25 years on, a story of redemption

“Dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman.” With these immortal words, Microsoft font designer Vinnie Connare unleashed Comic Sans on the world. A font so revolutionary, so disruptive, that we’re still reconciling its existence 25 years later. People tend to hate Comic Sans, and no one with more wrath than designers. To a designer, Comic Sans is always a bug, never a feature. It is impossible to customize. It is irredeemably unprofessional. It has no place in modern design and should be banished from this earth.

But this opinion ignores a complex heritage. Back when font choices — and the supporting technology — were limited, Comic Sans was the first glimmer of expressive design for the masses. It called upon the natural feel of handwriting, the rounded shape of a fat marker on construction paper. It spoke to being young with a comic book under a flashlight. And more intentionally: its designers built it to be exceedingly legible on the web. Comic Sans has every right to make a comeback. But first: a little history.

The fun begins

It starts with Microsoft Bob in 1994. We were ready to launch Windows 95 — what would become the paradigm for the home computer. Microsoft Bob was a native application that introduced people to the newfangled concept of an operating system. “It’s like a house!” we said, triumphant. “An operating system is like exploring different rooms!”

Rover sitting in a living room that is Microsoft Bob.

Rover sitting in a living room that is Microsoft Bob.

Rover, star of the Microsoft Bob application circa 1994

During Bob’s beta release, Vinnie got a glimpse of the interface. The first thing Vinnie noticed was Rover, the friendly cartoon dog who trots around the app as your guide. Rover’s pretty cute. But his speech balloons hosted Times New Roman. Ultimately there was no time for a fix before Microsoft Bob launched, but it did not sit well with Vinnie.

“I’m not going to try to get in his head, but overall we got the green light to have Vinnie work on a comic type for the team,” said Greg Hitchcock. Dogs don’t talk in Times New Roman.

Greg has been an engineer at Microsoft for 33 years (33 years!) and holds these kinds of memories like a vault. He’s the self-proclaimed tech person on the original team of Microsoft font designers, deciphering technical issues and navigating the complexities of font development. His office is stacked with factory-sealed boxes of software like Microsoft Plus! 95 (emphasis ours, as was the fashion of the day), which included extra goodies like screen savers, Internet Explorer 1.0, and of course, font packs. This is where Comic Sans broke through to our hearts and homes.

“Comic Sans plays a very important, niche role in that space of emotive fonts.”

“Comic Sans plays a very important, niche role in that space of emotive fonts.”

Greg Hitchcock, 33-year font veteran at Microsoft

“Windows 3.1 had no fonts,” said Greg. “All documents had to be this Helvetica-ish font or Times New Roman. That was it. So we bring this new font system in and make all these fonts available in Plus!, and people just ate it up.”

Hidden among the goodies in Plus! 95 was our dear friend Comic Sans. “I remember summer of ’95, emails in the company started popping up with Comic Sans, and people would say, ‘I love this font.’ It had a very casual feel to it, which I think was attractive to people. You could send a fun email to someone else, and comic type conveyed that fun.”

And there it is, the contentious aesthetic of Comic Sans: it’s fun.

Playful with a purpose

Ask any designer today how they feel about Comic Sans, and you’ll get an involuntary “ugh,” maybe a laugh if they’re feeling generous. The reason behind the disdain comes down to the comical nature of it all.

“It has its place,” said Emily Johnson, Art Director for the Edge browser. “But it’s not something I would use in 99% of the ways it’s actually used today.” This is the crux of Comic Sans’s demise. As a respected font, its heyday quickly spurred its rejection due to sheer overuse.

“It’s kind of like when you hear the same song on the radio like 50 times a week,” Emily said. “It just gets overdone.”

This is no one’s fault, and it’s certainly not the font’s fault. We loved it too hard and then immediately turned our backs.

“When people use it in a correct way, or even just looking at it — it is playful,” said Ryan Vulk, Senior Designer on Windows. “There are some qualities to it that are very jovial. It kind of lightens the mood, even when it’s used incorrectly.”

Comic Sans was created if not as a serious font, then at least a very important one. It embodies the spirit of access — approachable, easy-to-read, inviting you into the fun. Consider the Sans (sans serif) of Comic Sans. When we write with pen and paper, we don’t typically add those little serif flares on the ascenders and descenders. We approach the page more naturally. Comic Sans mirrors this approach, accommodating our preferences for simple structures like rounded lettering and plentiful spacing. This is why Comic Sans is considered a friendly font for those with dyslexia — its technical aspects really do serve readers at all levels. And there’s a critical piece of history tucked into the story here: that of the web.

The web was a playground 25 years ago. A hacky experimental lab, unrecognizable to today’s infinitely curated internet. Because Comic Sans never made it into Microsoft Bob, it found its home in Internet Explorer 1.0 — the Microsoft web application included in that magic Plus! pack. As it turns out, Comic Sans is an ideal font for readability on the web.

“I would hope that you didn’t have to use computers back in the early ‘90s,” Si Daniels lamented. “You had very low resolution display and text was rendered with black and white pixels. Everything felt jagged and bitmap-y.”

Si arrived at Microsoft as an intern the summer of ’95, joining Greg and Vinnie on the small but mighty team that designed Comic Sans and brought more font options to the early web.

Si and his team set out to create quality, readable fonts anyone could download. “This technology became the web-safe fonts for website designers,” Si said. “And Comic Sans was in that set. So very quickly, it became the default not just on Windows but on Mac, free and available everywhere.”

This matters. All the sweat equity poured into Comic Sans made it hugely accessible not just in terms of readability but in downloads and usage as well. Microsoft and Apple partnered to improve the web experience at a time when this kind of corporate collaboration would’ve been surprising. Comic Sans was a superconnector. People loved this font because it was everywhere, and this font was everywhere because people loved it.

Comic Sans, design disruptor

But ubiquity has a dark side. We all know the rest of the story: “There was this inevitable backlash against its overuse, much more than with any other font,” said Si. “Because it was so instantly recognizable, anybody could be taught to spot Comic Sans. So beginning graphic designers could identify it and say, ‘That’s a bad font,’ because novices used it.”

But given the right tools, novices become experts. At its best, technology empowers those with low confidence and limited access. It makes everyone a creator. This was Comic Sans’s mission. But this powerful history has gotten lost within the pedagogical assertion that universality and approachability is bad aesthetics. This narrative strips Comic Sans of its potential.

Perhaps no one recognizes this disservice better than Liz Jackson, founder of disability-led design organization The Disabled List. She believes in honoring the friction of disability as a creative practice. She’s also an unapologetic humorist about it all. In May of this year she led #ComicSansTakeover at the AIGA Conference, a response to brands’ tendencies to take themselves way too seriously, especially in terms of disability design. It was a way to take back the meme and redeem the font.

“Comic Sans disrupts the stories designers tell themselves of being merged with the user.”

“Comic Sans disrupts the stories designers tell themselves of being merged with the user.”

Liz Jackson, founder of The Disabled List

“Comic Sans is the embodiment of that friction,” Liz said. “Designers tend to despise Comic Sans. Yet, there’s a subset of disabled people who say they prefer it. For The Disabled List, we leverage the friction around something like Comic Sans as a starting point to new ways of designing rather than a problem to be solved.”

Much like the original band of font evangelists, Liz eschews vanity in design. She’s a relentless advocate for speaking plainly about disability rather than creating hollow narratives. Part of what appeals to Liz about Comic Sans is its blatant authenticity — it is only what it is and presents itself to the world as such. It’s designers who have assigned any negative cultural significance to it.

“Comic Sans disrupts the stories designers tell themselves of being merged with the user,” said Liz. “It serves as a reminder that no matter how seamless a product is, users can and will choose differently. Like it or not, users will always be in control.”

On the 25th anniversary of Comic Sans, perhaps it’s finally time we relinquish control. Comic Sans is fun, dammit, and that’s okay. It’s genuinely accessible in a time when “accessibility” has become a buzzword. It’s inclusive in the sense of welcoming people to the party: leading you through different rooms, engaging you in conversation, making sure you’re comfortable and having a great time. Comic Sans is a gracious host with a silly hat.

“Why do people hate Comic Sans?” said Ryan, pondering. “Probably because they don’t have any joy in their life.”

Redemption if I’ve ever heard it.