If you’ve been following the news, you’ve no doubt heard of the discovery of the famed Higgs boson by Franco-Swiss nuclear research organization CERN. But the issue that unfortunately received a rivaling amount of attention was the fact that the PowerPoint presentation of the discovery of the particle was set in Comic Sans.
The reasons for which Comic Sans was, by all accounts, a terrible choice for this presentation are beyond the scope of this article. However, I wrote not so long ago that typographic critique should be accompanied by a counterproposal. Anyone can say that using Comic Sans to announce such an ostensibly groundbreaking discovery was a poor choice, but, though tweets abound about this affront to aesthetics, I’ve yet to see anyone suggest an alternate typeface.
Why Offer Alternates?
Do suggestions need to be made? Patrick Kingsley of the UK newspaper The Guardian asserts otherwise, noting that CERN was right to use such a readable typeface to announce a discovery of this magnitude. I beg to differ, however, on the grounds that it would be difficult to argue that Comic Sans is objectively more readable than many other well-designed sans serifs, particularly if you take into account the visceral disgust with which most people immediately react to the comic face.
Further, though Kingsley notes that it was important for the research behind the boson to be “communicate[d]…in as friendly and accessible a way as possible,” I’m unconvinced. The presentation was given to a room full colleagues of the CERN scientists. The language of the presentation was not given to kindergartners. Those in attendance were men and women who immediately understood the significance of the oblique statement that the researchers at the CERN had “observed a new boson with a mass of 125.3 ± 0.6 GeV at 4.9 sigma significance” and immediately, upon instantaneously grasping the implications of this declaration, erupted into thunderous applause. Given the scientific wherewithal it must take to comprehend that statement, I think it’s safe to assume that the attendees’ comprehension wasn’t aided by the use of a typeface beloved by kindergarten teachers.
Okay, so what font would you have used?
Let me begin with the admission that my understanding of the scientific importance of this discovery is tenuous at best. So these suggestions are based on my understanding not of the science behind the boson, but the apparent cultural and geopolitical repercussions of the event. Thus, what follows are five suggestions of typefaces that would’ve been wholly appropriate for the presentation, given the social and aesthetic context.
Neue Haas Grotesk
Christian Schwartz’s recent redrawing of Helvetica’s predecessor, Neue Haas Grotesk, would’ve been an excellent choice to announce the Higgs boson. Based as it is on the quintessential Swiss face, NHG would allude to CERN’s geographic placement in Geneva, and its several improvements on the readability of Helvetica make it every bit as readable as Comic Sans is purported to be, if not more so.
Speaking of Swiss typography, why not honor the newness of the discovery with a release from a fresh foundry like Swiss Typefaces? This Lausanne-based foundry’s excellent grotesk Suisse BP — which was designed a mere 40 miles from the CERN labs — evokes the Swiss greats, but adds a fresh take. This could be seen as echoing the researchers at the CERN building on the work of seminal theoretical physicist Peter Higgs to lead to their eventual discovery.
The time I spent in Europe a number of years ago is sprinkled with memories of recognizing FF Meta, Erik Spiekermann’s iconic typeface, nearly everywhere I went. I think of it as the aesthetic mascot of Europe, given is ubiquity there. It also has a rational and restrained personality, perfect for typesetting a scientific discovery. It would undoubtedly have supported the presenters’ assumed goals of readability without a distracting sense of character.
Why not remind the audience of the founder and namesake of the heretofore undiscovered particle? Prenton is an excellent sans serif, and, as I noted in the Typekit blog, a substantial improvement on Gill Sans, typically the go-to British face. Prenton would do well as a readable face that would pay tribute to Higgs’ motherland. As an added bonus, its moderate contrast gives it a humanistic quality that would remind viewers of the significance of the discovery of the particle for humankind.
Arguably every bit as Swiss as Helvetica, Adrian Frutiger’s Univers remains a typographic classic, an inarguably timeless masterpiece. Readable, rational, balanced, its everything a typeface should be. And with a name like Univers, how much more suited could it be to describing the mysteries of the vast universe in which we live and with which scientists are so fascinated?
A Modest Proposal
So there you have it. I modestly propose these typefaces because, again, even after reading a number of articles on the subject, I still have an embarrassingly poor understanding of the boson, and could not adequately design a presentation for the CERN without first grasping the theory behind their presentation.
However, I can say that Comic Sans is wholly unsuited for the context, and these five typefaces would have helped herald the news of this landmark discovery with the flair, confidence, and seriousness it deserves.