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A Man of Letters

Ulrich Boser 1

Matthew Carter doesn’t want you to notice the words you’re reading. That is, you shouldn’t be aware of the way the small, horizontal line at the top of the h hovers over the T at the beginning of this sentence. Nor should your eye catch on the heavy down strokes of a W that give the letter its classic look. “If the reader is conscious of the type, it’s almost always a problem,” Carter says. Letters on a page should “provide a seamless passage of the author’s thoughts into the reader’s minds with as much sympathy, style, and congeniality as possible.”

And why should you listen to Carter? Because he designed these very letters you’re reading right now–plus dozens of other fonts that appear everywhere from Sports Illustrated and the Pennyroyal Caxton Bible to muffin-mix packaging and the white pages of the Verizon phone book. His revision of some of the New York Times headline typefaces may soon debut; meanwhile, businessWeek will release its redesign on September 26, featuring three fonts fashioned by Carter, two of them custom-made for the magazine.

It’s with good reason, then, that Carter has been hailed as the world’s most well-read man. At 65, he is the elder statesman of type design, as well as one of its most skilled technical innovators. “He has a phenomenal sense of both history and technology,” says Peggy Re, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and curator of the exhibit “Typographically Speaking: The Art of Matthew Carter,” a traveling show that opens this week at the University of Pennsylvania. “He will be considered one of the foremost type designers of the 20th century, if not also the 21st century.”

A life in type. Born in London, Carter began his career making type the 15th-century way. His father, a famous English type historian and book designer, landed his 17-year-old son an internship at a Dutch type foundry. There Carter cut metal punches much as Gutenberg once did. In 1955, he was accepted to Oxford University–but opted to stay with type instead.

Since then, the arc of his career has followed that of the modern type revolution. In 1966, working for a New York-based type foundry, he created Snell Roundhand, one of the first faces to connect script letters. And in 1981 Carter cofounded the first digital type company, Bitstream, where he designed an early font for laser printers. Later, in 1996, he would develop Verdana, one of the most widely used fonts on the Internet.

And yet some of his most famous works have looked back, not forward. Carter’s Galliard, which you’ll probably find in many of the books on your shelf, was based on a 16th-century font. “Eighty percent of type design is unaffected by technology,” he explains. “Letters are a straitjacket, really. You can’t on a whim redesign a b so that it ceases to be a b.” This tension between the functional and the aesthetic continues to keep Carter, one of 20 or so full-time type designers in the United States, planted in front of a computer screen for hours at a time. “You always have to find some variant which will cause a typeface to be different,” he says.

Carter’s work cannot be said to have a recognizable style. “Matthew is the quintessential craftsman,” says Steven Heller, a design critic and graphic artist. “He is not an artist or experimentalist. He is interpreting conventional forms, and his genius is to take the classical, the traditions of typography, and bring them into the 21st century without seeming trendy. He has a knack for continuing the continuum.” While the essence of individual letters hasn’t changed for centuries, the digital age has made it far easier to make–and use–new type designs. In the 1950s, there were only a few hundred fonts in the Latin alphabet. Today there are more than 40,000. Microsoft Office XP alone comes with 170 standard fonts. “I used to be afraid of people asking me at dinner parties what I do for a living,” Carter says. “Now it amazes me that I can have a perfectly intelligent conversation about fonts with a 9-year-old.”

Of his many works, Carter’s design for the phone book may have been the most grueling. In 1974, AT&T asked Carter, who was working for Mergenthaler Linotype at the time, to create the smallest legible type that could be printed on low-grade paper. Carter’s creation, Bell Centennial, has notches at each right angle to prevent ink blotting. The font also has flat, short curves on the sides of g and s in order to increase the white space in the characters and make them more legible.

Letter by letter. Old books and gravestones as well as letters from the Hindi script Devanagari have all served as inspiration for new designs, and Carter’s Cambridge, Mass., office is stuffed full with books. But perhaps the most impressive resource for design inspiration comes from his own memory: He can recall, for example, the alphabet his mother cut from linoleum during World War II to help him learn to read. They were a variation of Gill Sans, he says, and the first letters he thought of as objects.

Carter typically starts a new font by sketching the lowercase letters h and o on his Mac. Then he creates related straight letters like i from the h and round letters like c from the o, keeping a close eye on their weight and overall form by often printing them out; the resolution on a computer screen isn’t high enough to see the smallest details. He works last on more “capricious” characters, like the lowercase g and uppercase Q, whose curlicues allow for more artful flourishes. (Experts typically identify fonts by the traits of these letters.) An entire alphabet can take months of painstaking work, with fractions of a millimeter making the difference between an artful letter and an ugly one. “Watching me work is like watching a refrigerator make ice,” Carter says.

But individual letters aren’t enough to make a good font. “It’s only when three or four letters are set together,” he says, “that one can start to compare them: `Look, your h is too big alongside the o. Or, `it’s too thin’ or `it’s falling over.’ A letter only has properties relative to the letters around it.” One reason that Carter designed the h to hang over the T in the Miller font that you’re reading is to ensure that the uppercase letter doesn’t overwhelm the word. “It’s purely an aesthetic judgment,” he says of the feature.

Some of Carter’s most innovative recent work has been playing with the space between letters. The Walker typeface, which Carter created in 1995 for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, allows users to modify letters by adding what he calls “snap-on serifs.” An E, for instance, can be connected by extending its crossbar to an O. Still, as 21st century as that work may seem, Carter refuses to prognosticate about the next big thing: “I’ve heard so many people talk about the future of type–and none of it’s come true–that I’ve learned to shut up about it.”


This article originally appeared in US News and World Report.

  1. Hi there, just wanted to mention, I loved this article. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

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