Alex Wright

Matthew Carter

July 17, 2007

Yesterday I sat in on a brownbag talk by legendary type designer Matthew Carter, the former Linotype fontographer, cofounder of Bitstream, and creator of the Verdana typeface you're looking at right now (among others). He's been doing some work for the New York Times recently, and agreed to spend an afternoon chatting with the design team.

Carter is not only a master typographer but a historian, and he peppered his talk with all kinds of historical digressions; explaining, for example, how the modern alphabet's capital letters derive from classical Roman typefaces, while our lower-case letters derive from medieval gothic type - and how therefore the art of modern type design often comes down to bridging the stylistic gulf between these heritages. He has also witnessed his own share of typographical history, living and working through a series of major technological transitions from hot metal to phototype to digital fonts.

Carter devoted most of his time to presenting three case studies:

  • Mantinia - Designed as a tribute to the great Italian type designer Andrea Mantegna, this signature Roman-style font features a series of inventive ligatures (letters joined together) that trace their heritage back to stone carvers' techniques.
  • Walker - Carter created this novel typeface for Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, featuring a set of free-floating "snap-on" serifs that allow designers all kinds of leeway to create inventive variations on the original typeface (how many typefaces allow you to create a serifed "o"?)
  • Vincent - Based on a 1792 English Bible typeface, Carter was taken by surprise when Newsweek approached him about using it as their primary font. Perhaps playing to the crowd a bit, he talked about his affinity for designing typefaces for news outlets - as opposed to the more delicate craft of making art books and highly polished documents like annual reports - because news, as he put it, is "when time and type come together."
Towards the end, Carter talked about the challenges of using type in the digital age, and his frustration at how advances in display technology appear to have stalled, at least for now. He advised the print designers in the room to resign themselves to the fact that the screen has supplanted the printed page as the dominant typographic medium, to accept the inevitable loss of control that screen displays demand, and to embrace the limitations of the medium and work with the materials at hand.

Not surprisingly, he recommends using Verdana.

File under: New York Times

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