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Is Comic Sans Easier for Dyslexic Users to Read?

By on May 2, 2016 in Design Trends
Is Comic Sans Easier for Dyslexic Users to Read?

A few things are certain in life: death, taxes, and the fact that designers love to hate Comic Sans. Lately though, there's been a lot of discussion around the idea that this widely loathed font has one powerful redeeming quality: it makes reading easier for dyslexic people. Let's dive into this topic and explore whether or not this claim is true and how you can take dyslexic readers into account in your designs.

Use vs. Misuse

Why all the hate for Comic Sans? Sure, it's not the prettiest typeface ever, but does it really merit all the negative attention that it receives? Is there something more here than ugly letter shapes and a bandwagon type-bashing culture?

One critical piece to this puzzle is that designers love to hate Comic Sans because it's so commonly misused. Typography is a key component in setting the tone and personality of your communication, whether it be a billboard ad, an email to a friend, or a website header.

Unfortunately, it's easy to overlook this fact when you're creating something. When a CFO is building a presentation and wants it to "pop" (or whatever terrible buzzword you prefer), the temptation is to look through the default font offering and choose the first one that looks interesting. Every time this happens, there's Comic Sans, the siren calling from the rocks. Come. Play. It'll be great. The result is a presentation that feels unprofessional and inappropriate.

As with most typefaces, there are ideal use cases for Comic Sans. For example, a banner in a preschool school announcing an upcoming ice cream day. Perfect Comic Sans territory. For anything skewed young, fun, or featuring Doge, Comic Sans is a legitimate candidate.

comicsans-doge2Pin It

By contrast, typing "Ice Cream Day" in an all caps Old English typeface would be a terrible choice for our aforementioned preschool banner.

icecreamsocialPin It

So there you have it. Use whatever typeface you like best, just keep in mind that different typefaces communicate different themes, feelings, moods, and levels of professionalism.

But wait, there's more...

Comic Sans and Dyslexia

As a designer, it's far too easy to fall into the trap of valuing form over function. Typography is such an interesting art form that we've created countless blogs, books, and even movies dedicated to drooling over it. However, never forget that typography is so much more than decoration. It's a functional tool that you should wield with great care.

Comic Sans provides an excellent lesson in this subject. We recently posted a crack about Comic Sans on our Facebook page, and one commenter challenged our post by mentioning that the typeface happens to be designed in such a way that it's easier for dyslexic viewers to read.

It's an interesting proposition and it really caught our interest. It's estimated that 10% of the population experiences some form of dyslexia, so it's an important topic for designers to consider! Is Comic Sans really easier for dyslexic viewers to read than other typefaces? More importantly, what characteristics make a typeface appropriate for people who have dyslexia?

Let's Use Science

As it turns out, validating the Comic Sans dyslexia claims is pretty tricky. There simply hasn't been a lot of formal studies in this area, so most of the information available is anecdotal: "My brother has dyslexia and he says..."

However, there is at least one recent study that directly sought to ascertain the characteristics of a typeface that increase or decrease readability for subjects with dyslexia. Here's a brief summary of how they went about it:

  • Comparison to other studies: The researchers know of no other experiments for direct comparison, but there have been similar studies performed to examine type colors and spacing for dyslexic readers.
  • Methodology: 48 subjects with dyslexia read 12 texts with 12 different typefaces.
  • Measurement: The researchers used eye-tracking software to measure the effect of font type on reading speed and fixation (the time the reader stays fixed on a given character or word). They also took simple user preference into account.
  • Typefaces used: Arial, Arial Italic, Computer Modern Unicode (CMU), Courier, Garamond, Helvetica, Myriad, OpenDyslexic, OpenDyslexic Italic, Times, Times Italic, and Verdana. Unfortunately, Comic Sans was not tested, but we can still glean some useful information from this study.

dyslexicfontsPin It

The Results Are In

The results of the study are fascinating. It turns out that the typefaces that you use can indeed have a "significant impact" on the readability of a given sample of text for people with dyslexia.

The study found three properties that make any given typeface easier for dyslexic viewers to read:

  • Sans-serif
  • Roman
  • Monospaced

It turns out that overall reading time wasn't too drastically affected by these variables, but fixation time was. The properties listed above all reduce fixation time in dyslexic readers (a good thing).

By contrast, the researchers found that italic typefaces increased fixation time for dyslexic readers considerably.

The Best Typefaces for Dyslexic Readers

With all this in mind, here are the typefaces that fared the best in the study according to the researchers:

  • Helvetica
  • Courier
  • Arial
  • Verdana
  • Computer Modern Unicode

I think the most important thing to note here is that OpenDyslexic is not on this list. OpenDyslexic was specifically designed for dyslexic readers and arguably shares a lot of the funky qualities that makes people claim that Comic Sans is a solid candidate in this area.

OpenDyslexic didn't do terribly across the board, the non-italic version actually performed very well in pure reading time. That being said, it ranked poorly in terms of fixation and dead last in terms of reader preference. Dyslexic or not, an ugly font is still an ugly font!

Further Reading

Obviously, one formal study does not a factual argument make! I poked around and found the following great resources for anyone looking to dig deeper into this topic.

These sites have some solid advice for anyone looking to choose a font that makes their copy easier to read for dyslexic viewers:

  • Sans-serif fonts are preferred
  • Clear letter spacing (letters should be distinct)
  • Line spacing should be at least 1.5
  • Font size should be at least 12-14pts
  • All caps and underlining reduce readability
  • Letter forms such as "p" and "q" should be distinct, and not mirror images of each other.

Comic Sans: What's The Verdict?

Unfortunately, Comic Sans was not used in the one academic study that I could find on this subject. That being said, it was listed as a strong candidate in several of the resources listed directly above in the "Further Reading" section. The reason stated is usually that dyslexic readers often indicate a preference for handwritten typefaces with long descenders.

So where does this leave us? For those designers who hate Comic Sans, will you now be forced to put aside your loathing in the name of better supporting your user base? Should all websites be henceforth created with Comic Sans? Not remotely! It's critical to note that the typefaces that did well in the study above included Helvetica, Arial, and Verdana. Odds are, you already use these every day!

Use Type Wisely

My parting advice: as with any design project, consider your audience carefully. What are their needs and how can your design make it easier to lead them down the path that you want them to follow? Combine these considerations with your knowledge of the context of the end product, and choose the typefaces that you feel work best given all of these factors (including aesthetics).

I'd love to hear your thoughts on all this. Are you dyslexic? If so, which typefaces and type characteristics make your life easier and why? How can non-dyslexic designers consider your needs when creating something?

Image source: 9 realistic vector ice-creams by Art of Sun.

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7 Comments

    • Staff

    What a fascinating study. I actually saw the comment on facebook and it definitely peaked my interest. Helvetica wins again! This is one to bookmark. I'm not actually dyslexic, but this is very helpful to those who might be designing for people with dyslexia.

    This is probably silly to say, but I kind of feel sorry for whoever designed Comic Sans (don't get me wrong - I'm not a fan of it either.) But I agree - stick to appropriate usage - for all fonts. This makes me chuckle: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/shortsharpscience/2012/07/comic-sans-at-cern.html

  1. A very interesting read. Thanks for sharing, Josh.

    It actually reminds me of another article I read about Comic Sans a few years back.

    The writer (who's a designer) wrote about a phone call he had with his mother (who's a teacher) during which he asked her why Comic Sans, which he believed to be a poor choice of font, was used so much in elementary schools. She told him that she believed it was actually a suitable choice because it's the most commonly available typeface that shows the form of the letter "a" the way kids are taught to write it.

    I thought that response was just brilliant, and it completely changed the way I thought about choosing a typeface. It's slightly off topic but I thought it would be worth sharing given your advice on considering your audience.

  2. Comic Sans is the only generally available font having the lower case 'a' matching the shape most children are taught to read and write; without the overhanging ascender. This might go some way to explain its continued popularity with people aiming to make their content readable to a wide audience without the 'benefit' of designers' dogma.

    Times Roman has the ascender but ditches it when italics are applied.

    Maybe if there were more fonts that avoided the need to explain to new readers and writers why the printed (or on screen) 'a' differs from that they were taught to write.

    Or maybe we should change the way our children are taught to read and write; with serifs and curly ascenders as the default?

  3. I believe the association between Comic Sans and dyslexia has arisen solely from its preference in schools as a common typeface with the letter 'a' shaped as mentioned in the previous comment. I've never seen any evidence that it actually aids readability or legibility.

    I spent many years overseeing product development for an e-learning organisation which specialised in adult literacy and had a strong 'inclusiveness' approach. We did a lot of work on readability on-screen for a range of disabilities, including dyslexia, using standard usability testing approaches (i.e. not academic studies). In practice, we found the biggest impact on readability for our target audience wasn't the typeface (as long as it was sans-serif) so much as what surrounded it. Line height and paragraph spacing are key, as is the balance of white space on the page plus a design grid which focuses the reader on the text they need to read.

    Having said that, we used an 'accessible' typeface called FS Me quite widely as it was developed by Mencap and Fontsmith for enhanced legibility and, unlike others with this sort of history, it's actually a good design fit for many projects I've worked on. Plus, Mencap get a donation for every purchase.

    See also this recent effort as well from Castledown Schol: http://www.castledown.org.uk/learning/castledown-font/

    Colours and contrast are of course a major factor in readability for dyslexics but that's a different discussion and there's plenty of research out there about it.

  4. I have very mild dyslexia, and I could agree more about the italics fixation time, i have to stare at italic letter for a solid half-second before it... coalesces into something readable for me, whereas fonts like Aerial, it is a tiny fraction of a second.

    And as for comic-sans, I know that when i was younger, and before teachers started getting picky about which typeface they wanted, I wrote everything using comic-sans because it's handwriting like characteristics were very appealing to me (and who knows possibly gave me less of a headache when reading).

  5. @brianlowe there is no ascender in “a”. Comic Sans has a single-storey “a”, while Times New Roman has a double-storey “a”. “Overhanging ascender” doesn't even exist as a typographic term (because “ascender” means that it is over the general height of small letters, therefore making “overhanging” redundant).

    You claim that Comic Sans is the only “generally available font” with a single-storey “a”. Even if we narrow the “generally available” from free typefaces to the standard ones included in Microsoft, this is incorrect, there are at least Century Gothic and Lucida Handwriting.

    Of course that's not a lot and I understand it might be hard to think about looking for a typeface online. Bare in mind that that Comic Sans and Lucida Handwriting are the only two typefaces included in Microsoft that resemble handwriting. So maybe you beef should be with Microsoft (and/or Apple) who have dictated our typographic decisions for quite a long time now instead of any credible education.

    At least one thing to justify double-storey “a” is that it is not as easily mistaken with “o”. Readability heavily relies on the letters being both consistent and different enough for an eye to understand the difference without having to put too much time into it. That's what makes reading seamless.

    Have you ever wondered why we (mostly) don't use handwritten typefaces on road signs? Because it can literally get you and/or others killed if you have to spend too much time on staring at a sign.

    Why I mention all of this is because you talk about accessibility, yet use “ascender” (which is way less probable to be understood by a wider audience than a double-storey “a” when being viewed).

    Furthermore, you give more ignorant statements that are at best “half-truths”, and frown upon “dogma” (whatever you think that is) while putting forth arguments that imply that you know what you're talking about. Educate yourself before educating others.

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