Six Typefaces Designed by Matthew Carter

Three of the most popular typefaces used today are Verdana, Georgia, and Tahoma. Each of them were designed by Matthew Carter, and in spite of being relatively new, they all have an interesting history and background.

Matthew Carter is a master typographer who has designed typefaces for over forty years. He was originally interested in fonts from the 16th century, and first gained experience with typography under his father, Harry Carter, who is a linguist, lawyer, and type designer, presently working for Oxford University Press as a printing historian.

Matthew Carter was trained in the traditional disciplines of typefounding; at the age of nineteen, he spent a year studying in a type foundry in Holland, learning punch cutting from P.H. Raedisch. Now Carter mainly works as a freelance typographer for the Microsoft and Apple Corporations, respectively, through his company called Carter & Cone Type, which he started with his colleague, Cherie Cone. He began his first typography company, Bitstream Inc., with Mike Parker in 1981. It is considered the first digital typeface company and produced a library of ‘classic’ and new fonts. Before Bitstream Carter worked for the Linotype company in New York.

Carter has designed the fonts Georgia, Helvetica, Mantinia, Miller, Nina, Olympian, Sophia, Tahoma, Verdana, Alisal, Auriol, Bell Centennial, Cascade Script, Big Caslon, New Century Schoolbook, Shelley Script, Skia, Snell Roundhand Script, Bitstream Charter, Cochin, ITC Galliard, and Gando. He has also played a large part in resurrecting certain fonts that have fallen out of popularity. And he has worked for Time magazine, Wired, Newsweek, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe, among others. He received the Type Directors Club medal in 1997 for “significant contributions to the life, art, and craft of typography;” and also the AIGA Medal, in addition to the Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design.

Now let’s look at the background and history of six of Carter’s fonts: Verdana, Georgia, Tahoma, Skia, Bell Centennial and Cochin.

Verdana – This font was developed by Carter for the Microsoft Corporation. He designed the typeface with Tom Rickner who performed the “hand-hinting,” while Virgina Howlett, who worked in the typography division at Microsoft, named the font after her daughter (but another web site contradicts this and says that Verdana was named after the word ‘verdant’ since the Seattle area is covered with green vegetation). Verdana is a sans-serif typeface meaning it doesn’t have the tiny detailed markings at the end points of letters and was designed to be very clear and legible at tiny sizes to make it easier for reading on computer screens. To improve readability, Carter increased the distinctions for letters that have similar shapes. For example, “i” was made a bit shorter than the “l” (lowercase L) so it would be more distinct visually. Web authors use Verdana so they can squeeze a lot of text into a tiny area. Microsoft released the font in 1996 and bundled it with their Windows operating system. But they encouraged its proliferation by allowing free downloads for any computer architecture that supported Truetype fonts.

Georgia – Carter designed this typeface in 1996, and it is similar to a slightly bolder Times New Roman; except Georgia’s characters are spaced closer together, and it has wider and blunter serifs. Georgia is considered the serifed brother to Verdana, and like its brother, it was designed for clarity in on-screen reading (but it also looks good when used as the sole font in a traditional newspaper). Its readability is due mostly to having a large x-height, which in typography means how high the lowercase letters are in a particular font. Georgia received its name from: “Alien heads found in Georgia,” a tabloid headline, and it is widely considered to be the best font to use for on-screen reading. Microsoft says it will always keep Georgia and Verdana freely available to anyone who wants them.

Tahoma – This typeface is sans-serif and almost exactly the same as Verdana, except its letter-spacing is squeezed closer together. It was created in 1999 by Carter and is used mostly by those who have grown tired of the popular Arial font. The Windows XP operating system uses it as the default screen font. As with Georgia and Verdana, Tahoma was also designed for presenting information on screen in the most legible way, and it’s primarily used for the tiny text seen in menus and dialog boxes. Tahoma is a Truetype font and can be scaled to size.

Skia – To shake things up a bit, we’ll move away from the “Verdana family” of fonts and go on to a font Carter designed for the Apple Corporation in 1993. “Skia” is a Greek word that means “shadow” and this font was bundled with Macintosh System 7.5 as the first font for the Quickdraw GX. Skia is a stylish looking sans-serif font, and gets its unusual shape from Carter modeling it after ancient Greek lettering, which he tried to reinterpret in a modern sans serif style.

Bell Centennial – Designed in 1978 for AT&T who wanted it to have a modern feel, Carter produced Bell Centennial to solve existing visual and technical problems for typefaces used in telephone directories. Bell Centennial was named in honor of AT&T’s 100th anniversary, and like the three fonts above, it was designed to be 1) highly readable at tiny sizes, 2) not take up a lot of space, 3) ease the printing problems that arose from using highly absorbent telephone book paper. With Bell Centennial, Carter put special emphasis on distinguishing the lowercase L from the number 1, and the letter O from the number 0. The design was so detailed he worked with a thousandth-of-an-inch stroke weight to get everything perfect. He has stated in interviews that Bell Centennial inspired some aspects of the popular Verdana font.

Cochin – This is a nice looking typeface originally designed by Georges Peignot in 1913. Peignot based the font on eighteenth century copper engravings done by Nicolas Cochin, then Charles Malin went on to cut the font. Cochin is a wide and large typeface that enjoyed great popularity in the early 20th century. Matthew Carter went on to expand and improve this font in 1977. Cochin has many stylistic nuances and is classified as part of the Neorenaissance movement in typography.

So there you have six typefaces designed by the master typographer Matthew Carter.

When considering whether a typographer has been successful designing a particular typeface, Carter has stated that his philosophy runs thus: I look to how the designer has resolved the tension of producing a utilitarian thing with tight construction constraints while including part of themselves in the finished work. Our alphabet hasn’t changed in eons; there isn’t much latitude in what a designer can do with the individual letters. Much like a piece of classical music, the score is written down it’s not something that is tampered with and yet, each conductor interprets that score differently. There is tension in the interpretation.