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A Special Type: Font Designer Enjoys 'Life Sentence' as Man of Letters

By Rachel Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

It used to be that when Matthew Carter told people that he was a type designer, they stared back at him slack-jawed and said they thought all type designers had died.

Today, though, strangers in this Internet age at least know what a font is, and they might even know the names of some of them.

"I've had some comical conversations where people say things like: 'Well, we've all been told we have to use this font called Verdana at work. Have you heard of it?' "

Has he heard of it? He designed it.

Carter, 71, is the creator of Georgia, Verdana, Galliard and 70 other typeface families during his 53 years in the field, and the Design Museum in London hails him as "the most important typography designer of our time." On Monday, he will speak at the Corcoran Gallery of Art about some of the typefaces he has created and explain why people are still designing new ones. (One reason: Fonts that are legible on such small hand-held devices as iPhones, BlackBerrys and Kindle e-book readers.)

Carter, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., and grew up in London, says he has created type by every means historically possible. His father, Harry Carter, was a typographer and a type historian. He never pressured his son to enter the family trade, but when Matthew Carter needed a job after graduating from high school, his father helped him get an apprenticeship at a type foundry in the Netherlands.

He carved letters into the end of a steel rod in a process called punch-cutting, which was already on its way to becoming obsolete. He could finish about one letter a day.

He still sees himself as a type "founder," an anachronistic term for someone who makes type, even though today he's pushing pixels rather than pounding metal. He also classifies his job under industrial design because he is perfecting a product -- the English alphabet -- that must perform a specific task for many people.

"All industrial designers have constraints, but they are particularly severe in type design," he says. "Typefaces have to be readable and useable . . . and on the other hand, you have this impulse to bring some tiny measure of innovation into what you're doing. The options are very limited. I can't decide one morning I'm tired of the letter B and I'm going to redesign it from scratch. There's frustration and fascination. If you're going to serve a life sentence as a type designer -- which I seem to be doing -- you have to find the fascination greater than the frustration."

When Carter designs a typeface, he typically starts with a lowercase h. It has an ascender (the stroke going up on the left), but it also reveals a lot about the character of the typeface. From a lowercase h, he explains, you can tell what a lowercase l, m and n will look like. Graphic designers, however, usually identify typefaces by more flamboyant letters of the alphabet, such as a capital "Q" or a lowercase "g." The fact that Carter is more of a lowercase h guy says much about his design style.

He creates "the fonts that do the heavy lifting as opposed to being flashy," says New York-based type designer Jonathan Hoefler, whom Carter points to as one of his favorite talents in the business.

Carter is best known for creating text typefaces that can be read for long periods of time. In the mid-'70s, he designed Bell Centennial for AT&T; the company still uses it in many phone books. Publications such as Sports Illustrated, Wired and the New York Times also have commissioned Carter to customize typefaces for them. In 1998, Carter created the font for most of the headlines in The Washington Post by reworking Bodoni. He named it Postoni.

For design inspiration, Carter often turns to old books. Galliard, his 1978 typeface, is a revival of a 16th-century design. Hoefler raves: "It's not necessarily just a nice font but an entire approach to design."

"If you imagine a type designer as a colorist -- colorists talk about the amazing blue they saw or the green of their bathroom -- Matthew is the guy who invented brown, then 20 years later invented orange," Hoefler says.

Three of Carter's best-known typefaces are Georgia, Tahoma and Verdana because they are all available in Microsoft programs. Microsoft commissioned him to create these fonts in 1994, because the fonts that work well in ink don't necessarily look great on low-resolution computer screens.

Hoefler's business partner, Tobias Frere-Jones, helped Carter finish the Verdana bold italic font. Frere-Jones, 38, first met Carter in 1991, when Frere-Jones was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. At his professor's urging, Frere-Jones took the train to Cambridge to show Carter a typeface he was designing for an independent-study class.

"It was sort of like going to see the pope to show him some thing you've been doodling," Frere-Jones says. "It was more than a little intimidating."

Carter gave him some tips for his project, which became a typeface called Hightower. Carter delivered his feedback in his typically relaxed manner -- "he has the basis to be kind of haughty or elitist, but that never occurs to him," Frere-Jones says. They have kept in touch ever since and they now teach a class together at Yale, where Carter has taught type design since 1976.

His students today are entering a more democratic type design field. When Carter started cutting punches in the Dutch foundry in 1955, it was an austere business, hard to get into for technical reasons. Today, anyone with a computer and Fontlab software can give it a go.

"I'm eternally grateful I survived into the digital era," he says. "I'm glad to experience the previous technologies, but am very glad to have left them behind."

The Designing Type: The Work of Matthew Carter, a lecture at 7 p.m. Monday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. $25; $20 Corcoran members. Register by calling 202-639-1770 or visiting http://www.corcoran.org.

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