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#53 The world's most hated typeface
..and a 16th-century spork
It’s Design Lobster #53, and we’re questioning why one particular typeface gets such a bad press. Plus some rather refined cutlery. This week we’re all about context 🔄✨
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Question: Why does Comic Sans get so much hate?
You have to pity poor Vincent Connare. Whilst working at Microsoft in the early 90’s he was given access to an early version of a cartoon-style user interface for Windows 95 called Microsoft Bob. Despite the comic book styling (complete with a talking dog) he noticed that the engineers were using Times New Roman in the help assistant’s speech bubbles, which he felt jarred with the playful tone of the rest of the UI.
Determined to fashion something more appropriate, Vincent referenced comic books from the DC and Marvel franchises and devised a new typeface he called Comic Sans as a jauntier replacement for Times New Roman. In the end, he finished it too late to be included in Bob but the typeface appeared in a few other programs such as MS Movie Maker before being bundled as a System font in later versions of Windows 95.
Comic Sans has earned its dread reputation since then, thanks to massive overuse. The slightly inane quality of the lettering makes it easy for the typeface to appear to get the tone wrong. Appearing in places as diverse as shop fronts, political adverts and even tattoos – far beyond the playful, juvenile settings originally imagined by Vincent – it can’t help but appear often as totally inappropriate.
Comic Sans is a powerful lesson in the importance of context in design. Just as an organism requires a particular environment to survive, so too does a design depend on its surrounding context. Take one away from the other and you end up with something that solves entirely the wrong problem. So, don’t hate on Comic Sans, hate on the people using Comic Sans in the wrong places!
Design takeaway: Is your design bad? Or is it just being used in the wrong context?
🤦♂️ Check out this pinterest board dedicated to comic sans tattoos, if you dare.
Object: 16th century spork
It just wouldn’t be Design Lobster without the occasional piece of niche historic cutlery. Take a look at this extraordinary item I found in the archives of the Holburne Museum. Designed by Friedrich Hillebrandt, a German silversmith, in about 1595, it combines a spoon, fork, pen and toothpick – each component slotting precisely into the other. Made from silver-gilt, the stem is intricately carved with figures of St George, a dragon and a kneeling princess.
Now, it’s not really fair of me to call this a spork. That item – familiar I am sure to many of you from takeaway salads or fast food – was first patented by the American inventor Samuel Ward Francis in 1874 and became useful in contexts where combining cutlery was more convenient or resource-efficient.
The context of the above piece of cutlery is very different. Table manners that we would recognise had only just begun to be brought to Northern Europe from Florence with the marriage of Catherine de Medici to Henri II of France in 1533. At the time of its manufacture sixty years later, forks like this would still have been a rare sight on European dinner tables. Such a dazzling tool would have been the height of sophistication, communicating the user’s refinement and helping to spread new behaviour across the continent.
Design takeaway: Does your design promote good manners?
💅Watch a funny video by the School of Life on the history of manners.
Quote: “The problem with the designs of most engineers is that they are too logical. We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.”
– Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things
Don is no stranger to the pages of this newsletter. His quote today is not meant disrespectfully to any engineers reading – your contribution to any design project is always prodigious. Rather, it’s a reminder to accept that the vagaries of human behaviour may result in a design that seems – without that human context – to make no sense. We’re not logical beings, so it follows that designs built with us in mind might not appear to be either.
Whatever you do, keep discovering.
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