Kona Lisa

Those of you familiar with the minutiae of art history may have heard of a painting called the Mona Lisa. It depicts a woman named Lisa del Giocondo staring intently at one of those posters where you have to make your eyes go blurry to see the picture. (Art historians have been trying to explain her bemused expression since Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in the early 1500s, but I think it’s pretty obvious.)

I first saw the actual Mona Lisa (the painting, not the person) during a high school trip to France in 1990. I remember standing in the Louvre in front of this centuries-old masterpiece that continues to capture imaginations worldwide and thinking, “That thing’s tiny.” Then, “Nobody better be messing with my Alphaville tapes on the bus.”

Some consider the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. (Dogs Playing Poker is a close second.) While I’m not sure how you quantify and rank fame, one measurement has to be how often something is parodied. If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies,” you’ll find a whole slew of images. (Note: If you Google “Mona Lisa parodies” at work, you’ll find yourself out of a job because of the nature of some of those images.)

In 1883, a counter-culture French art show called “The Incoherents” exhibited an image created by Eugène Bataille of the Mona Lisa smoking a pipe. In 1919, noted artist Marcel Duchamp added a mustache and goatee to the painting in a post card. (Note that Duchamp was 32 years old when he did this, right before he entered his much-acclaimed “Devil Horns and Glasses” phase.)

I was prompted to write about this when I received a bag of Hawaiian “Kona Lisa Coffee” as a secret Santa gift at the NAI holiday party. Because of the nature of the secret Santa program, I can’t say who gave it to me, but it’s someone who has been to Hawaii and whose name appears somewhere in the phrase “Kona Lisa Coffee.”

Two things are of note: 1. Here’s a company (slogan: “Put a smile on your face”) whose entire identity is founded on the fact that their geographical location rhymes with this famous painting on exhibit roughly 7,500 miles away, and 2. This is the second time in less than a month that a photo of my kitchen has appeared on this blog.

I’ve posted just a handful of the countless other variations on the Mona Lisa theme here: Avatar Mona Lisa from the website Fun-Gallery, Italian artist Marco Pece’s Mona Lego, and Mona Leia by artist Jim Hance.

This begs the question, what is it about the Mona Lisa that makes it so popular—so parody-able? Some argue that the popularity of the painting is related to the intrigue surrounding it—the subject (who is that woman really?), the content (what is that woman thinking?) and the physical painting itself (it was stolen in 1911 and not recovered for two years). The Mona Lisa appears in every art history textbook and has been subject to literally centuries of scrutiny and analysis. (Scholars recently used X-ray technology to determine that da Vinci used roughly 30 layers of paint to create the extraordinary skin tone in the painting.)

Interpreters talk about universal concepts (love, family, death, etc.) that are common to all people regardless of their specific culture. While there is no such thing as a universal image, the Mona Lisa is so widely known, especially in Western culture, that it can safely be used as a point of reference with the confidence that audience members will get it.

If there’s such a thing as a viral 16th-century painting, the Mona Lisa is it. To this day, she continues to pop up in contemporary art, music, literature, and every time Princess Leia is involved, Shea Lewis’s email inbox.

Papyrus’ Avatar in Avatar

Since December 18, 2009, I have been checking the IBD website daily, patiently waiting for someone to ask a question or post a comment about the use of Papyrus in the movie Avatar. Until July 19, 2010, at 10:17 AM, I had been following rule number three of many unwritten rules about this blog, which states: 3. Quit writing about Papyrus because people will think you are an obsessive freak and may confuse you with Paul. The number two rule is: 2. Sausage is an acceptable commodity for the exchange of ideas and/or information in relation to IBD the book not the blog. The number one rule is: 1. Show total disregard for the proper use of the serial comma in order to annoy Paul.

Cal Martin (whom I will refer to in this post as Cal, the Chosen One, Chosen, or the One) finally posed the question on our Ask a Nerd! page. The question made me happy on multiple levels. First and obviously he asked about the use of Papyrus in the film, and second, there is someone who actually saw Avatar after me. Due to the age and number of children that I have, along with a wife with no interest in going to the cinema to see a movie that doesn’t involve talking dogs or sparkly vampires, see a movie like Avatar is a practical impossibility. I digress, here’s the Chosen One’s question/comment. Cal Martin says:

Hi nerds!

Okay, this is embarrassing. Or else I’m extremely rebellious and worthy of great praise, depending on your world view. I just saw James Cameron’s Avatar for the first time. That’s right – half a year later on DVD on my 27 inch tube television. It felt like I was right inside the picture!

Anyway, please, please tell me that I didn’t just see subtitles in Papyrus throughout the entire movie. I wanted to scream, “Good God, no! Papyrus?!?! Kill me now!” but I was afraid that it might expose me as a geek, and result in my sleeping on the couch.

My question – do you have other examples of huge projects (movies, large scale exhibits, multinational company signage, etc.) that had budgets of millions of dollars, yet made a basic gaffe such as this?

Cal

One, it wasn’t that long ago that I too saw Avatar at home and had that same reaction. I had heard about the unfortunate choice of Papyrus being discussed in certain design circles. (On occasion Paul and I hold hands, a perfectly acceptable custom in India; it forms the design circle of which I am referring to.) For this reason I had purposely avoided the movie. That, along with an unfortunate dream I had involving Smurphs when I was younger, has forever changed my view of blue people.

Chosen, I did make the mistake that you avoided in post-film conversation with my wife by saying it was pretty good despite the Na’vi speaking Papyrus. To which my wife replied that I had successful ruined everything. Which, in my opinion, is a bit presumptuous.

Back to the question at hand, the typeface used in all promotional materials, posters, and even the subtitles in the movies is not exactly Papyrus (seen above in yellow) but some sort of adapted version of Papyrus (seen above in blue). What is surprising to me is that movie with a budget well over $450 million (including promotion) didn’t search from a more original typeface to represent the film. Paul and I would have gladly provided the producer James Cameron this same advice for an amount much less than $10 million.

At the very least someone tried to alter it some in an effort to customize the typeface. Upon closer investigation you will notice that elements of Papyrus have been slightly altered.

The problem isn’t really Papyrus itself. In fact I think it represents the Na’vi and the movie well. As we have stated before in conversations about Comic Sans and Papyrus, it is the overuse that has made it ubiquitous. The real problem is that is also represents Italian restaurants, coffee shops, massage parlors, and churches. As a standard default font found on PCs and Macs worldwide the typeface has found its way into countless designs and lost the intent it was created.

My personal complaint with the use of the version in Avatar is that the subtitles are just too difficult to read. The first goal of subtitles should be legibility. Now if you were watching it at an IMAX theater you could probably read it better than on my or Cal’s home theater screens.

The One, I don’t really have an answer to the second part of your question. I don’t know of any other gaffes that have had an impact in the design community as much as Avatar and Papyrus. It is a really good question and perhaps some other members of the Nerd Herd can provide examples. In the meantime this is a reminder that we should consider every design decision we make important.

If someone had placed more of an effort into researching the use of Papyrus and shown Cameron this connection, I have no doubt that more effort would have been placed in finding an original typeface.

Rule number three has been re-implemented for the future of IBD. Oh yeah, if you haven’t seen it (Avatar not The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course) the movie is really good.