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Poe Sans

Poe’s law states:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.

This article “Typekit: Remaking the Matrix” was linked around yesterday by people I respect.

A lot of dumb things are published on the internet, and generally, I like to let stupid dogs lie. But this was so blisteringly dumb and so arrogantly offensive I could not leave it be.

I am unsure if the piece is serious. It could very well be a masterful satire, but I really can’t tell. The rest of the blog doesn’t look like satire, the blog which links to the piece doesn’t treat it as satire, the comment section of the piece seems to be serious, but none of that means it isn’t a satire. I hope it’s a satire.

After a long digression and some fawning over Typekit and Apple, the author gets to his point.

But what if giving is only half of what Typekit could do to remake the web? What if they did something never attempted in the font world?

I’m talking about taking away ugliness.

And a paragraph later…

In the same way, I am proposing that Typekit buy a typeface for the purpose of taking it off the market.

He is suggesting that Typekit buy the typeface Comic Sans only to destroy it. This will, apparently, make the world a better place.

He outlines a specific plan for eliminating Comic Sans from the earth by beginning with the following.

Buy the exclusive rights to mediocre fonts of bygone times (Comic Sans, in this example, but also think Arial, Papyrus, Curlz, Jokerman … anything that would send small churches scrambling for replacements for their weekly announcements) and take them out of commission for good. This would effectively ban computer companies from including them in their operating systems going forward, thus ridding culture of some of its typographic mediocrity.

The days of small churches oppressing us all with their poorly designed newsletters will finally be over.

A quick defense of Comic Sans

Comic Sans was designed to be used in software for children, and it’s entirely appropriate for that purpose. If you have a cartoon character teaching you about the alphabet, you don’t have the cartoon character speak in Helvetica.

Besides, there is no font more laden with irony.

You mad bro?

You mad bro?

Comic Sans is a light-hearted, jokey typeface intended for small blocks of text in casual contexts. For children. The problem comes in when people use Comic Sans in inappropriate settings or in inappropriate ways. The coworker who writes all email in Comic Sans all the time, or the administrative assistant who pens a company-wide memo in Comic Sans are common examples of Comic Sans done wrong. In the first case, you just roll your eyes quietly at your desk and delete the email. In the second case, a learning opportunity has presented itself.

The problem of misuse is not unique to Comic Sans. I worked with an architect years ago who preached a “Helvetica” mentality. All Helvetica. All the time. For everything. Kids fresh out of design school, especially after seeing the great Helvetica documentary, have the same problem. Corporations are lazy and conservative and use Helvetica for everything as well. People love Helvetica. To death.

The problem with burning books, is you can’t ever be sure you’ve burned them all.

If you overlook the morally abhorrent idea of buying a piece of culturally significant design work and destroying it so no others can use it again – there’s a bit of a practical problem with the author’s scheme.

Destroying one “bad” typeface in no way ensures that people won’t just use another bad typeface. The author himself links to alternatives for Comic Sans that are “better”. Whether or not these are actually better is irrelevant. If Comic Sans is removed and replaced with another casual typeface, what will prevent the church ladies from overusing and abusing that typeface? Will removing Comic Sans prevent interns from sending memos in Marker Felt?

Clearly destroying Comic Sans is not enough. All casual fonts must either be destroyed or placed under close scrutiny, to be used only by design professionals who have passed through several stages of review and approval.

It’s not for sale

Comic Sans is owned by Microsoft. The author’s scheme has Typekit purchasing “exclusive rights” to Comic Sans for somewhere between one and ten million dollars. From the “Counterarguments” (read: straw men) section of the article:

Yes, it will cost maybe between one and ten million to make it worth a company’s while to take just one typeface off the market.

Comic Sans is in use on a huge number of computers, both Macs and Windows PCs and probably a fair number of mobile devices as well.

Some googling tells me that there are approximately 1 billion Windows PCs in the world today. If the license fee collected for Comic Sans was 1¢ for each copy of Windows, that would be the author’s max $10,000,000 asking price. This doesn’t include Macs, Windows Mobile Devices, or other licensees. I’m pretty sure Microsoft plans to continue selling Windows. Why would they give this money fountain away, especially to someone who intends to destroy it?

I imagine the founder of Typekit strolling into the Redmond campus of Microsoft, handing a giant cartoon sack of money to Steve Balmer who concedes “well, we don’t really want to sell the rights to our intellectual property, but you do have a giant sack of money so I guess we have to”.


Portrait of the author

What kind of company is Typekit anyway?

The author appears to be very fond of Typekit. I am too. They do great work and they deserve heaps of praise and some of your web-design budget.

At the end of the article the author writes:

Getting rid of Comic Sans would be big. This act of removal would distinguish Typekit as a company willing to put themselves on the line for excellence and beauty. In a very real way, they would be remaking the world.

In a very real way, Typekit would be putting themselves out of business. This silliness betrays the author’s fundamental misunderstanding of what Typekit does.

In the past few years all major web browsers have enabled support for embeddable typefaces. So, much like the way a web page can include a picture, a web page can now specify the exact typeface(s) to be used. This means you can have a professionally typeset web page. Like pictures, typefaces are linked to web page and downloaded for use in displaying the page. It works really well.

The problem with this is digital typefaces are tiny software programs which are licensed by publishers (often called foundries in a throwback to the old days when type was made of cast lead). When you view a web page on your computer, your computer downloads a copy of everything (more or less) used to build that web page. If a licensed typeface is attached to the web page, you now have an unlicensed copy of that typeface. Congratulations, you’re a pirate!

Typeface publishers make money by licensing their typefaces – so they were understandably not to thrilled with the idea of people slapping an $800 typeface up on the web to be downloaded by anyone. Typekit came along and invented a reasonably secure way to deliver typefaces to web pages so that they can’t be easily pirated. Typeface publishers license typefaces to Typekit, who then licenses typefaces to web designers or companies or whomever.

Typekit is a service provider and a middle man. They provide technical expertise and a means for typeface publishers to satisfy customer demand without sacrificing control of their intellectual property.

For clarity: Typekit provides a mechanism to secure intellectual property, not destroy it.

So. Now imagine that Typekit, which has earned all this good will in the industry, has the faith of major type publishers, and the praise of wed developers everywhere, now chooses to seek out and destroy a typeface. What does a typeface publisher think in this situation? Do they think “well, I hate Comic Sans too” or do they think “these guys can’t be trusted”?

Hint: It’s the second one.

The author includes this false equivalency in the comments beneath the article.

Typekit has even gone so far as to make display faces unavailable for paragraphs in the Customize section of WordPress — they won’t let you use an inappropriate face for your needs. Really now, how different is that from what I have suggested here?

Really. How is quality control of software and service any different from permanently destroying a bit of culture so that no one else may use it appropriately, well, or otherwise.

This kind of thinking is how gated communities are born.

Accentuate the positive.

Instead of assuming the author aspires to be an amoral design autocrat, I choose to assume that the article is a work of satirical genius. That the author is a modern day Swift for the design community. To seriously suggest a business destroy itself by buying up a typeface, only to destroy it, for the purpose of protecting the world from its misuses — hilarious.

I say bravo.


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