NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

Member of International Council of Design ico-D

English | فارسی

Neshan 33

Face to Face

Regardless of Technology: Face to Face with Matthew Carter

Robert Appleton

B: You have such a deep history in typography… your father… your family… I don’t have that background in design, it just came to me somehow….
M: Yes. My Dad was a typographer and a historian of printing typography, and I did meet a lot of people of his generation in the field. That was interesting. He wasn’t the kind of father who pushed me or my brother to follow in his footsteps. He would have said, “Well, you should do something different because the conversation will be more interesting at the dinner table…” 

B: As you grew into your own life as a designer, were you able to draw on all of this information?
M: Yes and no. Immediately I left school — it was a High School, I |didn’t go to University — and I went to work printing books in the Netherlands at Joh Enschedé Type Foundry. I was very impressionable and influenced heavily by Jan van Krimpen, who was still alive. 
For awhile, everything I liked and everything I did was very much in his shadow — but a fortunate thing happened — I was able to make a visit to New York in the Spring of 1960 that really changed my view of everything. When I returned to London in the early 60s there was a coterie of designers wanting to work in an international style, and some of them — like Alan Fletcher — had been to Yale and worked in the USA. But you couldn’t get sans serif typefaces. I mean, Helvetica was released in Switzerland in ’57. I don’t think you could have it set in London in 1960 or ’61, This seems incre-dible now, when a typeface that is released in Tokyo or Berlin will be used around the word the next day. So, I spent three or four years lettering type for a bunch of very very good graphic designers in London, and that was a great training for me. I think it probably weaned me away from the van Krimpen influence into a much more open acceptance of modernism and all different styles. I was exposed to a variety of things while working for Alan and Colin Forbes and Derek Birdsall. They knew what they wanted; they were very demanding, and that was extremely good discipline. When I eventually went to work for Linotype in Brooklyn, I was ripe for it. I’d absorbed enough from other sources that I could make a useful contribution. 

B: When I look at Verdana and compare it with Helvetica I think of Gill. Does that have any meaning for you as a comment? How was it for you to design a sans-serif typeface?
M: Well, let me describe how Verdana came about in a way that will explain the situation. In the mid - 90s when Microsoft commissioned me to do Verdana and Georgia, technologies were much more primitive than they are now. Bitmaps were binary — they were either black or they were white. There was no grey - scaling or anti-aliasing, so this was a severe enough constraint that when Microsoft said to me, “We want some fonts on the screen,” they had faced the fact that people would be reading and writing on the screen, not on paper. They were forward - looking, and they absolutely knew it. So I decided that rather than work in the conventional way — which is to design outlines and then generate bitmaps from the outlines on the screen — I would do the bitmaps first because that’s what had to be displayed. 
I mean, that’s what you’re going to read on the screen. I started hacking bitmaps with a rather primitive piece of software, and there were a number of advantages. It was fairly quick to do, and it was easy to put bitmap fonts in front of all the people at Microsoft who were involved. They could say, “Oh no, it’s too big, it’s too small, it’s too heavy, it’s too…” whatever. So we went through a number of revisions and when everyone had signed off on those, we had bitmaps that I could wrap an outline around. So in terms of what influenced the design of Verdana, there were no other typefaces in my mind at all — I was just hacking bitmaps to see where that left me. I think the only reference — and perhaps this was even unconscious or subconscious — was to Bell Centennial, the phonebook typeface that I had designed several years before. Problems of legibility in a phonebook and the on the screen are similar in the sense that you’re working with technical constraints — you’re struggling with technical constraints..

B: From the designer’s point of view and aside from the circumstances you were in, there’s this intuitive thing… this thing called talent — an ability to see — which you apply intuitively to solve problems.
M: Yes. Yes.

B: You’ve done that with Verdana; you did it again by redrawing Franklin Gothic for the Museum of Modern Art. Do you have any thoughts on that particular process regarding Verdana? In retrospect, were there choices you made that are significant or interesting in some way?
M: Well, I have to say when I look back on that work I did for Microsoft in the 70s — Verdana and Georgia — I’m not too ashamed of it. What interests me is the fact that technical constraints are actually good for me. I’m the kind of designer, who if you give me a blank piece of paper on a Monday morning, it’s going to be blank on Friday. But if you give me something and say, “Here’s a God-awful screen resolution — make a lower case “a” that you can read,” I’m up for that. I did very much enjoy that work. Pixels had their frustrations because very often when you’re working with coarse resolution there is no good solution except choosing the least bad solution. And for some designers that would be heartbreaking. But I enjoy that kind of masochism — knowing this is not going to be some sort of platonic ideal — you have to submit to these constraints. And the interesting thing, as Charles Eames pointed out, is the difference between constraint and compromise. Compromise is something you don’t want to do, but the constraint is something that you must work with if you’re an industrial designer like I am. We can’t change the Latin alphabet. It was frozen way before there was any kind of type. So yes, when I see Verdana and Georgia being used on the web as you still do, I regard this as a rather fruitful period of my life. I think I’m sort of tapping into a good vein — it was not a matter of inspiration. It was a matter of just hacking it and coming out with an answer.

B: I came to America in ’79 and had a chance to work with Lotus Development Corporation in Cambridge on their first Annual Report. And that’s when I began to see what the computer could be — had already become. There was already a culture around it; many people who wore unconventional clothes in a corporate setting. It was a completely different culture.
M: Yes. Yes.
M: You mentioned the Franklin Gothic font for MoMA. This was a strange story in a way, very different from what happened with Verdana. They had Bruce Mau, and there were a number of conversations between he and Ed Pusz, who was the then Design Director of the Modern. They discussed many things, but at the end of the day everyone decided they really liked Franklin Gothic, which had been used since the 60s. It was Ivan Chermayeff who introduced that style to the Modern. But then the problem was, as Bruce and Ed and I agreed, the supermarket Franklin Gothic ( it was Adobe’s or something ) did not look good when enlarged to signage. So they asked if I could make a new digitization of Franklin Gothic that was specifically for large sizes? I had some ATF specimens and told them I’d take a look. Ed uttered the immortal words, “We have the metal.” Apparently when Ivan designed the style back in the 60s, he insisted they buy a case of 72 point Franklin and 48 point Franklin — and they still had it! Ed found a letterpress printer who pulled the most beautiful proofs of this 72 point, and I digitized the spots off that. I mean, it’s the best thing I ever worked from. I could put my hand on my heart and say, “This is 72 point Franklin. This is not fake.” They liked that very much, and Bruce went ahead and designed all the signs. There was a curious thing that happened when the New York Times discovered that the museum was planning to jack up the admission price when they reopened — they were bent out of shape. So, this article that had been written in a very respectful and straightforward way was changed by the editor into a rant on the museum’s prices and wasting money on making a new digitization of Franklin Gothic, where no one could possibly tell the difference. Whenever I go to the Modern which is as often as I can, I think the decision to go with Franklin was right. I think the decision to make a size - specific version of Franklin for these signs was a very good one. Somewhere they said I was paid 5 figures for this — and it was 11 in fact. There were a lot of misconceptions about it.

B: Well, you could just be paid for not making something ugly — why not? So many people are paid so much more for making horrible things.
M: Indeed they do — and it’s interesting for me because you couldn’t have more different projects than Verdana and Franklin. Both were very rewarding in their own way.

B: It is interesting that you talk about design as the struggle with whatever technology there happens to be.
M: I would say that at least 80% of what goes into type design or what is difficult about type design is the same regardless of technology. There are extreme cases, Verdana was one, Bell Centennial was another — where, like it or not, the technology intrudes. That is because you are working with a very inhospitable technology. God forbid you would have a typeface that you could read in 6 point printed on newsprint with very high-speed rotary presses in ink that’s matte black. In those circumstances, you really do have to buckle down and admit that technology is going to have some effect. Otherwise, particularly with digital technology — which is the ultimate forgiving technology — I don’t think it has much influence. Sometimes when I’m giving talks someone will get up and ask a very good question: “All these faces you’ve shown this evening were digital, right? If you had made these designs in metal or film, would they have been any different?” And the answer is “Usually no. Essentially they would have been the same.” 

B: Well, the problem in the case of Verdana and Georgia was to actually make it work while being viewed through a piece of glass. And that’s an entirely different problem from paper.
M: You’re absolutely right. I still have amusing conversations with students who say, “Our faculty have told us we must not use Verdana or Georgia on paper, because they are screen fonts.” Then the student says, “Well, we’ve tried it and it looks alright to us. 
What’s the problem?” I say, “Well I don’t think there is a problem — you could use them on paper, though you might have to fool around with the tracking a bit.” People get very hidebound in when type should be used; what it was intended for. It’s a constant conversation.

B: Those fonts that we’re talking about — particularly the Microsoft fonts — are pioneering in the sense that people will only appreciate a hundred years from now, when they realize what was involved in beginning from nothing. In another way it was the luck of being the right person in the right place at the right time, and that they actually asked a designer to do it in the first place, when they so often just did it themselves.
M: Well, it actually started out that way. The early version of Windows used a font that was designed by a very early employee of Microsoft called Chris Larsen, who I think had been at high school with Bill Gates. He put together some bitmaps, and they were awful. Around Windows 95, somebody put the UI in front of Steve Balmer who said, “Oh, it looks like the old Windows. Can’t we have a new font?” At that point they had a Type Division, but they never designed anything. Fortunately for me, I knew one or two guys there who said, “Oh, Matthew’s had some experience in wrestling with technical problems — we might be able to give him a call.” So that’s how it came about. Microsoft was not normally thought of as a very design - oriented company, however, I had a very wonderful experience with them and they’ve been a great client over many years.

B: I don’t think I have to ask you, “Has anything changed in your approach to or reason for design-ing type in recent years?” I’m guessing the answer is “no”?
M: I think it is “no.” I’ve been doing this since I left school — a kind of life sentence — and I’m so old that I think I know the answer to that. It has to do with the fact that all industrial designers work within constraints. If Dyson is designing vacuum cleaners they have to pick up the dirt. Architects have to keep the rain out. Type designers have a very severe constraint — the Roman alphabet. I can’t wake up one morning and say “I’m  really sick of the letter B — I think I’ll make another one.” The inter-esting tension for me is to be stuck with this damn alphabet — two of them, caps and lower case, and figures that come from a completely different direction. And you’ve got to abide by the pact that exists with the reader. You’ve got to be able to read the letter “p” and “b” and so on. On the other hand, if you can’t put anything of yourself into it as a designer, why bother? So it’s a recurrent problem, to say “well I’ll have another shot… I’ll do another typeface… I don’t know how it will work out but I’ll see what I can bring to it.” And you know at the start that it’s going to be a modest amount if it’s going to be a legible typeface. I’ve told students that the fascination has to outweigh the frustration, because there’s going to be frustration. You sent me a PDF of ( Uwe Loesch’s ) Transvestita. So back in the early 90s when postscript type 1 became public, there was a huge explosion of experimental typefaces. And one of the things they did were faces which were half of one thing and half of another. And I’m all in favor of that. But a lot of the people who did that in the end found it frustrating. I mean, I’d get it from the students at Yale in these heady days. I’d have them design a typeface with absolutely no system whatsoever, which sounded great and very exciting.But once you try that, you find you can’t — at least not if it’s going to work as a typeface. So a lot of people who were caught up in experimental type design in the early 90s found other things. It was media design or something and they all went off and were much happier. I just mention that because there are frustrations when it comes to dealing with an alphabet that’s cast. 

B: I’m working on a research project which looks back on the 90s. There’s a new language present, of image and sound and text. I call it vor T E X. It’s not a language in terms of what the typeface looks like, though that’s important. It’s another kind of language that includes information from areas of motion, image, type and sound passed through technology — all of that. It’s information we haven’t figured out the meaning of yet. 
M: So Bob, how did you get into contact with Neshan Magazine? What’s the connection there?  

B: Well, my other questions for you regarding multi-cultural type design are really of interest to Majid Abbasi and his audience. I’ve always loved the work coming out of Iran, from Majid and all the others, many of whom still live there. It’s very imaginative. They use technology well and they’re deeply rooted in craft and handwork. I think the way they use typography has something to do with the flowing nature of their alphabet.
M: I have not had any contact with Arabic typefaces. I’ve done Greek and Cyrillic a number of times. I did Devenagari, one of the Indian scripts. There are various currents in the non-Latin world of type, which I think are extremely interesting. 
There’s a lot of controversy in the Arabic world about the direction typography should go. I pick it up in Japan; I pick it up in Indian Scripts. It’s really a question of the non-Latin world waking up to the fact that their particular writing system had to conform to Western typesetting technologies — which they were never meant to do. And now they don’t have to do that, thanks to digital technology and open type. Maybe it’s time to look at them again. It’s a heady time as far as writing systems are concerned, which have not been looked at in a very long time, because the technical constraints were too severe. As I travel around the world, people ask me, “What are the hot issues in Latin type?” I say there’s some good work being done; some very good young type designers. But I don’t see anything very revolutionary happening. You’ve got to talk about the Indian scripts, or Arabic or Hebrew or Kana in Japan and so on. They’re really stirred up. And there are great Russian designers who are doing extraordinarily good work. Perhaps we can save that conversation for another time?

B: Absolutely.

Robert Appleton

Robert Appleton is a visual music artist/designer/researcher. His design and art are in the collections of AIGA, D&AD, SFMoMA, Warsaw Biennale, Lahti Biennale, Biblioteque Nationale de France, Vignelli Center for Design Studies and Mimar Sinan University. His multimedia research is vorTEX: visual, aural, textual, one language. A member of Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI) and president of the AGI Foundation, he is a visiting lecturer at Vignelli Center for Design Studies (RIT), Mimar Sinan, China Central Academy of Fine Art and Ammerman Centre. He has taught at Cooper Union, Parsons School of Design, Glasgow School of Art, Beijing, OCADU and Ryerson.

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