Matthew Carter: My Life in Type

In his TedTalk titled Matthew Carter: My Life in Type, Matthew Carter, a British typeface designer for an array of widely used fonts, details his typographic journey and materialization of type throughout a time of high-speed technological innovation. I personally appreciated Carter’s candidacy in revealing the setbacks and flaws behind eventual typographic successes. It is easy to forget that that behind design comes an intense iterative process that is by no means perfect and often results in several failures.

Carter’s lecture specifically details the inescapable connection between ever-changing print technology and the design of the type behind it. I feel that today we often take type and its design for granted as it is just an everyday occurrence that one essentially must experience to live in today’s technologically and communicatively-based society. However, Carter reiterates that type truly does have to be manufactured and has a specific function in the context of its existing technology. What makes each type and approach different all depends on the designers themselves, as with any design process. What these designers have in common are their constraints and specifically in typography, their technological constraints. Carter’s career under these constraints is exemplified with his reflection on his type design on a rigid 18-unit spacing system versus what he could’ve created with the 1000-unit spacing system of today. He emphasized that with constraints come compromises and to remember that compromises don’t necessarily produce negative results; they can even perhaps cause beneficial accidents.

Carter also relayed the specific journeys of several now widely used fonts: including Bell Centennial, Helvetica, Verdana, etc. and the design problems surrounding each of them. He began his discourse with his first experience in digital type. Bell Centennial was designed as a response to the adverse production conditions of phone books. Although AT&T wanted these books typed in Helvetica, Carter explains that Helvetica is purposefully designed for each letter to look as similar as possible, severely contrasting the purpose and design capabilities of the phone book. In response to this problem, Carter had to precariously design and open up type letters to produce the Bell Centennial that would best suit this problem. Many of Carter’s other career roadblocks arose in that just as soon as he would typographically solve a design problem, technology would be engineered in a way that the design was obsolete. When Microsoft approached Carter about type to be designed for the screen according to coarse resolution displays rather than adapted from print, he was wary that these self-obsoleting technology problems would return once again. However, Microsoft reassured him with the encouragement that this kind of technology would take a decade to be able to completely achieve. With this reassurance, Carter successfully designed the fonts Verdana and Georgia on the screen rather than on paper, as it had been done in the past.

Carter’s ‘life in typefaces’ unveils many overarching design concepts and problem-solving that all designers face. Firstly, misunderstandings aren’t always negative. Misunderstanding the technology or intentions led to more unique approaches; design inspiration doesn’t have to always be “up in the air” and solely out of the designer’s mind to be successful. Next, iterative versions are always necessary for design and there may be instances in which the designer may have to choose the “least bad”of what they are able to do. Lastly, all designers deal with limitations and constraints but it is what they do with these compromises and setbacks that characterize their strength as a designer.