Comic Sans and STEM: A retrospective

Recently, I was hanging out at a friend’s house and the subject of the Black Lives Matter movement came up. Now myself most often being the only black person(or a member of a single-digit cadre)around when these questions come up, I’ve gotten quite used to having these discussions. It’s a nice benchmark of how comfortable someone is with me when they start asking these questions.

My friend while appreciative of the movement’s larger aims, was perplexed at the font choice on some of the t-shirts. His position that the choice of Comic Sans to convey the message “BLACK LIVES MATTER” might dilute the desired impact of the message. (Ironically, Impact is another overused font in urban environs, but we’ll save that discussion for another day…)

In a situation that continuously repeats the longer I live in California, as I digested his assertion of improper font choice, I came to the conclusion that…yeah, he had a point. What I find even more interesting is prior to that exact moment, that thought had never crossed my mind. One of the things about growing up in minority urban environments, is that…you just get used to things. Some strange, some terrible, and others just plain unnatural.

It was at this point that I started to think about my own experience with Comic Sans. I was always somewhat computer capable as a child(remember, the internet hadn’t blown up yet), coming into the fold just before America Online(AOL) started mailing out free CDs. Sidenote: There are people in this country that STILL use AOL. I think one of the CIA guys had his AOL email hacked recently. That was one cool thing about growing up where I did, being able to explore this thing that not many people understood, and fewer cared about.

If I had to distill STEM thinking to it’s core, I would say it starts with a question. “I wonder what happens if I do this?” In this usage, “this” can literally be anything. You have a process, a way of doing, you alter…something, and see what happens. I spend a fair amount of my time on youth STEM initiatives, so I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to engage students. In so doing, I reflect a lot on my own experience.

One of the first things you learned how to do on a computer(at least in those days) was word processing. Typing. As we learned where all the buttons were, you start to poke around. Eventually you learn that you can change the text size, center justify…but you turn that corner when you find out that you can change the font! (And through that you learn what a font is.) And your head explodes. “You mean the letters can look different!”

Now as I’ve moved along my own professional path, I continue to be a student of design. Which is funny because at the beginning of my career, that was something to be left to the artsy people. Call me when you want to build something. I like to think about, talk about, analyze design because it is something that affects us all, whether we like it or not. Even if we don’t realize it. There is this subliminal quality in the visual that can evoke a physical/emotional response. That is magic to me. (Not like magic, IS magic)

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

As I moved along my journey from high school to college and beyond. I picked up little bits here and there. White space, negative space, hell, space in general. One of the things that struck me was how strongly people felt about fonts, and to a lesser degree the vitriol directed at Comic Sans. Disclaimer: I used Comic Sans as my AOL Instant Messenger(AIM) font back in the day. Thought it was cool and fun. Of course, now I know better. I feel that Comic Sans hate is just one of the rules of the internet that people eventually learn.

For all the vehemence Comic Sans generates, thinking strictly as an engineer, I think there is another legacy as well. Earlier, I described engineering thinking as, “What happens when I do this?” I think of 12 year old me in front of a computer screen, poking the edges, finding out where the limits are, and perusing through font choices. The fact that the font that I (and others) picked generates the largest absolute value emotional response can’t be ignored. It’s a first step. A clumsy, ill-informed first step, but a step nonetheless. There’s value in that.

Also, as someone who spends a great deal of time trying to get kids to care about tech, I’ll take whatever I can get. By any means necessary. Wait, that’s a quote by a different guy.