How Comic Sans Got Useful

By Gill, Martha | New Statesman (1996), June 18, 2012 | Go to article overview

How Comic Sans Got Useful


Gill, Martha, New Statesman (1996)


Whenever I want to impress someone at a party, I let them know I'm distantly related to Eric Gill. There's always a pause as it sinks in. You know, Eric Gill. Eric Gill, for God's sake--yes, the Eric Gill! They're usually too polite to make a big deal of it, but to make sure they feel comfortable around me, I often end up doing most of the talking from then on in.

Well, he invented the typeface Gill Sans. It's a sansserif font and a British font--indeed, it would be hard to find a more British font. Its clean lines permeate the railways, the BBC, Penguin Books and the Church of England, and it has meshed itself with the establishment so deeply that it was a surprise to discover in the late 1980s that its inventor (1882-1940) once shagged his dog.

Yes. This font has a dark, dark history. So dark, in fact, that on unearthing it last year, Digital Arts magazine announced an immediate boycott, along with every typeface Gill ever molested (Perpetua, Joanna), in a piece tided "Art versus Evil".

Digital Arts, I apologise for him. And perhaps you are right to leave this beautiful, clear-cut lettering out of your publication--but not necessarily for the reasons you think.

A recent paper by Daniel M Oppenheimer, pleasingly entitled Fortune Favours the Bold (and the Italicised), delivered a blow to lovely fonts everywhere by demonstrating that we absorb information better when it is a little hard to read. It seems our eyes just skim over Times New Roman and Helvetica but stick when we reach a cramped line of type, finally ready to engage.

The researchers took classroom material and altered the fonts, switching from Arial and Helvetica to Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans italicised and Haettenschweiler. …

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