Plazm Magazine: Documenting Creative Culture Since 1991
Plazm is a magazine of design, art, and culture with worldwide distribution. Founded by artists as a creative resource, the magazine is now published by the nonprofit New Oregon Arts & Letters. Order Plazm #30 now.
In Conversation with Matthew CarterBy Joshua Berger. Exerpt from F30: Thirty Essential Typefaces.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.