Two related questions about using Comic Sans...
July 4, 2012 5:07 AM   Subscribe

Two related questions about using Comic Sans...

CERN this morning announced their discover of the Higgs boson particle in Comic Sans. This led to much debate on my Twitter feed and I have two related questions as a result, one serious and the other, maybe less so?

1. A friend tells me that ESOL tutors say that Comic Sans is a good font to use when doing presentations to non-native English speakers/readers. Others have backed him up but are unable to explain why it's good. Is there any evidence for this?

2. Are scientists more likely than other groups to use Comic Sans in presentations? This is only based on my own empirical evidence but they sure do seem to. I see it all the time at conferences and I have a constant struggle trying to get my own scientists to put their presentations into our university/hospital branding.

posted by ozgirlabroad to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
With regard to number 2, people who use LaTeX for their presentations will not use Comic Sans. Virtually no one messes with beamer's fonts and overwhelmingly, people won't know Comic Sans is even possible if they were inclined to use it (I just googled). (Offhand, I can't remember what font beamer uses by default. I don't think it's one of the Computer Modern variants, but it might be.)

How many non-math people use LaTeX for their presentations? That I don't know. I did see an engineer give a talk with PowerPoint this week, but I don't remember the last time I saw a PowerPoint before that. (Keynote apparently does math well, so the rare non-beamer slide talk I see is always Keynote.)
posted by hoyland at 5:20 AM on July 4, 2012

1. Sort of. There was apparently a study which found that hard-to-read fonts made people think more about what they were reading and hence retain it better.

2. Perhaps scientists feel Comic Sans help de-techify presentations due to its 'friendly' look. Perhaps scientists are more likely than average to be naive on these matters.
posted by Segundus at 5:25 AM on July 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

Equations tend to have a typerwriter-like or helvetica font.

That, and characters from that, are easy to pick out against bulk text in Comic Sans.

The mass, m, turned out to be larger than indicated by the toy model.
The mass, m, turned out to be larger than indicated by the toy model.

What I found impressive was that there was not a lot of eyecandy, slide transitions, and so on, let alone Ted Talk or product launch nonsense. You try that in front of a bunch of physicists and they will instantly assume that the smoke and mirrors is trying to hide some quantity of bullshit.

Before being too elitist about design and typography, folk should consider that 99.99+% of the stuff on is beautifully typeset, thanks to LaTeX, journal stylesheets and so on.

I have a constant struggle trying to get my own scientists to put their presentations into our university/hospital branding.
Try maintaining blank templates they can use that are up-to-date with the programs they use for their presentations. (Expect somewhat grudging and disengaged compliance, as you're forcing them to jump through one more hoop to do their jobs.)
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:34 AM on July 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

According to Comic Sans Criminal:

The only appropriate uses for comic sans [are]:

When your audience is under 11 years old.
When you're designing a comic.
When your audience is dyslexic and has stated that they prefer comic sans.

"Comic Sans is known for being easy to read for dyslexics, but there are plenty of other fonts many dyslexics prefer that may suit your content better."
posted by xyzzy at 5:39 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

No idea on (1) but as for (2): I've seen Comic Sans used a few times in scientific presentations. Usually it went with an oddly retro or crude look to the whole set of slides, given by an elderly or old-fashioned scientist, who learnt how to put together PowerPoint in 1985 and keep doing ti exactly ther same way.

(As for LaTeX, my experience is that outside of maths and computer science, its nearly unknown. Biologists are almost exclusively Powerpoint, with the occassional pocket of Keynote.)
posted by outlier at 5:41 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

The letter shapes in Comic Sans, in particular the shape of the lower-case 'a', make it useful for small children. I've heard more than one primary school teacher here in the UK talking about the need to avoid typefaces that feature a double-storey 'a'. This isn't particularly borne out by my experience with my own child, who didn't seem to have any trouble parsing the two different forms of the letter, and both forms appear in the reading books he brings home from school.

More generally, though, people far outside the design community just seem to genuinely like Comic Sans. It looks cheerful, informal, a bit 'fun' without sacrificing much readability. Most people just stick with the typefaces pre-installed on their computers, and aren't particularly aware of the alternatives.

These two points don't really answer your question, but it's easy to assume (because you're design-aware and internet-culture aware) that Comic-Sans-hate is more widespread than it is.
posted by pipeski at 5:42 AM on July 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

If I didn't read Metafilter, I'd have no idea that Comic Sans was some sort of design crime. I'm quite fond of it. I had never heard it was preferred to dyslexics. I can see how dyslexics would like it, and that's what I like about it: It stands by itself. No eye strain to pick out what you need. This trumps most merely esthetic considerations.
posted by Goofyy at 5:53 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

With regards to (2) I have seen comic sans used at conferences. I believe that this is due to the more informal nature of scientific conference than perhaps other places where Powerpoint is used - speakers are more relaxed, and often know most of the people in the audience. So there is less of the pressure to have the most "professional" looking presentation, and thus less pressure to avoid comic sans.

This leads to people just picking what they like.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:56 AM on July 4, 2012

Response by poster: Outlier: (As for LaTeX, my experience is that outside of maths and computer science, its nearly unknown. Biologists are almost exclusively Powerpoint, with the occassional pocket of Keynote.)

I work with biologists and medical researchers - Powerpoint is still king in my neck of the woods!
posted by ozgirlabroad at 6:03 AM on July 4, 2012

Another reason to use Comic Sans is ribbing other design people *cough* especially, wireframes *cough*

At engineering conferences I have seen powerpoint and keynote. Now the aesthetic has been not too refined that is, not TED level, but default templates. Now, Mr. Jadepearl uses Keynote but purposely made a default using Johnston as the typeface since it was designed for large display.

Really, I just want people to stop putting together presentations that do not take audience analysis into account such as, display heights, excessive slide text, poorly labelled and parsed charts. In all honesty, I could care less if they used Comic Sans as long as I can grok the information being presented.
posted by jadepearl at 6:36 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are scientists more likely than other groups to use Comic Sans in presentations?

It pops up once in a while, but as a whole I don't think so. If anything, they're more likely to use whatever the default PowerPoint or Keynote font happens to be, with no fancy/tacky template or effects.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:01 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are scientists more likely than other groups to use Comic Sans in presentations? This is only based on my own empirical evidence but they sure do seem to. I see it all the time at conferences and I have a constant struggle trying to get my own scientists to put their presentations into our university/hospital branding.

These are separate issues.

Most presentations I see stick to the default font, Arial usually. Some people use Comic Sans, but not notably more than any other non-default typeface. Arial is good enough, and people tend to filter it out. A non-default choice is seen as intrusive and a sign of an inexperienced presenter.

Choosing to not use the institutional template, however, is common. Templates often add a lot of business to the slides, making whole swaths unusable with bands of colour, page numbers, branding and/or logos, etc.... When I put up a complicated graph, for instance, I want the audience to focus on that alone, and not have to sort out a complicated visual field with two or three extraneous graphics, taglines or gradient bars. The best presentations, in my experience, start with very simple templates or no template and let the results and illustrations tell the visual story. As a compromise, institutional templates may be used on title and acknowledgement slides, but they just get in the way for presentation of the meat of the topic.
posted by bonehead at 7:15 AM on July 4, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think the key is that you're unlikely to find a field with less respect for branding/presentation/etc than particle physicists. Content is king to a degree that outsiders may find hard to realize. There are some researchers who understand the need to "sex up" their presentations for lay people, but internally this is not done at all.

I think part of the reason is that the vast, vast majority of particle physics talks are incredibly dry and only relevant to a small number of people even within a collaboration. Spending time to "punch up" a presentation would should a lack of seriousness. Lots of talks will just have simple plots on a white background.

Frankly, I bet if someone mentioned to Fabiola Gianotti that Comic Sans is a less than respectable way to present important results she would look at you incredulously and question your sanity for thinking about fonts while there's physics (!) going on.

Personally I found CMS to have much more nicely designed slides, but ATLAS's presentation (the CS one) to be more well done overall, for what it's worth.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 8:00 AM on July 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mod note: A couple comments removed. I know "Comic Sans" is like some sort of amygdalic super-trigger but please stick to actually answering the question asked and ixnay the random thoughts on Comic Sans and how much you personally dislike it etc.
posted by cortex (staff) at 8:21 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. This ESL teacher/tutor has never heard such advice before; maybe a good idea, given the lower-case-a thing. I have seen other teachers use this font in handouts -- I would't, however, because like Goofyy I've learned here that it's uncool.

2.No, agree with bonehead, scientists use the default, or the organization's template.

who learnt how to put together PowerPoint in 1985
Actually, Powerpoint didn't exist until 1990. Before that (and for years after, for a lot of us) any presentation involved slides on the overhead.

posted by Rash at 10:58 AM on July 4, 2012

(Harvard Graphics is the OG)
posted by bonehead at 11:13 AM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I attend many conferences in the genomics field and have noticed several (though by no means the majority) presentations in comic sans. These tend to be from scientists who are European. I've never had the gumption to ask any of the presenters how they made their font choice, but from the attitudes of some of them, I've assumed that it was because they think it would make it more "fun".
The CERN slide shown here goes even further into ugly design with the multicolored background and brightly colored text. At least the comic sans offenders I've seen have the decency to use a neutral background.
posted by at 11:16 AM on July 4, 2012

In my observation, Comic Sans is a really popular font among european scientists that are about age 55 or older. I was amused, but completely unsurprised, to learn that the Higgs Boson was announced in Comic Sans.
posted by u2604ab at 12:45 PM on July 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think scientists use it to "de-mystify" the technical jargon. Americans, in some web meme, decided Comic Sans was uncool. The horror.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 2:31 PM on July 4, 2012

I've never seen PowerPoint decks in Comic Sans when looking at my scientist postgrad peers / scientist Faculty's presentations at my institution. Admittedly, however, I have limited exposure to these. A high-powered prof in biochemistry (in his 60s) that I know personally is far more concentrated on getting the research into the damn slides so that he can go back to "real research" than on formatting the font.

I'd probably have the same reaction as if I spotted it used in an Arts & Humanities presentation if I saw it in a science context: laughter. Arguably, more forgiveable for scientists as it could be a well-meaning attempt at making the text clearer, or the content more accessible, as others have mentioned above.

As for in my faculty: general ridicule of the presenter and their poor presentation skillz would generally occur. Something about Comic Sans just says "poor academic nous", very unfairly, in the circles I run in. But so too does formatting your entire presentation in "ye olde fontte" for historical research and I have seen that a few times.
It also speaks somehow to not being on the cutting edge potentially - we "all" know that Comic Sans is unutterably, or untypably, awful. If they don't know this, what else are they missing out on? Again, hugely unfair.

Actually, despite my heretofore deep abiding hatred for Comic Sans, this AskMe is making me reconsider my views.
posted by thetarium at 5:20 PM on July 4, 2012

1. I don't know.

2. I'm not sure, but I'm in science and I honestly don't get all the rhubarb against comic sans. It's perfectly legible, so what's the deal.

Now, I've never personally used CS for anything besides comics (actually I don't even use it for comics), but I simply don't understand the vitriol against it. Arial is just as ugly to me. When someone uses CS, I don't think less of them. When someone bashes the use of CS, I think less of them.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 7:55 PM on July 4, 2012

(I mean, like, seriously bashes, like, "person X is unintelligent because they use CS!" or, "only morons use CS!" not a simply stating a dislike for CS)
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 7:57 PM on July 4, 2012

I used ot print out all of my papers in Comic Sans. Only feedback I got was from one teacher, who said he liked it because it seemed "friendly". I liked it because it seemed casual and a little different. My guess is, lots of people reacted the same way, we quickly got to market saturation, and the need to seem 'a little different' did the rest, now relegating Comic Sans to the design dustbin.
posted by Deoridhe at 5:28 PM on July 5, 2012


My former boss, who is quite respected and prolific in her field of the sciences, used Comic Sans for all of the diagrams in a textbook she was writing. She thought it looked less threatening for the book's target audience - introductory-level students.

I did suggest she use a more neutral font, and I was relieved she did not select Papyrus.
posted by palindromic at 9:42 AM on July 6, 2012

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