Comic Sans and Dyslexia

The world of typography and graphic design loves to hate Comic Sans. Initially developed for Microsoft in 1994 by Vincent Connare, the kitschy nature of the font that has made it so notorious was actually intentional. As illustration digitized along with plain text, there was a hole to be filled when it came to system fonts to accompany different art styles. Visually, a doodle character simply couldn’t be accompanied by a speech bubble filled with exclamations in Times New Roman. Enter Comic Sans. Unsurprisingly adapted from the typical print found in comic books, with particular reference to The Dark Night Rises, the font did just what it needed to. 

Thirty years ago, Comic Sans took off. People were suddenly spoiled for choice when it came to the typesetting of their emails and Christmas cards — and everyone loved the playful Comic Sans. What Connare once described as “wonky” was a cheery and familiar imitation of handwriting in felt-tip pen, and suddenly it was everywhere. 

As graphic design became a formal area of study, the font’s ubiquity made it an easy target. Now that digital art has all but replaced hand-drawn methods for everyday needs like posters and invitations, the motley charm of Comic Sans has lost its place. With the immense control of typeface afforded by technology, design standards have tightened like a noose around everyone’s favorite font. 

Now, any designer could draw up an itemized lists of Comic Sans’ faults. Much preferred are elegant serif fonts with consistent kerning, inter-letter spacing within a word, mirrored letters like b and d or p and q and calligraphic weight-balancing, which allows a stroke to thin where curves meet lines — the delicate lettering of a lifelong scribe made accessible to the masses, not the heavy hand of pulp fiction. While embellished typefaces are often less legible, they offer a gravity to the text, which is why fonts like Times New Roman and even the scrawly Garamond give much more tasteful impressions. 

All the disdain for Comic Sans, though, overlooks an unintended but invaluable asset; it is incredibly dyslexia-friendly. The slightly uneven spacing and quirky characterizations of each letter make them far more distinct than formally accepted fonts, keeping the graphemes from running together or getting out of order as much. Especially due to its mimicry of the way humans instinctively write to make our natural inconsistencies more legible, Comic Sans optimizes readability. Combined with larger font sizes and other accessible formatting, many, though not all, dyslexic people have cited the font as a game changer when it comes to reading.  

There are, of course, other options that are at least more accessible than the ever-looming Times New Roman. Helvetica, Arial and Verdana check several boxes for readability out of being sans serif, having lengthy descenders and ascenders, such as g, y, p and q or b, t, f and h; wider kerning and differentiation between similar symbols, such as the lowercase “L” and uppercase “i”; and mirrored letters. But no standard font combines all these qualities as effectively Comic Sans. Taking matters into their own hands, several dyslexic designers have also come up with their own fonts to increase readability, but many of them are purchase-only, while freely available versions like Dyslexie, OpenDyslexic and Read Regular still require installation and aren’t always well-known or compatible with all software. Plus, they all employ similar design features to the ones that earn Comic Sans its clumsy reputation. For many, Comic Sans is by far the best option, and the only obstacle to using it is an institutionalized disdain from people who really aren’t affected by font choice. 

It is up to abled people to let go of aesthetic or empirical convictions, especially those set without the expertise of disabled leadership, in order to achieve accessibility. The scarce number of studies on dyslexia and font readability have found no significant benefits to using Comic Sans and instead point to fonts like Verdana and Courier as more accessible, but the scientific community has yet to even identify the source of dyslexia, and such studies are notoriously misrepresentative and poorly designed by researchers with limited understanding of disability or neurodivergence. In competent pursuit of accessibility, disabled people themselves must be recognized as the authorities on the subject, and in the case of dyslexia-friendly fonts, deconstructing the elitist derision of Comic Sans would be a significant step.