An Interview with Type Designer Matthew Carter

Whether they know it or not, most people are familiar with the work of recent Stamps Speaker Matthew Carter. A veteran font designer, he is most famous for Georgia, Verdana and Tahoma, screen fonts that are used by millions of people every day.

Illustrations by Carl Greene

Matthew Carter & Mia Cinelli, March 2012

Mia Cinelli: I’m wondering about your design process – how does one begin designing a font?

Matthew Carter: In general, I'm not someone who carries a sketch book around and likes to draw a great deal. So, rather than work on paper with a pencil and eraser and then scan the work, I work directly on the screen. I make my mistakes on the screen and I also clean them up there.

I think that's relatively rare. An awful lot of my colleagues do make sketches and swear by that, and say “You can't do it without sketching first,” particularly those who have a background in fine art or in calligraphy in particular. I don't. I work directly on the screen.

A certain number of the type faces I have done are, to some degree, historical revivals. In those cases, I may well have a starting point in the form of a page of a book or a type specimen that I'm working from. I will scan that and study it and work over it and so on.

Do you have a particular letter that you start with?

The letters that I like to start with are the ones that embody the most information that I can then reuse and extrapolate from. People think, “Oh, I bet you start with G or capital Q,” where you can have some fun. The absolute contrary is the case. I start with lower case h, lower case o, lower case p. In fact, I would probably do the capital Q as the very last letter because it doesn't tell me anything about the other letters.

A lower case h tells me a huge amount about other letters, particularly if you've also got an o and a p beside it. You can see all kinds of things about the relationship of the x-height and the ascenders and the descenders. Does it have serifs or not? What's the thick-thin ratio? All that stuff. If you've got an h right, you've got the makings of an n and an m and a u and so on.

So, rather than the Q or, say, the ampersand, I’m more intrigued by the kind of bread and butter letters, because they have to be just right. If you get the h, the o, or the p wrong, then just forget it.

You’ve been designing fonts for so long, how has your practice changed
over the years?

Obviously the coming of the computer made a very big difference in the lives of people like myself. But – and students always think I'm crazy when I say this – it's really the laser printer that made the biggest difference for me because it meant that for the first time in say, 500 or so years, a type designer could see what they were doing in real time.

In the days of metal type, you had to hold a punch in a candle flame and dab it on a bit of paper to get any idea what it looked like. When I worked at Linotype you had to wait sometimes days or weeks for trial matrices, (or trial fonts in the days of photocomposition), because your trial work was competing with production work.

So when you were at a stage in the design where you wanted to see what it looked like, you’d then be in this hiatus period of having to wait quite a long time in order to see it in print.

But now, it's instantaneous. A soon as I've done a couple of letters I can put them together – “ho, ho, ho” or whatever it is – and see them come out of a laser printer. Students look at me like I'm mad, “Well of course, it comes out of a laser printer. What do you mean?” But they don't realize what a luxury this is, to be able to see what you’re doing.

My process involves a lot of proofing. It's not very ecological; I burn up quite a lot of paper. But I luxuriate in this possibility of actually seeing what I'm doing.

You've had an incredibly successful career as a typographer and a designer. What advice would you give to yourself, as a young designer?

You referred to me as a typographer, which is generous of you, because that normally implies more than type design. Typographers I think are also users of type design, which I'm not. I don't design books. I don't design posters. I have to rely on other people to take my type-faces and put them to use. I'm hostage to what they do with them.

Where type design is concerned, there are now some places in the world where you can actually go and get a master's degree in type design. There's one at the University of Reading in the UK, one at The Hague in the Netherlands. There are some diploma programs, as well. There's one at Cooper Union which has quite recently started, and so on.

So, you can be taught type design now, but I still think that most type designers are really self-taught. I have colleagues who went to art school and, no doubt, benefited from the art school curriculum, but there wasn't anyone that really taught them type design. They went off and did that by themselves.

I suppose the advice I would give myself if I was starting over is really that – to do what I did and just do it.

That’s good!

Of course, if you can study with someone, it's good. If you can get encouragement, it's good. I was very lucky when I was young because a number of people who were godlike figures to me were very kind when I was starting out and encouraged me.

I often think encouragement is more valuable than actual instruction. Nobody, when I was young, said to me, “You should do an A like this and not like that.” I never had any of that kind of instruction, but I did have, as I say, some very kind encouragement.

So, I think that I would say to someone starting out – don't be shy of approaching people of an older generation whose work you like. Go and ask their advice and their opinion. They'll probably be very helpful.

There's a lot of talk about what type faces can be used in print and which ones cannot. I was wondering, what is your opinion on using web type faces in print?

This comes up a good deal in my life because I was responsible in the mid '90s for a couple of the early screen fonts, such as Verdana and Georgia. It's a question I get asked very often actually. Students say, “My instructor has told me I cannot use Georgia on paper because it's a screen font. But what's the difference? Why not?”

Or, someone will ask me about the IKEA catalogue and why they changed from Futura to Verdana. Again, Verdana is not supposed to be used in print, is it?

Those two faces in particular were developed especially for the screen. And during that time in the mid '90s we didn't have gray scales and all that sort of thing. It was all binary bitmaps. So, yes, I designed them differently than if I was just designing a printing type.

For example, we did two weights of both these faces. There is Georgia and Georgia Bold, Verdana and Verdana Bold. The relationship between the relative weights is different. They are further apart in weight than you would typically find in a printing type, the reason being that with small sizes on the screen, your main stem weights are probably going to be only a single pixel wide.

If you go to bold, the only thing you can do is double it. To have a bold face that's twice as heavy as the regular weight means you're getting more like a black weight than a bold. That's one example of things that might be a bit different in a font designed for the screen.

Actually, in the IKEA catalogue, the printed catalogue, that was rather useful, because having a really visible difference between the two weights worked for the way they were using it. The subtler, semi-bold weight wouldn't have contrasted as much.

The original version of Georgia doesn't have any small caps. If you're doing a book and you want to use small caps for the first line of the first paragraph, they're not going to look very good if they're manipulated in InDesign or something. So, there may be some pitfalls that you have to watch out for.

But, I just say, “Go ahead and use it and see what you think.” I've got a little collection of things that people have sent me, little books or booklets that have been printed in Verdana or Georgia, and I honestly see very little that's wrong with them.

For example, the menu where we just ate our lunch was in Verdana, and I didn't have too much difficulty reading that.

Good point! So, you have been designing fonts for so long, do you ever get tired of it? How do you maintain your interest?

I'm lucky because people use my typefaces. As a rule, the feedback is encouraging and keeps me going.

I'm 74 years old. I started out in 1955 or something like that. It's been a long time. I say that the fascination has to outweigh the frustration. There are frustrations in any form of industrial design.

And, maybe this is self-serving, but I think type designers work within particularly severe functional constraints, namely that you can't just capriciously change the letters of the alphabet. It's too late for that. That is a constant constraint. Whether you find that frustrating or not is a temperamental issue.

If you're like me, you love this tension between the constraints – the conventions of the alphabet which you can't do anything about – and the desire to find something of yourself in each typeface you're working on. Otherwise, why bother? That is the fascination for me, so I get recharged by this challenge every time.

So, in my working life there is this theme of going back again and again to this issue and trying, once again, to get it right.

You love it.

Yes, I do.


Watch the March 8, 2012 Stamps lecture by Matthew Carter and Roger Black here.


Fonts designed by Matthew Carter include:





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