NOTE FROM DEBBIE:
Hello everyone and Happy Sunday! This is the second of a group of live interviews I am releasing as a special Design Matters Live Summer Series! I've recorded quite a few live shows this year at festivals and conferences with artists, designers, musicians, photographers and more, and these podcasts are all FREE because of your Drip support. (Thank you, thank you!) This second interview is with legendary type designer and MacArthur Fellow Matthew Carter. We spoke at the Type Drives Culture Conference presented by the Type Directors Club back in March 2018. I hope you enjoy it!
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. A great deal of 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. “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 deep-seated 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 brilliant 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 pure, 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 even 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.”
Viewed objectively and removed from the realm of design dialogue, type may seem like an incredibly odd thing to devote one’s life to. Yes, in some sense, type has breached the mainstream consciousness, with everyone declaring a favorite font, and most people knowing enough to “know” that the prevailing aesthetic is to turn their noses up at Comic Sans and Papyrus. But few know the hell that can be the creation of a font, from battles with impatient clients to the sheer hours, days, months and sometimes years refining kerning pairs. Still fewer know the rush of perfecting those pairs, or the heartbreak of accepting that they never will.
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 intense efforts deserve.
Though most will never know it, we’re all the richer for Matthew Carter’s relentless love affair with letters.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
Matthew: I sometimes get asked, "What's your favorite letter?" I say, "I'm not allowed to have a favorite letter because if you favor one letter, it suggests that you disfavor others ones."
Curtis: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from Design Observer dot com. For 14 years now, Debbie has been talking with designers and other creative people about what they do, how they got to be who they are, and what they're thinking about, and working on. Design Matters is on summer break and will be back with a new season in the fall. In the meantime, we're sharing some of the live interviews Debbie has recently done in front of an audience. The audio isn't always perfect, but the interviews are lively. This one, with the great type designer, Matthew, took place in March 2018 at the Type Directors Club in New York City.
Debbie: Matthew, the first thing I want to ask you about is your handwriting. I understand that you believe that your handwriting is pretty appalling. Is that true?
Debbie: Has it always been?
Debbie: Why? Why is it appalling?
Matthew: I wish it were better, but ... I got caught up when I was a school boy. There was a revival of interest in handwriting in England, italic handwriting. I wanted very much to do it and I got manuals, and so on, about it. But I could never make the pen go where I wanted it to. I could see in my mind's eye the shape it should make, but I couldn't make it.
Matthew: So, with the result that my handwriting, or my pen lettering in general, is really awful. And I envy friends of mine who are calligraphers and can make beautiful gestures and shapes. But I can't do that.
Debbie: You needed to use French curves to make your curves, originally?
Matthew: Yes. Yeah, but because I couldn't take a broad edge pen and make the shape that I wanted to, I started laboriously to draw the outline and fill it in. Again, when I was still a school boy, and that's what type designers do. So it kind of led me in that direction, I think.
Debbie: Okay. And you've never sought to improve the quality? You've just accepted that it was appalling?
Debbie: Fair enough. Matthew, you grew up-
Matthew: Why do you ask?
Debbie: I always like to start with a quirky question.
Matthew: Yeah, sure.
Debbie: I feel like it sort of breaks the ice.
Debbie: You grew up in the midst of World War II. Your family was evacuated. You were not able to take many of your possessions. How did you come to understand that, as a young boy growing up, and suddenly being pulled from your home, and your things, and having to start an entirely new existence, essentially?
Matthew: Well, I was only two when the war broke out, so I don't think ... As I was six, seven when it ended. I don't think I knew any other life. So, I was used to sleeping in the shelter at night. I was used to going out in the morning and seeing bomb craters in the street or watching the contrails of battles of planes overhead and all that. So the sense of being in a war was very strong. Little boys took a certain delight in all of this because you could find bits of shrapnel in the ground and that sort of thing. But it wasn't that I knew a pre-war existence, and then the war came and it was very different. I didn't know anything else. I do have one memory of the wartime that I rather cherish, which was Mr. Churchill, the Prime Minister, would occasionally address the nation. Particularly, when things were going really bad. And my mother would get me out of bed and make me listen to him. I can't, now, remember what he said. Of course, I've since read.
Matthew: But there was this sort of feeling during the war. Okay, so you're only three or four years old, but you're in this, too. You'd better listen to what Mr. Churchill says. So I have that strange memory of being made to take this all rather seriously and so on. As you said-
Debbie: And to be so little.
Matthew: Yeah, yeah. And then we were evacuated. We had lived south of London, which was very unhealthy, because after the Germans started sending the doodlebugs and the V2 rockets to hit London, some of them fell short. So if you're living south of London, you were very vulnerable to ones that didn't quite make it all the way into London. So, yeah, we moved to the country.
Debbie: Did you feel, when the war was over, any sense of relief? Were you confused by-
Matthew: Oh, yes, yeah. No, I mean ... You didn't have quite the same experience in this country. But I had a very real sense that someone was trying to kill me and my mum. That was very clear from the precautions you had to take. So when V-Day came along, I remember we went up to London to celebrate. It was amazing, an amazing feeling.
Debbie: Do you feel like those early experiences shaped you in any way?
Matthew: It's really hard to say. I don't really ... I can't think of particular ways. You mentioned that if you were evacuated, you didn't have very much with you. And I do remember, I think this is a genuine memory, that in order to help me learn to read, and so on, my mother cut some letters out of ... I don't know, linoleum or something-
Debbie: It was linoleum.
Matthew: Or some sort of plastic.
Debbie: Gill Sans, I believe.
Matthew: I don't know why you're asking me, you know all this.
Debbie: It's so they find out, too.
Matthew: My mother was very much in tune with design at the time. And so I think I sort of learned the letters of the alphabet in Gill Sans, thanks to the war.
Debbie: No, I think she did that so that she could help you learn to read.
Matthew: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.
Debbie: Yeah. Now, your father was a Typographer. He was a designer, he was a type historian. And I understand that as a kid, you got in trouble for pouring liquid clay into one of his type molds in an attempt to make a piece of type. How old were you?
Matthew: That must have happened ... My father spent most of the war in what was then, Palestine and Jerusalem in the censorship. He was too old for military service, but he spoke a lot of languages, so they put him there. He came back, I think not immediately, not in '45, probably '46. So that was probably in 1946, so I would have been about seven ready to go off to boarding school. Yeah.
Debbie: And he did send you off right around then. Was it because of your bad behavior? Or your mischief?
Matthew: No, no, no. No, no, no. It was not uncommon for kids to go to boarding school at a very early age because of the war. The war was over by then, but the schools were used to it, parents were used to the idea, and so on. Once, in later life, I said to my mother, "Sending me off to boarding school at the age of seven, wasn't that rather tough love?"
Matthew: And she said, "Well, we wouldn't have done it, dear, if you hadn't insisted." So why, I thought at the age of seven, I wanted to go, I have no idea. I can't answer that question, but off I went and spent all of my schooling in boarding school. Yeah.
Debbie: Now, I read that you thought of yourself, your younger self, as a misfit.
Matthew: Well, this is ... Yeah, boy. This is going to take some explaining. My second school was one of, what in England are called public schools, which means exactly the opposite. They're private fee bank schools. Supposedly, it's sort of the best education that money can buy. But I think at the time I was there, I left the equivalent of high school in 1955, I think they were really bad. And I've known other people who'd had the same experience. Alan Fletcher who went to the same kind of school and was a few years older than me, he had the same experience.
Matthew: I think those school ... I think they got very much better quite soon. I've met people who went to my school. I once found myself talking to Peter Gabriel at a party who went to the same school as me 10 or a dozen years later. And it was obvious talking to him, it was very much better when he was there than when I was there. There was a lot of Victorian claptrap about traditions, and so on.
Matthew: Anyway, I think the school didn't know what to do with you unless you were going to be a bishop, a general, or a banker. And since I obviously wasn't going to be any of those, nor was Alan by the way, they really didn't know what to do with us. And we weren't trying to be rebellious or wanting to be misfits or anything. We just didn't fit into the academic structure of the school.
Matthew: Alan had more self-confidence than anyone I've had ever met, but I didn't. And so, when I left school, I kind of did think of myself as not having much in the way of prospects because the school had told me as much. The sort of, there's no hope. What are you going to do with yourself?
Debbie: What were you imagining you were going to do with yourself at that point?
Matthew: I didn't have a very clear idea. I did have some conversations with my dad about this and he thought that I should go and work at a museum. He had worked, at one time, for the stationary office, the government printer in England, and they produced booklets, books for some of the museums. And I think this had meant he had had to go visit various curators at the Victorian Armory Museum, wherever it was, to discuss doing a book on medieval armory or armor, or embroidery, or something or other.
Matthew: I think he envied the job of curators at those museum curators. You spent your time in scholarship and acquisitions as people above you died or were promoted, you moved up. I think my dad thought that he was probably right, that this would be a very nice life. Of course, not long afterwards the whole idea of museums changed radically and it became as a fun for all the family. I don't think I'd have liked that. But anyway, I didn't go into a museum and that's as close as we got to any idea of what I might do with myself.
Debbie: Now, I understand that your early formal type education began with an internship in Enschedé in the Netherlands. You were supposed to work in a variety of departments at the company, but ended up doing all of your work in the type foundry where you studied punch cutting. So I was wondering if you could share with the audience what punchcutting is.
Matthew: I will try to do so. Yes. I had a year to fill between leaving high school and starting at Oxford. My dad had very friendly relationships with this excellent printing company Enschedé, still exists by the way, in Haarlem in the Netherlands. So I went off there, as you said, to be an unpaid trainee for a year.
Matthew: And Enschedé were very unusual. In fact, they were probably unique in that they were a printer but they still made their own type in-house. They made it by very obsolete methods, by hand, essentially. They had a very distinguished type designer at Enschedé, Jan van Krimpen. And his types were all cut by hand, by a remarkable man called P. H. Raedisch punchcutter.
Matthew: Punchcutting is a matter of engraving letter forms at an actual size at the end of a piece of steel, hardening the steel, and then driving that into a copper blank to make a matrice in which you cast type. Nobody knows exactly how Gutenberg worked. That may not have been exactly how he did it. But probably, certainly by 1500, that was how type was made, and continued to be made until the invention of pantographic punchcutting machines in the 1880s, and so on. So, this was a real throwback.
Matthew: So I spent that year sitting between Raedisch, and his assistant, Henk Drost, who was enormously helpful, learning a completely obsolete and useless trade. But I did get very interested in it. And so when I went back home, supposedly to start university, I really ... In those days, the English school at Oxford was Anglo-Saxon. I'd have had to learn-
Debbie: Well, I think you were going to study mid-evil English.
Matthew: Yeah, Beowulf and stuff. Having been out in the world a bit, I didn't really fancy this. So I got my nerve up to tell my parents that I didn't want to go to Oxford because my dad was very academic. He had been to Oxford. He worked at the University Press at Oxford, and I thought that this would not turn out well.
Matthew: But to my astonishment and relief, they were very supportive. They said, "Fine. Don't go to Oxford. Start work." I guess I saved them the college fees, which they were probably grateful for. So I did. I never went to university or college of any kind. And I did just, sort of, start working, doing anything I could.
Matthew: I did a little bit of engraving. I cut some punches. I cut some binders, brasses. So I really learned to make type before I could design it. But I had to, sort of, teach myself to design type or lettering, and so on, because I couldn't possibly make a living as an engraver. It was nothing to me now.
Debbie: Can you explain to the audience what a smoke proof is and how you make one?
Debbie: This was one of the most fascinating things that I learned in doing my research.
Matthew: Just before we, sort of, went on the air, I mentioned to you that immediately after I was at Enschedé, a Canadian designer Carl Dair did the same thing. He followed in my footsteps, in a way. And Carl had had some experience with film. And he filmed a sort of a 'Day in the Life in the Type Foundry of Raedisch' it just sets up its own ... So, if you had seen that film ... and it's available. I can't remember exactly how you find it, but it's called Gravers and Files, and it would show you what a smoke proof is.
Matthew: When you're cutting a punch, you obviously want to see what the letter looks like. The only way to do that is to hold it in the soot of a candle flame. So you get a little deposit of black soot on the face of the punch, and then dap it on a piece of coated paper, normally, to leave a little impression. So that is what you do. You look at it. You see the letter printed in actual size, and so on. And inevitably, when you first look at it, it's wrong, so you work on it more.
Matthew: It's very difficult to persuade students ... Whoever it was, I don't suppose it was me. But the first time somebody digitized two letters on a computer and sent them to a laser printer, and they came out, real size and real time, was the first time in the history of type making that any type designer, saw their work in that way.
Matthew: Smoke proofs, you can imagine, it's immensely laborious. When I was at Linotype, if you wanted trial matrices cut, you had to wait because it interfered with production, and so on. Same thing in photo-composing days. The factor was very good to me, but with matrices, it would be weeks of waiting. With a trial font, it'll probably be several days at least, before you could see what you were doing. So smoke proofs were the punchcutter's only way of getting some sort of idea of what this letter might look like before you struck the matrice and-
Debbie: So you heated up the metal type. Then, you were able to get some soot to be able to then press it down on some sort of coated paper to see what it would look like. Wow.
Matthew: Yes. You don't believe me?
Debbie: No, I do. I do. I do.
Matthew: It's true.
Debbie: It's just hard to believe how far we've come.
Matthew: It is. It is.
Debbie: Also, I can't imagine looking at the type that way would really be that accurate.
Matthew: It's accurate in this sense, that the image you get is very precise provided you do it right. But of course, you get no clue about spacing, how the letters look together. You can ... We used to do this. We used to make smoke proofs. We would cut them up, tiny little pieces, and paste them up to make an alphabet or words. Unbelievably laborious. But still, it's not really a very satisfactory way of doing it. But it was the only to do it in those days.
Debbie: What made you decide not to go to Oxford after you had planned to go?
Matthew: I think it was just this year I'd spent and got interested in type. Although, as I say, the particular craft ... It takes more than a year to become a punchcutter but I had some sort of journeyman proficiency. I could sort of ... I kinda knew what to do.
Matthew: As I say, I couldn't make a living that way, but I had got interested in type. I think that although my dad never pushed me to, sort of, follow in his footsteps, he said, "Who needs two typographers in the family?" Conversation at the dinner table would be much more interesting if you went into something else.
Matthew: But then, when I did say that I'd got very interested in this, he was very supportive in that sense. But I think it was a combination of my liking the experience that I'd had at Enschedé, and not liking the prospecting of learning Anglo-Saxon, that decided that for me.
Debbie: You were really struggling initial to find work, to get a job. You were drawing alphabets for modernist designers and wanted to develop contemporary sans serif of type during a fairly conservative time in the country. You started working with Alan Fletcher and Colin Forbes, two of the original partners at Pentagram. Talk about that experience. First of all, did you meet Alan through the boarding school experience?
Matthew: No, no, no. Here's what happened. I moved to London in 1958, I think it was. And in 1960, I had a great stroke of luck, which actually did sort of change my life. I was given a sum of money. I think it was 300 pounds. 300 pounds went a long way in 1960. And what I chose to do, to this day, I'm not exactly sure why, I chose to spend it in coming to New York.
Matthew: So I spent a few weeks in the spring of 1960 here, and I was gobsmacked. I went to Push Pin. I went to Chermayeff Geismar. I went to Lubalin. They all handed me around, and so on. I saw graphic design that didn't know existed. I was amazed.
Matthew: But the thing that really turned me on the most was going to Mergenthaler Linotype. Mike Parker, who I already knew, had be working there for about a year, I think an assistant to Jackson Burke, who was the director of Typographic Development at Mergenthaler. Mergenthaler, by the way, then, was a sort of dark satanic build down by the Navy yard in Brooklyn between the Pratt Campus and the Navy Yard.
Matthew: But I loved it. I really loved the factor atmosphere, and so on. And I kind of let it be known to Mike and Jackson that I'd love to work there. There was no job for me at that point, and actually, in retrospect, that was a mercy because I don't think I had anything to offer at that point.
Matthew: But then in the intervening years ... I did go there in '65. So in the intervening five years, when I got back to London, sort of charged up with everything I'd seen here in the studios in New York ... I can't remember exactly how it started, but the fact that Alan had been to Yale and worked in this country.
Matthew: I did do quite a bit of work for him and for Colin, for Bob Gill, when Bob came over and joined an ad agency in London, for Derek Birdsall, David Collins. There were a handful, not a great many, but there were some very, very good graphic designers in London at that time who wanted to work in a sort of international modernist style. But the type setting trade in Britain was incredibly conservative at that time. Helvetica was released in Switzerland in 1957. In 1961, we could not get Helvetica set in London.
Debbie: Why not?
Matthew: No one had it. They had the Monotype faces. They had some Stephenson Blake, Grocks, and so on. Nobody imported Helvetica. Nowadays, if someone introduces a new type face in, I don't know, in here or in Berlin or in Tokyo, people are using it in seconds. The fact that ... There shouldn't have been a four year time lag between introducing a face like Helvetica.
Matthew: But that, in a way, I benefited from that because I got to draw a lot of lettering, sometimes whole alphabets, sometimes logos, and so on, for those designers. And this was a really great trading for me because they were very exacting, and they made me get it right, and get it on time and all that good stuff. It was really a very fortunate thing I kind of fell into.
Matthew: And then another interesting thing happened that ... Bob left the agency and Fletcher, Forbes and Gill was created, I think in '62. And Bob said to me that he was thinking of hiring me as his assistant in the new company, and I was pretty chuffed about that because I knew all three of them well. I'd worked with all of them and I thought this would be a very interesting job.
Matthew: But then Alan took me aside and he said, "You don't want to do that." "Really? Why not?" I thought that sounded like a great job. And Alan said to me, he said, "If there's any deciding to be done, it's gonna be done by the three of us."
Matthew: So I treated his advice ... I mean, I was sort of disappointed but I didn't join the company. And I realized, when I thought about it, that this was a very Alan like, strange sort of vote of confidence. Because what he was saying to me was, "Don't come here and be an assistant. Bugger off and be a designer," which is sort of what I did.
Debbie: It took a while though. I mean, you were doing all sorts of things. You were sign painting, you were doing technical drawing.
Matthew: Yeah. Anything I could find.
Debbie: Anything you could find. So what would you consider to be your first big break?
Matthew: Huh. Well, some of the work I did for those guys has stood up, in my memory at least. There were various kinds of strands, I think, in my life when I was young and didn't really have a direction. Because of Enschedé, and so on, I had certain ideas about fine printing and fine typography, and all that sort of thing. The British English Private Press Movement, Doves Press Bible and all that good stuff.
Matthew: Then, at some stage, I'm not exactly sure when, I read a remark, something that Stanley Morrison wrote. Mr. Morrison was the typographical authorianism in my parent's generation, both as a scholar, historian and as a practical matter. I mean, he advised Monotype on the famous series of revivals, and so on.
Matthew: And Mr. Morrison wrote somewhere that printing was invented to multiply information. That it's the multiplication that is the art of printing. When I read that, it hit me like a ton of bricks because that's not what I thought the art of printing was at all. I thought it was all limited editions and fine paper, and all that sort of stuff. But it really stuck with me in a big way, and I think that was why I was so excited to go to Mergenthaler in 1960. There was some part of me that wanted to be with the machines. What Morrison said implies that things like newspapers, magazines, telephone directories, manuals, textbooks, timetables, were very important. They weren't set in fancy type and fancy paper, and so on. They were set by machine. I really was interested in getting into the industrial aspect of typography rather than the craft aspect where I'd started out.
Matthew: So I think in '62 or '64, I got a job with Crosfield Electronics in London. And Crosfield's where the manufacturing agent for the Photon machine, was it was called here, it was called the Lumitype in Europe. The machine's made either here or in London. But the fonts for Europe were all made in Paris at the Deberny et Peignot. And so the best part of this job, which I had for a couple of years in London, was, I would say, at least a week out of every month, I was in Paris specifying fonts for our customers, designing type when it was necessarily and when there was something missing that I needed. And this brought me in touch with the Adrian Frutiger who was in charge of the development of Lumitype in Paris.
Matthew: By this time, he wasn't full time but he came in once or twice a week. He had his own studio where I also used to go. I got to know him very well, and admired him enormously. But he also, rather like Alan, did me a great favor. Nobody sort of stood over my shoulder and said, "This is how you do an A. Not like that, like that." I never had instruction of that kind. I had to sort of figure that out, I guess.
Matthew: But what Adrian and the other people in the Paris studio did for me was ... I arrived there with absolutely no credentials at all, but they treated me like I knew what I was doing. And I think the point in your youth when you start to do good work is when somebody expects you to do a good work.
Matthew: When somebody is kind of fussing over you and supervising you closely, and they're kind of nervous you're going to screw up, you're probably going to screw up. But when they kind of leave you alone and say, "Okay, you do it. We'll tell you drawing scale, how many units to DM," and that sort of thing. Get on and do it. And that's what I got from Adrian, with absolutely no justification. I mean, he had nothing to base this on. But that was very sort of formative for me, I think. That someone of his eminence would take me seriously, which I didn't deserve at all. So that period at crossroads was very useful to me.
Matthew: But meanwhile, I had kept in touch with Mergenthaler, because that's really where I wanted to be. The Linofilm in their machine was actually better than the Photon machine. It had a better quality output. So I kept in touch with Mike. And in '65, Jackson Burke retired, Mike moved up to the director's job, and he hired me. So, I moved immediately to Brooklyn. And I think by that time, I did have a certain amount of pent up stuff that I was ready to work on. I worked like a maniac when I first got there.
Debbie: What does that mean?
Matthew: Very long hours, all weekend, and everything else.
Debbie: But you must have loved it.
Matthew: I did. I absolutely loved it. I mean, I realized once I got there that this was for me. This made a lot of sense. A lot of stuff had sort of help me get there, but that's really where I wanted to be.
Debbie: You've said that the biggest challenge for you in the evolution of type production was going from 3D to 2D in the 60s. Did you have to completely change what type was in your mind to be able to do that?
Matthew: Yeah. Both at Crosfield's and the Paris studio, and when I got go Mergenthaler, I had to make production drawings. I had to make black on white draws, convenient scale. As we were talking about earlier, with respect to my appalling handwriting, I don't actually draw very well. So yes, French curves, straight edges, every dodge I could use.
Matthew: But yes, I had to make production drawings because the way fonts, photo-composing fonts, were made, my drawing became the image, the production image. I mean, it was rephotographed. But if I made a mistake in the drawing, it was a mistake in the font, so it was a very direct process. So yes, I had to learn to make good quality, good edge quality technical drawings, and so on. And I continued to do that for a long time.
Debbie: You've stated that you don't depend on inspiration, that you don't get bolts out of the blue. And that if I were to give you a blank sheet of paper on a Monday morning, and ask you to design a typeface, the paper would still be blank on Friday.
Matthew: Yes. Same'd be true if it was a blank screen, I might say. Yes. I'll tell you. I have a friend who's an artist here in New York. She got in touch with me a few years ago because she's a printmaker and she was doing a portfolio of prints about Bob Dylan. On some of these prints, she wanted to include the lyrics from his songs, and she wanted a special typeface for this.
Matthew: So I went and met her several times, and loved her work. We had a number of conversations, of course, about how what sort of typeface this would be, and so on. So when the point came for me to start work on this, I said to Leslie, "When you are doing your prints, where do your ideas come from?" And she said, "Well, I put on Bob's music and ideas come." Well, I'd better try that.
Matthew: So I sit down in front of the computer, I put on some Dylan and I say, "Okay, Bob. Give me an A," and nothing. "B? B for Bob?" Nothing. "C?" In the end, I had to do the work. Inspiration didn't strike. I had to do it the hard way, which is generally my method. I can't remember who I heard say it. Somebody said, "Inspiration is for amateurs." Designers put in the time, do the work.
Debbie: Now, in 1981, '81, you and a small group of people founded Bitstream, recognizing the potential of digital type and licensing. 1981. How did you get a sense that the world was going in that direction that early?
Matthew: You see, people nowadays ... There's a sort of fallacy nowadays that digital type started with the Mac and the PC in the mid 80s. It had been going for 10 years by then. Linotype, and some other companies, produced very high speed digital typesetting devices. They replaced the phototypesetting devices, and so they needed type.
Matthew: And because I was a Linotype designer, I got to work on digital type. This was a curious period in the history of Linotype because they'd had, it wasn't exactly a monopoly, but Linotype had had an enormously strong position in the type setting market, particularly in this country.
Matthew: But that began to get eroded as more and more companies came into the business. Compugraphic, Alphatype, and others. Their market shares started to dwindle. And Mike had run a very aggressive typographic development policy during the 70s based on the success of the phototypesetting machines.
Matthew: But it became rather clear to us that with the sort of declining sale, Linotype might not be able to continue as vigorous a type development program as the one we'd been running, which had been very profitable. With companies like Monotype and Linotype, you have to remember that 90% of their revenue was machines, 10% was type. Type was a machine part. It was only there to make the machines work, allow the machines to work.
Matthew: So however profitable a type may have been in itself, it was still only a small part of the business as a whole. And Mike, and others of us at Linotype, thought ... There was some very exciting digital companies coming into this business with no typographic background at all. But they had some geniuses there, and they developed these incredibly high powered and very expensive digital typesetting machines. But they had no type.
Matthew: So they could have, of course, hired a bunch of type designers if they could have found them and developed a library, but that would've taken years. So they wanted a source of type. Mike suggested to the management at Mergenthaler that instead of just making type for Linotype machines, we should make it for all-comers. Anyone should be able to come to us and license type.
Matthew: But the management, they couldn't ... They're that sort. They said, "Our type are only for our machines. Forget it." So we left, and founded Bitstream, four of us. In other words, we were obliged to do outside Linotype what we wanted to do from inside Linotype.
Matthew: So, we did do Bitstream and we had some very good designers. And we had to develop some digital type very fast. They'd been forgotten now because everything got blown out of the water by the Macintosh eventually.
Matthew: But there were a great many companies at that time. I shouldn't say a great many, but a large, substantial number of companies in this whole page digital, very powerful typesetting. Things that did type and text and illustration and everything all at the same time on the page in digital form. So that's how Bitstream came into business, and I stayed there 10 years.
Debbie: What made you decide to leave?
Matthew: Again, a number of factors. At that point, the four founders, Cherie Cone and I were the only two remaining. Mike Parker left, Rob Freedman had left. Cherie and I'd had some disagreements with the other members of the board, the outside directors, about the sort of direction the company ... There was a new president coming in who was a very nice guy. But we thought that his background, his skills, where not what the company needed. But the most important thing was that I'd work there for 10 years. I'd only design one typeface in 10 years.
Debbie: What was that face?
Matthew: It was called Charter. I was in my mid 50s, and I thought, if I'm never going to design another type face again, I'd better leave, because I don't want to spend another 10 years in meetings deciding who got which parking space, which is how my life was spent, particularly since I didn't have a car. So Cher and I quit. Relatively, amicably, as a matter of fact. Started our own company.
Matthew: David Berlow, who had also worked at Bitstream had left about ... what ... maybe 18 months before we did to start the Font Bureau. David and I had been friends for a very long time. I'd kept in touch with David since he left and he seemed to have a viable business doing custom work, and so on, at the Font Bureau. So I think that encouraged Cherie and me to take the plunge and set up our own company, a kitchen table top type founder. So, we did, and we're still at it.
Debbie: Let's talk about Georgia.
Matthew: Georgia. Yes?
Debbie: How did Microsoft approach you? How did you get that project? Tell me everything about Georgia.
Matthew: Everything about Georgia. Right.
Matthew: In the mid 90s, I'd say about '93 or '94 ... This was after Cherie and I had started our company. We were approached by Microsoft with a very interesting proposition. Up to that point, people, not only in graphic design but really in general, had kind of regarded the screen as preview mode.
Matthew: You looked at the screen when you were typing something or when you were reading something. But really what counted was when you printed it out. Microsoft, in that position, had the forethought to realize that this was going to change, that the screen would soon become the priority. That people wouldn't necessarily print out, wouldn't have to print out. Obviously, you would have to be able to print out but most people would sort of live on the screen.
Matthew: And they said, all of our screen fonts, obviously up to this point, had been adapted from pre-existing printer fonts, what else? You take Times Roman and Helvetica, and you try and make them work on the screen. And the screen, then, mid 90s, relatively coarse resolution, very poor photometric resolution. I mean, pixels were binary, on or off, black or white, no gray scaling, anti-aliasing, none of that good stuff.
Matthew: So they said to me, how would I like to design a couple of typefaces, first of all a sans serif and then we'd do a serif, whose first priority would be legibility on the screen. And I said to them, at first, that philosophically, this is a wrong decision. Because a typeface that is designed for a specific technology is a self-obsoleting typeface because the technology always changes and improves.
Matthew: I knew this might cost because in the early days of digital type, I had made a typeface that was meant to kind of mitigate the problems of the early digital typesetting machines, which were kind of cranky, frankly. So I said, we shouldn't put the time and effort into doing this because before we know it, the engineers, in whom I have total faith, will build better screens and all our type will be waste.
Matthew: And they said, "Well, we've got news for you. Screens will not improve for at least 10 years." I can't remember what they'd bottleneck was, technically. But they said, "We're stuck with these screens for at least 10 years." I said, "Oh, 10 years. That's different." Let's do it.
Matthew: I look back on design and what became Verdana and Georgia as being very, very congenial projects for me, because contrary to what designers think, I really like working with engineers. Again, I was with the machines and software in this case, and so on. And tackling these problems of coarse resolutions screens ... How do you make a bitmap that's going to work on a coarse resolution screen at a very small size.
Matthew: Charles Eames said something about, he was conscious of working within constraints but not of making compromises. I think if you understand the constraints, you don't have to make compromises. And so what I did at Microsoft when I was given this job was, obviously, I studied, as much as I could, what happens to fonts on the screen and various disasters that occur to them. So I learned from that and we sort of edged our way into this.
Matthew: That is the kind of job I really like, because that's not giving me a blank screen on Monday morning. That's giving me a screen that's a big mess and saying these fonts are really awful. The spacing is bad, the bitmap's all falling apart, fix it. That's for me. I mean, that's what I like to do. So I got really into that and we did Verdana first.
Matthew: We found that ... It was originally intended for a menu font, for a system font. But one of the things that I'd done to it to make it more legible was space it out a bit. And they found that some of the boxes and menus in Finnish or German, or something or other, busted so we did a narrow version called Tahoma.
Matthew: Verdana came became a sort of text face that Tahoma became the system font. Then I said, "Okay, well, while we're at it, do a serif design," so that's how Georgia came about. That was done in the same way, studied the pixels on the screen and doing bitmaps, and then wrapping the outlines around them and then having Tom Rickner, a very wonderful intern, do the work to make them work on the screen, and that sort of thing.
Matthew: So that was all a very favorite project. And Microsoft were absolutely dead on with their predictions because, I've since read that 1996, which was the year that Verdana and Georgia were released, was actually sort of the tipping point when there were more digital communications than printed communications. That was when that happened. So then Microsoft was absolutely right on target there.
Matthew: So, yeah. I became extremely fond of the people at Microsoft that I worked on in that project. I look back on it with a lot of pleasure. I think it was one of the projects that came my way that I perhaps was sort of equipped to deal with from previous experiences that I'd had.
Debbie: And you don't get royalties?
Matthew: Would I be here if did? No, no. I mean, this was completely understood. Originally, at the very first instance, Microsoft had not considered giving these fonts away. But then, they thought, this would be a really good idea because we would be improving the legibility of our software, and so on, and our hardware. So let's do that.
Matthew: So you can't really pay royalties on something you're giving away. So no, no royalties. But we did factor that into the price. I can't complain about what Microsoft paid me for that work 'cause it did take into consideration there'd be no residual revenue from this whatever, this one shot buy-out.
Debbie: How are you feeling about the Kindle these days. Because I read an article in the Economist where you were avoiding, and this is back in 2010, you were avoiding reading anything on the Kindle because of what you deemed typographic sins.
Matthew: This was me?
Debbie: And then a couple of years later, I understand that you did have a Kindle and you were able to read using your font Georgia. But I wasn't sure how you were feeling about the typographic sins.
Matthew: To be honest, I don't remember saying that and I don't exactly remember what I had in mind. It probably wasn't so much the font as the way the type was handled, what you might call the layout and so on, on the Kindle. I don't really know. But it is true, that I don't ... I read more on paper than I read on the screen. But I do read on the screen. If I say it, you shouldn't, I do read generally in Georgia. Yes.
Debbie: Why wouldn't you?
Matthew: Oh, I don't know. There might be something much better. I guess I've gotten used to Georgia by now.
Debbie: So now I'm going to read you a quote by Abbott Miller, another Pentagram partner. He has written, "Within Carter's oeuvre, there's no sense of a recurrent aesthetic. He's been a problem solver, Snell Roundhand, Bell Centennial, a historian with Big Caslon, a synthesizer with Sophia, and a radical with Walker." And you, yourself, said, "Type designers come in two different kinds. Of the first, Gerard Unger is a very good example, as is Goudie or Zapf. I envy these people because they're designers of genius whose personality comes out in every typeface they design. I'm sure if Gerard designed a new typeface, the first time I'd pick up a newspaper or a magazine, I'd know it was by him. I read his handwriting. His personality shines through in everything he does. I don't have this kind of genius. I'm more of a chamaeleon." And my question is, Matthew, really?
Matthew: Yeah. This is absolutely true. I mean-
Debbie: I don't know that the MacArthur foundation would agree.
Matthew: I'll talk about that as well if you like.
Debbie: Yes, yes.
Matthew: Listen, I think this is very obvious that there are these type designers, historically and contemporarily as well, who do have this very, very strong style that comes through in everything they do. I mean, Gerard, who's a very dear friend of mine ... We had a project once to do a historical revival in Fleischman.
Matthew: And we sort of looked at it, and Gerard admitted after a while, he said, "The problem is," he said, "Fleischman goes in but what comes out is [Honor 00:50:05]." And that's not quite the same for me. I mean, I don't say I would do a good Fleischman, but I think it's easier for me, as a chameleon to get inside the heads of other designers, in a way, because I don't have this very strong style. I mean, what Abbott said was very nice, but what does Snell Roundhand and Bell Centennial have in common? I mean, there's no personality there that's coming through, and so on, at all.
Debbie: You guys buying this?
Matthew: No, no. I mean, I'm not being coy here. I've thought about this and I talked to other designers about it. I think that consultation for not having this kind of powerful sense of letter forms, and so on, that shines through everything you do is that you are more adaptable. And I have enjoyed that by doing historical revivals and a variety of different kinds of work.
Matthew: I never turn down a job because I like a new challenge. I would never say to a client, "I'm not the kind of designer that does Baskerville." No. "I'm only a sans serif," or something. I don't have those kinds of feelings. I welcome any project. I've sort of made peace with myself about that because as much as I envy Gerard, and Hermann, and Adrian and others who'd had that very personal style, I'm not sorry, in a way, perhaps it's a little bit easier for me to challenge Caslon or Baskerville or something. Yeah.
Debbie: So let's talk about your MacArthur Grant. What was it like to get the phone call? Tell us about that.
Matthew: They set me up beautifully. I got an email, I think this was 2010, from a woman student in ITT in Chicago, saying that she and a bunch of colleagues of hers were going to start a project on the relationship between design and technology, and they thought my work with type might be relevant. Would I be prepared to do a telephone interview?
Matthew: This was a very written email. I get these, all designers get these emails from students from time to time. This one was particularly sort of well expressed, and so on, so I said of course. She wrote back to say, "Well, we're gonna start this in the new academic year in September," and so on. "May we fix a date to call you?" I can't remember what the day was but date and time. I said, "Absolutely. I'm looking forward to it." Put it in my diary, and so on.
Matthew: At the appointed hour on the appointed, the phone rings, and I pick it up and I expect to be talking to this, what sounds like a very intelligent, interesting woman, student. But the voice is a man's voice, and he said, "Were you expecting a call from ... " so and so. And I said, "Yes! I'm looking forward to it." He said, "Well, I'm really sorry to tell you but she doesn't exist." And I said, "Oh. Oh. What? That's a shame. But she sounded so nice."
Matthew: But then he said, "I don't think you'll be sorry to hear from me." And he said, "Do you know what the MacArthur foundation is?" And I said, "Uh, yes. I think I do." And he said, "Do you know any MacArthur fellows?" And I thought for a minute and I remember Chuck Bigelow, Harber MacArthur, and another friend of ours, Carl Harber MacArthur. If I'd spend some more time, I could've thought some more. I can think of two. And he said, "Well, now you know three." And I said, “Oh, yeah?"
Matthew: Well, this poor guy, at this point, he must have thought we've got a wrong one here, because I wasn't picking up what he was saying at all. But eventually, he managed to sort of persuade me that he'd called me to tell me that I had a MacArthur. Of course, your first reaction is, it's a friend of yours who's pulling your leg.
Debbie: That would be a mean, mean, pulling of the leg.
Matthew: Yeah. But then the first thing I said to him once the penny had dropped, I said, "Aren't I a little bit too old for this?" And he said, "Well, most of the MacArthur's do go to people who are sort of in their 30s and 40s when they've established a career. But we do sometimes give them to people older, 60s and 70s," and so on. And I said, "Oh. Oh, thank you. That's great."
Matthew: As you probably know, MacArthur is an amazing thing. There are these other grants, Fulbrights and Guggenheims, and so on, where you have to apply and you have to tell them what you're going to do with their money. And then you have to account for it at the end. Not so with the MacArthur. In fact, the very last thing this guy, I'm blanking on his name which is shameful, but he said to me ... At the end of the conversation, he said, "This is the last you'll ever hear from me." Talk about hands off, no strings attached.
Matthew: So, then the next day, you get a FedEx letter that spells this out. Oh, maybe this is real. And then eventually, you start getting checks. But you never have to account for this. You never have to tell them what you're doing. They have been in touch with me once or twice since because they give these awards to very wide variety of different people.
Debbie: But you're the only type designer that's ever gotten one.
Matthew: I think so. I checked with Chuck about this. When Chuck got his, he got his very early, I think like the second year they existed, '82 or something or other. He had not yet designed a typeface. Since then, he has. So he admitted that he wasn't a type designer when he got his. That may be true. I probably spoiled it for his mothers.
Matthew: They once try to call me because they were thinking of someone who I thought I might know might be able to give them a reference, and so on. Obviously, I adore them. The only probably is they send it out to you over five years. And when it stops, there are some withdrawal symptoms.
Debbie: At the time you-
Matthew: It's taxable, unfortunately.
Debbie: Yeah. Actually, I had dinner last night with somebody who had won one and he took the money and decided to pay for the college education of his three children with it. But also said that-
Matthew: It's actually very interesting because I run across a number of people who have these, to talk to them about what they did spend it on. Yes.
Debbie: I love what you said though. You said, "It's very nice at my age, to be told by someone that we expect more from you."
Matthew: Well, that really is what's good about awards, or probably any of them. I mean, that's the way I've always taken them. I think if somebody, whether it's the Type Directors Club, or wherever it is, if they give you a medal or an award, the Chrysler Awards, and so on, it's very nice. But it does make you think. They've had some faith in me to give me this award. I better live up to it. So I think particularly when there's generous cash involved, you feel you've got to do your best, really. Yeah.
Debbie: I wish that I had four more hours to be able to talk to you about your work and your life and your remarkable career. But I only have about five or so more minutes for this interview today. So I have a couple more questions.
Debbie: You are one of the few people that has worked across just about every medium in the creation of typography. Yet, you have said that you don't have any favorites or regrets.
Matthew: Of technologies, do you mean?
Debbie: Of your work, of the work that you've done. No favorites, and no regrets.
Matthew: No, I'm not allowed to have favorites.
Debbie: Why not?
Matthew: I can't remember which author it was. Somebody asked her, who was it, what was the favorite of the books she had written. She said, "Well, I can't tell you because the others are listening." And I think I feel the same way. I do get that question sometimes, about my own work or other people's designs, come to that. People kind of don't believe me when I say I don't really have a favorite. Obviously, it tends to be the thing you're working on at the moment.
Matthew: I sometimes get asked, "What's your favorite letter? I say, "I'm not allowed to have a favorite letter because if you favor one letter, it suggests that you disfavor other ones." And you can't do that as a type designer. If you look at the typeface you're designing, and you like some of the letters more than others, you've got a lot more work to do because they've all got to be at the same level. You can't have a really nice G and a crappy P. You can't have favorites in that sense.
Matthew: So, I genuinely do not. But I think, like any type designer, what I tend to react to is not a typeface in a sort of objective way, but how it's used. I could pick up a book jacket or a record cover. I mean, we've seen some things today and look at it and say, "Well, that's a really good use of a typeface. I really like that." Or the opposite, and so on. Oddly enough, where ones own work is concerned, you sometimes learn more from seeing what you might think is a misuse of your typeface, than seeing it used in the way that you anticipated people will use. It's very instructive.
Debbie: Has that happened a lot?
Matthew: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah.
Debbie: Any examples you might want to share?
Matthew: Well, no. Typically, one thing ... It's bad typography, but people will reverse type out of black or a dark color or a photograph, and the typeface will break up and that will tell you that that particular size of that typeface will not work for that purpose. And so that makes you think, well, should I have given it a stronger physique with that mind, so it stood up to that kind of abuse a bit better.
Matthew: So, yeah. But just in general ... I mean, it's very nice when you pick up something you recognize that it's a typeface of yours and it's being beautifully used. But I don't at all dismiss the mess, things that you might at first glance think that's promising, because something that's in there for you to learn.
Debbie: You told Graphis Magazine that, "It's very important at the end of the day for me to know that I've made something." And I love that. I think somebody needs to design a T-shirt with that. But do you still feel that way?
Matthew: Yes. Yes. I mean, I don't make something in the very tangible way that I did when I was 18 at Enschedé days. I don't have a piece of steel in my hand at the end of the day. But I have some digital data lying around on the computer, and so on. So yes.
Matthew: I always like that when designers talk of themselves as makers. Elizabeth Attis always has said that he's a designer and maker. I now run into fashion designers who have said the same thing. So to me, designing and making are sort of the same thing. I can't separate them really in my mind. So if I say I would've had made something at the end of the day, that's much the same as saying as I wanted to have designed something at the end of the day. It's similar, similar reaction on that.
Debbie: You've laughed and said a couple of times when people have asked you about retiring, that your retirement plan is death. Is that still the plan?
Matthew: That is still the plan.
Debbie: Oh, good.
Matthew: I hope it's not imminent.
Debbie: We all hope it's not imminent.
Matthew: I'm not planning to retire just yet. But yes. I can't afford it. MacArthur ... Is it not withstanding? No, I still work full-time. I don't know that my stamina is quite what it was when I was 20.
Debbie: Well, you gotta give something for the rest of us to be able to do.
Matthew: No, I love it. I still work away. Yeah.
Debbie: Well, Matthew, it has been an absolutely honor to be able to interview you.
Matthew: My pleasure. My pleasure.
Debbie: I told Matthew that the only reason I hadn't asked him before to be on Design Matters was because I was too intimidated to ask.
Matthew: Oh, right. I'm so intimidating. Really?
Debbie: A little bit.
Matthew: Well, thank you for preparing such good questions. I mean, you know more ... I don't know why you asked me because you know all of this.
Debbie: We need to have it confirmed, if nothing else. And just thank you for doing the most amazing work and for making the world so much more beautiful with everything you do.
Matthew: Oh, you're going to make me cry.
Matthew: Thank you.
Curtis: For more information about Design Matters, or to subscribe to our newsletter, go to Debbie Millman dot com. Design Matters is produced by Curtis Fox Productions. The show is published exclusively by Design Observer dot com and recorded live at the School of Visual Arts, Masters in Branding Program in New York City. The editor in chief of Design Matters Media is Zachary Petit and the art director is Emily Weiland.