Typography Legend Matthew Carter Wins $500K Genius Grant

The MacArthur Foundation honors a graphic design legend, who created Verdana, Georgia, and dozens of fonts you’ve spent hours reading without noticing.

Typography Legend Matthew Carter Wins $500K Genius Grant

Legendary typographer Matthew Carter — the man behind a spate of typefaces that has quietly made our worlds more legible, including, most notably, Microsoft’s Verdana — is a 2010 MacArthur Fellow, it was announced today.


“Matthew Carter is a master type designer who crafts letterforms of unequaled elegance and precision for a seemingly limitless range of applications and media,” the MacArthur Foundation’s Web site says. “Throughout his career, which spans the migration of text from the printed page to the computer screen, he has pursued typographic solutions for the rapidly changing landscape of text-based communications.”

Carter, 72, is the principal of Carter & Cone Type in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is a behind-the-scenes sort, who, over the course of his 55-year career, has unassumingly crafted hundreds of faces that succeed precisely because you don’t notice them. From early projects like AT&T’s Bell Centennial typeface, to more recent work adapting to digital media with screen-friendly typefaces like Verdana and Georgia, his style is characterized by simplicity and readability. He has produced type for a raft of publications. Among them: Time, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, Wired, and Newsweek. The New York Times‘s headline typefaces were designed by Carter. “Matthew Carter is often described as the most widely read man in the world,” the New Yorker wrote in a 2005 profile (download the PDF here) — though you’d never guess it.

Carter was born in London, the son of a typographer. He trained as a punchcutter — a tradesman who produces type by hand — in the Netherlands before becoming a commercial designer and working for Mergenthaler Linotype from 1965 to 1981. In 1974, he designed Bell Centennial, a clear sans-serif typeface to replace AT&T’s obscure Bell Gothic on the company’s 100th anniversary. AT&T still uses it in its telephone directories.

Carter co-founded the type company Bitstream in Cambridge in 1981, with three colleagues from Linotype. Recognizing the emergence of virtual media, Bitstream become the world’s first independent digital type foundry. It remains one of the largest suppliers of type today.

Carter started designing on computers in the mid-’80s — and as a hard-core scholar of type, he’s a living connection between the discipline’s print-based past and its electronic future. The New Yorker details his work process:

“He prefers to start with the lowercase ‘h’ and ‘o.’ He proceeds carefully, because any misjudgment multiplies its effect as he continues. He does a ‘p’ and a ‘d’ next, because they include elements of the ‘h’ and the ‘o’ and also are inversions of each other. …Next he might draw a ‘v,’ because it involves new considerations. ‘You get half a dozen letters, and you work on them again and again until you feel confident,’ he says. When he has collected enough letters to feel that his decisions are sound, he begins printing proofs of them in combinations-‘ab,’ ‘ac,’ ‘ad,’ and so on.”

In 1991, Carter co-founded Carter & Cone Type with his business partner Cherie Cone. There, he designed a host of typefaces mixing classical elements with a modern aesthetic, including Wrigley for Sports Illustrated, Postoni for the Washington Post, and Wiredbaum for Wired.


He also turned his hand to producing typefaces that can be read clearly on a computer screen even in small sizes. Verdana — designed in 1993 and one of Microsoft’s core Web types alongside Arial and Times New Roman — is his best known, readily adopted by companies that fetishize clean design, Ikea among them. The New Yorker has the background story:

“Microsoft wanted its new typeface to be as legible as possible. Carter was aware as he worked that the point might soon be reached where more text was read on computer screens than was read on paper, and that the purpose in designing this face was not simply that it print handsomely but that it also look good on the screen. …’If you’re working on something such as a screen font, you have to get yourself into a certain frame of mind, because of the coarseness of the situation,” he says. “What you’re designing can never be perfect-you’re not looking for a platonic ideal. You’re looking at two lowercase ‘e’s and trying to decide which is less bad.’

“On a computer screen, Carter would display writing set in his design, and, on another screen beside it, he’d display the same words set in Microsoft’s face, MS Sans. Then he would back up slowly until he could no longer read one or the other. ‘It’s a crude way of doing it,” he says, “but it works. If you degrade it, you learn.’

“Verdana is a sans-serif face. Carter couldn’t be sure that it would be used to make words-it might simply appear in a line of code-so he put serifs on the capital ‘I.’ ‘Disambiguating is what psychologists call it,’ he says. ‘Making sure that people know what they’re reading.’ The ‘O’ he drew nearly the same width all the way around, which is regarded as a modernist touch.”

Carter is the oldest MacArthur Fellow named this year. He’ll receive $500,000 over five years. Other 2010 fellows include The Wire creator David Simon, writer Annette Gordon-Reed, and theater director and actor David Cromer.

For more biographical information on Carter, go here.

[Image via the MacArthur Foundation]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.