Type designer Matthew Carter receives MacArthur ‘genius’ fellowship

Type designer Matthew Carter has been named a MacArthur Fellow for 2010. The $500,000 no-strings-attached grant, often referred to as the “genius award,” is given to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

That certainly describes the British-born Carter, who now lives in Cambridge, MA. Born to respected typographer and historian of the printed letter Harry Carter, his work spans multiple eras of type design and production from his start as an apprentice to a metal punch-cutter at the Enschedé foundry in the Netherlands to co-founding the world’s first digital type foundry, Bitstream, in 1981. In 1992, he launched Carter & Cone with fellow Bitsteam founder Cherie Cone through which he’s done commissions for corporations from Apple to Microsoft and publications including Time Newsweek, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post.

Miller, by Matthew Carter, via the Font Bureau

His fonts, some 300 in his estimation, trace a similarly broad range, from elegant revivals like Big Caslon, Galliard, and Cochin to new classics like Miller to ubiquitous screen fonts like Georgia (which you are reading here) and Verdana. Few type designers can claim work as diverse as the graceful Mantinia, based on the lettering of Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, to Bell Centennial, hard-working and practical, developed for use at small sizes on the soft paper of the telephone book.

Carter described himself in a recent article in The Boston Globe as an industrial designer. “My work that has interested me most is industrial — phone books, newspapers, magazines, legible texts on computer screens, and so on — these very kinds of basic aspects of typography.’’

I first met Carter when he developed the Miller family for the redesign of The Boston Globe. Tall, silver-haired and courtly, I was struck by his twin devotion to capturing the rhythm of a perfectly drawn letter and to crafting fonts that could withstand the harsh conditions of newspaper production.

When the first issue of the redesigned newspaper hit the streets, he came to talk to the design staff about his inspirations for Miller, which included the work of a 19th-century foundry and rubbings he made of numerals on gravestones in Boston’s historic Old Granary Burial Ground. In a one-hour discussion, he took us through centuries, linking our city’s past to our newspaper’s future. It was emblematic of Matthew Carter’s talent, knitting together the past and present into something both beautiful and utilitarian.

Dan Zedek is the Assistant Managing Editor for Design at The Boston Globe and was site chair for SND Boston in 2007. Read previous columns here. Image of Carter from Gary Hustwit’s film, Helvetica.