Graphics & design software

Killing Comic Sans: 5 alternative fonts that protect your dignity

Comic Sans: It's the best font in your tool box if you're committed to sappy, unsophisticated design, and want to prove to the world that your type library hasn't been updated since 1995. Comic Sans is embarrassing. It makes us avert our eyes. Yet it's still the go-to font for amateur designers trying to make their messaging more friendly—if only in the same way that reindeer sweaters are intrinsically friendly.

It's one of Windows' longest-standing clichés.

"If you love Comic Sans, feel free to use it with the understanding that it makes your work appear amateurish and thus the information it presents is perceived as unprofessional," says Robin Williams, author of The Non-Designer's Design and Type Books and How to Boss Your Fonts Around.

When Comic Sans was included in Windows 95, the world was starved for a relaxed, whimsical font, making the bubbly sans serif type face just the ticket. Or at least designer Vincent Connare thought so. He had designed the font the previous year explicitly for the comical (and later to be eternally mocked) software package Microsoft Bob.

Nowadays, Comic Sans elicits a visceral response: Either you hate it, or you use it. But using it even a little is a little too much.

"Your hairstyle, your car choice, your clothes—all provoke an immediate response from others. We dress and groom ourselves to fit a general image of who we think we are, and how we want others to see us," says Williams. "Your font choice provokes the same sort of reaction from others. Using Comic Sans, you send a visual message that your work is unconsidered, unprofessional, and probably untrustworthy. Obviously, your physical appearance choices and your font choices can have absolutely nothing to do with the inner truth, but we cannot deny the impact of the initial visual impression."

Ouch.

In its defense, Comic Sans is one of very few fonts that works well at "display" sizes, yet retain readability, both on screen and printed, when very small. It uses a single-story lower-case a and simple lower-case g rather than letter-press versions of these letters, in theory allowing early readers to decode text more easily. It's as innocuous as Val Kilmer's Batman: Not quite as forgettable as Lewis G. Wilson, but not exactly Christian Bale either. It's the overuse that's made Comic Sans into the Batsuit-nipples of the font world.

So if you—or someone whose work reflects on you—indulges in Comic Sans, and you need a font or a full typeface that's friendly, fun-loving, and informal, try the following alternatives. Each is free for personal use, while professional and commercial use fees range from a user-set donation to about $16.

Get Comic sans Sans with HVD Comic Serif

"So many designers hate Comic Sans," designer Hannes von Döhren of HVD Font tells me in email. "They think people who don't know design are overusing this funny little friendly font, which is out of place nearly every time." His HVD Comic Serif is a (PostScript) OpenType font that's an interesting alternative if you want to stick with the comic book theme. The slab serif letters are drawn monoline, but with a fun, easygoing attitude. Comic Serif is strong, but still has an innocent feel.

HVD Comic Serif isn't Comic Sans with serifs added. This heavy slab serif font packs a punch.

Just like its archnemesis, HVD Comic Serif is very legible, even at 10-point text size, and can easily be used as a display or poster font. However, while the two comic fonts have a vaguely related heritage, and both include handwritten styles for the lower-case a and g (rather than the letter press style), HVD Comic Serif probably isn't going to be a good choice for beginning readers. The heavy weight of the font and the short descenders cause the heavy slab serifs to barely fit in the glyph.

HVD Comic Serif is regular 400-weight, but it seems heavier. This may be because of the short ascenders and descenders relative to the x-height, and an x-height slightly above the median. Also, there's no bold version of the font, so bolding the font in a text editing program like Microsoft Word or Open Office makes the letters almost run together. That said, HVD Comic Serif includes a crazy 11,940 kerning pairs, so your copy will be well spaced in practically any design. This font has all the usual upper and lower-case glyphs, plus numbers, punctuation, many mathematical and scientific glyphs, and Eastern, Central, and Western European language support.

As designer von Döhren suggests, appropriate use is key to not looking out of place, whatever font you use. So even though it includes scientific and mathematical glyphs, don't use HVD Comic Serif (or any font with the word Comic in its name, for that matter) for grant proposals, dissertations, or signage at MIT. HVD Comic Serif includes installable embedding, and is free for personal and commercial use.

Say Au Revoir to the Comic

DK Au Revoir is a handwritten OpenType font that has style and flair, with subliminal don't-mess-with-me undertones. Designer David Kerkhoff also created a lower-case o that caught my eye: It's almost a heart, but not quite.

Au Revoir adds panache to informal communications.

Even though they are regular (400) weight, DK Au Revoir's glyphs are quite petite. As a comparison, the cap height of some of the upper-case letters (L for example) are equivalent to the same point size Times New Roman font, while other letters (B, E, R) are only two thirds the size. All of the lower-case letters reach the full cap height, but have an x-height way below the median. However, the extra-tall ascenders in DK Au Revoir add to the font's refined nature, and the diminutive size shouldn't distract from the detail that's gone into this font. DK Au Revoir is very well-executed, and includes more than 9,000 kerning pairs to ensure whatever your copy, it's going to look perfect.

DK Au Revoir contains all upper and lower-case glyphs, numbers, common punctuation, accented characters, and some special characters, such as the Euro symbol. DK Au Revoir looks beautiful at sizes larger than 24 point, and it will add class to any brochure, flier, or newsletter. That said, it's an understated font that doesn't demand attention. Don't send an audit announcement with DK Au Revoir or Comic Sans.

The free (for personal use only) demo of DK Au Revoir doesn't include the contextual and stylistic alternates, full kerning control, ligatures, or extensive language support you get with the full version. In addition, the embedding is restricted in the demo. Contact Kerkhoff for the full, commercial-use version.

Fit for an Architect's Daughter (if not the architect)

Inspired by the formal handwriting of architects, Architect's Daughter is delightfully precise, yet lighthearted and not at all bossy. Architect's Daughter is a TrueType font you could use at larger text sizes (14 point) and encounter no problems with legibility, or use at poster sizes to enjoy the detailed edges of the letters.The tiny serif at the end of the upper case E, and gentle slope within the center stroke of the F, are particularly charming.

Casual but never sloppy, Architect's Daughter defines a cross-section of neatness and friendliness.

The slightly off-scale width of some letters—,lower-case o and c, and upper-case B, D, and R among others—plus the non-mirror image lower case b and d all work together to aid the legibility. Indeed, many experts cite these differences as things that can make a typeface easy to decipher, especially for early readers and people with a disability like dyslexia. The lower-case a and g in Architect's Daughter also are handwriting style rather than letter-press, similar to Comic Sans, which is a benefit to beginner readers.

Although Architect's Daughter may seem casually handwritten, 377 accurate kerning pairs help give it a sensible cleanness that expands its usability. However, still pass it through the suitability filter: This is not the font for memorial signs or grave markers.

Architect's Daughter includes full upper- and lower-case glyphs, plus numbers, punctuation, and accented characters; all at 400 (regular) weight. It's fully installable, allowing you to embed the Architect's Daughter font in documents ready for other users to install. Architect's Daughter is free for personal use. For commercial use, contact designer Kimberly Geswein.

Get to the point with Laconic

Designer Robby Woodard of WoodardWorks describes Laconic on his website as "a typeface design meant to be dry without quite seeming parched." For any stern note, Laconic is ideal: über-legible, even at small text sizes, but without ingratiating flourishes.

Laconic conveys a smart and capable image without stuffiness.

The glyphs are perfectly proportional (with 652 kerning pairs), and drawn with the preciseness of an almost-typewritten font, but with sans serif twenty-first century style. Straight lines blend seamlessly into elegant curves with Laconic. Following good rules for a font like this, Laconic's lower-case letters have an x-height slightly taller than the median line, and upper-case letters such as B, H, G, etc. aim their midpoints precisely at the median. Although Laconic's ascenders and descenders are uniformly short, the ascenders are slightly taller than the cap height.

If you are writing formal sentences (rather than all-caps, or all lower-case) these far-reaching ascenders can be slightly distracting, so don't use Laconic for mental health screenings or STD questionnaires..

The Laconic typeface family includes Light, Regular, Bold, and Shadow (all OpenType, and all included in the same download) for interesting, modernistic effects. Each weight features ligatures, old style figures, proportional figures, small caps, tabular figures, and stylistic alternatives, as well as the more standard upper- and lower-case, numbers, and punctuation.

Embedding allows for print and preview only, but permissions in Laconic's EULA allow you to redistribute Laconic freely. Laconic is free for personal use. For commercial use contact Woodard.

Lexia Readable is for readers of graphic novels, not funny books

Lexia Readable: It's what happened when Comic Sans grew up. Designed by K-Type as a visually mature version of the comic cliché, Lexia gives your copy clarity and legibility without the now-cloying whimsy.

Beautiful and ultra-legible, sans serif typeface Lexia is a winner.

Lexia Readable and Lexia Bold are available as OpenType, TrueType, and PostScript in the same download. A sans serif typeface, Lexia Readable echos the reasons many literacy professionals like to use Comic Sans: the handwritten lower-case a and g (rather than the letterpress versions); ascenders that equal the cap height, and similarly long descenders; an x-height that is just a hair above the median. These features all make Lexia easy on the eyes—and easy on the brain for early readers and readers with a disability such as dyslexia.

But unlike Comic Sans, Lexia Readable steps it up a notch with asymmetrical lower-case b and d, straightened lines rather than the hand-drawn wobble, and 170 kerning pairs to ensure good spacing and placement.

Keith Bates, designer of Lexia Readable, notes, "Lexia Readable was primarily an attempt at a grown-up Comic Sans that might be more appropriate for use with older readers," he says. "It's an attempt to retain the strength, friendliness and legibility of Comic Sans, and even a slightly marker-drawn feel, whilst tidying up the comic book idiosyncrasies.Lexia adds a hint of dignity, a sprinkling of refinement, and introduces elements of designer type to appeal to a contemporary audience."

Lexia is designed to be legible, even at small sizes, and looks great down to 8 points. The open lower-case b and p (designed to avoid symmetry and confusion for some readers) make Lexia a poor choice for display purposes—it just looks odd—but it still works, and at least the detail in the upper-case letters adds style that Comic Sans lacks.

Embedding is installable. Lexia Readable and Lexia Readable Bold are available free for personal use, and also free for use by schools, colleges, other educational establishments, non-profit groups, and charities. The full Lexia typeface (Lexia Bold, Italic, Heavy, Outline) is available for all uses including commercial from K-Type; the full package runs about $16.

A font for every occasion and an occasion for every font

Williams says, "As you become more conscious of typography and put into words your gut reactions to fonts—that font is cranky, that one is happy, and so on—you'll find that Comic Sans will naturally disappear from your choices."

A word of caution: Whatever cheerful, lighthearted, easy-to-read font you choose, if it fails the suitability test, it's not going to work. If your copy relays devastating news or you need people to take your message seriously, don't use Comic Sans or any others we've suggested (with the possible exception of Lexia). If in doubt, Times New Roman will never fail you.

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