There is a very well-known (and hysterical) 2017 sketch from comedy show Saturday Night Live in which actor Ryan Gosling portrays a graphic designer who is haunted by blockbuster movie Avatar’s use of the font Papyrus in its logo.
The sketch parodies the well-known type-snobbery of the graphic design world, where we love to hate certain fonts. There is no shortage of articles, blogs and websites dedicated to the Top Ten Fonts You Should Never Use, in which Papyrus usually ranks high up on the list (but never higher than Enemy Number One: Comic Sans). Designers generally have good reason to despise the handful of fonts that get such a bad wrap: unmodulated strokes, poor weight management, inconsistency in letterforms, distracting variations in kerning and line weight, to name a few (examples at left, courtesy of David Kadavy, 2017).
Surprisingly, however, as David Kadavy points out in his analysis “In Defense of Papyrus,” the typeface in question has solid typographic fundamentals. Papyrus inspires such intense hatred for a completely different reason: for its material dishonesty. Kadavy’s in-depth analysis gives many examples of material dishonesty, including “the fake wood grain of your car’s dashboard … the wood grain of your IKEA furniture … the “bricks” of many suburban McMansions – cinder-block walls with brick-like tiles adhered to them,” but nails it home with this point: “Papyrus is a false representation of an organic form” (Kadavy 2019), which is why, he explains, so many designers have such a visceral reaction to its continued existence and use.
There is another perspective on the topic of “type-snobbery” amongst graphic designers that stems out of the examination, discussion and theory of colonialism in design – the concept that conventional design education and wisdom is based in Western tradition, decided upon by an elite privileged few (especially given a global context) and not accessible to most cultures of the world and the un-design-educated general public.
“Clara Balaguer of the Filipino publishing imprint Hardworking Goodlooking proposes the following exercise for ‘the Comic Sans, design-educated haters’ in an interview with Walker Art’s The Gradient: ‘Use Comic Sans, Curlz, Brush Script, Papyrus. Understand why people respond to it. Accept that social constituencies (not clients but constituencies) have made a choice that should be respected instead of ridiculed […] Challenge yourself to dismantle what the (Ivy League?) man has told you is ugly, uncouth, primitive, savage’” (AIGA 2019).
This indeed poses a conflict for the graphic designer: if an artifact’s value lies in how successfully it transmits the message to an intended audience, it would appear that regardless of how objectionable the resource, tool or method is (in terms of its quality or design) , the designer has a responsibility to use it. If the artifact’s value lies in how well it is designed, then it follows that the designer has a responsibility to reject poorly-designed tools, methods or resources in crafting the artifact.
At the heart of the debate is who the intended audience for the message contained within the artifact is. Kadavy gets around to this point in a deeper analysis of Papyrus’ use as both the Avatar logo and subtitles in his final word on the topic:
“But I like to think that the use of Papyrus in the movie Avatar was an intentional and brilliantly subtle message. As the movie is warning us not to lose touch with authenticity, it’s doing so by displaying a materially-dishonest typeface in the logo and the subtitles.
It’s telling us: Wake up. Don’t lose your soul in pursuit of a reductionist representation of success” (Kadavy 2019).
AIGA. “What Does It Mean to Decolonize Design?” Eye on Design, June 3, 2019. https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/what-does-it-mean-to-decolonize-design/.
Kadavy, David. “In Defense of Papyrus: Avatar Uses the World’s Second-Most-Hated Font to Signal the Downfall of Civilization.” Design for Hackers, September 20, 2019. https://designforhackers.com/blog/papyrus-font/.
Kadavy, David. “Why You Hate Comic Sans.” Design for Hackers, 27 Feb. 2017, designforhackers.com/blog/comic-sans-hate/.
[SaturdayNightLive]. (2017, September 30). Papyrus – SNL . Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jVhlJNJopOQ.