Matthew Carter’s phone rang. It was the early 2000s, and on the other end of the line was a lawyer who was inquiring about a case she was working on. Her client was trying to claim property her late father had willed her—but his former business partner said the man had actually given it to him a couple decades prior. He even had a document dated 1981 to prove it. The lawyer wanted to know: Could the type design master provide any insight into the dispute?
In fact, he could. Because the man’s document claiming ownership was written in a font that Carter didn’t design until 1995.
People tend to take type for granted, Carter has said—they see it as something that has simply always existed. But type has power—even if most go about their days unaware of how it brings the world to vivid life, our communications coasting upon its rails like an operating system.
For Carter, type has been omnipresent since the beginning: Growing up in the midst of World War II London, Carter recalls his mother cutting a Gill Sans alphabet out of linoleum to help him learn to read. Meanwhile, his father was a typographer and type historian, and the young Carter would find himself in trouble for pouring clay into his molds in an attempt to cast his own letters.
When it was time for university, Carter applied to Oxford, but destiny intervened and the school recommended he take a year off—he was only 17, and the rest of the freshman class would be older because they had served in the military as asthma had kept him out. Thus his career began by accident when he took an internship at Enschedé en Zonen in the Netherlands, studying punch-cutting at the printing company’s type foundry.
“I spent that year … learning a completely obsolete and useless trade,” he tells Debbie Millman in this episode of Design Matters, which was recorded live at the Type Directors Club. “But I did get very interested in it.”
So interested, in fact, that when it came time to study Medieval English at Oxford, he couldn’t bring himself to actually do it. Instead, he sought work, struggling to survive on sign-painting and lettering gigs in the absence of anyone needing a punch-cutter. Today, virtually every piece of writing involving Carter is keen to point out that he holds the rare distinction of having created type in every form through which it has manifested over the years, from punch to film to pixel. One wonders if entering the workforce with a highly specialized skill set that was dead upon arrival gave him a unique survival instinct, an adaptability, a drive to evolve before being left behind.
In 1958 Carter moved to London, and there, a friend of his dad’s—who he has dubbed his “fairy godfather”—gifted him £300 so that he could travel to New York City. There, Carter’s mind was blown. He went to Push Pin Studios. He dropped by Herb Lubalin’s private practice. He visited Mergenthaler Linotype. He witnessed design of a quantity and caliber he had never encountered before, and returned to London with the goal of returning to New York.
After a few years, he did. Built upon the foundation of his work in England, his talent came into its own and a lifetime of typographic output followed. Over the years Carter released Snell Roundhand, Bell Centennial, Helvetica Compressed, Balliard, ITC Galliard and many, many others. Sensing change on the industry winds, he co-founded Bitstream in 1981 to specialize in digital type and licensing, before later breaking away in 1991 to focus exclusively on his own designs, which he did by launching Carter Cone Type in 1992. At his eponymous shop he has released Sophia, Big Caslon, Mantinia and, of course, his Microsoft commissions: Verdana, Georgia and Tahoma.
One might think that a designer reared on the classical creation of type would recoil at font software and the other hallmarks of the personal computer. But as Carter told J. Abbott Miller in 1995, he was energized by the “radical democratization of type,” and he couldn’t think of any other era in which he’d rather be working. (Still, it’s worth noting that as far as technological advances go, Carter has said that computers didn’t change his life; instead, it was “the coming of the laser printer. It’s an amazing luxury.”)
Carter’s output, always chameleonic and rife with surprise, has earned him nearly every top recognition in the field—from the AIGA Medal to the Type Directors Club Medal to a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian and even a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant”—and seven of his typefaces are featured in MoMA’s permanent collection, though he doesn’t consider himself an artist.
Perhaps fellow designer Jonathan Hoefler sums up Carter’s impact better than any recognitions can: “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.”
Matthew Carter knows type in a way that very few others do. He has cast it, he has cradled it in his hands, he has curated the ghosts that populate our screens. His is a 360-degree understanding of it, a lifelong study of a craft largely hidden from, yet vital to, society. In a consumer culture increasingly ravenous to know how things are sourced, from food to clothing to tech, one wonders if that hunger will ever breach the realm of design and grant its creators the recognition their efforts deserve.
Though most will never know it, we’re all the richer for Matthew Carter’s relentless love affair with letters.