A new entry of the annals of monumentally missing the point…
“I Can’t Breathe” may be the sentence of 2014. They are, of course, the last words, uttered many times, of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old NYC Department of Parks horticulturist and occasional loose cigarette salesman whose inexplicable death by police chokehold in the Tompkinsville neighborhood (where I lived until quite recently) last July has led to a great deal of outcry.
The sentence has achieved the ultimate that can happen in our society—it has become a free-floating signifier in social media, just like Paula Deen’s supposedly homophobic fried chicken recipes or something. This past week several prominent athletes in the predominantly African-American NBA, including the Bulls’ Derrick Rose, the Cavaliers’ LeBron James, the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, and the Nets’ Deron Williams, have warmed up wearing T-shirts heartbreakingly emblazoned with that simple message of solidarity with a blameless victim of police brutality: “I CAN’T BREATHE.”
All across America, a small minority of observers reacted in the expected way: they tut-tutted the shirts’ choice of font. The shirts, while admittedly embodying a courageous stand against the combined forces of intolerance, had committed the unpardonable sin of violating a bit of design etiquette.
Among people who take design very seriously, the Comic Sans typeface has been a bête noire for at least a decade, because it is often used by “design-blind” “normals” outside of its optimal range of uses, frequently lending an unserious air to messages of stern import. Designed by Vincent Connare, Comic Sans was released by Microsoft in 1994, which surely contributed to its popularity.
For instance, Tony Seddon named a book after it (Thou Shall Not Use Comic Sans: 365 Graphic Design Sins and Virtues: A Designer’s Almanac of Dos and Don’ts) in which he calls it “arguably the most inappropriately used typeface in history” (although a page later he sort of takes it back).
Eventually, on the McSweeney’s website, Mike Lacher defended the honor of the typeface with “I’m Comic Sans, Asshole,” which contained the immortal line “I’m the best thing to happen to typography since Johannes fucking Gutenberg.” The piece simultaneously seemed to agree with the design critics’ peeve while putting them in their place.
On the T-shirts, for instance, Caroline Fredericks, of “California/Alabama,” tweeted, “how many people will be able to look past the choice of comic sans?” Ryan Hubbard, of Kansas City, tweeted, “Who’s giving all of these NBA players “I can’t breathe” shirts set in Comic Sans? I love that they’re wearing them, but come on, man.”
The New York Times report on the shirts emphasizes the outsize efforts of Jay-Z and others to replicate the gesture made by Derrick Rose of the Bulls and makes no mention of Comic Sans or any other aspect of the shirts’ design, except to note that “Rameen Aminzadeh, a member of Justice League NYC, drafted a simple design for the text of the T-shirt, which other members of the group approved sometime after 1 a.m. [referring to late Sunday night/early Monday morning].”
Here are a few of the tweets—there’s plenty more where these came from.