If I hate Comic Sans, am I ableist?
I read this article on the website The Establishment, in which this woman writes that “Hating Comic Sans Is Ableist”.
If you haven’t heard the term “ableist,” basically it means using language or having attitudes that prefers people who are able-bodied. For example, saying someone is “blind” to mean that they’re not aware of something that ought to be obvious, that’s ableist, because you’re using a term that’s a fact about some people, and turning it into an insult.
So to hate Comic Sans means that you’re preferring people who have “normal” reading capabilities. Or so says the writer of this article. Her sister is dyslexic, so she can’t read text in most fonts, but she can read Comic Sans.
Wait a minute, I thought. If I don’t even know that Comic Sans is the only font that some people with dyslexia can read, how in hell can I be ableist? As far as I knew before I read this article, there was one font that had been designed to be readable by people with dyslexia, but there wasn’t any scientific evidence that it worked. And it certainly wasn’t Comic Sans.
It’s not that I hate Comic Sans. Not as such. What annoys me is when it’s used in places where it’s not professional. A business using Comic Sans, for example. Or if someone formatted their resume in Comic Sans.
Actually, I do hate Comic Sans. It isn’t well designed.
I took graphic design and typography classes in grad school. I know enough about font design to appreciate a well-designed font. Frutiger, for example, I swoon over. I fell in love with the negative space made by the counter (the closed-in interior) of the lowercase, bold “a.” It’s the most elegant, graceful teardrop shape. All of the letter forms of Frutiger are elegantly, gracefully shaped.
Comic Sans was designed to be used in a specific, comic-like situation where Times New Roman just plain looked wrong. The designer said he never intended it to be used in any other context.
The writer of the article on The Establishment wrote that “the gatekeepers of graphic-design decency routinely mock those who use it [Comic Sans] as artistically stunted and uneducated.”
Wait, what? “Graphic design decency”?? “Gatekeepers”?
People who have a clue about typeface design aren’t “gatekeepers,” and we’re not just trivially concerned about “decency.” Good font design matters. A font’s design can set a mood. It can be elegant, open, solid, graceful, sturdy, all kinds of things. You can make statements with the font you choose. And even if you don’t know much about typography, you can see that a well-designed font is better than a badly designed font. Much better.
The writer would probably call me a “typography snob” for that. But she clearly doesn’t know anything about typography. She thinks that kerning is an attribute of a font. It’s not! It’s adjusting the space between two letterforms.
As I’m writing about how I can’t possibly be ableist if I don’t know that Comic Sans is the most readable font for some people with dyslexia, I’m wondering about a statement a lot of white people make that’s similar, only not about fonts.
It’s when a white person says, “If I don’t know that doing something is racist, then I’m not racist if I do it.” For example, as a friend of mine said recently, “If I don’t know that saying a person of color is ‘eloquent’ is racist, how can I possibly be racist?”
The problem with telling a person of color that they’re “eloquent” is that too many people are surprised when they say it. Like they don’t expect a person of color to be eloquent, or to speak well, or to have something important to say.
I think what white people probably mean when they tell a person of color that they’re “eloquent,” is that the person of color has said something profound or moving, and said it in a way that they’ve never heard before. They intend it as a compliment.
But when a person of color hears, over and over again, white people sound surprised that the person of color can speak well, that sounds racist. Even though white people say they didn’t know, so it shouldn’t matter.
So. Am I ableist if I think Comic Sans is a badly designed font?
Here’s a test I use for myself, to make sure I’m not being racist unawares. If I think about saying something to a person of color, I ask myself if I’d say it to a white person in the same situation. For example, if I want to say to a person of color, “You’re eloquent,” I ask myself if I’d say it if the person was white. If I wouldn’t, then I don’t say it to the person of color. I just say, “I enjoyed your talk” or something like that.
But I don’t have a similar test for ableism about fonts.
Now that I know that Comic Sans is a readable font for some people with dyslexia, I know that if someone uses it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re unprofessional.
But I’m not “ableist” if I know that Comic Sans – with a few exceptions – isn’t appropriate for professional settings. The writer of that article is an anti-typography snob.