In 1993, Prince frustrated contract lawyers and computer users everywhere when he changed his name to glyph known as “The Love Symbol.” Though he never said so explicitly, it’s generally understood that the name change was attempt to stick it to his record label, Warner Bros., which now had to deal with a top-tier artist with a new, unpronounceable, untypeable name. But it wasn’t just Warner Bros. that had a problem: The Love Symbol proved frustrating for people who wanted to both speak and write about Prince. Writers, editors, and layout designers at magazines and newspapers wouldn’t be able to type the actual name of the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. So Prince did the only thing you could do in that situation: He had a custom-designed font distributed to news outlets on a floppy disk.
Here’s the floppy disk, from the collection of Anil Dash, who’s written about it here:
The Prince font substituted his symbol for what would otherwise be a capital P. In addition, the font was also made available for download on CompuServe. It was accompanied by a stern letter featuring both usage and installation instructions. (Graphix Zone, the company on the letterhead, released an interactive CD-ROM called Prince Interactive that same year.)
The font idea, according to Chuck Hermes, who worked on the Paisley Park graphic-design team, came out of internal frustration. “It just seemed like a logical thing to do,” Hermes told me over the phone today. “Everybody was having a hard time. He didn’t even want us to be calling him Prince in person. Part of it was, there was this glyph, this symbol that we didn’t know how to pronounce, and he wasn’t giving us any clues.”
“So we had to start communicating, we were just writing the symbol freehand,” he said. “It started out as we just did it for ourselves. We needed some way to be efficiently communicating with this name that we couldn’t type on a keyboard.”
Steve Parke, who worked with Prince at the time, helped mail out the floppy disks. “He basically wanted people to start using that for his name in journalism,” Parke recalled, “and — I gotta be honest with you — I was like, ‘huh.’ I just remember when started I looking at those things I was like, ‘Really? I wonder how that’s gonna play out.’”
It worked out pretty well. “I just remember maybe six months later,” Parke noted, “looking through Rolling Stone one time and seeing that symbol and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty impressive.’” After all, could any other artist convince a major music publication to integrate a custom font?
“How many people can just say ‘Hey, I’m changing my name to this symbol so can you use it from now on?’ and everyone’s like ‘Alright. Okay. No questions asked. You’re Prince! We’ll do it!’ It was kind of funny to me.”
The move, catering to emerging technology in media, stands in contrast to Prince’s current reputation as a streaming-skeptical luddite and prolific issuer of takedown notices for his music on YouTube.
“I think he was very forward-thinking,” Parke remembered. “I think what happened a lot of time for him — not to be funny — he had an idea and the truth of the matter is the technology wasn’t quite there for what he wanted.”
Hermes said that Prince, in the early ‘90s, was excited by consumer technology. “I was working there and was kind of the first one to introduce him to bulletin-board systems and very early America Online back then. He was really engaged in all of this. We would spend hours every night. He’d come in and out of the studio and come into our offices just to experiment with graphics and Photoshop and all that software.” Unsurprisingly, Prince was thrilled at the possibility of being able to create art at such a rapid clip.
But there were parts of the computer revolution that were still foreign to him. At least, until they were put in Prince’s own terms. “I was talking about chat groups and chatting and meeting people online and he seemed confused by it,” Hermes reminisced. “Until I had told him I had met a girl. And that’s when he was able to go ‘Oh, I get it! I see where this could be useful.’”