Fontroversy: Papyrus, or tales from the ancient 1980’s

While everyone may have an opinion about Comic Sans, it’s the designers that refuse to stay quiet about the typeface, Papyrus. Used so much the word ubiquitous needed a time out, Papyrus has spread it’s faux-sagely and falsely antiqued wisdom all over church flyers, coffee houses, rock bands, and iced tea cartons, and so, so much more.

When the creator of the typeface claims it’s overused, you know that’s saying something. Chris Costello, said creator of said overused typeface, designed Papyrus back in 1982 as a goal ” to represent what English language texts would have looked like if written on papyrus 2000 years ago”.  Not sure if that’s what’s happening there, but I always appreciate knowing the intention.

Through my research I came across an interview with Chris Costello from, in which he talks about how he feels about the font now that it’s comic sans’ level of familiarity and contempt:

“♥: Papyrus has become very ubiquitous in design. Its popularity seems to be ever-growing and it can be seen in marketing material and packaging for a huge variety of products in just about any industry. We’ve seen it on tea, toiletries, soft drinks, yoga flyers, tech banners, and more. How do you respond to its apparent versatility and popularity?

CC: I have mixed feelings. At first it was cool to see it in a few spots, especially CD cover designs and movie credits… then television, billboards etc. It started cropping up in the late ’80s in National Geographic articles and a few magazine ads. My parents came back from Europe one year and showed me all of the brochures they found using Papyrus. But then I started seeing it in homespun newsletters, local bulletin boards, everybody’s business cards, real estate and mortgage ads…basically everywhere. It had become diluted and lost its original appeal. I see design blogs trash it all the time, but it’s not a design issue. I think after she was released with OSX system fonts, her design career was finished… she became the font for the masses.

And he’s completely right. It’s not a design issue, not entirely.  Maybe it’s the fact that it was created to speak to a level of artisan specialness, and that the original intent is made all the more comical through it’s manufactured authenticity and visual omnipresence, but for many others, the issue is purely subjective. And as many haters as there are about this particular typeface, you know there’s an equal measure of cheerleaders ready to back up their font love.

Looking at the typeface, you can see it features mismatched cross bars for the capitalized letters; E & F are rather high, with A & G having “normal” cross bar heights and the H falling somewhere in the middle. These inconsistencies are where it becomes a design issue– at least for me anyway.

The lowercase letters are widely set creating a pleasant consistency in regards to the shape of the letters (I know! A designer praising something within this typeface!)  which makes the lowercase set of the letters far more appealing than the uppercase, but the letterforms aren’t what really irk me.

The problem with Papyrus for me is that it simply gives the appearance of being aged. I understand that on the computer, and art in general,  it’s always manufacturing the appearance of something, but there’s something about crafting that appearance rather than typing it out through a font. That’s never going to cut it, folks. I give the designer credit for originally creating the typeface through hand done calligraphic methods, but now it’s no longer validated through typing it out and slapping it on a scrap-booking supply label. When someone uses this for their logo, flyer, brochure, and they’re not a designer, you chalk it up to an unawareness of how better things could be. When a client brings me something with Papyrus as inspiration, I understand it as an attempt to derive a natural, aged look– maybe wanting to create an authenticity or a heritage, but a concentration on emotion is implied with the textured edging, and that’s whats important for me to see. If a designer uses Papyrus, it screams laziness, amateurishness, or just ignorance to the profession. There is something to be said about taking pride in your design work, and taking the time to apply Photoshop treatments in order to replicate the desired effects– be they ripped, torn, smudged, painted, is all possible with determination and a willingness to work with the tools you’ve been provided. Just typing out something in Papyrus might get the job done, but as a designer, your goal should be not just to get the job done, but to communicate what’s needed to the best of your ability. If typing out a font is the best of your ability, perhaps you should think about switching professions.

Using Papyrus as a display face is pretty common offense, but using Papyrus as a text face is as close to an unforgivable design sin as I could think of, but it’s happened.  I have come to accept that it’s alright if you want to put papyrus on a church flyer or use it for your coffee shop– but forcing me to read body copy in Papyrus is a form of sadistic cruelty.

Take for example, the subtitles in Avatar. This is so utterly and horribly wrong on all accounts; the font is awful in large sizes, but completely torturous to read in small sizes. Subtitles’ business in the first place is to be easily and quickly readable, and this is why it’s so egregious.  You are watching stunningly created visuals, while trying to read what these creatures are saying. What they’re saying also happens to be in a totally fabricated language concoction so it’s not even a possibility to latch onto a word or two, say like watching a Spanish or French film. To top it all off, you’re trying to read words written in a display face. This my friends, is a graphic design nightmare.  It’s far too much stimulus being thrown at you once. As a viewer, you’re trying to comprehend the information in front of you as quickly as possible so you can enjoy the movie, not just stumble to read it. I’m supposed to believe that James Cameron can go to the depths of the Mariana Trench but he can’t hire a decent designer to work the type in his films?

A serif would have been a perfect choice for the subtitles; providing the ‘wisdom’ needed to be associated with the Na’vi tribe, but allowing the viewers to read comfortably and quickly so as not to compete with the lush visuals that the film is known and loved for.

Whether the non-designers and designers agree on this matter is pretty unimportant. Typefaces, the uses of them, why we love or hate them, it’s all our territory folks. I’m simply happy to share it with you.

Just like it’s fontroversial brethren, there are tons and tons of websites dedicated to documenting and eviscerating the use of papyrus, and even some who just love it:

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