I’ve been to millions of lectures, mostly scientific, that are most commonly carefully prepared PowerPoints with impressive figures and clean slides, all with the aim of making a particular point. The lecturer wants to impress an audience, leaving a positive impression that hopefully delays the memory loss associated with leaving the auditorium when the talk is over. In these cases a choice font is very important, it makes a visual statement congruent with your image, preparing the audience from the title slide onward to be wowed. Something professional and scientific, something like….Comic Sans? As soon as I see it, I can already feel my insidious subconscious undermining my ability to take this talk seriously. And that scares me. Why should a font have so much control over my preconceived notions? Probably because it’s a funny font that looks out of place in a serious scientific talk. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the definition as Wikipedia tells it:
“It is classified as a casual, non-connecting script, and was designed to imitate the historical look of comic book lettering, for use in informal documents.”
I had just heard the speaker’s impressive bio, his long and yet inadequate list of accomplishments, his seminal publications in rigorous peer reviewed scientific journals. I’d even listened to the introduction that described how he discovered paradigms that now grace textbooks, and spent decades changing the face of neuroscience, and yet all that remained was skepticism at his work, and he began presenting with a completely straight face entirely in Comic Sans.
I’ve seen this happen more times than I can count, and it always seems like it’s the older, much respected profs that make this gaffe. I used to think that these wise ‘ol types so fond of comic sans were attempting to be intentionally informal, smattering the audience with a sardonic attitude that proclaimed how finished they were with stuffy scientific talks. They’d paid their dues. Today something changed in me, and now I’m not so sure.
This is one of the major problems with scientists and their data presentations, especially to the public. One can bet that no audience fully comprehends just how rigorous and wonderful your experiments are, or how deeply they elucidate the mysteries of the universe. So presenting in a font out of a coloring book just looks like you’re being overly obtuse and patronizing.
The problem with Comic Sans is that is has personality. Why is this a problem? Because using it sends a message, or at least it’s trying to send the audience a message…and if the content of talk directly clashes with the undertone of the font then it’s just plain confusing. Scientists have enough of a problem being unintentionally oblique, they don’t have to complicate things by sending a questionable message with their font usage. Font is such a small thing, why not do it right?
Strangely, science has already probed this issue, and yet fails interpret its own findings. It’s been shown that well-dressed people are taken more seriously in general or believed to have more talent than badly dressed people (yes I have that citation, geez), and the same applies for a “well-dressed PowerPoint.” Any salesman knows that to sell your shtick you also need to look the part. A smartly dressed and confident dullard can win a crowd with ease (Sarah Palin, anyone?), and not because the audience is dumb.
I think science would get a lot for acceptance and believability from the public if they laid it out plain, no undertones, no mixed messages. How can anyone understand your dense proclamations and take them seriously no less, if you present them as if from a comic book? It’s almost like stating that the content is simple (which it’s not) and therefore you should understand (which I don’t) otherwise you are stupid (which I’m not, so stop treating me like I am). It is not the audience’s job to sift through the dark backgrounds and glaring white or yellow comic scribble to find the point of your slide. I have seen this font in more scientific presentations than I care to remember, yet I never see it from lawyer briefs or industry presentations. Why is that?
On a lighter note, as with any quirky pet peeve you can bet that there’s a group somewhere lobbying for or against. In this case it’s the group “ban comic sans” which passionately and not so jokingly lobbies for the end of the font once and for all. They even sell iPhone cases to advertise their rampant dislike and raise money for their cause. While I sympathize, I find myself annoyed with them just because the font is all over their website: Love it or leave it, you can’t have it both ways.
Doing some digging, I found that the polarizing Comic Sans was the poster child in the late 90’s for the grungy rebellion against the snooty artist types personified by euro-smooth Helvetica. Ironically, as the surprisingly good documentary of the same name showed, us “99%” associate Helvetica with the flat and grungy New York City Subway signs, not the rich and swanky upper-class. Artists themselves even split in their love or hate of Helvetica…ahh well it’s nice to know other people get upset over font usage too.