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Thou Shall Not Use Comic Sans and Other Graphic Design Sins and Virtues

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The authors of Thou Shall Not Use Comic Sans: 365 Graphic Design Sins and Virtues: A Designer's Almanac of Dos and Don'ts share their rules of typography, including strong opinions on Comic Sans, Times Roman, and "trendy" typefaces.
From the book

Rule 1: Thou shall not use Comic Sans

Commentary Well, we had to put it in, didn’t we—it did inspire this book after all. Comic Sans is arguably the most inappropriately used typeface in history after its first appearance in 1995. It was designed for Microsoft® a year earlier by Vincent Connare (who incidentally is very philosophical about his notoriety among type fans) to supply user-friendly menus for people who were a bit scared of computers. When it was included as one of the font choices in Windows 95, it took off faster than a speeding bullet. Everyone with a PC and the notion they could do “graphic design” started using it on their home-grown letterheads, party invites, curriculum vitaes, store signs, haulage firm truck-sides and, well, you get the picture. Comic Sans wasn’t designed to do all these things, so why did every-one like it so much? Connare himself thinks people like to use it because “it’s not like a typeface.” Ouch! What better reason can there be to not use Comic Sans? TS

Rule 2: Thou shall use Comic Sans...ironically

Commentary Did I just say you shouldn’t use Comic Sans? Well, I was only kidding. One of the great things about typefaces that become vilified due to inappropriate application or overuse is they gain a platform from which they can be used to portray irony, sarcasm, satire, dry wittedness, and so on. If you’ve got a dispiriting message that you want to make light of, for instance “Turning 46 next week and really happy about it—party on!”, Comic Sans might just be the typeface of choice. The problem here is, unless everyone you’re inviting to your birthday bash is a graphic designer, they won’t get it. Using type ironically can be very effective and indeed great fun, but only if the irony isn’t wasted. Therefore, think carefully before you decide to use Comic Sans, or Childs Play, or Dot Matrix, or Bullets Dingbats, or any other novelty typeface for any project that requires anyone to work out why you chose the type in the first place. If the joke isn’t immediately transparent, you should probably have gone for Times New Roman instead. Ha ha—do you get it? No? TS

Rule 3: Thou shall accept that Times New Roman has its uses

Commentary The thing is, Times New Roman is an incredibly useful typeface. It’s well designed, with elegant letterforms and displays, and excellent readability and legibility characteristics. It’s also very economical with space, a property that harks back to its origins as a typeface designed for The Times newspaper in 1931. Its biggest problem is that it’s totally ubiquitous so has lost its character. Everyone with a PC can identify it, thanks once again to Microsoft, who’ve bundled it with Windows since 1992 and made it the default typeface for Word. It’s also one of the most widely used typefaces in mass-market paperbacks, particularly in the States. This is why we graphic designers get all sniffy about using it. But are we being fair? I’m not so sure. If it’s not such a great typeface, how come it’s used more than any other for so many varying applications? I think it’s time to accept Times New Roman for what it is and give thanks for its usefulness. But will I be using it for my next commercial design commission? No way—it’s Times New Roman, for goodness’ sake! TS

Rule 4: Thou shall not use Zapf Dingbats

Commentary Good design is about good ingredients. If one were a chef, the best spices, vegetables, and meats would be necessary. A bad chef is someone who chooses the pre-made cake mix, rather than making a wonderful cake from scratch. Zapf Dingbats are well drawn, and have an excellent pedigree, created by Hermann Zapf. But they are ubiquitous and “off the shelf.” They work well for handmade signs for lost dogs or birthday parties. Like most design elements, a good rule of thumb is to ask this question: “Could my mother design this?” Unless your mother is a noted designer, she will design an invitation for her weekly bridge game with Zapf Dingbats. Your poster for a client such as the Melbourne Opera or the Louvre Museum deserves better. Unfortunately, while they are useful and in some instances (the triangle and simple star) acceptable, Zapf Dingbats will create work that is dull, ordinary, and expected. As a designer, one of our jobs is to create delight. Create a custom form for an arrow, asterisk, or scissors. If great design were in the details, why would choosing a banal detail be correct? SA

Rule 5: Thou shall worship classic typefaces

Commentary What designates a typeface as a “classic?” Firstly, it doesn’t mean the typeface has to be a hundred years old, as any typeface providing a marker for a prominent graphic style can be considered a classic. I was fortunate to work with designer and writer Tamye Riggs on a book about classic fonts in 2009 and she came up with a great analogy involving fonts and automobiles, whereby every year seems to produce its own classic car. The same can be said of fonts—any typeface that makes a credible mark on typography has a right to join the “classics” club—Archer (as used in this book) being a good example of a releatively new font that has become a classic very quickly. The digital revolution has placed thousands of (often quite bad) fonts at our disposal, but for me it’s the typefaces that have best made the transition from movable type to digitized font that are true classics. These are fonts that will always remain relevant and should indeed be worshiped, although respected is probably a better word. Use them wisely and often—they’ll never let you down.

Rule 6: Thou shall learn about typographic classification

Commentary It’s normal to make type choices based on the “feel” you get from a typeface, but knowing at least a little about typographic classification, this being the grouping of typefaces which share similar design characteristics, can help you reach a more informed decision when it comes to specialist type usage. For example, the Transitional serif typefaces from the mid-18th century, such as Baskerville, are refined versions of Old Style serifs dating back as far as the late 15th century, which means they are more elegant and easier to read. Decorative or Novelty faces are highly stylized and completely unsuitable for running text (among other things), especially as there is often only a single weight in the type family. Display faces are versions of a standard font weight, often roman, that are slightly bolder in order to render them more effective at larger sizes on signage. A little background knowledge on a typeface’s origins can go a long way. TS

Typefaces shown are Centaur, Baskerville, Modern No .216, Albertus, Memphis, Univers, Gill Sans, Bauhaus, Eurostile, Shelley Allegro, Sign Painter House Casual, Featherpen, Fette Fraktur, Rosewood, and Vantasy House.

Rule 7: Thou shall not choose the latest cool typeface for every new project you work on

Commentary As designers, we’re all susceptible to a bit of typeface mania every now and again. You know how it is—a MyFonts newsletter arrives in your Inbox, you scroll down, and there it is. You think, “My God! That font is amazing. I must buy it and use it on the project I’m just about to start.” But hold on just a second. It might be a great typeface that you can’t live without, but is it truly right for the project? More to the point, will your client respond well to it? For example, if you’re working on a new logo for a mortician, MetroScript might not be a good font choice, no matter how much you like it. Likewise, Futura might not be ideal for the badge of the local amateur baseball team’s uniform, unless of course they all work together at an interior design store and are in to 1920s European architecture. These are extreme examples of course, but think carefully about the appropriateness of your font choices, and try not to get carried away by your own personal favorites when a tried and trusted font might serve you better.

Rule 8: Thou shall learn that trendy typefaces do not always prevail

Commentary Life is full of regrets and errors. Why did I say yes to that last cocktail? Perhaps the adoption of 12 children was overkill? Trendy typography is one of the most egregious of these errors. Curlz may seem “wacky” and “fun,” but it will ruin your life. As designers, we have the pressure of remaining aware of shifts in popular culture. Understanding what is trendy is part of the job. The obvious reason for choosing classic over trendy typefaces is that the trendy fonts will soon be out of style. Classic fonts have survived the test of time. Consider your haircut in high school. Is that school photo one that you use as your headshot for publications? No. Each of us, at one point, has fallen into a trendy and tragic hairstyle. Trendy type is the same. Template Gothic was groundbreaking in 1990. Four years later, all of these projects were dismissed as, “So 1990.” These projects now sit unseen in designers’ flat files, like a high school senior photo, hidden from public view. SA

Rule 9: Thou shall accept that legibility and readability are more important than typographic styling

Commentary Our purpose as designers is to communicate effectively, but the number of options available to us can often be beguiling. To start with, an array of typographic stylings can be applied to a headline or a body of text; designers often submit text matter that has numerous styles (we jokingly refer to this type of designer in my studio as a “Ten-Typeface-Terry”—apologies to Terrys everywhere!). Sadly, this approach not only makes it very hard for the reader to navigate their way through and understand the content of the text, it is also nasty on the eye and makes for an unpleasant reading experience. I always turn the page if it appears typographically confusing—if the audience decides to do the same, then the designer has failed in their task to provide legibility and readability. Keep it simple, choose appropriately, and respect the words. PD

Rule 10: Thou shall throw legibility and readability out of the window

Commentary Legibility and readability are not always of utmost importance. You only have to look at the hugely influential body of work created by David Carson during the 1990s when he was art director of Raygun magazine—an era that pioneered what later became known as “grunge” typography. Typography influenced by this style was often practically illegible, relying on the visual impact of the type to convey the core meaning of the layout. Admittedly, much of the work produced during that period now looks dated but, graphically, much of it also still looks spectacular, almost more art than graphic design. Where does art end and graphic design begin, though—there’s a good question. The bottom line is, if you’re designing a public service leaflet for a government department or a book about Swiss furniture design, grunge typography really isn’t the way to go. However, if your audience is likely to respond to typography that is a little more radical, legibility and readability may indeed be heading for the sidewalk. TS

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