As It Happens

Papyrus font creator takes Saturday Night Live's Avatar skit in stride

In a Saturday Night Live sketch, Ryan Gosling laments the use of the ubiquitous Papyrus font in the logo for James Cameron's Avatar. And even Chris Costello - who created the font in 1982 - sees Gosling's point.
Ryan Gosling looks despondent while considering the Papyrus font during a Saturday Night Live skit. (Saturday Night Live/NBC)

Story transcript

Quick, name a font that everybody loves to hate.

Your first suggestion will probably be Comic Sans. But another typeface often makes it to lists of the worst or most-hated fonts just as often: Papyrus.

The vaguely heiroglyph-inspired font can be seen everywhere from gift shop trinkets to restaurant menus to spas. But it gained a particular resurgence in recent years after it was used in promotional materials for James Cameron's 2009 film Avatar.

This past weekend, the logo came under fire on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live. In a video spoof, Blade Runner 2049 star Ryan Gosling plays a man tormented by the font, and the fact it was slapped onto the Avatar poster.

You might think the creator of the Papyrus font would get prickly at the wide amount of hate it's acquired. But even Chris Costello, who created it back in 1982, understands the scorn.

"Well it wasn't actually directed towards me. It was directed towards the designer of the logo itself, who didn't really design the logo, apparently, he just used my font," he said of the SNL sketch to As It Happens host Carol Off.

"Anybody can use it, and anybody can overuse it, and misuse it, and abuse it. And when it turns up on practically everything from church newsletters to Yellow Pages ads, it's not well-crafted, it's not well-designed. It's just placed there."

Chris Costello, creator of the Papyrus font, also designed the back of a coin for the United States Mint 225th Anniversary celebration. (Courtesy of Chris Costello)

When Costello first saw Avatar, he was surprised to see that in addition to the logo, Papyrus was also used for the subtitles that translated the alien Na'vi race's language into English.

"I mean it was kind of cool, a big blockbuster movie using my font, but on the other side I thought, it didn't seem like a very creative approach to a logo of a movie," he said.

Costello says he still likes Papyrus, but believes overuse can render even the best design stale.

"Visually, when you see Papyrus in your face all the time, that could drive a designer crazy. It does to me too, I feel like I can't really use it any more," he said.

Costello and other, more hardline Papyrus haters likely won't be out of the woods (of Pandora) yet — four Avatar sequels are in the works, with an estimated combined budget of $1 billion US.

Four Avatar sequels are in the works, with a reported combined budget of $1 billion US. (20th Century Fox/File/The Associated Press)