039: Papyrus: An Incomplete History of Type
Updated: Feb 21, 2022
Release Date: 1982
Designer: Chris Costello
Owned By: Letraset
Claim to Fame: Used and abused in personal computing and recently spoofed on SNL.
This typeface was hand-drawn over the course of 6 months using a calligraphy pen on textured paper, as designer Chris Costello was trying to achieve the look of writing on papyrus 2000 years ago. Costello was straight out of college, only 23 at the time and this was his first typeface that he just created in his spare time. For all of Papyrus’ haters out there, the typeface shows surprising technique and precision. Today we’re talking about the world’s second most loved-to-be-hated typeface, Papyrus.
In a hilarious 3 minute SNL skit watched nearly 15 million times since its release in 2017, Ryan Gosling stars as a Papyrus-obsessed citizen trying to work through his deeply felt issues about the typeface. His wife is concerned. His therapist’s no help. His friend just doesn’t get the obsession. In an internal struggle that sees Gosling stakeout the Papyrus designer’s home, all bets are off with his mind tormented by a typeface. I laugh every time I watch it.
I think it’s about high time we meet the 2nd most vilified type designer (next to Comic Sans creator, Vincent Conaire). Chris Costello was born in New York and his father was a professional sign painter, who included him in his work, painting signs for IBM, among many others. Costello studied advertising and design and after graduation he was hired as an entry-level illustrator at an ad agency. It was here, in 1982, that he designed Papyrus in his downtime between other projects. He was fresh out of college (only 23 at the time!) when he designed the typeface, inspired by bible study and mimicking the way the bible would have looked when handwritten in the Middle East.
Papyrus’ defining features are as follows:
Considered a display typeface
High horizontal strokes in the capitals
In an article by author David Kadavy entitled: In Defense of Papyrus: Avatar Uses the World’s Second-Most-Hated Font to Signal the Downfall of Civilization, he pays mad respect to the typeface.
Even though Papyrus is a display typeface and not meant for long blocks of text, Kadavy points out that Papyrus has strong texture; not referring to the literal texture within each letterform, but the overall block of text and good visual consistency throughout. If you want to get a sense of a typeface texture, squint your eyes while looking at it to see if it appears even or not (a good test for any typeface). Kadavy explains that good texture is created when typefaces display consistency throughout their letterforms, which then becomes magnified (either for better or for worse) in blocks of text. Furthermore, he points out that a good typeface should show clear differences between the letterforms (which is what an alphabet is, after all), while maintaining harmony between the letters, which Papyrus successfully achieves.
Managing visual weight is crucial and this becomes very apparent where two strokes connect. For example, although Helvetica does not have stroke variation throughout it’s letterforms (the stress, or darkness, of a stroke remains consistent within each letterform), the place where the curved shoulder of the lowercase n meet with the vertical stroke does not create a dark spot. The same can’t be said about Comic Sans and this heavy area contributes to an unevenness of texture throughout a block of text.
Papyrus has stroke weight variation within its letterforms, which helps create an even texture throughout. This is just one of the many fundamental technical strengths of Papyrus, others being consistency in shape among letterforms and good kerning tables (the automatic spacing between individual letterforms).
But Kadavy didn’t have all the nice things to say about the typeface. Namely, he believes it’s biggest downfall is misrepresenting what it truly is. He uses the term “material dishonesty”, which comes from the world of architecture. “The principle of material honesty states that a material used to build something should be what it looks like it is.” It’s the wood grain on an IKEA Billy bookshelf. It’s the marble texture on a laminate countertop. In other words, it’s a fake. A phony. Papyrus is not the real deal because it wasn’t actually hand-scribed thousands of years ago on actual papyrus. Even if it’s convincing, subconsciously we know it’s deceiving us.
After Costello designed Papyrus, he sent out a version of the typeface design to all kinds of big and small type foundries. They all rejected it. Except for one… Letraset. Letraset sold scratch vinyl decals. A sheet you place over a blank page, scratch on top and the letter transfers to the paper underneath. I used to play with these sets when I was a kid and they were also used to mock up typography before desktop publishing.
Costello sold the rights to Papyrus to Letraset for $750. But as a FastCompany article explains, “if Costello had earned just 1/10th of a penny in royalties for every copy of Papyrus shipped on Microsoft Office over the last two decades, he would be a millionaire.” Even though Papyrus has been available on both Mac and Microsoft operating systems since the year 2000, he said that he still received very low royalty payments for the font’s use.
Now is a good time to talk about the Avatar franchise’s decision to use Papyrus as their primary typeface choice.
Papyrus was the typeface chosen to represent the Avatar franchise.
It bears repeating.
Papyrus was the typeface chosen to represent the Avatar franchise.
While a stylized version of the typeface, it was still the typeface. For anyone who defends the multi-million dollar franchising using a standard typeface that can be found on any personal computer dating back the last 20 years, let me say this: It's got some makeup on in the form of glowy filters and drop shadows that make it practically float off the page. Go visit the Avatar logo on a Monday morning after a long weekend and THEN tell me if you still like it.
Interestingly, in 2017, 20th Century Fox revealed that Avatar would sport a new logo for the upcoming 4 sequel films. This happened approximately a year after SNL’s Papyrus release and some speculate that could have been the nail in the coffin in the font choice for the highest grossing film of all time that has its own section within the Disney theme parks (for goodness sakes!).
In an article entitled Avatar’s new “breaking news” logo is actually two years old by Quartz in 2017, author Anne Quito states: “In reality, there are many sensible reasons for updating a logo: improving legibility, creating distinctiveness from a competitor, signaling a change in creative direction.”
So what is this thickened, more condensed mystery font? Experts believe that it’s a custom font, designed specifically for the film franchise. This was likely a wise choice because part of the reason Avatar designers received so much flack for their typeface choice was for its ubiquity. The typeface Papyrus is seen on the sides of coffee shops, churches and funeral homes because of its availability on all computer operating systems, makes it commonplace and subconsciously connected to the businesses and products who use the same typeface to promote themselves. Therefore, deciding to move forward with a custom typeface that looks visually similar enough to the original that old and new don’t appear too disjointed, while at the same time recognizing that there were improvements to be made over the Papyrus version, is a critical and important balance to strike. In my opinion: well done Avatar design team.
To finish off our examination of Papyrus, what could be more appropriate for the world’s second most hated typeface than to procreate with the world's most hated typeface. Introducing… Comic Papyrus!
The designer's name is Ben Harman:
“So stop wasting hours switching back and forth between your two old favorites, and just use your new favorite instead. Comic Papyrus combines the timeless rustic qualities from centuries past with the hilarious fun-loving wit of today’s funny pages. It’ll make you laugh (like a joke) and cry (like a mummy). Simultaneously!”
Update: “Comic Papyrus has been renamed, "Comic Parchment." Here's the scoop from creator Ben Harman:
SAME GLORIOUS FONT! MORE LEGAL NAME!
Comic “Parchment” was mankind’s first genetically-engineered superfont, boasting typographic DNA from the two most revered fonts in existence: Comic Sans and [CENSORED].
In other words, Papyrus was removed from the name for legal reasons.
You can purchase your own version of this typeface from Creative Market for a steal: $10!
But the more important, big picture matter is clear …the existence of Comic Parchment signals the end of the world is near…
And as for Chris Costello’s thoughts about SNL’s parody? 'I took a look at it and me and my wife were like cracking up, I mean we couldn't stop laughing. It was one of the best things I've seen,' Costello said to CBS News.
Thank you Mr. Costello, for your important contributions to an incomplete history of type. From the middle ages to the Middle East, from Futura to Freight, thanks for joining us on a journey across the type universe and going where no designer has gone before… next up: WINGDING-a-ling! Let the bells ring!
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