Matthew Carter is one of the preeminent contemporary typographers. His work is both ubiquitous (his typefaces Georgia and Verdana were commissioned by Microsoft and now grace computer screens around the world) and revolutionary (his Walker Art Center commission resulted in the creation of a series of alphabets with “detachable” serifs). Carter has been involved in typography in one way or another for most of his life. He has lived through the passing of numerous typographic eras, and at each juncture he has embraced both the latest technology and the new forms created by young designers. In addition to teaching at Yale University School of Art in the Graphic Design department, Carter operates Carter & Cone, a typographic studio and consultancy based in Boston.
You have had a lifelong passion for typography. When did you know that type was your calling?
My father, Harry Carter, was a practical typographer and a historian of type. He did not push me to follow in his footsteps, but since I had read the books and met the people since childhood, I became interested in calligraphy and printing without any paternal prompting. When I left school in 1955, I had a year to fill before starting at university. Because my father had a long-standing friendship with the Enschedé printing company in the Netherlands, I was sent there as an unpaid trainee. Enschedés was very unusual in having their own typefoundry on the premises (most printers ceased to make their own type as soon as typefounding became a separate trade in the sixteenth century). Enschedé’s punchcutter, Paul Rädisch, had produced there the typefaces of Jan van Krimpen, the resident designer. Although the plan was to spend time in all the different departments at Enschedés, I happened to start in the typefoundry, and got so interested in punchcutting and matrix-making that I spent the whole year doing that. Once I got back home to England, intending to go to university and get on with the serious business of life, I found that I had lost interest in academic study and wanted instead to make type (designing it came later). So the interlude of a year in Holland ended up by determining how I’ve spent my life since then.
Your career has spanned nearly every phase of recent type history from hot metal to digital. Tell me about the importance of the vernacular of experience to what you do today.
I’m not sure I understand this question, but here is an answer anyway. Because I was born when I was, it has been possible for me to make type by essentially all the methods ever used — metal by hand, metal by machine, photoset, digital, desktop, screen — including wood, for which I got a commission recently. If you give to everything that goes into designing a typeface a score of ten, the technical aspect rates about a one or two on the same scale. In other words, at least eighty to ninety percent of designing type is the same, no matter what tool is used to make it and what tool is used to set it. There are, of course, a few exceptions where an inhospitable technical environment has a greater influence: Bell Centennial, because of the conditions of directory production, is an example, and so is Verdana, because of the inadequate resolution of computer monitors. But these are apart from the normal repertory of mainstream typography.
For me, the biggest change was from metal to photo, three dimensions to two, in the sixties. Photocomposition is regarded nowadays as a blip between the major forms of type, metal and digital, but in fact the change to photo felt like a more radical departure than the later change to digital. Many of the properties that are now thought of as innovative in digital type existed in photo — kerning tables, for one thing.
For a broader design audience, can you talk about how you see a knowledge of type history informing or not informing current trends in typography?
I suppose most graphic designers and typographers have a general notion that much of our pluralistic repertory of typefaces has been inherited from the past. But if you conducted a poll of the AIGA membership I think very few designers would know Garamond’s first name, his dates, the significance of his work, or which current revivals have any resemblance to the original. I don’t fault this; any Garamond type stands or falls by its usefulness today; its pedigree is less important. Since the early nineties when there was an explosion of experimental type design, the pendulum has swung to a more traditional emphasis. One can see this in the success of the Emigre faces Mrs. Eaves and Philosophia, which have an admitted — if eccentric — derivation from Baskerville and Bodoni. Their popularity may owe something to the idea that because they have roots they are more sober and legible than designs that have been conjured out of thin air.
I recall a conversation between yourself and Erik Spiekermann in an early-’90s issue of Eye. One of the things that impressed me at the time was your utter openness not just to new technology, but to the resulting typographic experiments happening at the time. The dissemination of technology to a wide audience seemed to be something that excited rather than threatened you. How do you maintain this open attitude? And, ten years later, can you reflect on the state of typographic innovation? Have more designers become serious typographers?
My attitude to these things is not a considered one. If I’m less of a designosaur than people expect of somebody my age I’m glad, but it’s not a deliberate pose. As far as the technological evolution is concerned, I had to move with the times because I was employed by companies that were heavily involved in researching and developing those new technologies, and I like working with engineers. If you compare the typography of fifty years ago as I first knew it — metal type and letterpress printing — to what it has since become, there have clearly been gains and losses. For me, as somebody who thinks of himself more as a typefounder than a designer, the gains far outweigh the losses. If I had my choice of any period in the history of typography to work in, I would unhesitatingly choose the one I happen to have lucked into. Although, as I said above, I’m not a believer in “technodeterminism” and I tend to downplay the effects of technology on design, I do regard the current digital technology as the best ever and am constantly grateful for it.
You have been involved in the Yale design program for many years. What typographic notions and ideas do you believe are most critical to pass on to young designers today?
The class I teach at Yale is in type design. I teach it in tandem with Tobias Frere-Jones; he does the first semester, I do the second. It has never been the aim of the class to produce professional type designers — and so far as I know it never has. The class was started by Alvin Eisenman twenty-five years ago as part of his wish to give students a “smattering of ignorance” about the raw materials of graphic design. The aim, therefore, is to demystify type and how it’s made with the idea that a more intimate knowledge will help in using it well. Chancellor Bismarck said about the law and sausages that it is better not to know how they are made, and he would probably have said the same about type. But I like to know how things are made, and I enjoy explaining the nuts and bolts of type to students. The emphasis of the class is not on production (there is no set goal in terms of number of characters completed or other benchmark), but many students achieve typefaces that are fully usable, and some continue to work on them and with them after the class ends.
Let’s also discuss the typefaces featured in this book — first Bell. How did this project come about? What was the brief for it and how long did it take to create? What were the parameters of usage?
Mergenthaler Linotype produced the typeface Bell Gothic in 1937 for setting the U.S. telephone directories. In the 1970s, AT&T began to use the pioneering high-speed digital typesetting systems to accelerate production. It was immediately obvious that Bell Gothic performed badly under these new conditions, mostly because it was too light to be legible. AT&T came back to Mergenthaler to commission a replacement for Bell Gothic that would be “designed for printability.” The brief also required the new typeface to be no wider than Bell Gothic, so there would be no loss of space. In the end there was a saving in space, which made Bell Centennial very popular with the directory companies for economic reasons. In the 1970s nobody thought about ecological issues such as saving trees, but they did think about saving the paper bill.
AT&T made the first approach to Mergenthaler in 1974. We made the first presentation of our design ideas in March 1976. Bell Centennial was released in 1978 (the centenary year of the U.S. directories, hence the name).
Was your creative process different or similar to other typefaces? How was it tested prior to implementation?
The early work on Bell Centennial was done for simplicity’s sake on a conventional phototypesetter, Linotype’s V-I-P. But since the point of the design was its suitability for digital setting I had to teach myself to work digitally. At that time there were no computer tools that could convert an analog image into a digital bitmap (the rasterization that we now take for granted as a real-time part of digital typesetting had not been invented). I had, therefore, to draw every single character on quadrille paper, pixel by pixel. Having done that, I had to encode every character by counting and entering at a keyboard the turn-on and turn-off points of every scan line — all this multiplied by the four faces that made up the Bell Centennial family: Name & Number, Address, Caption, Bold Listing. This was an epic task of hands-on designing, but it paid off in the control it allowed me over the result, not to mention in the education it gave me.
To guide the project AT&T set up a committee of directory managers, scientists from Bell Labs, quality control experts from Western Electric, and others. Normally designers will do anything to avoid working for a committee but this was the exception; the committee’s involvement was crucial, particularly in making trial proofs at every stage under real production conditions.
I recall hearing Jeff Keedy talk about his typeface Keedy Sans — witnessing its appearance on McDonald’s tray liners and in other ubiquitous places — all far removed from his original purpose and intent. Bell was developed before digital type became prevalent, however it is now widely distributed and used in many ways. Can you reflect on the trajectory of Bell since it was digitized? What are its limitations? Have you seen uses which surprised you? Offended you? Excited you?
I’m generally philosophical about what happens to my typefaces once they get out in the world, and I don’t agonize too much over examples of misuse. Because it was designed to be printed at 6-point on high-speed presses on newsprint, the letterforms of Bell Centennial contain various devices that compensate for these extreme conditions, a form of damage control. If the letterforms are enlarged to a size where these compensatory quirks become obvious they look distorted, a sort of weirdness that certain typographers find irresistible. When the type designer Christian Schwartz enlarged Bell Centennial he thought it “looked as crazy as any mid-1990s postmodern experiment.” In Christian’s excellent typeface Amplitude, recently released, he has adapted the “crazy” quirks and made a virtue of what in Bell Centennial was a necessity.