Of typefaces and scientific communication

I have to admit that I did not think that the potentially historic announcements on the Higgs boson today would provide a platform to discuss the all important issue of fonts. But the decision to use the iconic, Comic Sans, in the PowerPoint presentation today by CERN scientists have brought typefaces front and centre. And if you look at the slide, this is not just some arbitrary failure to make a consistent font choice. They have embedded it into the graphs themselves.

As I have written before, fonts are a staple of my innovation class. There we study Mergenthaler Linotype, a company that survived four successive waves of radical innovation in typesetting as the market leader for a century. The reason for this persistence was that Mergenthaler made early investments in font development. By the turn of the Twentieth Century they had 100 fonts, by 1913, 1000 and double again by 1923. It would take 20 years for entrant to duplicate this investment. One of Mergenthaler’s fonts was, of course, Helvetica. According to myfonts, it is still one of the Top 10 best selling fonts. Linotype still holds 5 of the Top 10.

This font choice today is, therefore, incredibly radical. The standard font for academic discourse is Times New Roman — immortalised as part of the TeX language for formatted publications. Even those of us using standard word processors are drawn to it in part because the Greek notation equivalent allows a seamless transition.

Comic Sans, on the other hand, is the font of the cartoon. Now I have known a scientist or two to throw in a Comic Sans phrase here or there to get attention. But let’s face it, attention was not a problem for the CERN scientists today. Their choice instead was a powerful statement against prevailing orthodoxy.

But unlike many statements against orthodoxy, it was completely unclear what their message was. Did they believe that to bring science to the people, they needed a more accessible font. In which case, why didn’t they go with Helvetica; the obvious choice. After all, it was the font of Steve Jobs. Or they could have gone with Courier in a hark back to the typewriter days when the Higgs boson was first theorised. They could have gone with Gothic to protest recent street sign changes or Clearview to show solidarity with that. When I write a more accessible work I usually go with the friendly Book Antiqua. It has a bit of the times but with a softer more inviting serif.

I suspect that when it comes down to it, this font choice is a violation of scientific norms. It is to distract people from the fact that they didn’t quite find what was hoped and to downplay its importance. Did they succeed in this? Time will tell.

[Update and correction: It turns out I was a little too glib in my judgment that TeX’s mainstream font was Times. In fact, it is Computer Modern although it is very similar to Times. Thanks to Sven Feldmann for pointing that out.]

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