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Art of Design #37: In Typography, Context is Everything

Recently updated on November 1st, 2011 at 05:12 pm

(Or: How Having a Baby Made One Designer Appreciate Comic Sans.)

Vincent Connare’s simple and innocent type face has long been thought of as one of the low points of good taste in design. People who don’t even know what “sans” meansare quite willing to pass judgment on this humble font.

Businesses that use Comic Sans in signage are often avoided or ridiculed due to their unwitting public display of a lack of good taste.

However, for one designer, it proved to be quite competent for communicating simple comfort to a fearful and confused new dad struggling through a painful period of early parenthood.

The story goes like this:
Baby Girl was born perfectly healthy, but like many newborns, had trouble nursing during the first couple weeks. It was an arduous ordeal, every two hours, every day, round the clock, and nothing seemed to help: not getting her frenulum snipped, not using “the football hold” or “cross-cradle” position, and not even reading that guilt-inducing book from La Leche League.

Everyone kept saying, “It’ll get easier!”–but that’s not much help or comfort when an exhausted mommy is crying from constant pain. But one thing did help: a bundle of stapled print-outs from the lactation consultant set in Comic Sans.

The content of the handout was mostly breastfeeding tips backed up by anecdotal evidence. But Comic Sans felt like the typographic equivalent of a warm, strong hug. It felt personal and completely nonjudgmental. As if it said “I’m here”, “I understand,” and “You can do this” all at once.

Why? A combination of factors is potentially responsible. If typography is the art of enhancing the written word with a subtle aura of direct, unspoken emotion, Comic Sans–in this case, for this person–was the design achievement of a lifetime.

Context is everything, of course. Restaurant signs will never look very sophisticated in Comic Sans, and a résumé set in Comic Sans isn’t going to impress many CEOs. But the mark of good design is design that works when and where it needs to — even if it’s for just one short moment.

And from another perspective:

In the opinion of many designers, Comic Sans is the typographic “lowest common denominator,” perfect suited for creating materials for those with double-digit IQs.

This may be shown to be true. According to a soon to be released study in the Journal of Consumer Research, “an unprofessional-looking interface” may encourage users to divulge sensitive data more effectively than a more refined and sophisticated design.

Researchers set up two study websites, each one asking participants a series of questions about their willingness to engage in certain kinds of embarrassing or unethical behavior. One site had a clean, official look with a Carnegie Mellon logo prominently displayed; the other addressed users with LOLspeak questions set in Comic Sans.

Users of the Comic Sans-enabled site were nearly twice as prone to admit embarrassing or unethical behavior — even after taking a “pre-test” where they were shown both sites and asked which one seemed more trustworthy.

Realize that this study is just a single attempt at gauging how “bad” design affects the judgment of human beings.  But the implication about Comic Sans could be something even more frightening: stupidity may be contagious.


The person who posted the top note on the door may have landed on a deviously clever way to motivate employees.

One thought on “Art of Design #37: In Typography, Context is Everything

  1. Wow great article, the results of that study was not at all what I expected! Maybe a more professional looking layout makes people weary that the website owners are out to sell personal information for monetary gain?

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