First of all, while some may refer to it as an art form, I’m going to ignore that particular can of worms, and simply assert for the sake of convenience that typography and typeface design is mainly a craft.
As such, it comes with hundreds of years of traditions and established norms that have evolved through the very meticulous study, training and practice by countless professional tradesmen and -women. These traditions and norms fuse into what must be regarded as rather deep subject matter expertise – one that, given the narrow focus of the subject, is also quite dense by necessity, and where an inordinate amount of attention is spent on very small details. However, these details come together into a more complex whole, as is the case with any subject that accrues significant volumes of knowledge and experience over the centuries.
Consider the example of and comparison with cartography as a relatively salient one, in that typography is what gives language its visual shape and reproduced physical properties, in much the same way as cartography gives the physical, geographical, topographical and oceanographical world its encoded visual representation.
When debating a subject that is given such broad public exposure (in that lay people are immersed in the physical output of typography on a daily basis), it is inherently very difficult to balance the broad implications of this public exposure with the very deep and very detailed subject matter expertise of those professionals who dedicate their lives to the study of it. As with anything subject to everyday exposure, virtually every human being will have their own personal experience with it, and derive an opinion from this experience. Such opinions are certainly valid, but only in a very superficial and individual sense, and if used to try and question the traditions and norms of the craft, or invalidate the subject matter expertise of trained professionals, it invariably produces a very skewed and problematic discourse. Anyone can have a personal opinion of the appearance of a map, but only a navigator can accurately assess the usefulness of it, and only a professional cartographer can fully evaluate the qualities and viability of its execution.
When debating the typographic qualities of any particular printed text, or the properties of a specific typeface, two factors can be considered: the context of the usage, and the technicalities of the execution.
The former aspect is really the only one that can be meaningfully discussed between lay people and professional tradesmen, whereas the latter aspect simply represents too much of a disparity between the two different perspectives for them to really be considered anything but an unproductive apples-to-oranges juxtaposition. The professional tradesperson would either need to reduce and simplify his or her subject matter expertise dramatically, to a point where it becomes too generic or limited to be entirely meaningful, or they would need to spend an inordinate amount of time educating the lay person in order to bring the balance of input to a more equal, relevant level.
To exemplify and explore this, let’s use the typeface Papyrus as a case study. It is a broadly available typeface to which most people have had exposure, and on which most people would be able to have an opinion. Yet, it is a controversial typeface in professional circles in that it is widely considered a bit of a cliché, to the point of being ridiculed (even becoming the butt of the joke in a famous SNL sketch).
As highlighted by the sketch, most professionals agree that the biggest problem with Papyrus is contextual (though it is far from free of technical problems – see ”Technical Properties” below).
Heritage and authenticity:
Papyrus was designed in 1982 (see this summary of its history here. While it clearly and quite deliberately pretends to stand on the shoulders of Greek and Egyptian antiquity, this is entirely disingenuous, and this posture must be regarded as rooted in pastiche. It was designed as a caricature of antique calligraphy and biblical scrolls, with very little authenticity to support it – much like the derided faux Ark of Williamstown, Kentucky. While there are plenty of typefaces derived from the lettering of antiquity, whether rooted in calligraphy or stone carving (in fact, the entirety of typography and serif typefaces actually rose out of this context), Papyrus is a post-modern construct, playing only very loosely with the stylistic principles of antiquity, owing much more to modern calligraphic sign painting conventions.
Papyrus was designed by Chris Costello, at the time a 23-year-old entry-level ad agency designer just out of art school. This context very much affects the credibility and renommé of the typeface. The youth of the designer is admittedly not necessarily something to be held against a typeface – had Costello gone on to design elegant typefaces later in his career, perhaps Papyrus would have been judged less harshly, as the charmingly imperfect early work of a master of his craft. This is not the case, however. Costello has not assumed the professional persona of a stalwart bearer of typographic traditions: he’s produced more of the same faux-calligraphic pastiche fonts, like Mirage or Blackstone. He was a junior ad agency designer working within the lightweight, commercial chicanery of the advertising world, and the rest of his typographic legacy reflects this.
Papyrus was first offered mainly as a rub-on appliqué type of font by “virtue” of its publisher, Letraset. It was eventually brought into the world of desktop publishing and became a free digital font in the mid-1990s, as did several of its much maligned DTP counterparts, for example Brush Script and Comic Sans. Letraset was never a serious, substantial player on the type market: their products were sold in arts and crafts stores.
The wide availability of Papyrus immediately made it a choice for amateurs and dilettantes, as it was never really used in a professional context, or grown out of legacy publishing industry needs. It was brought to market as a toy font for lay people who laser printed their own DIY Hallmark greetings, and it never outgrew that contextual taint.
Most typographers and type designers would agree that typefaces should not overpower the content they’re meant to present, but where the style of a typeface can contribute to the thematic and communicative relevance of a text, that can sometimes be purposeful. However, one has to account for prior usage when making this judgment. The problem with Papyrus is that its usage quickly became so broad, its clichéd appearance soon overtook any possible thematic connotations. It became the font of choice for lemonade stands, pizza restaurant menus and obnoxious office notifications posted to break room refrigerators. This context is inescapable and taints any product garnished with Papyrus lettering. It was the very reason for the ridicule heaped on the big budget movie Avatar, whose title sequence famously used the Papyrus font. (This has since been revised, which ought to tell us something.)
Even if one manages to overlook the countless contextual problems of Papyrus, one still has to contend with some rather glaring technical issues:
The lettershapes of Papyrus are bloated, grotesque and extended. Lower case characters are squat and short and look like they have been sat on. The bowls of most lower case letters are distorted to the point where drawing them by hand seems like it would require a considerable effort. The inner negative shapes punch large holes in each line of text, which creates a jarring reading experience. Several of the characters have unresolved problems: the negative space of lower case “e” is much too tight to render clearly in all sizes; the loops of lower case “g” are not connected; the upper storeys of virtually all capital letters are much too low compared to the lower storeys, which drastically disrupts the eye’s interpretation of each word, and cause even more negative spaces that must be compensated for through kerning. The angles of each vertical line teeters and totters from left to right, making the letters appear flimsy, and destabilizing the integrity of each word and sentence. The lower bars of capital E and F jut out beyond the width of the footprint of the basic letterforms and pose spacing problems. These are but a few examples – they are legion.
The quality of the calligraphic line of each letter has been compromised by an artificially imposed distortion and aging, where cuts and chunks have been brutally taken out of the edges of each line. This visual characteristic contributes to the pastiche nature of the typeface, affecting a pretend-aged appearance that acts like a clown nose or a fake beard added to the face of the text. This is an aesthetic design decision that belongs in the realm of graphic design, not typography. A typeface should be mainly shaped for character recognition and legibility; lettershapes are not primarily designed with aesthetics in mind. Even the conscious appreciation of the beauty of letterforms is disruptive to the purpose of reading.
The typeface has countless kerning problems, where letterforms extend and bump into each other in an unpleasant, disruptive manner, further complicating the ability of the eye to decipher each letterform. This adds to the previously outlined problem with the large, horizontally extended negative shapes.
Papyrus has an almost comically underdimensioned X-height: the ascenders and descenders are significantly taller than the base of each lower case lettershape. This poses significant problems in its implementation, as leading will appear unnecessarily tall, injecting excessive vertical whitespace that forces the eye to travel farther between the end of each line and the beginning of the next. The visual cohesion and integrity of each multi-line text suffers as a result, and needs to be compensated for in the spatial relationships between lines, paragraphs and columns.
Both the letterforms, x-height and kerning problems compound to make Papyrus difficult to read, especially in longer texts. If it has any purpose at all, it should be limited to wordmarks and logotypes. However, see ”Context” above, as logotypes are particularly susceptible to connotations that affect the perception of a brand.
Given the contextual problems of Papyrus identified under “Heritage and authenticity” and “Usage” above, it must be concluded that the ability of this typeface to convey the meaning of any text in anything but a compromised fashion is null and void. Papyrus imposes its personality – real and perceived – in such an overbearing and irrelevant way, it becomes akin to a serious statement uttered with a comical fake Greek or Egyptian accent. The typeface overwhelms the content it is meant to present, and becomes an unwanted distraction. Furthermore, it also becomes a case of cultural appropriation to the point where it no doubt is perceived as a bit of an insult to the peoples of the Mediterranean, and makes light of the work of scholars studying the real history, architecture and sculpture of antiquity.