The Papyrus font has become something of a meme in recent times with its use often being sneered at and parodied in various forms of pop culture. Now famous for being the font used for the Avatar logo and subsequently becoming the butt of the joke in that hilarious 2017 SNL skit, Papyrus ranks alongside Comic Sans as the font graphic designers love to hate.
Yet like Comic Sans, it was not designed or intended for use in logos or packaging and it’s this misuse that lead to it becoming so hated. In this article we take a look at the history and development of Papyrus, and the events that lead to it becoming the infamous font it is today.
Thank God for Papyrus
Papyrus was created by illustrator and designer Chris Costello, born in Kingston, New York. From an early age he expressed an interest in typography, due in part to the influence of his father who worked as a professional sign writer. “My father painted signs for IBM. Starting in elementary school, he’d get me to help him paint his signs, or illustrate brochures. That was what started my interest in typography and fonts.”
Following highschool, Costello studied design and advertising at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 1983, at the age of 23, he was working in-house as an illustrator at an advertising agency in Pompano Beach. The studio had a lot of downtime between projects and during these quiet periods, Costello would work on his own projects to pass the time, often just sketching out letters and playing with type.
“Creating fonts was always a hobby that I enjoyed whenever there was nothing to do at work. I [later] created Blackstone and Mirage while I was working at an ad agency in Boston, and I created Letterpress Text and Virus while I was working at another job. It is a very constructive and somewhat lucrative way to kill time.”
At the time Costello was facing some issues in his life and had begun reading the Bible in search of God. He had been wondering how the ancient scriptures would look if they were written in English using Latin characters. One day, during his studio down-time, he took some calligraphy pens and textured paper, and began to draw what he described as “old looking” alphabets and characters in a range of styles.
“I was thinking about the ancient Middle East and I then began writing words, dates and phrases from the history of that time in all upper case lettering. I soon came up with what vernacular writing may have looked like if the English language existed 2000 years ago. It probably would have been written on papyrus and I thought that would be the perfect name for the font.”
Chris continued to work on his new font, now suitably named Papyrus, over a number of days. He drew about 30 versions of each character, eventually picking those that he thought worked well together to create a uniform alphabet. Hoping his sketches could eventually be turned into a font, he decided to also develop a lowercase set to give the typeface a broader market appeal.
Eventually Papyrus was submitted to ten different type foundries, including Compugraphic and Varityper.
They all rejected the font except for one – Letraset, the small British company famous for their vinyl sheets of dry-rub lettering that you could transfer simply by rubbing the back. Aimed at commercial designers and artists, these sheets came in a range of typefaces and were commonly used to easily mockup typography in the pre-desktop publishing days.
Letraset requested a few changes to the font, specifically making it thicker to work with their dry-rub system, as well as requesting Costello submit 3-inch high hand-drawn masters they could use to make duplicates. The whole process of taking Papyrus from concept to submitting the final masters to Letraset took about seven months.
Costello was paid just £750 ($1045) for the rights to Papyrus, the equivalent of around £1790 ($2500) today. “I felt like I’d just signed a record deal. Knowing what I know now, of course, I would never have signed it, but it seemed like good money at the time.”
Papyrus made its appearance in the Letraset brochure in late January 1984. The following month British type designer Colin Brignall wrote to Costello, letting him know Papyrus was available now in the US and wished him “every success” for the font.
Unfortunately, the launch of Papyrus didn’t exactly set the design world on fire and it was largely ignored. However, nearly 15 years later, Papyrus would begin its journey to becoming one of the most overused and loathed fonts of all time.
Microsoft unleash Papyrus on the world
With the rise of affordable computing came desktop publishing, and by the mid 1990s the old-fashioned dry-rub lettering Letraset were famous for was now all but obsolete within the creative industries. In an attempt to try and combat this, Letraset began licensing their typefaces as PostScript fonts for use on screen. The popularity, and later, notoriety, of Papyrus can perhaps be indirectly attributed to Microsoft.
Microsoft’s type director at the time, Robert Norton, picked Papyrus as a font to license for use with their desktop publishing software MS Publisher in order to extend its “design breadth.” And so, Papyrus was first included with Publisher as part of Office 97.
To this day, any version of MS Office that includes Publisher, also includes a copy of Papyrus. In 2003 Papyrus also became a standard font of Mac OS, further adding to its spread.
Publisher is an entry-level application for page layouts, intended more for use by novices or amateurs than design professionals. Combine that with the huge install base of both Publisher and Papyrus and it’s not hard to understand why it began to pop up everywhere.
It’s high strokes and rough edges give it a unique appearance next to standard text fonts, and if you’re an inexperienced or amateur designer picking a font for a logo, surely it’s logical to assume a font that stands out will help that logo stand out too?
Much like Comic Sans, Papyrus was made available for use in a context it was never designed nor intended for, and it’s this out of context use that lead to its infamy.
Costello himself admits the font is overused and misused: “When I originally designed it, I imagined this very narrow context for its use. These days, though, everyone uses it for everything.”
“I never intended Papyrus to be used for mortgage companies and construction logos.”
Fast Co estimates Papyrus is installed on over a billion machines around the world, including 120 million Macs, ironically the system of choice for many designers. They also estimate Costello could have been a millionaire if he’d received just 1/10th of a penny for each copy of Papyrus that shipped with Microsoft Office.
Not bad for a font that seems to be universally despised.
Why do people hate Papyrus?
You don’t have to look far to find somewhat snobby, anti-Papyrus sentiments on the internet. There are a multitude of blogs out there dedicated to pointing out and mocking its mere use, with the focus often simply being the fact that the font was used at all.
Some claim they won’t even enter a shop or premises if the signage uses Papyrus in any form, presumably somehow equating the standard of food or products inside with their opinion of the font.
In 2008, prepressure.com conducted a poll on their site asking users to give their most hated fonts. Reasons given for the inclusion of Papyrus included “Papyrus: The official cool font for those who know nothing about typography,” and “I was an early user of Papyrus. I used it a lot for a long time. These days I hate it just like the rest of you.”
No real reasoning given there, though we suspect the poll and the submissions were just a bit of fun.
Crowned “the king of bad fonts” in a webdesignerdepot.com article, the writer goes on to describe Papyrus as “childish, kitschy and irritating”, explaining you should “avoid this typeface if you want to be taken seriously” without actually giving any real validity or insight as to why you should avoid it.
Statements like this get regurgitated time and time again as fact, when it’s simply opinion and hyperbole. And sadly, many young designers go into the design industry believing hyperbole they read online about certain fonts or design related issues.
The previously mentioned Saturday Night Live skit focuses on one man’s obsession with the fact that the Avatar logo was set in Papyrus (or perhaps a customised version).
Yet, was it really such a big deal if it was?
Controversially, we think this is an example of the font, or at least those particular letterforms, not actually looking too bad. The calligraphic nature of the font works here, though we’d lose those rough, textured edges.
For us that’s the off-putting thing about the font as a whole.
Papyrus is known for its misuse, which has lead to it becoming a highly recognisable font. Much like in the SNL skit, the focus is more often put on the fact that Papyrus is even being used at all. Yes, it’s inappropriate for probably 99.99% of the uses it’s used for, but that’s to be expected from a 35 year old Letraset font that was originally intended to be used no larger than an inch or two high.
To even think about using this font in any context is enough to cause ridicule and snobbery from the design elite, and as such many people know it as a font to be avoided without really understanding why, or even if that’s true.
Contrary to popular opinion, Papyrus isn’t simply a bad font. It’s a well designed and thought out typeface, and perfectly suits the aesthetic Chris Costello was aiming for. Yes, we serious. No really, we are!
It was designed over 30 years ago as a means to kill some time, and due to a series of fortunate (or unfortunate) events it became one of the most widely installed fonts available today.
Would using a more highly-regarded font for the Avatar logo like Helvetica or Futura or Gotham have garnered an SNL skit? Highly doubtful, though ironically they’d probably be even more inappropriate choices for the poster than Papyrus.
But nobody would give them a second thought, because nobody loves to hate them like they do Papyrus.