The short answer is nothing and everything.
The long answer is still nothing and everything, but let’s explore why. Comic Sans, which was created by Vincent Connare was never meant to be used in the regular system of fonts available on a Windows PC (Source). It was created to solve an incongruity Connare noticed while he was working on Microsoft Bob, the interface designed to make the computer-using experience more palatable to novice computer users (Source). Connare noticed that while the interface was a cartoon, the characters’ text boxes uses Times New Roman. This didn’t make sense to Connare, so he created Comic Sans based on the style of Marvel and DC comics. So, the purpose of Comic Sans was to fit a very specific interface and experience–the comic, cartoon, animated experience. It was not meant to be used for business letters, websites, products, signage, CERN presentations, or tributes to retiring Popes. Christine Erickson of Mashable.com explains the source of Comic Sans’ bad rep: “While Comic Sans is perfectly adequate in designs for children or designs related to comic books or cartoons, designers believe it has no place in business or professional work usage. It’s also ill-suited in content body text, which means it’s best used as a headline/heading or short quote — in other words, a comic book” (Source).
In essence, the problem with comic sans goes back to the user (it’s the same reason we have “death by PowerPoint”). The problem with the typeface is not inherent to the typeface itself; the problem is that we use it incorrectly. Every typeface and individual font has a personality and mood. Research has even shown that typefaces evoke specific emotional responses in us. Eric Jaffe of Fast Company writes that “the latest evidence suggests that typefaces convey their own meanings and elicit their own emotions independent of the words they spell out” (Source).
So, not only does a font have a particular tone, but that tone is independent of the words written in that font–this means that text’s impact and meaning can be affected by the typeface used. Jaffe cites a 2004 study in which researchers noted that students described fonts like Times New Roman as professional but common; Helvetica was blah and least artistic; Comic Sans was childish (Source). An even more surprising study included in Jaffe’s article emphasized that while most fonts illicit one emotional response, “Comic Sans produced spikes across the emotional spectrum–from agitation to calm. It’s basically a rollercoaster of emotions wrapped in a few playful curves. People either love it or hate it” (Source). So, consistently incorrect use of an emotionally charged font has led to Comic Sans becoming the most hated, ridiculed, and ostracized font (it’s pretty much as bad as using Word Art).
Do we, as presentation designers ignore the public outcry to ban Comic Sans? Do we ignore the many criminally inappropriate uses of Comic Sans we see every day? How do we explain to novice designers, students, and those who use Comic Sans when a more appropriate font exists that it is up to them to turn the Comic Sans tide, to ensure it is used only when appropriate–in cartoons? Designers out there have their own solutions. Comic Sans Criminal asks users to take a pledge to think twice before choosing a font, and to consider its purpose. The folks who created Ban Comic Sans.com have turned their focus to positivity and using words for good, not evil. Dave and Holly Combs founded the Department of Public Words, an organization whose mission is use the power of positive words to better our community. By emphasizing the positive use of words and typography, we can emphasize that type must be used appropriately; it must be used for good.
Finally, designer Craig Rozynski has created a sleeker, more designer-friendly version of Comic Sans called Comic Neue. It is available to download free here. I tell students and teachers that bullets, Comic Sans, and frenetic animations “kill” their audiences and their presentation’s impact. Sometimes, this is perceived as me hating on the very foundations of the Keynote/PowerPoint presentation. And, they are right. But reducing this idea to “hating” is missing the point, which is that we must do better as presenters. The only way we can work to create better presentations is to let go of the bad habits of the past. Once we outgrow those habits, we may learn to use them the right way.