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TED2014

Matthew Carter: My life in typefaces

March 18, 2014

Pick up a book, magazine or screen, and more than likely you'll come across some typography designed by Matthew Carter. In this charming talk, the man behind typefaces such as Verdana, Georgia and Bell Centennial (designed just for phone books -- remember them?), takes us on a spin through a career focused on the very last pixel of each letter of a font.

Matthew Carter - Type designer
Even if you don’t recognize his name, chances are you’ve seen Matthew Carter’s work -- his type designs include some of the world’s most familiar digital typefaces. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Type is something we consume
00:12
in enormous quantities.
00:14
In much of the world,
00:15
it's completely inescapable.
00:17
But few consumers are concerned to know
00:18
where a particular typeface came from
00:21
or when or who designed it,
00:24
if, indeed, there was any human agency involved
00:27
in its creation, if it didn't just sort of materialize
00:30
out of the software ether.
00:33
But I do have to be concerned with those things.
00:36
It's my job.
00:40
I'm one of the tiny handful of people
00:41
who gets badly bent out of shape
00:44
by the bad spacing of the T and the E
00:46
that you see there.
00:48
I've got to take that slide off.
00:50
I can't stand it. Nor can Chris.
00:52
There. Good.
00:54
So my talk is about the connection
00:55
between technology and design of type.
00:57
The technology has changed
01:01
a number of times since I started work:
01:03
photo, digital, desktop, screen, web.
01:06
I've had to survive those changes and try
01:11
to understand their implications for what I do
01:13
for design.
01:15
This slide is about the effect of tools on form.
01:17
The two letters, the two K's,
01:22
the one on your left, my right, is modern,
01:25
made on a computer.
01:28
All straight lines are dead straight.
01:29
The curves have that kind of
mathematical smoothness
01:31
that the Bézier formula imposes.
01:34
On the right, ancient Gothic,
01:38
cut in the resistant material of steel by hand.
01:41
None of the straight lines are actually straight.
01:45
The curves are kind of subtle.
01:47
It has that spark of life from the human hand
01:49
that the machine or the program
01:54
can never capture.
01:56
What a contrast.
01:57
Well, I tell a lie.
01:59
A lie at TED. I'm really sorry.
02:02
Both of these were made on a computer,
02:05
same software, same Bézier curves,
02:07
same font format.
02:09
The one on your left
02:11
was made by Zuzana Licko at Emigre,
02:13
and I did the other one.
02:16
The tool is the same, yet the letters are different.
02:17
The letters are different
02:20
because the designers are different.
02:22
That's all. Zuzana wanted hers to look like that.
02:23
I wanted mine to look like that. End of story.
02:26
Type is very adaptable.
02:29
Unlike a fine art, such as sculpture or architecture,
02:32
type hides its methods.
02:35
I think of myself as an industrial designer.
02:38
The thing I design is manufactured,
02:41
and it has a function:
02:43
to be read, to convey meaning.
02:45
But there is a bit more to it than that.
02:46
There's the sort of aesthetic element.
02:48
What makes these two letters different
02:50
from different interpretations by different designers?
02:53
What gives the work of some designers
02:56
sort of characteristic personal style,
02:58
as you might find in the work of a fashion designer,
03:01
an automobile designer, whatever?
03:03
There have been some cases, I admit,
03:06
where I as a designer
03:08
did feel the influence of technology.
03:09
This is from the mid-'60s,
03:12
the change from metal type to photo,
03:15
hot to cold.
03:18
This brought some benefits
03:19
but also one particular drawback:
03:20
a spacing system that only provided
03:24
18 discrete units for letters
03:26
to be accommodated on.
03:30
I was asked at this time to design
03:33
a series of condensed sans serif types
03:35
with as many different variants as possible
03:38
within this 18-unit box.
03:41
Quickly looking at the arithmetic,
03:45
I realized I could only actually make three
03:46
of related design. Here you see them.
03:50
In Helvetica Compressed, Extra Compressed,
03:53
and Ultra Compressed, this rigid 18-unit system
03:56
really boxed me in.
03:59
It kind of determined the proportions
04:01
of the design.
04:03
Here are the typefaces, at least the lower cases.
04:05
So do you look at these and say,
04:09
"Poor Matthew, he had to submit to a problem,
04:12
and by God it shows in the results."
04:15
I hope not.
04:19
If I were doing this same job today,
04:20
instead of having 18 spacing units,
04:22
I would have 1,000.
04:25
Clearly I could make more variants,
04:28
but would these three members
of the family be better?
04:31
It's hard to say without actually doing it,
04:35
but they would not be better in the proportion
04:37
of 1,000 to 18, I can tell you that.
04:39
My instinct tells you that any improvement
04:42
would be rather slight, because they were designed
04:44
as functions of the system they were designed to fit,
04:47
and as I said, type is very adaptable.
04:50
It does hide its methods.
04:52
All industrial designers work within constraints.
04:55
This is not fine art.
04:58
The question is, does a constraint
05:00
force a compromise?
05:02
By accepting a constraint,
05:05
are you working to a lower standard?
05:06
I don't believe so, and I've always been encouraged
05:09
by something that Charles Eames said.
05:11
He said he was conscious of working
05:13
within constraints,
05:14
but not of making compromises.
05:15
The distinction between a constraint
05:19
and a compromise is obviously very subtle,
05:21
but it's very central to my attitude to work.
05:24
Remember this reading experience?
05:29
The phone book. I'll hold the slide
05:32
so you can enjoy the nostalgia.
05:34
This is from the mid-'70s early trials
05:38
of Bell Centennial typeface I designed
05:41
for the U.S. phone books,
05:43
and it was my first experience of digital type,
05:45
and quite a baptism.
05:49
Designed for the phone books, as I said,
05:53
to be printed at tiny size on newsprint
05:54
on very high-speed rotary presses
05:58
with ink that was kerosene and lampblack.
06:00
This is not a hospitable environment
06:03
for a typographic designer.
06:07
So the challenge for me was to design type
06:10
that performed as well as possible
06:12
in these very adverse production conditions.
06:13
As I say, we were in the infancy of digital type.
06:18
I had to draw every character by hand
06:21
on quadrille graph paper --
06:24
there were four weights of Bell Centennial —
06:25
pixel by pixel, then encode
them raster line by raster line
06:27
for the keyboard.
06:31
It took two years, but I learned a lot.
06:32
These letters look as though they've been chewed
06:36
by the dog or something or other,
06:38
but the missing pixels at the intersections
06:39
of strokes or in the crotches
06:41
are the result of my studying the effects
06:43
of ink spread on cheap paper
06:46
and reacting, revising the font accordingly.
06:49
These strange artifacts are designed to compensate
06:53
for the undesirable effects of scale
06:56
and production process.
06:59
At the outset, AT&T had wanted
07:01
to set the phone books in Helvetica,
07:04
but as my friend Erik Spiekermann said
07:07
in the Helvetica movie, if you've seen that,
07:09
the letters in Helvetica were designed to be
07:11
as similar to one another as possible.
07:13
This is not the recipe for legibility at small size.
07:16
It looks very elegant up on a slide.
07:19
I had to disambiguate these forms
07:22
of the figures as much as possible in Bell Centennial
07:24
by sort of opening the shapes up, as you can see
07:27
in the bottom part of that slide.
07:29
So now we're on to the mid-'80s,
07:32
the early days of digital outline fonts,
07:35
vector technology.
07:37
There was an issue at that time
07:40
with the size of the fonts,
07:42
the amount of data that was required to find
07:44
and store a font in computer memory.
07:46
It limited the number of fonts you could get
07:51
on your typesetting system at any one time.
07:53
I did an analysis of the data,
07:56
and found that a typical serif face
08:00
you see on the left
08:03
needed nearly twice as much data
08:04
as a sans serif in the middle
08:06
because of all the points required
08:09
to define the elegantly curved serif brackets.
08:11
The numbers at the bottom of the slide, by the way,
08:15
they represent the amount of data
08:19
needed to store each of the fonts.
08:20
So the sans serif, in the middle,
08:24
sans the serifs, was much more economical,
08:26
81 to 151.
08:29
"Aha," I thought. "The engineers have a problem.
08:32
Designer to the rescue."
08:35
I made a serif type, you can see it on the right,
08:38
without curved serifs.
08:40
I made them polygonal, out
of straight line segments,
08:42
chamfered brackets.
08:44
And look, as economical in data as a sans serif.
08:46
We call it Charter, on the right.
08:51
So I went to the head of engineering
08:53
with my numbers, and I said proudly,
08:55
"I have solved your problem."
08:57
"Oh," he said. "What problem?"
08:59
And I said, "Well, you know, the problem
09:03
of the huge data you require
for serif fonts and so on."
09:05
"Oh," he said. "We solved that problem last week.
09:08
We wrote a compaction routine that reduces
09:12
the size of all fonts by an order of magnitude.
09:14
You can have as many fonts on your system
09:17
as you like."
09:18
"Well, thank you for letting me know," I said.
09:20
Foiled again.
09:23
I was left with a design solution
09:24
for a nonexistent technical problem.
09:26
But here is where the story sort
of gets interesting for me.
09:31
I didn't just throw my design away
09:33
in a fit of pique.
09:36
I persevered.
09:37
What had started as a technical exercise
09:39
became an aesthetic exercise, really.
09:41
In other words, I had come to like this typeface.
09:44
Forget its origins. Screw that.
09:47
I liked the design for its own sake.
09:50
The simplified forms of Charter
09:52
gave it a sort of plain-spoken quality
09:55
and unfussy spareness
09:57
that sort of pleased me.
09:58
You know, at times of technical innovation,
10:01
designers want to be influenced
10:03
by what's in the air.
10:05
We want to respond. We want to be pushed
10:07
into exploring something new.
10:09
So Charter is a sort of parable for me, really.
10:12
In the end, there was no hard and fast causal link
10:15
between the technology and the design of Charter.
10:19
I had really misunderstood the technology.
10:22
The technology did suggest something to me,
10:26
but it did not force my hand,
10:29
and I think this happens very often.
10:31
You know, engineers are very smart,
10:34
and despite occasional frustrations
10:37
because I'm less smart,
10:38
I've always enjoyed working with them
10:40
and learning from them.
10:42
Apropos, in the mid-'90s,
10:44
I started talking to Microsoft
10:46
about screen fonts.
10:49
Up to that point, all the fonts on screen
10:51
had been adapted from previously existing
10:53
printing fonts, of course.
10:56
But Microsoft foresaw correctly
10:59
the movement, the stampede
11:01
towards electronic communication,
11:03
to reading and writing onscreen
11:06
with the printed output as being sort of secondary
11:08
in importance.
11:11
So the priorities were just tipping at that point.
11:13
They wanted a small core set of fonts
11:17
that were not adapted but designed for the screen
11:19
to face up to the problems of screen,
11:22
which were their coarse resolution displays.
11:25
I said to Microsoft, a typeface designed
11:29
for a particular technology
11:32
is a self-obsoleting typeface.
11:34
I've designed too many faces in the past
11:37
that were intended to mitigate technical problems.
11:39
Thanks to the engineers, the
technical problems went away.
11:43
So did my typeface.
11:46
It was only a stopgap.
11:48
Microsoft came back to say that
11:51
affordable computer monitors
11:53
with better resolutions
11:55
were at least a decade away.
11:56
So I thought, well, a decade, that's not bad,
11:58
that's more than a stopgap.
12:01
So I was persuaded, I was convinced,
12:04
and we went to work on what became Verdana
12:06
and Georgia,
12:08
for the first time working not on paper
12:09
but directly onto the screen from the pixel up.
12:12
At that time, screens were binary.
12:16
The pixel was either on or it was off.
12:20
Here you see the outline of a letter,
12:23
the cap H,
12:26
which is the thin black line, the contour,
12:27
which is how it is stored in memory,
12:30
superimposed on the bitmap,
12:33
which is the grey area,
12:34
which is how it's displayed on the screen.
12:37
The bitmap is rasterized from the outline.
12:38
Here in a cap H, which is all straight lines,
12:41
the two are in almost perfect sync
12:44
on the Cartesian grid.
12:46
Not so with an O.
12:50
This looks more like bricklaying
than type design,
12:53
but believe me, this is a good bitmap O,
12:56
for the simple reason that it's symmetrical
12:59
in both x and y axes.
13:01
In a binary bitmap, you actually can't ask
13:03
for more than that.
13:06
I would sometimes make, I don't know,
13:08
three or four different versions of a difficult letter
13:10
like a lowercase A,
13:13
and then stand back to choose which was the best.
13:14
Well, there was no best,
13:18
so the designer's judgment comes in
13:20
in trying to decide
13:22
which is the least bad.
13:24
Is that a compromise?
13:27
Not to me, if you are working
13:29
at the highest standard the technology will allow,
13:31
although that standard may be
13:34
well short of the ideal.
13:36
You may be able to see on this slide
13:39
two different bitmap fonts there.
13:40
The "a" in the upper one, I think,
13:42
is better than the "a" in the lower one,
13:44
but it still ain't great.
13:46
You can maybe see the effect better
13:48
if it's reduced. Well, maybe not.
13:50
So I'm a pragmatist, not an idealist,
13:54
out of necessity.
13:56
For a certain kind of temperament,
13:58
there is a certain kind of satisfaction
14:00
in doing something that cannot be perfect
14:01
but can still be done to the best of your ability.
14:05
Here's the lowercase H from Georgia Italic.
14:09
The bitmap looks jagged and rough.
14:14
It is jagged and rough.
14:16
But I discovered, by experiment,
14:18
that there is an optimum slant
14:20
for an italic on a screen
14:23
so the strokes break well
14:25
at the pixel boundaries.
14:27
Look in this example how, rough as it is,
14:30
how the left and right legs
14:33
actually break at the same level.
14:35
That's a victory. That's good, right there.
14:37
And of course, at the lower depths,
14:40
you don't get much choice.
14:43
This is an S, in case you were wondering.
14:45
Well, it's been 18 years now
14:50
since Verdana and Georgia were released.
14:52
Microsoft were absolutely right,
14:55
it took a good 10 years,
14:57
but screen displays now do have
15:00
improved spatial resolution,
15:02
and very much improved photometric resolution
15:04
thanks to anti-aliasing and so on.
15:08
So now that their mission is accomplished,
15:11
has that meant the demise
15:15
of the screen fonts that I designed
15:16
for coarser displays back then?
15:18
Will they outlive the now-obsolete screens
15:21
and the flood of new web fonts
15:24
coming on to the market?
15:26
Or have they established their own
15:28
sort of evolutionary niche
15:30
that is independent of technology?
15:32
In other words, have they been absorbed
15:36
into the typographic mainstream?
15:37
I'm not sure, but they've had a good run so far.
15:41
Hey, 18 is a good age for anything
15:44
with present-day rates of attrition,
15:47
so I'm not complaining.
15:49
Thank you.
15:51
(Applause)
15:54

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Matthew Carter - Type designer
Even if you don’t recognize his name, chances are you’ve seen Matthew Carter’s work -- his type designs include some of the world’s most familiar digital typefaces.

Why you should listen

MacArthur Fellow Matthew Carter started his career as a punchcutter, a print artisan who physically carves each letter into metal. He had already designed several legendary typefaces (in 1975, he created Bell Centennial for use in phone books) when he stepped into the digital design ring. As part of a project undertaken for Microsoft, Carter created early and successful examples of screen type emphasizing clarity and ease of long-term viewing, including the familiar Verdana, Galliard and Georgia. A recent work is MS Sitka, a family of digital fonts that are built to be readable at many sizes in print and onscreen.

Print and online publications such as Sports Illustrated, Newsweek, Wired and the Washington Post have all commissioned Carter fonts, leading Microsoft's typography blog to call him "the person who shapes the way we read about the world."

Carter is a principal of Carter & Cone Type Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company specializing in designing and producing original typefaces. As he says: "A typeface is a beautiful collection of letters, not a collection of beautiful letters."

The original video is available on TED.com
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