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The work of Matthew Carter

On 13 October in Antwerp Fred Smeijers spoke some words of introduction at the opening of the exhibition ‘The Most Widely Read Man in the World: Matthew Carter’, on show until the end of the year at the Catapult gallery. We are glad to publish the text here, both for its homage to Matthew Carter (son of Harry Carter) and in its own right, as a piece of writing. If you like this, you may also enjoy Smeijers’s meditations on ‘what is a classic typeface?’. (For their advice and help in publishing this, thanks to Fred Smeijers, Matthew Carter, and Eric Kindel.)

There are three questions most often put to type designers:

— which letter of the entire alphabet do you like best?
— which typeface do you like most?
— who is the best type designer?

Since I am a type designer myself, I have to come up with a standard but polite answer. It usually goes like this: ‘I can understand why you ask these questions but it would be good to forget them: the first two are completely irrelevant and the third is almost impossible to answer.’

You can guess what happens next: the interviewer sticks to the third question, asking it again but now served with a little compliment, something like: ‘Yes I understand, but still who, apart from you of course, comes next?’

This makes the whole situation even more difficult, so I try to answer by giving a name within a question. I ask: ‘What do you think about Carter?’ To which I usually get one of these three responses:

— a blank: ‘Who?’ (this is going to be a waste of time);
— the expert reply: ‘Which Carter do you mean, and why?’ (I might still get into trouble);
— the best scenario, a journalist with some knowledge: ‘Yes, Matthew Carter, I have heard that name many times before, but why?’ (good, we’ve reached some safe ground).

Perhaps I ask the question because I have been wondering about it myself for quite a while. But as years have passed and my experience has grown, my own answer gets clearer in my mind. Here’s my 12-second version; essentially it says it all: ‘The power of Matthew Carter is that he simply re-invented type design, and, if I have to be honest, I’d go a step further: I think he actually invented it.’

Well, that’s quite a statement – because I have some books at home, you know, which tell me that type design existed before Matthew Carter was even born. And my answer to that is: yes, indeed, but hardly any type design of the kind that was really needed in the Western world – and this has been especially true over the past three decades. One might also say that Matthew Carter has a respect for and a belief in the conventional values of type design, and an unending urge to improve his skills. But this is true for many other type designers too, even today! So what’s the difference?

What distinguishes Carter is his openness, his will, his courage even, to face and solve problems of a kind that may initially seem alien to type design. It is no surprise, for example, that he co-founded Bitstream, the very first digital type foundry. Or, while it may seem logical and natural to design a typeface like Galliard and, at the same time, create simple bitmaps for difficult low-resolution printers, thirty years ago this was certainly not the case.

And it is not just Carter’s talent, skills, and experience; his attitude towards the profession really counts too. These are proof of a great flexibility that yet admits no compromise in formal quality. In these ways, Carter takes tradition forward, makes it understandable, gives it impact, and helps all of us appreciate it today. These are just a few words but they really mean something.

Yet this may still not be enough for an interviewer. To check whether they really understood everything correctly, they put some objections, like: ‘I do not really believe in this playing around with bitmaps – other people did that as well. In short, it’s not enough.’

This gives me the chance to go back to my first answer, and replay it: ‘See, I warned you at the start that answering your question about “the best type designer” is going to be difficult.’ But we type designers are, in general, long-winded people, so I just continue – and throw another question back at the interviewer hoping to take the discussion forward.

‘Try to answer your own question: name five people active at the end of the 1980s who created high-end screen fonts that are still in use today? More difficult than you thought, right? And it doesn’t mean those people don’t exist – obviously you don’t know them.’

And here is another angle to Carter’s career that is distinctive: somehow he has managed to avoid stepping into what I call the foundry – or Oz Cooper – trap. Carter has managed to create and maintain his independence. He was never told, year after year, something like: ‘Scripts is what you do best and this helps us pay the rent, so we expect another one from you next month, and something dashing for Christmas as well!’

Carter is a type designer with independence and a good name created in large part by his own efforts. His fame is not forced down our throats by big-foundry propaganda. I think this is something that makes his career even more valuable.

Now the interviewer is slowly getting the hang of things. He looks at his watch and sees he has time for one last attack.

‘Yes, I understand, but maybe Carter was simply lucky, being in the States – after all it was there that digital technology was turned into a success from a commercial point of view.’

Luck, fate: no, I do not think so. It’s understandable that you would think that Carter, being exposed to digital technology, had better chances. But that would be a false argument, because anyone could have travelled to the States just as Carter did. Certainly, thirty or thirty-five years ago, others who were equally or even better known than Carter could have done so. And remember that the whole type industry in those days was in serious trouble. To stick out your neck, look around, and try other possibilities is about taking risks and does not have much to do with luck. If you are willing to take risks, this creates openings and opportunities into which luck can flow.

Let me go for the whole package: Carter’s career has been about the future, about new technologies, and how type design could face and survive these challenges. It has been about solutions, about the type designer’s attitude, and about role models. Carter’s work benefits all of us who, every day, are surrounded by and are getting in touch with type.

What is important about Carter’s achievements, about his career – for me and for many other younger professionals who take type design seriously – and what projects his work into the future, is the set of questions he asks through his work: What is a type designer’s proper attitude? What are our duties? How can type design make a difference? How can we raise its quality?

Carter is the ‘first’ type designer of our era. He is a beacon on the horizon of type design. His career serves – and will continue to serve – as a clear point of reference at a time when the pace of change grows ever faster, and when the ability to work flexibly across evolving technologies becomes ever more important.

Fred Smeijers