Comic Sans Is (Generally) Lousy: Letters and Reading Challenges

Specimen of the typeface Comic Sans.
Specimen of the typeface Comic Sans. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Personally, I support everyone being able to type and read in whatever typefaces individuals prefer. If you like Comic Sans, then change the font while you type or read online content. If you like Helvetica, use that.

The digital world is not print. You can change typefaces. You can change their sizes. You can change colors. There is no reason to argue over what you use to type or to read as long as I can use typefaces that I like.

Now, as a design researcher? I'll tell you that type matters a lot to both the biological act of reading and the psychological act of constructing meaning. Statistically, there are "better" and "worse" type for conveying messages. There are also typefaces that are more legible and more readable. Sometimes, legibility does not help readability, either, as a type with overly distinct letters (legibility) can hinder word shapes and decoding (readability).

One of the common myths I constantly correct in social media and in online forums is that Comic Sans is somehow the "best" typeface for children and adults with dyslexia, ADHD, autism, and other disabilities. A blog post caused a small wave of arguments on social media in February (2017):

No, hating Comic Sans is not ableist, sexist, or racist. The typeface has serious legibility and readability problems. See one excellent technical critique at Design for Hackers:

There really are explanations for why people find Comic Sans annoying. It's a bitmap font designed for 12-px text (not 12-pt) on lousy 14-inch CRT displays in the era of 800x600 computer monitors. It has lousy kerning, small counters, true monoline strokes, easily confused letters from a distance (i I l 1, e c o, m = rn) and is not meant for long text flows.

A much better replacement is available:

Comic Neue fixes the flaws of Comic Sans. Download it. Use it when you have any reason to use Comic Sans. It's a lot better.

What makes a type both legible and readable? Distinct letter forms that enable quick recognition based on word shapes.

A typeface can be a serif or sans-serif face. It doesn't matter. It can be classic or modern. The face is less important than the letter shapes and their overall conformity to standard word shapes.

Erik Spiekermann, from Stop Stealing Sheep:
"Research has shown that our eyes scan the tops of the letters' x-heights during the normal reading process, so that is where the primary identification of each letter takes place. The brain assembles the information and compares it with the shape of the word's outline. If we had to consciously look at individual letters all the time, we would read as slowly as children who have not learned to assume a word's meaning from such minimal information." (p. 107)

  • Ascenders (and descenders) matter to word shape. Ascenders more, since they are at the top.
  • Too large an x-height, caps and lowercase blend.
  • Too short ascenders and descenders, all words look like rectangles
  • Too small x-height, slows reading, too

Sans or serif, what matters most is word shape and distinctiveness. When I (i), l (L), i and 1 look similar from a distance, there's a problem.

Now, if you want a more interesting debate… research has suggested teachers give lower grades and readers find less trustworthy text set in sans-serif type. The same article in various typefaces, the same academic paper, the same letter set in different typefaces reveals a curious pattern: we trust "classic" serif typefaces more than the "newer" sans-serif typefaces.

Use whatever type you want. But know that whatever typeface you select when sharing a text with others will influence those readers.


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