Story behind a Viral Font, Comic Sans

WSJ has a front page article about the typeface Comic Sans.  I can give you an interesting insider story on this as I worked in this group at Microsoft and can provide some history.

Typeface Inspired by Comic Books Has Become a Font of Ill Will


Vincent Connare designed the ubiquitous, bubbly Comic Sans typeface, but he sympathizes with the world-wide movement to ban it.

[Vincent Connare]

Vincent Connare

Mr. Connare has looked on, alternately amused and mortified, as Comic Sans has spread from a software project at Microsoft Corp. 15 years ago to grade-school fliers and holiday newsletters, Disney ads and Beanie Baby tags, business emails, street signs, Bibles, porn sites, gravestones and hospital posters about bowel cancer.

The font, a casual script designed to look like comic-book lettering, is the bane of graphic designers, other aesthetes and Internet geeks. It is a punch line: "Comic Sans walks into a bar, bartender says, 'We don't serve your type.'" On social-messaging site Twitter, complaints about the font pop up every minute or two. An online comic strip shows a gang kicking and swearing at Mr. Connare.

There is a Ban Comic Sans movement, but from the moment Vinnie produced Comic Sans it surprised us how viral the typeface was.

The jolly typeface has spawned the Ban Comic Sans movement, nearly a decade old but stronger now than ever, thanks to the Web. The mission: "to eradicate this font" and the "evil of typographical ignorance."

"If you love it, you don't know much about typography," Mr. Connare says. But, he adds, "if you hate it, you really don't know much about typography, either, and you should get another hobby."

To start let me give you some background that few know and I haven’t written about. From my first days at Apple in 1985 I was picky about using the right typefaces and eliminating font substitution when printing.  Few knew that Helvetica was the sans serif font and Times Roman was the serif font. Through my years at Apple, I worked with people on the LaserWriter team, Adobe, and the pain of Adobe Type Manager with Type 1 typefaces.  TrueType was created by Apple, and I had the pleasure of working with some passionate type technology developers like Mike Reed, Sampo Kaasila, Richard Becker, and Bryan Ressler. Eventually I got a job where my specialty was the Asian TrueType fonts.  In 1992, I made the switch to Microsoft to be the program manager for Win3.1 Asian TrueType fonts, working on all the Asian fonts.

When I was group program manager for TrueType fonts, I drove the Verdana project, and I’ll tell the insider story to that one in another post (it is much more complicated to tell).  But, bottom line after Verdana it was no longer a business model of take traditional lead typefaces like Times New Roman, Palatino, and Arial digitize them into TrueType fonts.  Microsoft could start from scratch and build fonts that Microsoft owned all copyright and trademarks.

The proliferation of Comic Sans is something of a fluke. In 1994, Mr. Connare was working on a team at Microsoft creating software that consumers eventually would use on home PCs. His designer's sensibilities were shocked, he says, when, one afternoon, he opened a test version of a program called Microsoft Bob for children and new computer users. The welcome screen showed a cartoon dog named Rover speaking in a text bubble. The message appeared in the ever-so-sedate Times New Roman font.

But, then it truly became viral when it was included with Windows.

A product manager recognized the font's appeal and included it as a standard typeface in the operating system for Microsoft Windows. As home computers became widespread, Comic Sans took on a goofy life of its own.

Now this doesn’t have anything to do with green data centers, but it does help tell the story of what I enjoy doing.  I like figuring out problems and coming up with new ways to approach solutions.  In typefaces, breaking the barriers of traditional font development allowed creative new typefaces to be developed like Comic Sans. I paid the price as I pissed off the people who owned the historical method of typeface development whose plan was to digitize 1,000s of historical typefaces.  What could piss them off more than the popularity of Comic Sans vs. Palatino? And as a result, I  was asked to leave the Truetype group, and in hindsight it was one of the best moves I made to leave type behind.

Which reminds me of a good lesson I learned from the Executive in charge of the Macintosh II development. To ship difficult projects you have to be willing to piss people off.

The good thing is Vinnie didn’t mind upsetting a few people creating Comic Sans.

Are you ready to upset a few people as you green your data center?