In a way, Matthew Carter’s career began by happenstance. After graduating from secondary school and before beginning his college education at Oxford, he took an internship at the Enschedé type foundry in the Netherlands. The plan was for him to rotate through the departments in the company and acquire a basic overview of the printing and type founding business. Instead, Carter arrived at the punchcutting department and stayed, learning this craft from one of its masters, P. H. Rädish. In Carter’s words, “I’ve been serving a life sentence in type ever since.”
Carter returned to London in 1957, only to discover that there was about as much demand for punchcutters as there was for beach towels in February. Luckily, he was able to eke out a living with his lettering and typeface design skills. “I’m not sorry that I began by learning to make type before learning to design it,” recalls Carter, “but I would not necessarily recommend it to a student nowadays.”
Carter worked as a freelance lettering artist and typeface designer till 1963, when he joined Crosfield Electronics, the British manufacturing agent for the Lumitype phototypesetting machine. This job regularly took him to Deberny and Peignot, in Paris, where the Lumitype fonts were made. Here, the type-drawing office was under the direction of Adrian Frutiger, designer of Univers, Serifa, Frutiger, and many other typefaces. Carter says it was in this environment that he started making proper production drawings for the manufacture of fonts of type.
Two years later, Carter moved to New York to work for Linotype, and for nearly two decades he helped build one of the industry’s largest and richest libraries of fonts. In 1981, Carter left Linotype to co-found Bitstream, the first independent digital type foundry. Unfortunately, the work of running a business left little time for Carter to create new typeface designs.
In 1991, he left Bitstream and founded Carter & Cone with Cherie Cone. This venture allows Carter the freedom to choose projects that challenge and delight him. These have included the system fonts of Georgia and Verdana, retail designs such as Mantinia and Sophia, and custom fonts for clients as diverse as The Walker Art Institute, “Wired” magazine and The Boston Globe newspaper.
Along the way, Carter has developed a personal philosophy about how to gauge the success of a typeface design. “I look to how the designer has resolved the tension of producing a utilitarian thing with tight construction constraints while including part of themselves in the finished work,” he says. “Our alphabet hasn’t changed in eons; there isn’t much latitude in what a designer can do with the individual letters. Much like a piece of classical music, the score is written down – it’s not something that is tampered with – and yet, each conductor interprets that score differently. There is tension in the interpretation.”
Carter’s ability to modulate this tension and create highly functional typefaces that are both distinctive and beautiful is one of the most admirable aspects of his work. The subtlety of his hand can be seen in designs like Snell Roundhand, Charter and Miller.