‘What’s the point? Haven’t they anything better to do?’ Vincent Connare sounds exasperated. Every designer hopes that their work will be seen by as many people as possible, but when that exposure results in hate mail, conspiracy theories of sinister governmental dumbing-down and websites dedicated to your work’s destruction, it can get a little… well, wearing.
Connare is the designer of Comic Sans, the unassuming font that the world has clasped to its bosom in a loving embrace that shows no sign of relaxing. For its enemies, it’s the ubiquitous, inappropriate use of the font that rankles. Ironically, Connare designed the font with one, and just one, specific application in mind. But when Microsoft bundled Comic Sans with scores of other fonts on every computer system it sold, it was his that the public swarmed towards.
Connare didn’t start as a type designer. Born in Boston, he studied Fine Art and Photography at Manhattan’s New York Institute of Technology. While he was a photographer for Massachusetts newspaper The Worcester Telegram, his girlfriend, working in sales for Compugraphic, pointed out that the company needed staff to convert its typeface library from its existing photosetting incarnation for digital use. Connare joined it in 1987, and learned TrueType hinting. ‘I hinted TrueType for Hewlett-Packard, six fonts for Apple and a pack for Microsoft,’ he says.
He describes himself as a ‘typographic engineer’, and his brief at Microsoft, which he joined in 1993, was ‘to fix things. I made the original test bitmap and TrueType fonts for the Windows engineers to test Matthew Carter’s Tahoma. I made versions of Arial to be used in digi-boxes for Microsoft’s WebTV and in my final project – my favourite – I corrected the Windows Baltic MS Sans bitmap fonts using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to convert their hexadecimal numbers to binary so we could see the images out of the bitmap formats.’
On the launch of Windows 95, Connare was impressed by a new interactive program, Microsoft Bob, but noticed that its cartoon characters’ speech bubbles used Times Roman. Taking the lettering styles of DC and Marvel Comics as inspiration, he created Comic Sans to fill this vacuum. His payment was his Microsoft salary. ‘There was no royalty arrangement – I wish there had been. I’d be richer than Bill Gates!’ he quips. The only extra ‘payment’ he ever received was a signed Mickey Mouse picture from Disney as thanks for letting them use Comic for advertising. Vincent speaks highly of Microsoft though. ‘It’s the perfect working environment. They believe you are hired because you know what you are doing and let you get on with it. It was the best job in the world.’
However, in 1999 he left to take the new MA in Type Design at Reading University. When the course ended he returned to America, but he had enjoyed his year in England, indulging in such typically British pursuits as playing baseball in Richmond. Having done some small hinting jobs for Dalton Maag, when he was offered a post there in 2001 he happily returned. ‘I was impressed by a Dalton Maag brochure that I received at an AtypI conference. It looked like an exciting place to work, with some serious customers.’
At Dalton Maag Connare has been in charge of the final production of fonts for clients such as BMW, Winterthur, Tui-Thompson, Burberry and Virgin Galactic. July 2008 saw the launch of his latest design, Magpie, its inspirational starting point being the 18th-century types of Pierre Simon Fournier le Jeune. ‘I was in search of a typeface that would be transitional in classification and contemporary in design. Working as a typographic engineer the main job is to clean up font data – I can now see that I am rebelling against this “cleanliness”, refusing to create geometric or mathematically perfect outlines,’ he says.
But a last word about Comic Sans. What does he think of it? ‘It matched the brief/ fun, friendly fonts for the Microsoft Consumer Division’s products. People like it because it isn’t the kind of font that they would use to type a serious letter. It’s different and fun. To me Comic Sans is what design is all about – doing the right thing for the customer.’
Simon Loxley is a freelance designer and writer, and editor of the St Bride Library journal Ultrabold