Interview with Papyrus creator, Chris Costello
In May of 2007, I interviewed the prolific designer, artist, and musician, Chris Costello. He also just so happens to be the man behind the font that often finds itself among Comic Sans, Brush Script, and Curlz whenever someone starts talking about the “worst font”.
Of course here, I ♥ Papyrus. I think it’s a great font, and up until about the year 2000 or so, it was probably a reasonably unique choice. These days, any old shlub can cycle through the system fonts and rest complacently on it for their “designs,” and as we know, they do.
So since I’ve switched to tumblr, which I really enjoy, I lost a lot of what was saved in my old Blogger site. So here in its entirety, is the interview:
♥: Tell me a bit about your background and what you are doing today.
CC: My background is in art and music. I started working with my father as a sign painter when I was in sixth grade. He encouraged me to pursue a career in commercial art instead of music, but he also helped me buy my first bass amp. I studied advertising, design and illustration in college then began working in advertising agencies after finishing school. Lettering and type design was always something I did when things were slow at work… Papyrus was conceived during a down period at my first agency job. I soon quit full-time work to freelance and began my illustration career while supporting myself through steady club and college gigs with the bands I played in. Then got married, had kids, needed more money, so I went back to work in book publishing then segued into my current position as creative director for an in-house marketing department. I still do freelance design and illustration.
♥: Correct me if I am wrong here, but Papyrus was created back in 1983 for Letraset, right?
CC: Actually, I submitted the design to ten major type companies in 1982. Compugraphic and Varityper replied with rejection letters (Ironically, Compugraphic was acquired by AGFA-Monotype/ITC who currently owns the Papyrus design). Only the noted type designer, Colin Brignall of Letraset responded with any interest. After meeting several of their guidelines, I was asked to create a complete character set with alternates, and Papyrus was released in the summer of ’83.
♥: And, forgive my ignorance, but could you explain what Letraset is or was at the time?
CC: Esselte/Letraset was a stationary supply company that produced vinyl “Transfer Lettering” sheets, otherwise known as “presstype”.
♥: What was the process for creating fonts at that time?
CC: It was all done the old fashioned way: by hand, using pencils, paper, Rapidograph pens, white-out, and French Curves.
♥: How long did it take you to create Papyrus?
CC: It took about 6 months to produce the final art for all of the characters per Letraset’s request.
♥: Were there parameters or objectives to be met with the font? Or maybe just, “what was the inspiration for Papyrus?”
CC: I took a calligraphy pen and some textured paper and just started drawing “old looking” alphabets in many different styles. I was thinking about the ancient Middle East and I then began writing words, dates and phrases from the history of that time in all upper case lettering. I soon came up with what I thought vernacular writing may have looked like if the English language existed 2000 years ago. It probably would have been written on papyrus and figured that would be the perfect name for the font. I then started drawing letters and numbers (about thirty examples of each character in the alphabet) until I felt like I had a unified font set, then picked the best one of each character. I added a lower case set thinking it would make the font more versatile and have a broader appeal.
♥: When you created Papyrus, had you any idea what the future held for the font? Was there a standard protocol or life-span as part of the Letraset thing?
CC: I signed a 25-year contract renewable yearly after expiration. At 24 years old, it was like I got a record deal. I just signed and waited for fame and fortune to overtake me.
♥: Papyrus has become very ubiquitous in design. Its popularity seems to be ever-growing and it can be seen in marketing material and packaging for a huge variety of products in just about any industry. We’ve seen it on tea, toiletries, soft drinks, yoga flyers, tech banners, and more. How do you respond to its apparent versatility and popularity?
CC: I have mixed feelings. 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. My parents came back from Europe one year and showed me all of the brochures they found using Papyrus. But then I started seeing it in homespun newsletters, local bulletin boards, everybody’s business cards, real estate and mortgage ads…basically everywhere. It had become diluted and lost its original appeal. I see design blogs trash it all the time, but it’s not a design issue. I think after she was released with OSX system fonts, her design career was finished… she became the font for the masses.
♥: You’ve seen iheartpapyrus.com. Can you freakin’ believe how often it’s being used?
CC: Again, now everybody has access to it.
♥: In general, what are your thoughts on Papyrus in advertising and design?
CC: Today, it is so overused, I would not use it unless there was some very unique application that called for it. However, I recently needed to use it in an ad headline because the client’s logo was set in Papyrus (it’s everywhere).
♥: Papyrus is shipped standard with the Mac OS. What sort of red tape, bean-counting nonsense did that require?
CC: Nothing on my part. ITC owns the rights…I just collect the checks.
♥: Do you receive royalties or anything for Papyrus?
CC: Yes, it’s very complex. Because of all of the corporate buyouts over several decades, ownership of Papyrus has changed hands many times and I receive residuals from several U.S. and European font distributors as well as the original owners.
♥: What are a few of your personal favorite fonts?
CC: Gotham, Centaur, Porcelain, HTF Requiem, Bickham Script, Industrial, are a few that come to mind.
♥: You have a wealth of experience as not only a typographer, but as a designer, an illustrator, and more. Where do you enjoy working most?
CC: I really enjoy web design right now. Illustration was fun for quite some time, but it is very time consuming. Web design has more of an instant gratification thing going on… changes are easier to make, it involves non-linear thinking and it pays better.
♥: Which of your creative endeavors are you most proud?
CC: My watercolor and acrylic paintings, which few people have seen. I have created both traditional and experimental work and figured this is will be the next phase of my career after I get tired of what I am doing now.
♥: Papyrus has an aged, but timeless look and feel. Do you think it will ever disappear out of our collective font folders anytime soon?
CC: Probably not. Although many despise the font, right up there with Comic Sans, and Helvetica, I think even more people absolutely love it. 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. I have also received commissions to custom design corporate logos using derivatives of Papyrus. People are even asking if I can create “cleaned-up” versions as well as different weights.
♥: To me, Papyrus has saturated the design culture to such an extent, it will leave a legacy that may never die. How awesome is it to have made such a huge splash in the industry, and so early in your career?
CC: I was just out of college when it happened, so I felt great about it. All my friends could not believe that they knew a “famous person”. I never imagined it would have gone this far, though. Now I have to hide my face in public.
♥: Do you have any pearls of wisdom you can share with some of our readers, many of whom are also in marketing, advertising, and design?
CC: As I thought back over my career and all of the companies that I worked for, I realized that some my best creative work was conceived during the times I spent at dead-end design jobs. Maybe this advice will help some young designers who are starting out at “Mr. Quick Print” or “Business Forms Xpress” (I remember living in Florida, working in somebody’s garage designing real estate ads for minimum wage with people who did not speak English… and no air conditioning). The lame jobs I used to hold were actually good springboards for the next steps of my career. Most companies hire you to be on staff and on call regardless of whether or not there is any work to do… from 9-5, they own you. At times, I would go months at my jobs without anything to do. You can only reorganize the reference library so many times before you go insane…I had to create or die. It was during those down times that I designed all of the fonts I currently have for sale, I designed several iterations of my own promotional materials and artist portfolios, created my personal website, taught myself how to use Dreamweaver and Flash, practiced my bass, created illustrations for my portfolio, wrote my college papers, did freelance work, studied economics, and whatever… all while getting paid to sit in front of a computer. Fortunately for me, all of my supervisors at the time were cool with this. I guess they figured, when it came time for me to put out, I was always there.
If you are in a dead-end job right now, just take advantage of the tools at your disposal and create some of your own inspired work that will eventually get you hired at your dream job. Oh yes…always dream to the point of fantasy and imagine yourself making it. I never stopped believing that I would be a designer and/or musician and left myself no other options for making a living.
*******end of interview******
And what a great place to leave it!
I want to thank Chris Costello immensely for taking the time in writing such great answers. You’re awesome. Thank you. Thank you.
Visit his website at www.costelloart.com