The Q&A Hole: Which One Typeface Would You Eradicate Forever?

With Swissmiss, Marc English, Jennymarie Jemison, and more

The series continues
The series continues

No formal education necessary.

You don't have to be a graphic designer to be disgusted almost to the point of blowing chunks when confronted with certain overused or, especially, egregiously ill-used typefaces; you just have to be a human with a hint of aesthetic sense.

However. All of the respondents below are graphic designers – professional ones, even, who make a living with their craft – and so I'll suggest that the condemnations that follow carry an extra bit of righteousness. (Now all we need is some global network of S.W.A.T. teams to facilitate the decree.) So, the question for this latest in your Chronicle's ongoing Q&A Hole series:


Tina Roth Eisenberg of Swissmiss: Oh, that answer is easy: Curlz.
It's just wrong on so many levels.

Skipper Chong Warson of SCW Creative: Let's leave Comic Sans alone for this one, the pickings are much too easy and there's always room at the bottom. Instead, let's focus on one of the other worst offenders: Papyrus. In addition to taking up space on just about every new Mac and PC, this font had its 15 minutes of fame as the subtitle text for James Cameron's Avatar or bottles of AriZona Iced Tea. How does that work, by the way? A movie that cost hundreds of millions of dollars uses the the cheapest and least original font it could find? Sure, there's its cousin Tempus Sans – which leans more Asian – or its brother-in-arms Souvenir – “Real men don't set Souvenir,” type scholar Frank Romano famously said. But just because it's on your computer doesn't mean that you should make anything with it; that means signs for the copier as well as the new company brochure. What I mean to say is this: Kill Papyrus because we must start somewhere.

Laurel Barickman of Recspec: If I could murder a typeface, it would be Papyrus. I would accept my inevitable incarceration, if thats what it meant to rid the world of that stupid, overused typeface. It would be worth it. When the City of Austin put those awful planters with Papyrus'd street-name backlit signs around Downtown, a little bit of me died inside. And, hey, places that use Papyrus and just take away the "distressed" effect? It doesn't make it any better. Kill it. Kill it with fire.

Jennymarie Jemison: I saw Drive in the theater, and I had to cover my mouth because I made some weird noise – some whooping cross between a guffaw and a shriek of joy – when the titles started to come up: They were so bad they were perfect. The homely handwriting font Mistral comes standard with all Mac system fonts, but somebody thought it was perfect for this film – and that person was right. So I would never want to eradicate any typeface, because that same typeface may be perfect for some future project; and I would be filled with regret that I'd killed it. That being said, I would just like everyone to know that Papyrus is never the right answer, even if you're designing a pamphlet for a yoga for seniors class that meets in the basement of a beige church built in the seventies.

Marc English of Marc English Design: Were I to have the ability to eradicate one typeface, which would it be? First, a short story. Back in the early 1990s I took a brief course at Harvard with acclaimed designer and active proponent of the International Style, Massimo Vignelli. His basic mantra was this: Do it right the first time, and by keeping it timeless, it will never need be done again. He swore by only needing six typefaces in design, to last from from here to eternity:  Garamond, Bodoni, Century Expanded, Times Roman, Helvetica, and Futura. (And as a good Italian, he also suggested that one could swap Palatino for Times Roman, if preferred.)

When I heard this, it was the hey-day of a proliferation of designers and type aficionados experimenting with, and pushing, typographic boundaries, as computers and easy access to type came into vogue. In England, Neville Brody had made an impact, and in the U.S. Emigré magazine was rightly hyping the work of any number of talented designers (Zuzana Licko, Rudy VanderLans, Mr. Keedy, et al). Vignelli's position was this: "In the new computer age the proliferation of typefaces and type manipulations represents a new level of visual pollution threatening out culture." While I appreciated his sentiments, I was never a particular fan of dogma of any kind, and I actually liked what Brody and the rest were doing. But Vignelli did not like what Emigré was advocating, and went on the record whenever he found the opportunity.

Cut to a few years later, and due to circumstances too lengthy to mention, I found myself sharing a bungalow with Vignelli, in Hilton Head, at a small design retreat. That this post-punk designer had found himself under the roof with The Modernist was not lost on me, and when I told him that I had a tradition of hosting parties at these things, he agreed. Needless to say, the crowd was diverse.

But there we were, at 3am, the Punk meeting the Godfather (an old Quadrophenia reference), each slouched on the sofa, our beers resting on our bellies in fatigue, the guests that fawned over him finally gone. Vignelli was known as something of a ladies' man: Suave, silver-haired, erudite, and of course that Italian accent (and the fact that by then he only wore designs of his own, a sort of Mao-like pajama, modern kit) – and I considered that when I dared broach the subject of his penchant for only six typefaces.

"Massimo," I said, "OK, I get it. Timeless is wonderful, and I appreciate your commitment. I could see being married to Bodoni or Futura (I can only imagine the differing kinks). Yes, you make a life-long commitment. I get it." Vignelli nodded in agreement. "But imagine," I went on, "that typefaces were women. Sure, I can see being faithful to Garamond. But if you weren't married, maybe –just for a long weekend – you could go out with, try, Oblongata Extra Black Extended [no such font, but I was riffing]? Or maybe have a wild time with the sisters, Modula Round and Modula Ribbed?"

Vignelli became alert now, and I could sense I'd helped him see the light. He nodded in the affirmative. "Okay, and what about a one-night stand with the degraded Trixie Heavy? Or Mrs. Eaves? Or even Keedy?" I heard a sigh escape Vignelli's lips, as he quietly said, "Yes. Now I understand."

I had won a supreme battle, based on the love of form and finding beauty where we can. But in the morning, Massimo acted like it had never happened.

A few years later, I'd moved from Boston to Austin, and one day I received the lated promotion from Emigré, hyping their new version of Bodoni, which they called Filosofia. I was delighted to see they had even ripped off Vignelli's Modern style for the poster itself; and I laughed to myself, recalling our night on the sofa, when type and women and forms and beauty all became one. And then I was shocked, when I read the fine print, to find that the maestro himself, Massimo Vignelli, had designed the poster for them.

I've only run into the man a couple times since then, but what I learned from him has stuck with me: There is a time for timeless, a time for classic forms – and I love them. From me, I hope Vignelli learned to appreciate less-than-classic forms for their own inherent beauty.

Which brings us to the issue under consideration: Could I eradicate one typeface, which would it be? While there are several contenders, I would have to go with the most egregious. Comic Sans, though rightly laughed at when not used in a comic book, at least has no pretensions or aspirations to something it is not. It is comic (though not funny), and it is sans (as compared to avec serif, it is sans serif, those little "feet" on the ends of some letterforms). More ubiquitous is a typeface I once loved, when I first discovered it, in the early 1990s: Lithos.

Lithos – designed, coincidentally, by a gal I'd gone to high school with – was based on historic Greek letterforms, once carved in stone, giving the typeface its name. The historian in me could not wait to find an opportunity to use the new face. But that was in 1991. In the past twenty years the face has become the Hobo of a generation, a typeface showing up in any number of applications having nothing to do with Greece, history, or stone. I guarantee, before end of day, if you drive down any highway or byway, you will pass this typeface, as it's found its way to represent businesses from Vietnamese noodle houses to accountants. Invariably, someone has bastardized the face by skewing it, to fit a given space, rendering it even more offensive.

But to my mind, the biggest offender to date is Papyrus. Named for the ancient paper on which it is supposed to have been written, the lettering is meant to look as if rendered by hand, with distressed edges, as if made by an ink pen of some kind coming in contact with a rough surface, with some sort of calligraphic flair. (In general I am distressed by inauthentic distress. I pay $40 for a new pair of Levis and wear them out myself, earning the holes and tears from experience. That fashion zealots will pay upwards of $1000 or more for multi-ripped and tattered jeans from sweatshops in the Far East has always baffled me. That people are willing to pay for inauthenticity in the name of being unique shows both the value of the genuinely authentic and the base willingness to embrace said authenticity. But I digress.)

Papyrus shows up everywhere someone wishes to proclaim touchy-feely – from yoga studios to multi-cultural shops of any nature, from quasi-spiritual bromides to potpourri and knickknack shops. It's bad enough when I see what's supposed to look as if hand-rendered being displayed on plastic signage, but the two most egregious examples are horrific and worst-case examples. First, the version seen on the national and international scale, is the title treatment for the film Avatar. With a budget of $237 million dollars, and the amount of effort director James Cameron spent on special graphic effects, one would think he could have hired a fucking calligrapher to create a unique bit of lettering. But, no. Someone chose to slap on Papyrus, believing that best represented epic science fiction. But then, I suppose in it's own way, Papyrus does represent epic fiction.

Here in Austin, we don't have to watch Avatar every day. But in the town which advocates Keeping Weird, which boasts of its unique cultural gamut, our citizens have been failed by our "leaders." Yes, the revitalization of Brazos Street, in the heart of our city, now boasts wide sidewalks, benches, and more trees. But its shame is signage, writ large, that finds names carved in steel, in a lettering style meant to evoke ancient papers and faulty inks, not timeless, as Vignelli would have charged, but dated. Yet there it is: Rendered in some blue substrate that peeks through the letterforms cut in steel, shouting false craft, false authenticity, false history, as (unlike a neutral face such as Helvetica) it loudly proclaims itself with a "style" neither unique, appropriate, nor beautiful.

Papyrus is an affront to everything our city claims to cherish,
yet there it is, boasting to locals and visitors alike, "We have no fucking clue."

Don't get me started.
The road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

[Brenner's endnote: I'm grateful to each of our respondents, of course … but must offer a special tip of the Lubalin-blessed trilby to Professor English for such heartfelt erudition at such impressive, Oosik-like length.]

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The Q&A Hole, typefaces, Swissmiss, Skipper Chong Warson, Laurel Barickman, Jennymarie Jemison, Marc English, Massimo Vignelli, Papyrus sucks, kill it with fire, Brazos Street Travesty, we have no fucking clue

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