December 23, 2009
The release of James Cameron’s special effects extravaganza Avatar has the graphic design community in an uproar. Typophiles everywhere have their collective knickers in a twist because the films marketing team couldn’t find any money in their 150 million dollar budget to spend on a custom typeface. Google “Avatar Papyrus” and you’ll see what I’m talking about. That’s right, the Avatar movie posters, trailers, and other promotions elected to use Papyrus as their typeface.
There are two typefaces that are almost universally despised among designers: Comic Sans, and Papyrus. Most people won’t even blink when they see either of these fonts being used. Designers, however, are prone to violent hysteria at the site of something like the Avatar movie poster.
So what’s wrong with Papyrus? Why all the hatred of a typeface? Let’s look at the most common criticisms that have arisen since the release of Avatar, and why most of them are irrational:
Papyrus is overused
This may be true, but I don’t think it justifies the ubiquitous hatred. Helvetica is the most used typeface in the world and, while it has its detractors, you don’t see a massive outpouring of criticism every time it finds its way into a movie poster. Papyrus is overused for 2 reasons: it comes free with most computers and because it works (more on this later).
Papyrus is used improperly
There is simply no defense for using something like Papyrus for body copy. This is no reason to hate the typeface, however. Any typeface can be used poorly. It’s hard to argue that the Avatar logo would have looked better set in, say, Times New Roman:
Or maybe Franklin Gothic:
Either of these would have been poor choices. Papyrus may not have been the best option, but I don’t know that you can really say it was “misused”. At least it approaches an appropriate “feel” for the design.
The subtitles, on the other hand… If the outrage over Avatar’s use of Papyrus has any real merit, it is this. The film apparently uses Papyrus for its subtitles, which is just as bad as using it for body copy. Papyrus is a display face, and should only be used for headlines, or similar reasons. Set at smaller sizes or in larger strings of text, it puts a lot of unneeded strain on the eyes.
Using Papyrus is lazy
One of the reasons Papyrus is used so much is because it is “easy”. Need something that is vaguely Egyptian, Asian, sort of ethereal, or maybe even Western? Just use Papyrus, and you’re done. As I said earlier, one reason Papyrus is used so much is because it works. It has a generic exotic quality that makes it versatile. Plus it is easy to read.
The laziness accusation comes from the fact that a designer should be able to find a different font that is more specifically tailored to the design. This argument holds more water than most of the other criticisms of Papyrus. The designers behind the Avatar promotions should have enjoyed a large enough budget to purchase any typeface they wanted, or even commission something unique. From a marketing standpoint, it would be better to have a unique, or at least more obscure, font that people will come to associate with your product.
Then again, countless big budget movies use Trajan Pro in their promotions as well. No doubt any one of them could come up with a couple hundred dollars to use something different.
Papyrus is ugly
This is the type of circular argument that drives me nuts. “Papyrus sucks because it’s ugly.” That’s like saying “it sucks because it sucks.” It’s fine to say you think it’s not aesthetically pleasing, but that is your opinion. I think most of Picasso’s art is ugly as dingleberries, but that’s just my opinion, nothing more. It doesn’t mean that no one else should enjoy his work.
You may think Papyrus is ugly, but there are many people who find it visually pleasing. What makes you right and them wrong? Your education? Your experience? Those things only give you different lens through which to view the world. If you can’t give a reasonable explanation as to why you find something ugly, then you just sound pompous.
In the end, I think what graphic designers really don’t like about Papyrus is that it is often used by amateurs or non-designers. It’s not so much that the font itself is so bad, but that by virtue of its reputation no “real” designer would use it, especially not for a high profile project. When an average person sees Papyrus they think nothing of it. When a designer sees Papyrus, they think, “that must have been designed by someone’s brother, or cousin, or someone else completely unqualified to be a designer. Whoever paid for that should have hired me instead.”