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Is Comic Sans Easier for Dyslexic Users to Read?

Creative Market March 31, 2021 · 7 min 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-doge2
By contrast, typing “Ice Cream Day” in an all caps Old English typeface would be a terrible choice for our aforementioned preschool banner.
icecreamsocial
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.

dyslexicfonts

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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