The "Ignorance is Bliss" of the aesthetic world goes like this: "The more you know about design, the uglier the world gets." I know this to be true, and not because I know a lot about design- I don't. But my wife is a designer, and I have thereby picked up enough stray bits of knowledge to make this world a little tougher on the eyes.
Every hot dog-scarfing American knows the saga of LeBron James, the Akron, OH native who gamely shouldered Cleveland's hopes and dreams as its hometown savior before taking his talents to Miami and leaving his loyal hometown schlubs jilted and suffering. This is old news, and even older now that James has returned for his heretofore rocky second stint as a Cav.
A slightly lesser-known piece of this story is the open letter to Cleveland fans that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert posted on the team’s website in the wake of LeBron's 2010 decision to bolt. In the letter (which apparently was not removed from the site until deep into their most recent courtship of James), Gilbert refers to LeBron as NE Ohio's "former hero," classifies his (LeBron's) decision to leave as a "cowardly betrayal," and all in all just pretty much rips The King a royal new one. He was hurt, Gilbert was, and he was not afraid to show it to the world in a bitter, angrily-worded letter.
Reactions to Gilbert’s bold letter varied. Many thought it childish and unbefitting of the owner of a professional sports team (those paragons of grace), while others found it honest and representative of what Ohio at large was feeling at the time. One question was shared among many who read the letter: Why the fuck is this written in Comic Sans?
You might not know typefaces by their names, but you know Comic Sans: the script of comic strip thought-bubbles. If you’ve ever seen a flyer promoting a sale at a small town gift shop, you’ve seen it. Oh Jesus, and if you ever read those emails from your aunt, you've seen it.
When I first heard of Comic Sans (or first heard it mocked), I felt like I was being let in on a nerdy designer in-joke. But the miraculous internet has a knack for making the esoteric commonplace, and right now awareness of- and resistance to- Comic Sans are as high as ever. The font’s name is recognized shorthand for aesthetic cluelessness, its status cemented by its appearance in Weird Al's song Tacky (Got my new resume/It’s printed in Comic Sans). More and more, the layperson knows Comic Sans when she sees it, and she hates it.
The Comic Sans Wikipedia entry has an Opposition segment, as if the objectionable font were a brutal and entrenched political party. The founders of the Ban Comic Sans movement were inspired by their employer's insistence that they use the typeface for a children’s museum exhibit- which I find puzzling, since Comic Sans- if ever appropriate- is appropriate for childish applications. But that’s a big if, and many have concluded that Comic Sans is simply not suitable for any living thing.
Those who believe that Comic Sans is a scourge just as poisonous and insidious as extreme Islam believe it should be wiped off the face of the earth. That is simply not a realistic scenario- it's here, and we better get used to it. But that grudging acceptance is not acceptance of its wide use, and those of us who acknowledge its likely longevity must insist that it only be used where it is- very arguably- acceptable. So, balloon-animal artists: you’re off the hook. Everyone else, listen up good: Whatever you’re working on does not call for Comic Sans!
Especially if you are working on an angry letter. Many were amazed that LeBron was able to let bygones be bygones and re-up with the Cavs after Gilbert’s note. Not me. How did LeBron get over Gilbert’s angry letter? Are you kidding? It was in Comic Sans- he probably never knew it was angry in the first place.
One of my football coaches used to say of practice: “You can’t stay the same; you either get better, or you get worse.” It’s true, and it echoes here: A font either helps or hurts. If it seems neutral, that means it's carrying the message without distracting from it. That means it's right.
Now that works; serious message, serious type.
All men must die how? By being juggled to death? Not as good. How about this:
Mmmm- snow on arctic-blue letters, and the word beer in jocular, baseball-jersey type script. That fits. Just laying your eyes on it could assuage your DTs.
It’s not a science. I imagine it’s kind of like wine pairing in that there are no hard and fast dos, but there are some pretty damn concrete don’ts. I won’t pretend to be an expert here- all I know it that there’s a reason Ice Cold Beer signs are not written in flames. And maybe LeBron didn’t giggle through Gilbert’s meant-to-be-scathing letter, but the font Gilbert chose certainly didn’t sharpen the dagger.
There has been both praise and criticism for the black athletes who are using their pedestal to comment on the death of Eric Garner and the larger issue of violent police interactions. Some laud today’s athlete-activists for upholding the ideals of Ali and past socially-conscious athletes. Others have a message for the agitator-athletes: If we want your opinion, which we don’t, we’ll give it to you, and we won’t. Just shut up and slam and leave the important stuff to the people in charge.
It’s hard to think back to (or imagine in the first place, in my case) the days when athletes like Muhammed Ali had to make snarling, outrageous statements to reporters to make their voices heard; in this day we have to duck and cover to avoid the unsolicited opinions just about everyone has about just about everything- important social issues included. Today, everything is news, and even the seemingly passive becomes assertive as it ricochets around the world: a thought, a look, a t-shirt.
Oh, LeBron. No. No no no. Comic Sans rears its head again. Now, I fully acknowledge that, compared to the issue of a man losing his life at the hands of the police, this is trivial. Let's get that out of the way right now. But relatively trivial is not meaningless, and there is a reason that MLK did not give his Dream speech in a propellor hat.
LeBron knew about the open letter has been public domain for the last four years, right? You would think he, after spending the last four years as a Comic Sansee, would know better than to aim that silly weapon at someone else- or didn’t anyone tell him? Maybe not- he's LeBron, and he's got better things to do. But as an athlete and a motivator of men, he should know this: Tone- not just the message- matters.
Some have blasted the choice of Comic Sans for these shirts, saying that such a silly font has caused some to completely dismiss the garments' message. Some have reacted to that reaction, claiming in contrarian think-pieces that Comic Sans was in fact the perfect font to use- which it most certainly was not. But if we must come down on the side of wrong or right, this font was wrong. Why? Because it could cause unconscious dismissal, and it definitely causes distraction. There's a chance that some people- people who know nothing of type or design- glimpsed the shirt and were unmoved because the type made it seem utterly trite and ignorable. And there are socially-conscious design-literate people who, when the Eric Garner issue comes up, end up talking about Comic Sans- and that's just a waste.
The most heartening possible scenario- the one that made me feel like an ass for even dwelling on this subject- is that the shirt was made by an amateur with a dearth of experience but an excess of rage; someone who felt the need to belt out a protest without considering the form. After all, when you see an injustice that makes you want to scream, you don't worry about whether your voice cracks- you just scream. The most disheartening scenario is that this shirt was hastily thrown together by a design-blind opportunist who leapt at the chance to grab a buck or two, and is profiting as we speak from promotion that LeBron and Co. have lent the shirts. Chances are, it's a little bit of both.
Well, maybe a touch of the former and a lot of the latter, as a minimal amount of research into the I Can't Breathe shirts leads to the site of Rich Mob clothing, whose offerings, to put it politely, are not for those who value subtlety. To put it more honestly... well, this is by far their most understated and tastefully designed item:
Here's an item that more typifies the Rich Mob style. This hat is $89.95, and if that sounds ludicrous, take comfort in the fact that it is marked down from $99.95.
Rich Mob, you've been around since 2002, and despite your amateurish designs you obviously take yourselves seriously. You've got your own thing going, and I grudgingly respect that. But if you want to be in the activism game, raise your game. If you want to make a t-shirt that makes us think, do a little research. Use any font other than the worst font for the job. How about this for a rule of thumb: When you're making a t-shirt which aspires to comment on a deeply charged issue, pick a typeface at least as serious as the one you used for your HATER hat.
LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose and several others; they all have something to say about the Garner case, Rich Mob, and they're looking to you for help- so don't make 'em look silly. Don't take away from their message. When it comes down to it, they don't know anything about design, but they have the pedestal. They're the posterboys here, and you're supposed to be the pros.
When I started writing this, it was going to be about how a silly font has diminished a serious issue- which is still the case. I would start the post and stop, feeling snobbish and petty for picking on the hasty choice that some righteously indignant non-designer made about his shirt. I felt that way as I wrote most of this. But after scratching a mere thumbnail's worth off of the whole shirt issue, I see something else. I see a company who has harmlessly hawked gaudy clothing for years appropriating societal rage for a quick buck. All the current slogans related to Black Lives Mattering are there: Hands Up Don't Shoot, I Can't Breathe, Black Lives Matter. These are not Rich Mob's words, but they're selling Rich Mob's shirts. And what's not there? Any link to the actual Black Lives Matter movement, as well as any mention of profits going to the Brown or Garner families or the ACLU or any organization that exists to make a difference in matters like these. In fact, there's nothing on the site that suggests any interest in using the attention these shirts are getting for anything other than selling more shirts (the Hands Up Don't Shoot shirt even has Ferguson and Mike Brown in the description- for search engine optimization, of course). I'm sure Rich Mob could make the argument that they're raising awareness of the issue, but the LeBrons and Kobes are doing all the awareness raising here; Rich Mob is just raising money.
I care that you care, LeBron and Co.- but you've been bamboozled and hoodwinked. Do you think Rich Mob has screenshots of you in their shirts on their site to bring justice for Eric Garner, or to bring profit for themselves? I know you didn't think about Comic Sans, and I doubt you have thought about this, but please just grab a fat Sharpie and a blank t-shirt and shout out your feelings in your own hand. Comic Sans is goofy, but the fact that I Can't Breathe were a man’s last words is not. And while I started out a bit embarrassed to make such a big deal about some silly font, I'm proud to admit that, when it comes to exploitative profiteering, I'm a straight-up HATER.
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