Known for its kitsch aesthetic of elongated, distressed lettering, the typeface Papyrus never quite seemed to find a place in the hearts and minds of the design intelligentsia. Oblivious to the haters and the general push back it may have found online it has persevered over the past couple decades to become somewhat of an infamous 21st century celebrity.
It’s become so ubiquitous that it can now be found on a wide array of supports from store signage, to food labels, to video titles. With an increasing amount of alternatives though, it’s unclear how long it will last… So before it completely falls into oblivion, before it is given the final blow, I wanted to give it a proper send-off. If Papyrus has been around and in use for this long, it has to be because it’s had something to offer, as a font, as a branding solution, that has remained somewhat relevant. In this essay, I explore what makes it so popular and infamous, what the use of Papyrus says about our visual culture and how things have evolved in the world of digital typography since its creation.
Several reasons come to mind when trying to figure out what’s made Papyrus such a widely used (or at the very least recognizable) typeface. A good jumping off point is Michael Beirut’s piece for the Design Observer. In it, Beirut outlines the three things “most people” tend to gravitate towards when judging the quality of a logo design, in other words the three key ingredients to making low-hanging fruit designs of questionable value. According to him, people prefer logos and graphics that look like they took effort to create, they prefer things that are literal rather than metaphorical and they prefer things they are “used to.” It would appear that to Beirut, Papyrus could be the prototypal low hanging fruit of branding since it has all the ingredients to become popular with the masses.
But that’s not all… Considering Papyrus was originally released as a Letraset vinyl rub-off typeface in 1984 and then made its first appearance into the digital realm on desktop computers with the Microsoft Office ’97 suite, it’s been around for close to 20 years. When you look at the competition, of all the other fonts offered in Office ’97, Papyrus stands out as one of the few to have both a handwritten and textured style (with Blackadder, Bradley Hand ITC, Chiller, Viner Hand ITC) and the only one to really play with its calligraphic, exaggerated capitals and distressing, giving it its “complicated” aesthetic part authentic, part prophetic. This unique style and the fact that it’s been around for close to three decades as part of the default word processing software that came standard on most PCs at the time, have placed it at the heart of our visual culture. Thus making it a front of mind solution for low-budget branding efforts and home-made designs. Yet one question remains, what exactly dissociated Papyrus from its Office ’97 launch buddies?
When starting this little project, my assumption was that there was something more to Papyrus, something I couldn’t simply rationalize from behind my computer screen. A couple months ago, right when the Pokemon Go frenzy broke out, I decided to explore this Papyrus phenomenon by catching all the Papyrus samples I could find in the hopes they’d reveal the typeface’s magical ingredient and shed some light on its appeal. During the course of my scavenger hunt I was mostly in Los Angeles, with a short visit to France and Switzerland so you will find samples from all three locations but mostly from Los Angeles (feel free to look for them on your next visit in LA). Here are some of the themes that have started to emerge from most common to most niche.
On several occasions, I’ve seen Papyrus used to evoke scriptures, ethereal concepts, hinting at divinity or the ungraspable: it’s on the main signage of the Mystic Journey Bookstore on Abbot Kinney, the branding of The Church of Scientology in Los Feliz, on the questionable guru’s videos in High Maintenance and all around the Holy Grounds coffee shop in Alhambra (not to mention James Cameron’s Avatar…). Interestingly, these applications are very close to the original inspiration for the typeface as its creator Costello told Fast Company: “I was thinking a lot about the Middle East, then, and Biblical Times, so I was drawing a lot of ligatures and letters with hairline arrangements.”
It’s worth noting that a lot of work and stylistic explorations went into the creation of the this font and that it draws from deeply rooted calligraphic form languages and that to Beirut’s credit these traits resonate with “most people.”
Giving products a natural vibe is what Papyrus is best known and most used for, it’s on Trader Joe’s Vitamin E Oil Bottles, Yoga class posters, herbal tea packages and the Atwater Hydroponics store. Each example points at a natural, eco-friendly alternative, to health, exercise, nutrition. This application is also the one Papyrus is also most often dismissed for:
“People bitch about Comic Sans. Papyrus is so much worse. If you go to a health food store, all the “natural” products use this font. It’s like they think the consumer is stupid enough to believe something can’t be natural unless it’s covered in earth tones and that ugly-ass font. Papyrus is the patchouli-stink, dreadlocked ass-hat of fonts.” LoRemzJune / Papyruswatch.com
A more surprising theme that I could foresee emerging just not to that extent, is the use of Papyrus as the go-to typeface for all things exotic, especially if the product or brand using it has the slightest connection with Asia (regardless of the country). A book on erotic practices in Japan, a bar in Little Tokyo that serves Japanese beers, a container of babaghannouj and off-the-shelf green teas all use Papyrus to sell products by alluding to distant lands imbued with a rich cultural heritage. In each instance the font is used to elicit a subtle sense of mystery and curiosity for the foreign, without really conveying any type of specifics.
A less common yet more specific form of exoticism Papyrus can be seen used for is to imply an affiliation with is pseudo-Renaissance-Italian cultural amalgam. It is used on Olive Garden gift cards with the tag line “Enjoy the gift of Italy” as its header, a series of condominiums around Los Angeles named the Da Vinci, the Medici, the Pietro to name a few and a cafe in Koreatown called “A Taste Of Europe In Your Cup.” These references to Italy and the old continent aim to project a sense undeniable, classical culture onto the viewer. Whether or not this technique is effective is another question but this theme differs from the Exotic theme above because it aspires to convey a sense of elitism through culture rather than the appeal of the unknown, selling status rather than curiosity.
The most surprising application of Papyrus, albeit on limited occasions, was on grassroots, community-centric messages such as a public hearing announcement, a request for a day program Director at Valley Village on Craigslist, and the Holy Grounds Coffee shop again since it is really involved in its local community programming. This theme by far was the most unexpected one for me. It doesn’t seem to have as clear of a correlation between aesthetic and message. However it looks like in using an ancient-looking typeface the message is given wisdom and peacefulness? Or does it just look more fun and approachable the same way a Comic Sans might?
Yes this is a joke, but not quite. I found two instances of Papyrus used as a brand that can be related to teeth, or eating. One is an orthodontics office called The Smile Agency in Pasadena and the other is the Edible brand which offers bouquets of fruits in various locations. The chewed branding option is one of my favorite reappropriations of the typeface.
What’s most striking about these themes, is that any number of typefaces could apply to either of them but fairly few would be versatile enough to fulfill each of these roles the way Papyrus does, especially not the ’97 launch buddies which reside in the uncanny valley between not quite handwritten and written by a drunk elephant.
Its versatility and expressiveness at first seem contradictory but therein lays its magic. In that sense, Papyrus has made itself a force to be reckoned with. With its unique, somewhat kitsch aesthetic, and just overall underground popularity, Papyrus has become the embodiment of an unintentional design counter-culture. In some ways, it’s now to graphic design what the safety pin was to fashion, it had a precise intent upon creation but through misuse and reappropriation has become charged with an ability to challenge the current design culture and the relationship between its actors: designers and corporations, users and consumers.
Actors who constitute a creative ecosystem in precarious balance, where good design isn’t always synonymous with cultural growth or at the very least self expression. Graphic design as a field evolved from sign painting into the industry it is today during the advertising boom, a time when clients often had more of a say over the final design outcome than its audience would. Over time, for better or worse, this corporate presence has enabled the field to scale and provide jobs for many but also developed blind spots becoming a place where “practitioners continue to ignore large segments of society” as Dietmar Winkler puts it in his essay Morality and Myth: The Bauhaus Reassessed. He goes on to say: “through the choice of abstract and culturally foreign iconography, [practitioners] bar them from access to information or services and participation in the governing process of this very complex ecosystem of multicultures.” Winkler on several occasions has made a point to emphasize the rigidity of the design discipline and its lack of cultural curiosity. That being said, I am not sure how he would feel about being used to defend Papyrus…
Due to the scarcity of designs (or maybe just lack of visibility?) that actively embrace specific cultures and diversity, Papyrus has become a solution to which these large segments of society, cultural establishments, small business owners and home publishers, can turn to to find an aesthetic different enough from the typical sleek look to express their own values. The best examples of this might be the Holy Grounds coffee shop, or the Atwater Hydroponics. Even the Medici apartment complex, however clumsy the effort was, it’s telling of how few options are out there that a real-estate management company wanting to project a sense of high class would turn to the same graphic solution as a hippie coffee shop.
I am not saying Papyrus is a perfect design solution. It remains nonetheless an interesting design case-study, especially since its success isn’t only due to its unique style and early availability as mentioned above, but also to its versatility. In essence, it allows for what Nathan Silver would call an adhoc design solution to “multicultural” branding. An approach where the importance of immediacy and practicality surpasses that of design quality (or originality). In his eponymous book, Nathan Silver presents adhocism as the “informal course taken within a stricter system when the options offered by said system no longer do.” He goes on to explain that inadequacy, not necessity, is the mother of invention. In other words, as users of designers, it is often easier to grapple with what doesn’t work with a given solution rather than to come up with a new one. Papyrus is in that regard an adhoc alternative, an easily accessed option, that offers a variety of meanings and counteracts the neutral “inadequacy” of Apercu, Din or Futura, without being the ideal solution either.
Adhoc design options are vital to cultural growth. They foster diversity by enabling users that live outside the accepted visual norms to find solutions they are happy about. In that sense, the typeface is also evidence that low-cost (if not free), easily accessible designs have a place and a role in the design culture as they serve those who prioritize getting things done even if that means being scrappy.
The source of the animosity that’s developed around Papyrus is above all a symptom of its overuse, but it’s also a testament to its success as an adhoc branding solution. In a world where graphic design criticism has turned into a “spectacle sport” for so many, a mom and pop shop’s homemade branding gets critiqued on the same level as a the latest Gap, Apple or Tender Greens brand language, regardless of the budget available to create the design identity. This may not seem like much but the starting price to get a new brand identity for a small business is roughly $5500–15000 depending on where you look, this plus the cost of getting signage printed or fabricated adds up quickly. The ability to have affordable or free design options then becomes vital for emerging businesses.
With time, with the internet, with laptops and with personal websites, a lot has changed since Papyrus first appeared. Needless to say the internet has rocked the graphic design boat on multiple occasions, so to point out the importance of affordable design solutions only through Papyrus and Microsoft Office fails to call attention to much more recent and perhaps more significant efforts to make good design and adhoc design solutions accessible. DaFont and Google Fonts for instance have since made great progress in order to offer access to a wide variety of design solutions (of varying quality) that are new and constantly updated through different payment plans from subscription to free downloads.
The greatest sign that the volume of free fonts available has exploded is maybe Typewolf’s $39 Definitive Guide To Free Fonts, the title seems pretty self-evident. This proliferation of design options has been made possible by engineers and lawyers who understood the value of accessible design and have created new digital font formats and licensing systems. You may have heard of Creative Commons, but there are now licensing systems specifically crafted around font distribution. For example, a majority of Google Font specimens are made available through the Open Font License a format created by SIL. This licensing push is part of a larger effort that has its roots in the 70s that goes by Copyleft and which now falls under the umbrella of open design. All of this may or may not be the legacy of Papyrus but I like to think that Papyrus and the rest of the Office ’97 fleet had a major impact in sensibilizing the public to typefaces and graphic design.
Putting this essay together gave me the perfect opportunity to explore through Papyrus what I, as an industrial designer and design researcher, appreciate in design: the awkward balance between aesthetics, cultural relevance and availability. The wide range of Papyrus uses I’ve managed to capture prove that users will, when given the chance, reappropriate designs in far more ways that their creators may have imagined and that this practice may irk some. Funnily enough, to this day Papyrus is not technically part of the open-design world and still has a very ambiguous presence online. It is owned by ITC and costs $35 to download but can be found on alternative platforms for free. I’ve also noticed that the Google Docs (which I am writing this essay) has Comic Sans, but no Papyrus, distressed or handwritten fonts for that matter… This illustrates the subtle ways tools and platforms we take for granted can influence our shared visual vocabulary, our sense of aesthetics and emphasizes the importance of alternatives such as Papyrus to remain accessible.
Bellow you’ll find a few more samples, enjoy!