The power of type (or why not to use Comic Sans to present a scientific breakthrough)

Yesterday saw a landmark moment in science, history and indeed, evolution. CERN scientists, who have been working for years at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, claimed the discovery of a particle consistent with the Higgs Boson.

Nadine Chahine
Nadine Chahine

The news spread like wildfire and soundbites like ‘we’re reaching into the fabric of the Universe at a level we’ve never done before’ were issued to all that would listen. However, one of the biggest reactions to the breakthrough was nothing to do with the feats of science achieved, but the way it was presented to the world – more specifically, the font which was used to present the findings.

Of all the thousands of fonts available to convey such a critical milestone, the scientists plumped for the Marmite of typography – Comic Sans. Within minutes of the news breaking ‘Comic Sans’ was trending on Twitter, with the majority of tweeters expressing their disgust at such an important announcement being conveyed in such a way.

While Comic Sans does have its fans and naysayers, the reaction did raise an important point. It truly demonstrated how fonts are crucial tools in evoking emotion and sentiment.

Often taken for granted, as they are all around us, there are around 200,000 fonts in existence today. However, you should bear in mind that each one has been meticulously designed and crafted to convey a message. Indeed, selecting a font is quite like getting dressed. If you had a specific occasion to attend, you would dress accordingly. Similarly, a font is normally selected in accordance with the kind of message you wish to communicate.


Source: Cern

A simulated model of the Higgs Boson

Type is also a key player in instilling trust among the public. Imagine you were to receive an email or message on your phone, which claimed to be from your bank – for the sake of argument, let’s say HSBC. Ask yourself, if the message didn’t contain the black lettering of HSBC on the grey background, would you not question its legitimacy? It’s the very reason that typography remains such a crucial part of branding and why there is still a demand today for type designers’ skills.

Type designers are some of the most patient, but proudest artists in the world today. Not even taking into account the need for originality due to the sheer volume of fonts around, the skill and determination required to elicit emotion, simply from text, is a huge accomplishment. What I believe is amazing is how, when the industry has existed for centuries, there are these incredible designers from all corners of the globe, who continue to innovate and create new typefaces, which still generate reactions.

And I believe that a key driver to do so is that the public have and continue to relate to typography, even though they maybe don’t realise it. We’ve all had the experience of a certain scent reminding you of a fond memory. The same applies with typography – certain fonts trigger certain emotions and memories – and this is why there has been such a reaction to CERN’s choice of font.

Comic Sans may often be heralded as the ‘world’s most hated font’, but it does have its place. It may not be in a presentation which reveals the secrets of the universe, or within the corridors of a Fortune 500 company, as this picture demonstrates, but one thing is for sure. It has conjured a huge reaction and that is testament to the power of typography.

Nadine Chahine is senior type designer at Monotype Imaging and Linotype.

Hide Comments (14)Show Comments (14)
  • Christian Jones November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I couldn’t help but to point out the obvious via Twitter yesterday – like so many other typographically aware designers. : )

  • emily November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Good un-bias article.

    Must say comic sans fills me with dread, is there a church leaflet or sandwich shop menu in the country free from its clutches.

  • Clive November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’m sure the use of comic sans will be forgiven long before the spelling mistake in your first paragraph!!!

  • Gee November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    “the reaction did raise an important point. It truly demonstrated how fonts are crucial tools in evoking emotion and sentiment” – i don’t think so, in the context of the discovery, the only thing people can talk about is the friggin font is proof how dumb ass the majority of the population and really only interested in Vanity.

  • DJ November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Comic Sans, a bit of a joke yes, but maybe all creation is too…

    Lighten up a bit – these guys are swiss scientists not swiss designers.

  • Ed November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I’m a graphic designer and my sister is scientist, she ALWAYS uses comic sans which I consider dreadful… but from her eyes it’s warm and handwritten-like… I believe it reminds her of her uni years writing down piles and piles of paper notebooks during her lectures. Scientists do have other things in mind besides font, which to me is sacred. Both my sis and I check if the logo is well placed at our bank’s letters though.
    Different mindsets!

  • Nick Veitch November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I am a bit dismayed that so many people should focus on the font. I mean, the whole presentation could have been tidied up, but that wasn’t really the point of it.

    It is also worth knowing that Comic Sans is often chosen for a reason. Although I loathe it personally (the school where I am a governor use it for everything, and I have to reformat all my documents because I can’t bear to read more than a page of it), it has been determined to be a friendly and easy to read font for people with dyslexia and some forms of autism – of which there are a higher percentage in the scientific community

  • Vincent November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    > i don’t think so, in the context of the discovery, the only thing people can talk about is the friggin font is proof how dumb ass the majority of the population and really only interested in Vanity.

    All the more reason not to use Comic Sans. You can’t just ignore dumb people, they’re everywhere.

  • David Busbridge November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I actually applaud the use of Comic Sans with the Higgs Boson announcement. It made something so mind blowing almost child-like in appearance and therefore more accessible for people young and old.

  • da bishop November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    CERN don’t have their own typeface? They should. It should be called Atomic Particle, and the oblique version should be called Atomic Particle Accelerated. Small capitals should be Subatomic Particle. I would have thought it would be a sans serif of some ultra-minimal sort. They are Swiss, after all.

  • Steve Shaiman November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Let’s face it folks, the major problem with Comic Sans is the name and its implication. If we had called it Desert Sans or Science Sans or Easy Sans or simply Vinnie, most of the discussion about it never would have happened.

    There are plenty of other font crimes committed every day. Stop wasting everyones time on this one. Guess what? Everyone who cares already knows. Get a life.

  • Jili Allen November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    There’s something hilariously ironic about the use of comic sans, not to say I condone in any way, but then here’s the question fellow typographical tyrants: what font should have been used and why..?

  • Andrew Budell November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Good point. However, there is a reason they are called CERN and not KERN.

  • Andrew November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Wow…One day someone will figure out the meaning of existence and write about it and someone will cry about the font they used. People amuse me.

    Complain all you want about the fonts when it’s a boring classroom or boardroom presentation but when it’s something significant, I only care about clarity and good logical and factual exposition.

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