Airmen with Comic Sans name tapes are testing the limits of Air Force regulations
“First sergeants everywhere just sensed a disturbance in the Force."
The Air Force has a long tradition of defying the odds and pushing the envelope. Take Brig. Gen. Chuck Yeager, a hero of World War II who became the first human to fly at supersonic speeds; or Col. John Boyd, who defied his own service to create the F-16 fighter jet. And now, in an era where Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown Jr. is encouraging his branch to “accelerate change or lose,” airmen are taking up the challenge by printing out their uniform name tape in Comic Sans, Wingdings and Old English instead of the standard block sans serif lettering used by everyone else in the service.
Why stand out from the herd like this? Well, airmen argue that Air Force Instruction 36-2903, which regulates uniforms and appearance, does not technically prohibit them from doing so.
“Most airmen are familiar with AFI 36-2903 (Dress and appearance), but I had a good amount of time to read over it while in training,” said an anonymous cyber warfare officer who posted to Reddit last month an image of his name tape in Comic Sans. “I noticed that the [operational camouflage pattern] name tapes lacked the descriptions that the other tapes had.”
Indeed, while AFI 36-2903 states that name tapes for the outdated airman battle uniform must be “dark blue block lettering,” for the current operational camouflage pattern, it states only that the name tape must be “stitched in Spice Brown block lettering, centered on an OCP background tape and affixed over the right chest pocket with velcro fastener,” for the airman’s last name, and that a separate name tape saying “U.S. Air Force” must be affixed over the left chest pocket. It does not specifically mention which font or typeface that lettering must be in. It specifies only that it must be “block,” where each letter is uniform and distinct and disconnected from others.
The Air Force disagrees with that interpretation, however. Tech Sgt. Deana Heitzman, an Air Force spokesperson, pointed out that Figure 5.2 in AFI 36-2903 clearly shows an example of the operational camouflage pattern uniform top with standard block lettering for the name tapes. And “the omission of a specific item or appearance standard does not automatically permit its wear,” Heitzman said, referring to section 126.96.36.199, which also says “any item not mentioned in this Air Force Instruction (AFI) is not authorized for wear.”
When asked about those points, the cyber officer said that there is often some type of catch-all like that in the regulations.
“These situations usually boil down to commander’s intent, which I predict precludes Comic Sans in this scenario,” he said. “Ultimately, it is of course up to [Air Force Headquarters] whether or not something will fly, and we all respect that decision.”
Still, last month it was worth giving Comic Sans a shot. The officer said the catalyst came when he waited two weeks for new name tapes to arrive from the Army & Air Force Exchange Service only for them to spell his name wrong. That made him want to take the Comic Sans typeface, which has long been mocked for looking juvenile, for a spin. The airman asked a buddy with an embroidery machine to make a set of Comic Sans typeface name tapes for him. He then posted a shot of it to the unofficial Air Force reddit, and it received far more attention than he had expected.
“I thought it might get a few dozen comments, but then I woke up to thousands of upvotes and comments,” the airman told Task & Purpose. “It actually sparked some good discussion on regulations and professional image.”
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Like he said, some commenters took the opportunity to discuss the subjectivity of what counts as professional military image. One pointed out that the five elements of the Air Force’s dress and appearance standards are “neatness, cleanliness, safety, uniformity and military image.” While the first four are “absolutely, objective criteria,” the fifth “is subjective, but necessary,” the regulation says.
While “military image” is subjective, one commenter argued that Comic Sans is actually more legible than the usual typeface. There is also a claim among Comic Sans fans that the typeface is easier for people with dyslexia to read, though there does not appear to be any solid scientific evidence supporting that claim.
Of course, there were plenty of joke comments too, and solicitations from others who wanted special name tapes too.
“First sergeants everywhere just sensed a disturbance in the Force,” wrote one reader.
“Papyrus for me!” wrote another.
For his part, the officer said he did not encounter much resistance to his new name tape on base during the one day he wore it.
“Nobody noticed unless I brought it up,” he said, adding that he was not chewed out for the style choice because “Thankfully I have really good leadership.”
The cyber warfare officer actually kicked off a small trend, as other airmen inspired by his post made custom name tapes of their own.
“I see your Comic Sans and raise you Old English,” said one anonymous senior airman who posted a shot of his ye olde-style name tape to Reddit last week. Turns out, many of his fellow airmen did not have a problem with it.
“My immediate peers and leadership liked them and didn’t have anything negative to say only ‘of course you would’ (I’ve read 36-2903 for various uniform things and new updates, more than I would like to admit),” he wrote to Task & Purpose.
The only negative response the Old English airman received was from his senior leadership, who asked if he was making some kind of a joke. The senior airman pointed out that the AFI did not specify the typeface, but he was told that he could not wear the name tape because he did not buy it from an Army & Air Force Exchange Service or an authorized military clothing store.
“So the reign of the Old English tapes ended after 3/4 of the day,” after which he switched back to the normal ones, the airman said. However, he later checked with the Army & Air Force Exchange Service and found that they could in fact make the name tape in Old English. The airman said he plans to bring it back once he makes sure he can barracks lawyer his way out of similar encounters in the future.
“I didn’t intend to come off as making a joke or being one,” he said. “My intentions were to do something that was unique and within the given guidance. And if I made some people smile and laugh on the way even better.”
Old English may have been short-lived, but Wingdings, the 1990s predecessor to emojis, received a warm welcome in name tape form.
“Most people when they saw them said ‘ha! I saw some of those on Reddit. Wait. Was that your post?!’” said Tech Sgt. Tom Burright, a cyber warfare operator who posted a picture to Reddit last week of his name tape with U.S. Air Force written in Wingdings.
“Most people didn’t even notice,” Burright said. “We were at a group lunch at a restaurant and it took about 20 mins for the guy across from me to say “oh my god I didn’t even notice your name tapes!”
Even the higher ranks above Burright laughed and said they loved it, and it was only one fellow tech sergeant who “didn’t really like it but also accepted that it wasn’t breaking any rules and shrugged it off,” he said. One of the highlights of Burright’s time wearing it was a personnel worker looking at his name tape to get his last name and saying “oh my god,” he recalled.
Some of the warm reception might be due to cyber warfare’s unique culture in the Air Force. Like the Old English airman, Burright was inspired by the original Comic Sans Reddit poster, whose uniform and Reddit username sports a cyber warfare badge.
“[Of course] it’s cyber too [laughing my ass off],” one commenter wrote about the original post.
“Typical cyber airman,” wrote another.
The 1B4X1 career field, which is cyber security’s official Air Force Specialty Code, has a reputation for being a little mischievous, Burright explained, admitting that he has a history of finding ways to have fun with regulations. When he was deployed to Iraq, the airman and his colleagues obeyed the often-mocked requirement to wear high-reflective belts at all hours of the day whenever they were in physical training gear. Burright took a look at the regulations and realized it was vague about what precisely counts as a belt.
“Definitely some wiggle room in there, so I got a martial arts ‘karate’ type black belt, purchased some black reflective fabric on Amazon, and took it to uniform alterations on the base to have them wrap the entire black belt in the black fabric,” he said. “The result was a belt that was completely reflective and worn comfortably around my waist.”
Burright wore the karate belt every day, and while some higher-ranked individuals tried to argue with him about it, a quick citation of the AFIs convinced them to “just accept it and move on with their life,” he said.
Most folks Burright encountered got a good laugh from it, including Iraqi civilians who were initially confused, but then would call the airman Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee and show off their best karate moves. Burright said his Wingdings name tape is in the same spirit of harmless fun.
“I’m still smart about it and don’t want to make the Air Force look bad or reflect badly on my unit,” said the airman, who wears the usual name tapes at public or off-base events.
There could soon be more airmen following in Burright’s and the other Reddit users’ footsteps. The airman said he had received several messages from other airmen asking how they could make special typeface name tapes too. He has thought about making name tapes in elvish, the language of elves in “The Lord of the Rings,” or hieroglyphics. Hopefully the Reddit posts about those will be just as fun as Wingdings.
A common saying in the military is that regulations are written in blood, meaning that every regulation in the book came from a prior service member’s suffering or, in some cases, their intentional trolling. While the regulation on name tapes does not seem to be written in blood or in Wingdings, many commenters on Reddit anticipated it may be in the near future.
“We are seeing the birth of those rules and it’s beautiful,” said one commenter. “Some airman is going to read the AFI one day and it’s going to say ‘US Air Force name tapes must be in English and in (font name). Examples of unacceptable fonts are wingdings, comic sans, papyrus, etc.’ Then they’re going to wonder what someone did to make that get added to the reg.”
Yet those rules may take longer to emerge than service members might expect. Tech Sgt. Deana Heitzman, the Air Force spokesperson, said the Air Force directorate for manpower, personnel and services had not heard of airmen wearing name tapes with unusual typefaces before, but it does not plan on developing any new language about the issue, considering the existing language she pointed out earlier.
“No, we are not currently developing any language to specify a typeface,” she said. “Nametapes are developed primarily by Military Clothing Sales Stores using manufacturer drawings developed by the Institute of Heraldry and the drawings utilize blocked lettering as required.”
Airmen who hope to sport Papyrus, Baskerville, Press Start 2P and other silly typefaces may get the book thrown at them in the future, but for now, viva la Comic Sans.
“It was a nice little laugh,” Burright said. “Work continued as usual.”
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