A Man of Letters
If you like what you read, you should thank Matthew Carter
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.