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The Boston Globe

Business

Boston companies push type design into future

Digital devices are redefining how we read, and Boston foundries are at the forefront of creating the actual letterforms they use

Some of the contemporary items that are using specially-tuned fonts from Massachusetts type designers include e-readers.

AP/File

Some of the contemporary items that are using specially-tuned fonts from Massachusetts type designers include e-readers.

Every imaginable portable electronic device is scattered around Geoffrey Greve’s office. IPads, iPods, iPhones, Androids, Nooks, Kindles, and a host of other tablets, laptops, and cellphones.

“I usually travel with around a dozen,” he said. “An airport security guy recently asked if I was having trouble making up my mind.”

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Greve, however, is not indecisive. Nor is he a hopelessly addicted gadget-head. A vice president of Monotype Imaging Inc. of Woburn, he helps device makers around the world improve the way they use the characters, known as fonts, that make the text on screens sharp, crisp, and easy to read. Business has never been better.

As manufacturers constantly bring out new devices and add digital displays to products as diverse as phones, cars, and refrigerators, they are seeking distinctive typography to set them apart. This explosion of electronic screens, in turn, has created a boom for Monotype and a cluster of local companies that design these digital characters. They are known as font foundries, a description that recalls the industry’s roots in metal type.

Led by Monotype, the world’s largest typography firm, Boston is today a global center of typography design and technology, with several small, but influential firms dotting the area. The Font Bureau Inc., 15-person foundry near South Station, has developed more than 300 new and revised type designs for publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and Rolling Stone, and for Apple Computer Inc., Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft. Carter & Cone Type Inc. in Cambridge is led by Matthew Carter, who created the computer screen-friendly fonts Georgia and Verdana, and won a 2010 MacArthur “genius” Fellowship. (Both The Font Bureau and Matthew Carter have worked with The Boston Globe.)

“If you’re into typography, the pedigree and history is in the Boston area,” said Allan Haley, Monotype’s director of words and letters.

Boston’s type foundries are the modern version of an industry that experienced its first boom in 15th-century Europe, after Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type and the printing press. Boston’s ascendance in the industry, however, began when typography and fonts moved away from clunky mechanical presses and trays of metal type.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, groundbreaking Massachusetts companies such as Photon Inc. and Compugraphic Corp., pioneered photographic typesetting. The new technology, which exposed type characters to film or photosensitive paper and then transferred the images to printing plates, required new fonts to enhance or replace those cast in metal.

The community of type designers that initially sprung up to support this photo typesetting continued to expand as desktop publishing swept the graphics industry, creating a new and growing market for digital fonts used to produce publications from desktop computers. In 1981, Bitstream Inc., founded in Marlborough, became the world’s first independent digital type foundry.

Bitstream later helped move font foundries into the Internet age by developing the popular MyFonts.com site. It was bought by Monotype Imaging in March for $50 million.

Type foundries have prospered in Massachusetts for the same reason as other local industry clusters, such as software and biotechnology, said Frank Romano, the president of The Museum of Printing in North Andover and a professor emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “The people and the technologies were here,” he said.

Monotype, which employs 328 people worldwide, including 124 in Massachusetts, has roots that go back to 1887 and the Lanston Monotype Machine Co. of Washington, which developed and sold one of the first commercial hot-metal typesetting machines. Monotype, the typeface portion of the business, moved to Massachusetts in 1998.

Monotype generates a large share of its revenue by licensing its extensive collection of fonts, which today number around 14,000, to Web, print, and other designers. But licensing fonts specially designed for electronic devices has become the biggest segment of Monotype’s business.

Better than $2 of every $3 of Monotype’s sales come from makers of e-readers, tablets, automotive displays, mobile phones, digital cameras, refrigerators, and other devices. Monotype’s overall sales in the quarter that ended June 30 jumped 24 percent from the same period a year earlier, according to regulatory filings.

“Wherever there’s a screen, there’s an opportunity for a font,” said Ramon T. Llamas, an analyst with IDC, a market research firm in Framingham.

The process of making a font is a laborious, exacting process that involves using a digital program to draw and carefully tweak the curves and spacing of hundreds of characters. The challenge is amplified when the font will be displayed on electronic devices, which often have limited screen size and low resolution. Each different device requires minute adjustments to a font’s shading to maximize readability.

Carter, who has been designing type since the early 1960s, said, “It seems like there’s more work than ever” not only because of the proliferation of electronic devices, but also because of globalization. As more and more companies do business around the world, they are, for example, seeking fonts to support text for European languages, including Greek and Cyrillic alphabets.

The industry is not without challenges, however. Digital fonts are also easy to copy and distribute, which allows unscrupulous designers to share proprietary fonts without paying license fees. Font foundries also must compete with free collections of fonts on the Internet and in popular software, such as Microsoft Word.

But Monotype chief executive Douglas Shaw said he expects the markets for proprietary fonts created by his and other foundries to keep growing. For example, the number of screens in automobiles — now as many as six — keeps increasing. And each requires special fonts that can be read in a glance of less than 1.5 seconds, or studies show, driving ability is compromised.

The trend towards hosting content on Internet “cloud” sites offers more opportunities. Both Monotype and The Font Bureau offer services that enable documents that will be shared over the Internet to be displayed in distinctive, Web-friendly fonts.

“As more and more documents are hosted in the cloud, we want to be the company that ensures that they are delivered with good-looking, readable fonts,” Shaw said. He expects that in 10 years the majority of Monotype’s revenue will be from cloud-based services.

Future markets, meanwhile, might be found beyond the clouds.

“Someday,” said Monotype designer George Ryan, “there will be a rocketship that can take us to the outer reaches of our galaxy, and it will have some text on the side. There’s a good chance the font will be one of ours.”

A new frontier

“Our market is anywhere there’s a screen,” said Monotype chief financial officer Scott Landers. And a proliferation of displays has been keeping the company, and other Massachusetts type foundries, very busy.

Some of the contemporary items that are using specially-tuned fonts from Massachusetts type designers include: e-readers, smart-phones, apps, entertainment consoles, refrigerator door panels, and websites.

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.

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