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Papyrus (the font)

Chris Costello - Letraset

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These are amazing times for typographers. Thirty years ago, nobody outside of the printing trades knew what a "font" was and very few people could name one. If I mentioned that Goudy is the eponymous design of the great American typographer, Frederic Goudy, or that Times was designed for the London newspaper, The Times, in the 1930s, a typical response would have been, "type has to be designed?" Nowadays, the general public waxes nerdy on the overuse of Arial, its inferiority to Helvetica, and the superior readability of Georgia on the screen.

When I arrived in Humboldt County in 2003, I dubbed Papyrus "the Humboldt Font." I was barely aware of its existence before moving to the North Coast, but the omnipresence of Papyrus locally caught my attention.

Papyrus was designed by Chris Costello and released by Letraset in 1983. Its ubiquity owes to its inclusion in Microsoft Office and other Microsoft packages and its adoption in recent years as a system font by Apple. The designer was trying to imagine what English rendered in a Roman alphabet might have looked like if it had existed 2000 years ago. This "Middle Earth" typestyle is seen everywhere, from the New Jersey-based Arizona soft drink cans to the box office smash hit Avatar, to countless "natural" cosmetics and other products.

As it so happens, success has its drawbacks in typography. Hermann Zapf's masterpiece type design, Palatino, was greatly loved by graphic designers until Apple threw it in with their system fonts early on in the desktop publishing revolution. Palatino was suddenly everywhere, but the sin of ubiquity is shunned by designers, and Palatino has yet to make a comeback.

As has been the case with Comic Sans, Papyrus is scoffed at and belittled by graphic designers for its overuse and for being used incorrectly. This is unfair -- is there a "correct usage" for Comic Sans, a singularly boorish, bulbous typeface? If it had a human counterpart, Comic Sans would be a goofball in an adjustable feed cap with baggy, low-slung pants. Papyrus, on the other hand, is a skillfully rendered, imaginative type design. It's not a font that I've ever had occasion to call upon; it's a bit too precious, with its meticulously distressed edges and exaggerated horizontal strokes, but it's a perfectly respectable decorative font.

My advice is that if you choose Papyrus, keep it flat (solid) and simple. The font is detailed enough on its own -- don't dress it up with gradients, drop shadows and other fancy Photoshop filters and effects, and don't surround it with decorative embellishments.

As with design options of all sorts, font selections are a matter of taste. Some choices show nuanced sophistication and some choices look ignorant, even boorish. There's a time and a place for everything, perhaps even Papyrus.

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