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The Power of the Right Font – Helvetica vs Comic Sans

Fonts. From writing an email to designing a flyer, people can and will judge you on your font choice. It’s a cold, cold world, or at least when it comes to typography. In today’s blog, we’re going to look at how important it is to use the right font in the right context. We’ll be doing so with a case study using Helvetica – one of the most favoured and reliable fonts out there, compared to Comic Sans – which on the flipside has a campaign calling for it to be banned completely. So if you don’t want to be partly responsible for a font having its very own hate campaign, then read on, dear reader.

Why Helvetica and Comic Sans, I hear you bawl. Well, in terms of use and popularity today among designers and the human population in general, they could not be more polar opposites. Helvetica is quite possibly the most popular font amongst designers. In fact it’s so revered and deified, that there is a film about typography called Helvetica. That’s got to be a nicer feeling than having a campaign calling for your existence to be struck from the earth. The drastically less popular font received fresh scrutiny in 2010 when basketball player LeBron James left his hometown team the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami Heat. The enraged Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert quickly penned an open letter on his team’s website. And it wouldn’t be the claims that his team would win the NBA championship before James would at his new team, or the overuse of shouty capitals that got him criticsed. It was the fact he chose to express his anger at the betrayal using Comic Sans (read the full rant here) that was to be the focus of the ensuing media storm. I must say, phrases like “this heartless and callous action” and “some people think they should go to heaven and not have to die to get there” do look a bit hilarious in a font most favoured by five year olds.

clippy

But just to reiterate, the purpose of this piece isn’t simply to say which font is better (although if you put a gun to my head and demanded an answer, I’d obviously scream “Helvetica! Of course Helvetica is better!!), because fonts aren’t necessarily better than one another, just some work better in certain situations than others. Let’s cast our minds back to the early 90s, when the Frankenstein’s monster of fonts was created: Comic Sans. It was originally made by Microsoft as the font which appears in pop-up comic book style help messages in its programmes like Word. In fact you may remember older versions of Windows had little characters who were there to ‘help’ you, like Clippy. I’m sure you’ll remember that talking paperclip with two bulging eyes who would interrupt your typing with comments like ‘hey, it looks like you’re writing a letter!’ when you weren’t doing anything of the sort. Perhaps Clippy should shoulder some of the blame for Comic Sans’ plight.

 

So naturally due to its comic book style, and looking a bit like alphabet spaghetti, it became very popular with children learning to use computers at school. I can vouch for using Comic Sans when I was a wee lad, and also harbouring murderous thoughts towards Clippy that no child should. So of course naturally, most people associate this misunderstood font with school and children. Because of this – added to that its general quirky, floppy style – when individuals and businesses use Comic Sans, there’s a good chance the information won’t be taken as seriously. For example, imagine if you had an insurance business. ‘Have you had an accident at work which wasn’t your fault?’ followed by Comic Sans just wouldn’t work, unless you’re advertising insurance to toddlers. If you write your emails in Comic Sans, it’s possible the recipients of your emails will imagine you dressed up as a clown. So spare a thought for this much maligned font, it’s just been badly misused. Should you use it? Only if you are certain it will help you achieve a particular result, like advertising your cake sale.

How different things have been for Helvetica, the George Clooney of fonts. Once again, it is all down to its original intention upon birth. Helvetica was made to be a font for reading and writing purposes, and it certainly has lived up to that. It also isn’t weighed down by any strange connotations, like that time you dropped your packed lunch box in front of everyone at school after a long Comic Sans session in IT. It is simply just one of those go-to fonts for most situations – it isn’t too dead serious looking but it isn’t too quirky either.

Helvetica is sturdy and legible in appearance. The ‘shoulders’ and ‘stems’ of letters are always rigid. As the typeface designers who created it, Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffman were Swiss, this all probably makes perfect sense. As I mentioned earlier, being a sans-serif style font it does retain a mild quirkiness which sets it aside from Times New Roman, yet still has great clarity. Perhaps the main contrast between ol’ Helvy and Comic Sans is that Helvetica has very good weight distribution within each letter, whereas Comic Sans is nowhere near as even in this regard. Comic Sans also leaves unnecessary spaces between letters, whereas this doesn’t occur with Helvetica. And once shaped into a paragraph, Helvetica offers vastly superior letterfitting.

So the moral of our tale is that choosing a font is like choosing a dog – the most important thing is knowing whether or not you can treat it well. We hope you feel for Comic Sans now, and perhaps have gained some admiration, maybe even jealousy, of Helvetica. So choose carefully, and happy typing.