F is for font

Investigating Boise's love affair with the prolific Papyrus

| June 25, 2008
Arts_Papyrus.jpg
- illustration by Noah Kroese

Some folks are bothered by innocuous human behaviors, like chewing with your mouth open, for instance. Or talking during a movie, chatting loudly on a cell phone in a restaurant, driving too quickly or too slowly, adding salt to food before tasting it or leaving the toilet seat up. In fact, so bitter is the modern human that it goes without saying ... name something, anything, that a person does, and odds are this thing bothers somebody.

I, myself, hate when people use Papyrus—the font, that is, not the plant or the paper. I'll be the first to admit it's a strange thing to detest but whether it's justified, this loathing is my constant companion. Surely, if someone proclaims the most bothersome part of his day is unearthing new and terrible ways in which locals have used and displayed a particular typeface, he must also be a designer. This is true. Or he could just be an eccentric. Well, I'm both—though, admittedly, anyone who knows me will tell you I am better at the latter.

I'm not sure when my obsession with the font began, but my poor girlfriend, who has been a party to most of my Papyrus sightings over the past two years, can tell you it's been building for some time. While this particular neurosis may make me different from some, I am not unique.

Consider the curious case of designer Joe Wagner. In 2003, the Atlanta, Ga., resident launched iheartpapyrus.com, a site devoted to cataloging the appearances of Papyrus around the world.

"I, like a lot of designers I'm sure, was seeing a lot of Papyrus at the time and it was kind of making me mad," Wagner says. "Papyrus seemed like a big don't ... It just got to a point where everyone was using it and in an industry where originality and innovation shine, Papyrus was starting to get as dull as a rock."

Rather than sitting idly by, he decided to show the font a little faux-love. He compares the tone he uses on his site to that of political satirist Stephen Colbert. Whether or not individuals believe Wagner actually [hearts] Papyrus, over the past year, his site has logged more than 46,000 hits—more than 9,000 in April alone—from users around the globe. People have submitted photographic evidence of Papyrus sightings from five different countries.

Several months ago, I started logging local places I've seen Papyrus used publicly. These sightings include an unbranded shower caddy and the cover of an In the Footsteps of Christ DVD in Ross at Karcher Mall; Tectron Suede & Nubuck protectant in the Emerald Road REI; Fresh Wave Odor Neutralizing Carpet Shake in the Zamzow's on Federal Way; the cover of the book The Very Sleepy Pig at my girlfriend's aunt's house; an art-show flier posted in Ceramica on Main Street; a sign outside the10th Street Station bar; in a Paws for a Cause pamphlet from the Idaho Humane Society; in the logos for southeast Boise community Columbia Village and Edible Arrangements on Park Boulevard; signs for Quasar Development and The Real Estate Group on Morrison Knudson Plaza Drive, the Eagle & Pine Crossing strip mall in Meridian, the Logger Creek Apartments on West Hale, the Lakewood Montessori school on Gekeler Lane and Satchel's Grill on Bannock Street; and in an ad in a prior issue of this very publication.

When I quoted my nearly 15 Papyrus sighting to Wagner, he guessed it would've been higher.

"It's always on like, fliers ... particularly church, yoga and health store fliers. For whatever reason, those industries want Papyrus all for themselves. I'm not sure how big Boise is, but 15 is probably low for its actual total use count there in town," he said.

With literally millions of typeface choices available to anyone via the Internet these days, why are so many Boiseans using Papyrus for their signage?

Designer Evelyn Atchley of Boise brand marketing firm Oliver Russell shudders when she thinks of Papyrus but says its use is probably commonplace today due to its accessibility.

"It's a default font on most computers, and it has a different look than most default fonts," she says.

Fellow designer Colleen Morgan of Rizen Creative echoes Atchley's sentiments.

"This is my theory," she says. "America is a great place for small businesses and every business needs a sign, right? If any small biz was smart enough to go to an agency, many probably thought the price, just for the design, to be too much money, so they go to a sign shop and Papyrus, for many, is a reliable standby," Morgan says.

She also suggests a better modern use for the font than in design work: as an artifact in an Indiana Jones movie.

Clearly, though, not everyone feels so harshly about the font. Designer Chris Costello, who actually designed Papyrus back in 1982, granted an interview to Wagner last year and the sentiments he had on his creation were rather mixed.

"At first it was cool to see it in a few spots, especially CD cover designs and movie credits ... then television, billboards, etc. It started cropping up in the late '80s in National Geographic articles and a few magazine ads ... But then I started seeing it in homespun newsletters, bulletins boards, everybody's business cards, real estate and mortgage ads ... basically everywhere ... It had become diluted and lost its original appeal."

Costello also acknowledged the magical ability of his 26-year-old font to garner both hatred and admiration.

"Although many despise the font, right up there with Comic Sans, and Helvetica, I think even more people absolutely love it," Costello says.

For perspective, Comic Sans has its own hate Web site, bancomicsans.com, and Helvetica was the subject of a 2007 documentary in which the font was both lauded and criticized.

"I receive e-mails constantly from design and typography students who are writing entire papers on the font and want to know more about me and how I created it," Costello continues. "I have also received commissions to custom design corporate logos using derivatives of Papyrus."

Dominic DeLaquil, who opened downtown eatery Satchel's Grill in November 2003, didn't go to the font's creator but tasked Idaho-based Lytle Signs to craft him a logo and they returned him an eye-catching blue and gold sign using, what else—Papyrus.

Since that time, DeLaquil's seen Papyrus-based designs crop up around town, but he doesn't fret.

"I feel OK about it. I wish [the font] wasn't on so many other places, but I don't really have any control over that," he says.

Local artist Lisa Tate, who created the flier I found hanging in Ceramica, has her design posted on lisatateglass.com. I asked her why she chose Papyrus.

"I am a glass-blowing artist and in my 'Hidden Worlds' show, I hand engraved scenes which had hidden worlds of animals in the tree branches," she says. "I tried several different fonts but thought this font tied the material together and gave me the feeling I was hoping for."

As surely as I'm convinced that Papyrus is truly the Devil's font, I stumble upon DeLaquil's and Tate's use of it and I can't help but feel some kind of odd tide turning within myself. Perhaps since Satchel's food is some of my favorite or Tate's art is thoroughly awe-inspiring, I'm unable to harbor any ill feelings toward their designs.

I'm not saying I've morphed from Saul into Paul and you'll now find me hurling the praises of Papyrites from high atop a mountain. But I suppose in just the right circumstances, the use of Papyrus doesn't always make me want to throw up.

Even Wagner, the font's No. 1 heckler, knows what I'm talking about.

"It's not a bad font. It's just used poorly," he offers. "My biggest complaint is that it is used as a substitute for design. It's as if using Papyrus is enough; layout, color choice, emphasis and all that design mumbo jumbo is rendered meaningless as long as Papyrus is in play.

"[My site] is not as much about my love, or lack thereof, for the font. It's more about the absurdity of its overuse."

Amen, brother.

To be honest, if everyone quit using Papyrus entirely, I would no doubt have to expand my neurosis and find new things to start cataloging—and risk losing my otherwise patient girlfriend.

So for the time being ... though it pains me ... and though I may end up regretting it later ... let me say just this one time that for all the acid reflux it's caused me over the years, in the immortal words of Joe Wagner, in some tiny way, "I [Heart] Papyrus."

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Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

This article is proof positive that all graphic artists are douchebags!

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Posted by Shoogi on 12/20/2009 at 1:23 AM

That response is proof positive that Shoogi is a douchebag!

report 13 likes, 1 dislike   
Posted by Grist on 12/20/2009 at 8:12 PM

Not douchebag persay, but it stinks of the douchebag's next door neighbor, the angsting hipster.

The sort which says "I remember when Papyrus was cool but it totally sold out in '94". Then all the other graphic designers nod in agreement, but almost none of them notice they're copying eachother's styles in an attempt to keep up with the modern graphic arts look.

report 3 likes, 8 dislikes   
Posted by Giant Boy Detective on 09/08/2010 at 12:43 AM

Keep talking Shoogi, someday you’ll say something intelligent.

If Shoogi and I were marooned on a desert island with a gun, two bullets, and two tigers, I'd shoot myself twice.

report 8 likes, 1 dislike   
Posted by Moss on 06/02/2011 at 12:34 PM
Showing 1-4 of 4

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