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The fascinating evolution of type design: Matthew Carter at TED2014

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Matthew Carter. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Though you may call him an artist, Carter think of himself as an industrial designer whose medium is type. When one designs a font, one deals closely with the technology that renders it, Carter explains, whether that’s a mechanical printing press or a central processing unit. “Type is something we consume in enormous quantities,” he says in his talk at TED2014, “but few consumers are concerned to know where a particular typeface came from, or when, or who designed it.” But, for Carter, these questions are inescapable — they’re at the root of a career that has spanned 50 years, produced over 250 fonts, and watched designs transfer from punched metal to pixel.

As type has changed — from Gutenberg to photo, digital, desktop, screen, web — so has the technology that powers it, and the constraints that those technologies bring to people who design these typefaces. But he doesn’t resent these constraints, Carter says. Instead, he sees them as design challenges, complex technical puzzles that inspire him to metamorphose, mutate and transform his designs, whether that’s developing a font that reads legibly on the packed lines of the White Pages in the mid-’60s, or designing letters that work well in binary 20 years later. “All industrial designers work within constraints,” he says, “[and] the distinction between a constraint and a compromise is very subtle, but it’s very central to my attitude toward work … I’m a pragmatist, not an idealist, out of necessity.”

In the mid-’80s, when faced with early computers’ inability to handle the data size of serif fonts, Carter began to analyze the curves of a serif to see what made these typefaces so data-heavy.  It was the curve of the serifs, he discovered. “What had started as a technical problem became an aesthetic exercise,” he says. “I made a serif type without curved serifs; I made them polygonal.”

And this seems to be his ethos of type design over the years — a series of aesthetic exercises peppered with the fuel of technical challenges. Each victory over technological boundaries — every clear bitmap and well-formed stroke — combines with the art of aesthetics to form the complex, beautiful designs we know so well now in our word processors and on our phone screens, on paper, on screen and on the Web.

It’s been 18 years since Carter’s wildly popular typefaces Verdana and Georgia were released, and he wonders, as technology morphs, improves, and expands, if they’ll continue to communicate our big ideas, or if they will soon meet their demise. “Eighteen is a good age for anything at current rates for attrition,” he says, “so I’m not complaining.”