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From Ascii Art to Comic Sans

  1. #1
    Ghost Black Hole

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    © 2023 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    This work is subject to a Creative Commons CC- BY-NC- ND license.
    Subject to such license, all rights are reserved.
    The MIT Press would like to thank the anonymous peer reviewers who provided
    comments on drafts of this book. The generous work of academic experts is
    essential for establishing the authority and quality of our publications. We
    acknowledge with gratitude the contributions of these otherwise uncredited
    This book was set in ITC Stone and Avenir by New Best-set Typesetters Ltd.
    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
    Names: Wagner, Karin, 1959– author.
    Title: From ASCII art to Comic Sans : typography and popular culture in

    LOCK HER UP LOCK HER UP!!!!!!!!!
    LC ebook record available at
    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
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    NOTES 209
    INDEX 243
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    I am indebted to a number of persons and institutions for supporting me
    in my work for this book. Without the grant from the Ridderstad Foun-
    dation for Historical Graphic Research, this work would not have been
    At three seminar series at the University of Gothenburg—“Visual Cul-
    tures,” “Language in Society,” and the “DH Seminar”—I had the oppor-
    tunity to present my early ideas for the project. I would like to thank the
    participants of these seminars for their valuable comments and advice. I
    also owe thanks to the participants at the Fourth Digital Humanities in
    the Nordic Countries conference at the University of Copenhagen who
    viewed my poster and engaged in a discussion about popular and unpop-
    ular typefaces.
    Images play an important role in this book, and I would like to thank
    Penny Ahlstrand and Massimo Petrozzi at the Computer History Museum
    for helping me find images, granting permission, and sending me images
    from the museum’s collection. There are also other museums and archives
    and their staff whom I would like to thank: Peter Amstein at the Connec-
    tions Museum, Anna-Lena Segestam Macfie at Bohusläns Museum, and
    Stefan Brännwik at Uddevalla Industrihistoriska Förening.
    Most of the images I have used do not reside in an archive, so I have
    reached out to a number of artists, designers, collectors, private persons,
    and companies that have allowed me to use their images. Many thanks go
    to David Ahl, Bertil Ankarberg, Jahanara Chaudhry, Dave Combs, Holly
    Combs, Chris Flack, Ng Chon Han, Jan Kaestner, Jerry Ketel, Brad Kve-
    deris, Jens Lutz, David Pearce, Marc Ratner, Steven Stengel, Terry Steward,
    and Marc Verdiell. A special thank-you goes to the following persons,
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    viii Acknowledgments
    who, in addition to granting me permission, have also provided me with
    images: Stephen Coles, Patric Jansson, Shelby Jueden, Klemens Krause,
    Zuzana Licko, Emmanuel Madan, Sang Mun, Peter Olofsson, Bengt Olsen,
    Ed Ruscha, Johannes Wagner, Matt Yow, and Francine Yulo.
    I am also grateful to the interviewees who were willing to participate in
    the project and supplied me with valuable information and stories.
    At the MIT Press, I would like to express my warm thanks to acqui-
    sitions editor Noah J. Springer, assistant editor Lillian Dunaj, associate
    managing editor Deborah Cantor-Adams, and manuscript editor Rose-
    mary Winfield. I am also thankful for the input I received from the three
    I dedicate this book to the memory of my father, Carl Jönsson, who
    learned the craft of lettering in the 1950s. He introduced me to the world
    of art and design and was my number one supporter.
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    In the opening titles of the political thriller Three Days of the Condor
    (1975), a young female employee is seen tending to a state-of-the-art
    computer at a clandestine Central Intelligence Agency location where lit-
    erature is analyzed in order to uncover plots relating to CIA operations.
    While she inspects scans and changes tapes, the opening credits run
    across the screen. By presenting the computer and its functions to the
    audience, she also presents a major theme of the movie. The choice of the
    typeface Computer for the titles underlines the importance of computer
    technology for the activities of the CIA. Movie titles are generally one of
    the main devices used by filmmakers to set the tone of a film and prepare
    the audience for what is to follow.1 The Computer typeface has its origin
    in a machine-readable font developed for bank checks in the 1950s. The
    engineers who invented the font probably never dreamed that it would
    one day be used in film titles and exploited by the entertainment indus-
    try. This kind of displacement of use and context of typography in a time
    of rapid technological change is the overarching subject of this book.
    Since Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press, a number
    of technical innovations have changed the conditions for typography.
    This is not to say that the art of typography has passively submitted to
    new technology. On the contrary, typography and typographers have
    paved the way for technology by design innovations. This evolution has
    not always gone smoothly and without friction. The four typographical
    phenomena presented in this book highlight the cultural clashes that
    have occurred between the emergent computer technology and the tra-
    ditional field of typography—the nerdy practice of making images out of
    letters, the strange-looking machine-readable typefaces, the poor-quality
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    2 cHAPteR 1
    letters of dot matrix printers, and the contempt directed against the type-
    face Comic Sans. Together they form a picture of how technologies devel-
    oped for a functional purpose can find their way to popular culture by
    being used in ways that are unintended and unforeseen by the original
    creators. The four phenomena illustrate in many ways how letters, type-
    faces, and printers are not supposed to be designed or used. In contrast to
    postmodernist designers, they appear to have broken the rules not delib-
    erately but rather through ignorance, unawareness, and functional neces-
    sity.2 Still, these marginal and somewhat quaint typographic phenomena
    have made a non-negligible cultural impact.
    My ambition with this book is to tell the cultural history of these
    phenomena and provide new insights into typography, computing, and
    popular culture by adding pieces to the puzzle of their joint history. Mate-
    rial, visual, and aural aspects of text and typography from the 1960s to
    the present time are taken into account in order to put these phenom-
    ena and the trajectories they have followed in a broader cultural context.
    Typography is placed in an expanded field that extends far beyond the
    printed page into the modes of communication and publication afforded
    by the internet.3 The book is intended to be a contribution to the fields of
    visual studies, science and technology studies (STS), and popular culture
    studies. I envision an audience of students and scholars in these fields
    and perhaps also in design history, media history, type history, and the
    history of computing.
    Figure 1.1 Opening titles from Three Days of the Condor, Sydney Pollack, 1975.
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    IntRoductIon 3
    What motivated programmers to make images out of letters and cre-
    ate art out of the American Standard Code for Information Interchange
    (ASCII)? To what purposes were the images put, and in what contexts were
    they displayed? Why did engineers distort the form of numbers and letters
    to make them machine readable, and how were these typefaces reused in
    popular culture? Why does the dot matrix printer technology, which nearly
    disintegrated letterforms, evoke fond memories among many of its users?
    How did the hatred against Comic Sans emerge, and what metaphors and
    rhetorical devices are used in the discourse about the font? I look for the
    answers to these and other questions by analyzing social media discus-
    sions, magazine advertisements, printer manuals, scientific illustrations, as
    well as company logotypes, book covers, films, and artworks. The reader
    is taken along on the journey with a wealth of examples from the rich
    material that still exists on the internet and that is inherently ephemeral
    in nature, as well as from sources from the pre-internet era.
    During the time scope of the study, computing underwent several
    transformations. The four phenomena have been chosen to be in line
    with important phases in this development. Chapters 2 and 3, on ASCII
    art and machine-readable typefaces, play out in the 1960s and 1970s,
    when huge computers were operated by professional staff and kept out
    of reach of regular users. Chapter 4, on dot matrix printers, is set in the
    beginning of the personal computing era that took off in the 1980s and
    put computers and printers into the homes of a great number of people
    who were not necessarily computer nerds. By the time we reach chapter
    5, about the typeface Comic Sans, we are in the mid-1990s, when the
    World Wide Web was introduced and internet communication started
    to gain a broader societal impact. The unwieldy calculation tool of the
    mainframe era had become a handy gadget that fit into the pocket of the
    common citizen. Although the book has a chronological structure, my
    purpose is not to sustain the idea of historical progress. On the contrary,
    an important reason behind my choice of phenomena and the way they
    are contextualized is to counteract the idea of technological determinism.
    That there is no linear progress toward better technology is one of the
    tenets of media archaeology, a perspective that I return to below.
    From a typographic point of the view, the possibilities for the display
    and printing of text were very restricted and rigid in the beginning of the
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    4 cHAPteR 1
    digital era. Line printers, which had only one set of (capital) letters, were
    not meant for making images, but nevertheless ASCII art arose despite,
    or perhaps thanks to, the limitations. The flexibility increased with new
    printing devices—notably, the dot matrix printer that made it possible to
    print text in bold or italic and in different sizes. When desktop publishing
    entered the consumer market, a large number of typefaces became avail-
    able. Some programs even made it possible for users to design personal
    typefaces. This development led to a loss of control over the typographic
    sphere that was once the privilege of educated typographers and type
    designers. The technical development enabled many more people to try
    their hands at gay porn, and some thought this led to the degenera-
    tion of a craft with proud traditions. The new possibilities opened up by
    the availability of personal computers and internet communication were
    not only seen as blessings; they were also used for spreading what was
    perceived as bad, potentially dangerous design. When machine-readable
    typefaces were designed for the purpose of facilitating bank administra-
    tion in the 1960s, it was one of the first steps on the path toward the com-
    puter vision and facial recognition that computers are capable of today.
    The threat of the surveillance society loomed large already in the public
    debate in the age of mainframe computers, and this debate is persistent
    and continually being fed by new technical developments.4
    I am writing this book in my double capacity as art historian and systems
    analyst. Before I became a researcher, I took a bachelor’s degree in infor-
    matics and worked as a programmer and systems analyst in the 1980s and
    1990s. This double experience has given me a unique vantage point from
    which to look upon the development of text and typography in the digi-
    tal age—first from within the information technology (IT) industry and
    then as a visual culture researcher. I learned programming in Cobol on
    a mainframe computer using punch cards and received program listings
    on fanfold paper delivered to me in the reception area of the computer
    center of the Swedish university I attended. I wrote my bachelor thesis
    with the help of a text editor meant for coding and later taught research-
    ers in the humanities how to take advantage of the early word processors,
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    IntRoductIon 5
    despite the fact that the programs and the printers could handle only the
    letters in the English betabet. German umlauts and Polish diacritical
    marks were deemed unnecessary for products primarily intended for the
    American market.5 We tried designing our own fonts with the program
    Fontographer, but it proved too time-consuming for our purposes. When
    the World Wide Web took its first tentative steps into public life, we were
    back to square one concerning gay porn, and I had to find ways to
    work around the limitations of the new medium when designing the first
    website for the faculty where I worked. I later wrote my doctoral thesis in
    art history and visual studies on digital photography, and digital visual
    culture has subsequently been my main research interest.6
    This is essentially a media archaeological inquiry, in that it revolves
    around some phenomena that would otherwise risk being omitted from
    history, phenomena that might appear quaint but that have the potential
    of providing a different perspective on mainstream history.7 This meta-
    phorical use of archaeology can be traced back to Michel Foucault’s The
    Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences and The Archaeology
    of Knowledge, where he outlines his method to examine history as a set
    of “discursive formations,” contesting the idea of a grand scheme of his-
    tory.8 In media archaeology, the attention is turned as much to physical
    artefacts as to discourse. As media historian Erkki Huhtamo and digital
    culture scholar Jussi Parikka state in the introduction to their book Media
    Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications,
    On the basis of their discoveries, media archaeologists have begun to construct
    alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not
    point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their “perfec-
    tion.” Dead ends, losers, and inventions that never made it into a material prod-
    uct have important stories to tell.9
    In the fields of computing and typography, as in most other fields, his-
    tory is usually smoothed out to avoid aberrations and marginal phenom-
    ena that do not fit into the grand narrative based on the most important
    figures and the greatest achievements. In order to be included into the
    history of typography, one needs a name, certainly if one is a typeface,
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    6 cHAPteR 1
    and some of the typefaces in the early history of computing are rather
    anonymous. Other typefaces have made a name for themselves but have
    become notorious, like Comic Sans. Labeled as a “loser,” a typeface can
    receive much attention in public discourse but still be neglected in the
    writing of history. The selection process I used for finding appropriate
    cases was based on a number of criteria. First, the cases should be in the
    overlapping area of the three fields typography, computing, and popular
    culture, as illustrated by the center area in the diagram in figure 1.2.
    In addition, the case should have
    1. fallen outside the canon,
    2. been neglected in historiography or given sparse attention by research,
    3. been subject to displacement of use and context, and
    4. fallen between two stools discipline wise.
    Things that have been left out of history do not necessarily form a
    homogeneous group. The selection that emerged from this process is
    diverse, and I do not claim that the chosen cases have any formal quali-
    ties in common. Comic Sans, in particular, might be regarded as an out-
    lier and forms a contrast to the other cases, which are from earlier decades
    and have connections to obsolete technology. Comic Sans is from the
    1990s but still is very much part of the contemporary (post) digital land-
    scape. It is the most prominent digital-typography pop culture exam-
    ple from this millennium, and although it has received a considerable
    Typography Computing
    Popular culture
    Figure 1.2 The area of study.
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    IntRoductIon 7
    amount of media attention, not much research has been devoted to the
    topic. The common denominator of the four cases is that they all hit a
    blank spot in historiography. The reason they have been left out is not
    because they lack interest but because they do not fit into any established
    categories. By turning the spotlight on these four phenomena, I wish to
    contribute to the historiographical endeavor of media archaeology.
    The term popular culture stands for many different things. It can mean
    culture that is appreciated by many people, it can mean culture produced
    for a mass market, and it can mean culture produced by the people, to
  2. #2
    Donald Trump Black Hole
    Comic Sans is the zenith of modern typography.

    MS Comic Chat was the Zenith of IRC too.

    Cat in a bath robe reminded me of a Kilrathi from Wing Commander III.
  3. #3
    Donald Trump Black Hole

    "Anyone using Anna was a man pretending to be a female"

    Goddam, how did he understand so well?
  4. #4
    Solstice Naturally Camouflaged
    Maybe you could use Comic Sans on a job application
  5. #5
    I can never get wingdings to work right in my computer. It's no wonder fax technology is still used so heavily, especially by those in the industry
  6. #6
    Ghost Black Hole
    Originally posted by Solstice Maybe you could use Comic Sans on a job application

    maybe you should use comic sans in your suicide note when you kill yourself
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