but I feel I was at least able to bring a more decisive hardness to this than what Comic Sans typically offers.
Okay, so that’s one way to skin a cat. Next, while I was thinking in terms of 3-D, I thought I would try to artfully lower the polygon count for the letters to such a degree that their ugliness could be obscured. I experimented with a few ideas, but ultimately decided on the following process: First, in 2-D, I applied an extreme halftone effect, turning the font into little dots, as seen on the left. Pretty decent upgrade, but it’s very obviously just a filter, so I used this as a height-map to create a 3-D mesh. Height-maps are 2-D images from which 3-D programs can calculate and create sculptural forms based on light and dark areas. The darker the area, the more elevated its 3-D projection will be. For my resulting mesh, I went with a low resolution geometry so the output would not be overly noisy or literal.
Here’s where that experiment took me:
Next idea: What if I folded the letters in an effort to not only obscure their true shape, but create new shapes? I could have done this with physical paper cutouts, but I decided to stay in the digital realm. Though this is a three-dimensional idea, I ended up crafting it in Illustrator:
The letters almost look like they belong in an Alexander Calder mobile. To some degree I can also imagine them in an Yves Tanguy painting. These are statements I wouldn’t usually make about Comic Sans, so I feel like we’re getting somewhere here.
The concept of truly creating new forms out of Comic Sans's raw materials intrigued me, so for a final exploration I returned to a sort of dumb-smart obvious approach: I rotated copies of each letter around a center anchor point (40 degrees, eight times), creating circular, almost floral symbols. Could you do this to any typeface? Of course. But one thing Comic Sans has going for it here is its rounded "hand-drawn" edges, a softness from which these floral symbols benefit. Meanwhile, every bad thing about each letter is covered up by its own displaced copies. While the new symbols are not readable, they are all distinct from each other, and to a degree they carry a record of their source — you can look at the "K" or the "A" or the "S" and imagine how the shape came to be. You could argue this is a legitimate alphabet.
When applying my rotation formula to the lowercase letters, it’s perhaps disappointing how they rarely relate well to their uppercase counterparts, but then again, does our everyday "a" look that much like an "A"? Does "r" look that much like "R"?
Here is "Comic Sans" spelled out:
And finally, here’s a poster that says "shit in shit out," and the big gray blob in the background is a question mark:
I encourage you to try your own solutions — go beyond simply commenting on how bad something is, and try to make something good out of it. Tweet me at @edlundart, and show me what you come up with!
Edlund's experiments are available as prints. Buy them here.