Science and Comic Sans

In our post about CERN announcing the discovery of the Higgs boson, we lamented that they used the Comic Sans font for its presentation. However, reader Chris Page informed us:

“My adviser insists on using comic sans in the lab’s powerpoint template. I had a hard time accepting this early on but the science seems to suggest that information presented in comic sans helps the learning process. Don’t hate on comic sans too much as I am sure those CERN guys knew what they were doing.”

Apparently, the science backs up CERN scientists baffling use of comic sans. Researchers have determined that humans absorb information better when it is a little hard to read. In other words, the uglier the font the more we actually learn the information presented.

The researchers took classroom material and altered the fonts, switching from Helvetica and Arial to Monotype Corsiva, Comic Sans Italicised and Haettenschweiler. The teachers already taught each class in two sections. One section was taught using the “fluent” texts, the other, the “disfluent”. After several weeks, the researchers put the students through some tests. They found that those taught using dirtier fonts retained information significantly better.

To the experimenters this was a challenge to one of teaching’s basic assumptions – that when learning is easier, it’s better. Rather, adding a few superficial difficulties to the reading experience is more likely to make pupils engage with the text. This ties in with other studies in “disfluency” – which show that a slightly challenging delivery can make people process information more carefully.

It seems counterintuitive, but the lesson here is that it seems our eyes just skim over Times New Roman and Helvetica when presented information visually, but when presented the same information in comic sans our brains work to process it.

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