Helvetica, Comic Sans, and science presentations…

If you don’t already think I’m a geek…then this post will surely convince you of that.

Today, I was listening to NPR’s Studio 360. The host, Kurt Andersen, was doing a segment with Gary Hustwit, the director of the recently released documentary “Helvetica.” (It’s a feature-length film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture.)

At the end the segment, Kurt asks, “Do you have any strong feelings about fonts? How much do you hate Comic Sans?” (Ok, here’s the geeky part, ready?) I actually responded by looking in the general direction of my stereo speakers, rolling my eyes up (as if the host could actually see and hear me) and I said aloud, “Don’t get me started!”

Just last week I had been invited to the School of Medicine at Harvard University to work with postdoctoral researchers. One of the PowerPoint presentations that I reviewed used Comic Sans. I politely explained that this font was originally created for cartoon text and in general, communicates silliness and fun.

I suggested instead that she pick a more neutral, professional font – like Helvetica – to communicate her very serious scientific work. It’s simple, well-proportioned, and modern (even though this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of this typeface). For PC users, I should mention that Arial, is Microsoft’s version of Helvetica (although there are differences).

It’s not that I dislike Comic Sans, or think that it should be banned, it’s just that I believe that the characteristics of a font convey tone or meaning (like the tone of your voice) and I think for presentations (or any visual display of information) it is important that the tone match the content.

If you are communicating serious, significant, scientific findings, then a serious, neutral font should be chosen so that the content itself is concentrated on (not the feeling communicated by the font). If someone asks you about the font you are using and not about the science, something has gone wrong!

What I don’t understand is the increased use of this silly font among scientists. With each passing month I see more and more presentations using the font. I don’t get it? What is the attraction? Is it just the novelty? Can’t they see how this how this font can create a negative impression and impact their credibility? (Comic Sans users, I invite you to comment below because I really don’t get understand this increasing trend.)

So, do I think there is ANY use for Comic Sans? Sure, it can be used, but sparingly and thoughtfully. When communicating in a casual manner or in an effort to communicate fun and frivolity then I say- go for it! (In fact, I admit I have used it when communicating with young students in online forums.)

Here’s the bottom line for you, my clients and regular blog readers:

You are a very smart person who is communicating very important, complex ideas, please, don’t EVER use Comic Sans for work. If you do, it will just make you appear unprofessional or worse, not serious about your work.

Yep, Kurt, I guess I do have a strong opinion about a font, I suppose I just didn’t realize it until you asked!

There are 5 comments .

Jordan Miller —

Good call on fonts Lisa! I really like the font “Optima” for scientific presentations. It’s a standard/free font that comes with Mac OS X.

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James —

Look up any talk in physics theses days (high-energy physics in particular, because that’s what I’m most familiar with) and, like you said, you’ll see comic sans all over the place. So why did scientists adopt it? Well they’re not typographers, so we could care less if the kerning is off, or whatever the pragmatically pointless things font nerds talk about–they adopted it because it looks nice. I mean, only comic sans took off, not Mom’s TypeWriter, not Bookman Old Style, not even Helvetica. (And we have to remember this is not the default font, people have to go and choose this.) Someone used it because it conveyed an at-ease mood–the kind of mood scientists want to convey when they’re presenting their results–and someone else said, “That’s a decent font, I’m going to use that in my next talk.” And so now it’s everywhere.

And as for the professionalism: If everyone in the field could care less about the font, (even subconsciously, because, after all, everyone is using it), then why is it any less professional? It has become the standard. Maybe not the gold standard, but there’s not this platonic typographic standard that we have to somehow aspire to. So at least when you’re talking to your own field, there’s nothing wrong with using it.

Either way, I’m off to make my presentation–with comic sans :P.

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Long —

I have to agree with James and disagree with Lisa. Most the comic sans sinners (myself included) do not have the typography baggage. Sure, you don’t want to use comic sans to label your figures, legends etc. But I don’t see why it cannot be used for titles for each individual slide. After all, these titles are always personal interpretations of the data and often not exact or complete. In a world of slides dominated by Arial/Helvetica, a less “serious” font can be both eye-catching and less stuffy.

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Lisa B. Marshall

While reading the blog from cell biologist, Jennifer Rohn at University College London…
“I’ve seen the conversion from slides to PowerPoint, and the PowerPoint fads come and go: yellow text on a fading gradient of dark blue; cheesy animation transitions; that entire grim year when Comic Sans was the only font you ever saw at American conferences.”

This is exactly the perception that I am referring to…enough said.

Here’s the full link in case you want to read in context…

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Eleanor —

I heard teh same program on Studio 360, and, as a molecular biologist and an ex-Comic Sans Serif user, I’ve thought a lot about this question. My best guess is that CSS is reminiscent of hand-written overhead projector sheets. Most scientists of a certain age (over 30) had hand-written overheads in most of their classes in college and graduate school and even did some informal, hand-written presentations themselves, before LCD projectors became ubiquitous enough for even informal seminars to be given in PowerPoint.
At a certain point I realized how silly it looked, and went hunting for a good, legible, sans serif replacement. I used Trebuchet for a while, but now routinely use Helvetica or Arial. These fonts used to bug me, but they have the advantage that most journals accept figures labeled with these fonts, so you don’t have to keep changing fonts back and forth between presentations and publications.

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