Mini Object Lesson: The Fonts People Love to Hate

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Like trends, fonts go in and out of fashion. And like all fashion, some fonts make us wish they had never been made. Let’s take a trip back in time to revisit the worst fonts of each decade since fonts became usable on computers.

2010s — Papyrus

The typeface has been around since 1982, when it was designed to look like handwriting on its eponymous material. For years Papyrus had led a quiet life as “that font on Asian restaurant menus.” Then James Cameron made Avatar. The 2009 blockbuster film gave Papyrus its big break role in typographic infamy. It was an incongruous choice even in the film’s promotional materials—but then the scourge continued in on-screen subtitles. It still hasn’t gone away.

Runner-up: Impact. A perfectly good display font ruined by its now-inextricable connection to I CAN HAS CHEEZBURGER-style internet memes.

2000s — Comic Sans

Flickr/Justin Henry

The font everyone loves to hate. It was designed by Microsoft for Windows 95. Soon Comic Sans became profoundly overused, perhaps because it offered an option that was legible but more “fun” than Arial or Times. Then it became the subject of widespread scorn and even protest—and even protest of its use in protest. Errol Morris would eventually demonstrate that setting text in Comic Sans made it less trustworthy.

Runner-up: Verdana. This wide sans-serif with its high x-height was also created by Microsoft in the ‘90s, designed for readability at all sizes. By the mid-2000s it had become a symbol of typographical homogeneity. A furor erupted in the late aughts when IKEA switched from the classic geometric sans Futura to Verdana, supposedly to normalize its online and in-store materials.

1990s — Democratica

There were many grunge fonts in the 1990s, all characterized by a torn or otherwise disheveled appearance that paid homage to its namesake music genre. Then there was Democratica, a grunge-adjacent quasi-steampunk industrial specimen that seemed to be everywhere by the mid ‘90s. For a few seconds it seemed cool. Soon enough, you just wanted to stomp on it with your Doc Martens.

Runner-up: Mistral, the Papyrus of the 1990s. It graced Corel Draw compositions and Word ‘97 how-to guides everywhere.

1980s — San Francisco

The 1984 Macintosh made visually distinct, proportional (non fixed-width) typefaces widely available. Susan Kare designed most of the 12 that shipped with the original Mac, including this one. San Francisco was made to look like ransom note lettering, and it became popular on flyers and other newly-printable novelties.

Runner-up: Davida, from The Print Shop, a flyer and brochure-making program popular in the ‘80s. The font was actually called “Party” in Print Shop. If you attended school or church functions before the fall of the Berlin Wall, you probably partied with Party.