Plenty of people in the media industry can view their output online, on TV, or in print. But for Cambridge’s Matthew Carter, it’s hard not to see it wherever he looks. The type designer has been a mainstay of Boston’s font-foundry scene for decades and spoke about his daily work and what brought him to the Boston area.
1. Carter took a winding path to Cambridge. He grew up in England and intended to study at Oxford but fell in love with type while working at a font foundry in the Netherlands. He began freelancing and worked in London and New York before settling in Cambridge in 1983. He and several colleagues opened Bitstream, a studio devoted exclusively to digital fonts, and set up shop at 215 First St. in East Cambridge. They chose the area, not far from MIT, to tap into the technical talent they needed to turn typefaces into font files for computers.
“I can’t write code. I’m not really computer-savvy,” Carter said. “We thought we’d find [someone] somewhere in the shadow of MIT.”
2. Carter has created several popular typefaces, including the straight-laced Web font Verdana and the curly script Snell Roundhand. Perhaps the best-known is Georgia, a wide Roman font commonly used by newspapers, websites, and resume writers seeking to lend their work some gravitas. Yet Carter hasn’t seen a dime since its creation: the font was created for Microsoft, and he released all rights to it.
“If I got a royalty on Georgia, I would be speaking to you from the Bahamas. But no such luck!”
3. Typeface tech has undergone several revolutions in Carter’s lifetime. He started out as a trainee at thefont foundry, where he cut letters into steel “punches” that were used to press letters into copper blocks for casting type. In the 1960s, he created fonts for photo-composition machines, a kind of rudimentary computer that used photo negatives instead of metal stamps to replicate text. Today, he uses specialized software like FontLab, Glyph, and Robofont to create new typefaces. But his favorite piece of technology allows him to see how his letterforms look on paper.
“It was not so much the coming of the personal computer that changed my life, but the coming of the laser printer. It’s an amazing luxury.”
4. Typefaces can take a long time to create. For Sitka, a super-legible type Carter created for Windows 8, he tested 13 variations — including Greek and Cyrillic versions — over six years. Carter’s collaborator at Microsoft was Kevin Larson, an expert in typeface legibility.
“I would make a design, Kevin would test it, and as we progressed, he would test new versions of the designs against older ones. It was a very carefully, sort of scientifically organized sort of project.”
5. Carter admits some surprise at the long lives of his fonts Verdana and Georgia. Both were created in the 1990s, when computer screens were lower-resolution, pixels could only be black or white, and designers had to be creative to prevent letters from appearing jagged. Much of his career, Carter said, has been defined by solving a technical problem, only to have technology advance and eliminate the problem.
Some fonts “do have fairly long lives. The people who sort of accused me of being a type designer because I want my work to live forever — I really don’t see that in myself at all.”