The Problems with Papyrus
or What We Can Learn About Typographic History and Type Design from Papyrus
Chris Costello released the widely seen font Papyrus in 1982.
Here is a short list of the objective shortcomings with the typeface Papyrus.
A. Papyrus is overused. Costello stated as much in 2017.
- It comes with various Microsoft software programs and Apple’s operating systems. It is a system font and people often pick it because it is available and costs $0, not because it is the right tool for the job. (Plenty of system fonts at least have the virtue of being readable, and some of them are even beautiful.)
- Being overused is not enough to engender hatred and eye rolls. (Even being used inappropriately all the time is still not enough to engender font hatred from the design community. More on this later.) Many designers still love Futura and many still respect Helvetica. And despite being eye-rolling-ly, boringly ubiquitous and a rip off of the better-looking Helvetica, Arial is at least readable. Which brings us to the next point.
B. Papyrus has technical design flaws, which make it objectively unreadable.
(Cryptic, extreme, and unreadable typefaces do exist and can be quite beautiful in their own way, but Papyrus is not even an interesting attempt at that.)
- Great typefaces look good in all lowercase, in mixed case, and in all caps. However, Papyrus looks particularly poor in all caps (image above), nearly unreadable. For example, the middle E bar is too high, and longer than the top bar. Some of these design problems with individual letters compound other design issues by creating extra problems with spacing, making everything even more unreadable.
- All of these readability problems make it completely unusable for body copy and for extended reading sessions. In addition, because it has no bold or italic, or other weights, it is very limited from a design system perspective. Compare workhorse families (or superfamilies) or even solid open licensed fonts.
- Fonts that are not versatile and can only be recommended for “display” or heading or logo usage are not necessarily bad fonts, they are just easier to use inappropriately. However, Papyrus is a bad choice for display uses such as signage because no one can even read your large sign from far away, making it a poor tool for telling us about your business unless we are already standing right next to your ugly sign. (Sorry for picking on this specific sign in my city. Also we can glean that you didn’t have the money to hire a designer or thought you didn’t need one. This does not reflect well on your business nor your taste and sense of culture, awareness, and respect for other people’s eyeballs. I can guarantee that revenue lost because we cannot find your business due to your unreadable sign far exceeds what you would’ve spent on a competent designer, who could have selected one of hundreds of more readable fonts.)
- The lowercase is very difficult to read, because of its low x-height relative to the strangely tall ascenders. This compounds the signage illegibility problems because the tall ascenders necessitate a smaller font size for all of the letters to fit in the same vertical space.
- Put together, the uppercase and lowercase create an awkward Frankenstein’s monster, as the uppercase letters are too wide and are a mismatch for the lowercase. (Papyrus EF has the additional problem of uppercase and lowercase with mismatched baselines, a pointless and irrelevant innovation.)
- It has poor kerning. Simply write the word Papyrus in the font and see that the “P” is a mile west of “apyrus” (top of the above image, corrected kerning in the middle). Requiring that a font be properly kerned is a basic starting point for any design project whatsoever. Even the cryptic and brutalist example linked above is properly and consistently kerned!
- Papyrus has built-in special effects (jagged edges), which are gimmicky and cannot be turned off, which also reduce legibility. Even if one could turn off the special effects, all of the other design problems would still remain.
C. There are no appropriate uses for Papyrus because it is fundamentally broken conceptually.
- People have seen Papyrus used (inappropriately) to attempt to express sophistication, elegance, naturalness, ancientness, organicness, or primitiveness, but it is none of those things. It is not elegant because it is not readable and letters that are unreadable can only be considered brutalist or cryptic at best, like graffiti or tagging, which are meant to be cryptic. Yet Papyrus is not attempting to be cryptic, instead simply failing at readability. Papyrus is not natural nor organic because it is coined out of thin air (see next point) and not a natural evolution of any typefaces or script from any era of history. It is alien and exotic, yet only ever existed in the optical type and digital eras, so it is not really organic nor primitive. Even the rough edge marks are razor sharp and not soft and organic. Additionally, one cannot call it sophisticated because it completely disregards centuries of type design precedent, but not in a good way!
- It is supposedly what English letters would look like if they were 2000 years old. News flash! We have that information—73% of the English alphabet is just the Latin alphabet, which did exist in Ancient Rome 2000 years ago, and samples from the period survive. (Another popular typeface, Trajan Pro, was designed in the optical/digital era, copying the 1800-plus-year-old Roman capital letters from Trajan’s Column.) No need for hypotheticals. Yes, Adobe Trajan is totally overused, but it is readable and elegant and well-executed technically. Those Roman capitals arguably cannot go out of style because they have not gone out of style in 2000 years—it appears that they are grandfathered in.
- And if you want handwritten letters from the era, a type sample survives from the ashes of Vesuvius: Herculaneum papyrus fragments have been digitized as Herculanum, a typeface based on reality—actual handwriting from the period, not made-up handwriting from some science fiction parallel universe that never existed. We know how people wrote Latin letters on pieces of papyrus thousands of years ago!
- Centuries of handwriting took us from the capitals of ancient Rome through the middle ages and through countless generations of scribes, who eventually developed lowercase calligraphic forms from the Roman capitals. Papyrus seems to pretend to be handwritten yet has no basis in any handwritten calligraphy from any era, nor does it follow any italic or script hands from any of the ten centuries of the last millennium, nor any typefaces from any era in the last five hundred years of metal type, failing to be grounded effectively in either world.
- If it is supposed to look handwritten, it is not technologically advanced enough to have alternates that keep it from looking printed and rigid, again, a self-contradiction. Is it a typeface or a handwritten script?
- Basically, Papyrus is a conceptual dead-end, answering the call for a font with a self-contradictory design brief: how do we make an English alphabet that looks old-timey, while ignoring the fact that we know what all kinds of old timey alphabets looked like! When someone is thinking, “I would like to write some text that looks old timey, what font should I pick?” it is better to throw away the question and ask a better question: from what time and place would you like your type to look like it came? To many people, “old-timey” basically means over a century, perhaps two centuries old, but that is still not specific enough to select a typeface. Pick a century in time. You have more than a dozen to choose from.
By what objective criteria has Papyrus established itself as anything but a poor typeface without legitimate use cases? If lots of people happen to like it, it is only because it is familiar because it is ubiquitous, and not because of its merits. There are lots of better options that are more appropriate for any given situation.
“Legibility, in practice, amounts simply to what one is accustomed to. But this is not to say that because we have got used to something demonstrably less legible than something else would be if we could get used to it, we should make no effort to scrap the existing thing.”
— An Essay on Typography, Eric Gill
And here, go buy one of Chris’s typefaces for which he makes actual money, since he makes very little from Papyrus, despite its preposterous popularity.