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Arial v Comic Sans

Arial and Comic Sans, some thoughts, some good, some less so
You sometimes hear ‘expert knowledge’ that this or that font is the ‘easiest to read’, and this or that often seems to involve Arial or Comic Sans. This fashion for pedantry appears to be waning a bit now though, thank goodness, but is still about, e.g. see
But then how about this:
The word that begins the title of the article is ‘ill’ with a capital i, i.e. Ill. The font is Arial, which as we are all told by those experts who know these things, is the most easy-to-read typeface ever invented and is essential for use by people with dyslexia, dontja know? Capital I and lower-case l in Arial must of course be easy to distinguish from each other, for the experts assure us they are.
The ‘evidence’ for the assertions about Arial and Comic Sans being the most readable of fonts is probably the University of Wichita whose results are highly skewed (see my Academic Evidence Base for Typeface Readability page)
Arial and Comic Sans are designed for use on your desktop computer. Neither of them was ever intended to be a printer’s font, so they don’t have many of the features that a font that is designed for print is likely to have, though of course not everyone knows that there is such a distinction and so will demand their favourite font – that which they have heard about as being so perfect – for everything including sometimes uses that are inappropriate.
Personally, I don’t take a stand on this in the sense of believing any one to be being better or worse, my view is that in the right place either could be quite comfortable to read, and in the wrong place (especially for example blocks of text for a quirky font like Comic Sans) either could be considerably less comfortable to read than a whole host of alternatives. I just think it’s rather a joke that, when it comes to fonts, many people demand cornflakes for dinner.
It seems that Arial (and probably Comic Sans too) are not very ecological.
And certain academics say that Arial is easy to read and Comic Sans hard.
I’ll comment on the two fonts one by one:
Some people believe that Arial is definitely NOT the answer that some others would have it to be:
Mark Simonson gives a rundown on the history of Arial and concludes, ‘ . . . a professional designer would rarely—at least for the moment—specify Arial. To professional designers, Arial is looked down on as a not-very-faithful imitation of a typeface that is no longer fashionable. It has what you might call a “low-end stigma”.’, is a kind of game where Helvetica kicks Arial out of the way for, as the site says of Arial, ‘We don’t need its type round here’., tells you how to spot the difference between Arial and two fonts it is based on, ie Helvetica and Grotesque 215 .
And why not take a look at which is not actually Arial but Helvetica (upon which the Arial font was based) and as it says on the page, ‘Annoy the crap out of your type-snob friends!’ – so I thought it was germane to include that one.
I have a page which demonstrates that the Arial font in particular can be very jiggety.
The Arial font, like many sans-serif fonts, makes little or no distinction between an upper case i (I) and a lower case L (l). So in a word like Illegal, set in Arial like that, the first three letters are pretty-well indistinguishable. The Verdana font distinguishes upper case i from lower case L clearly, viz Illegal, as does Comic Sans: (Illegal).
But there’s not many people know that. Lots of typefaces have these similarities between two or more letters and no one notices most of the time.
As an indication of that (that just about nobody notices what you might think would be a reading ambiguity), take a look at my Letter Ambiguities, a Readability Conundrum page.
There’s a page of discussion on whether Arial or Verdana is a more preferable font (that’s Verdana, not Comic Sans), at Signal vs Noise. No comment!
Comic Sans
Comic Sans is an eccentric font and can look rather daunting and rather garish, and the number of websites that try to use it for body text is mercifully diminishing. One example still extant at time of writing is, a website maintained by people with learning disabilities, unfortunately. For an example of how Comic Sans can look poor on readability in comparison with a font of more uniform letter shapes, see my Fonts for People with Reading Disabilities page.
No typeface is right or wrong in every circumstance. The picture is an information sign in the village of Ravenfield near Rotherham in the north of England. Comic Sans is used for the body text (at least I’m pretty sure that’s what the font is) and in my opinion it works really well. I think it’s the concise text (that is to say not dense blocks of text) in combination with the light-touch drawings that makes Comic Sans look so comfortable. (You should be able to expand the pic by clicking on it, so you can read the type.)
In Comic Sans the a and o (a and o) can be hard to distinguish, especially in smallish point sizes, in a word like goal (goal).
On 28 April 2009 The Guardian newspaper in the UK printed an editorial piece called In praise of . . . Comic Sans and it generated a large number of comments on its web page; clearly Comic Sans is something that some people have strong views about.
I found it amusing to read Applications that annoy the appointments committee . . . on the forums of the Times Educational Supplement, where the writer, ‘TheoGriff’, under ‘Some of the daft things that I have seen:’ includes ‘Documents sent in non-professional font (Comic Sans)’. This has clearly shocked some of the people who commented on the post, who until they read that had no idea that Comic Sans was not the finest font known to humankind. But if it is going to annoy the appointments committee – oh dear!
Now for those Comic Sans fans in the world, of which I have come to believe there are some, how about this: Comic Sans for bus destination indicators. I have so far only found one place that uses this, and that is the eccentric Italian city (that is also one of my favourites), Bologna. It’s only some buses that have it, and I don’t know whether it is a choice that the driver can make, or whether there’s some other reason. Anyway here’s a photo:
I can find just one other example on the web, on this page and scroll down to Bologna. So far as I know Bologna is the only town where there are bus destination indicators in Comic Sans. Anyone know of any others? If so please do let me know as I would like to build up a collection.
Comic Sans for a bus destination indicator where the words are in upper-case is quite a good choice in my opinion , it has a leaning-forward look, and we assume the bus intends to be going places, and the capital I has serifs and so will not look like a number 1. Anyone disagree with me on this?


Carl Cushman Hybels said...

You're being a Font Bully here! Full of dogmatic passionate opinion. Suggest Googling study comparisons. General conclusion from my reading of studies and surveys on font preferences: For some reason there is a common "Ford vs Chevy" argument between Times New Roman and Arial. Both have their proponents.
From surveys though: On paper serif fonts are preferred by more people for readability. This can include TNR, though there are others that are less compressed and less Corporately Overbearing: like Garamond, Palatino, Century, Bookman..
As an all-around: Calibri many are now liking.
For on screen reading, the situation is very different: On screen, the squiggles and compressions of serif fonts make them more difficult for most people to read. For on screen reading the San-serif fonts are preferred by a 2 to 1 margin, and TNR comes out least preferred. (TNR is so compressed horizontally, being originally designed by newpapers to cram type, that when projected on screen isn't very good). Preferred for online: Arial, or if as many do, you don't like
Arial on screen {Ford vs Chevy}, then other san serif fonts will be clear on screen. Liked by many include Verdana, esp at smaller point sizes (e.g., 10) and some all-arounds.

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