Modern History of Typography Told by the Best - Matthew Carter at TED 2014

TED released Matthew Carter’s “My Life in Typefaces” from Mar 2014 Vancouver, and it is a pleasure to see an old friend get up at TED and talk about Typography.  I was curious what Matthew would present as it has been years since we have chatted.

Matthew starts out explaining how important type is.

Type is something we consume in enormous quantities. In much of the world, it's completely inescapable. But few consumers are concerned to know where a particular typeface came from or when or who designed it, if, indeed, there was any human agency involved in its creation, if it didn't just sort of materialize out of the software ether.

But I do have to be concerned with those things. It's my job. I'm one of the tiny handful of people who gets badly bent out of shape by the bad spacing of the T and the E that you see there. I've got to take that slide off. I can't stand it. Nor can Chris. There. Good.

This last sentence is where Matthew is looking at the horrible kerning between the T and E in this slide.


This bad spacing is what drives type people nuts.  I used to be a type person.  And, as I went through this video which is quite popular with over 190,000 views from Ted, iTunes, and Youtube in two days, I was curious what Matthew was going to talk about in 16 minutes.

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What is the point of Matthew’s Talk?  The connection between technology and design, and his point was 18 years ago was the change to screen fonts.  At the 10:33 mark is where Matthew talks about what he did with Microsoft.

10:33You know, engineers are very smart, and despite occasional frustrations because I'm less smart, I've always enjoyed working with them and learning from them. Apropos, in the mid-'90s, I started talking to Microsoft about screen fonts. Up to that point, all the fonts on screen had been adapted from previously existing printing fonts, of course. But Microsoft foresaw correctly the movement, the stampede towards electronic communication, to reading and writing onscreen with the printed output as being sort of secondary in importance. 

FYI - when Matthew says Microsoft, I was the renegade who pissed off the type group by focusing on fonts for the screen when 90% of the group was focused on  the historical typefaces from lead forms.  I worked with Matthew when I was at Apple and when I came up the idea for Verdana at Microsoft without question there was only one guy I would go to to get Verdana designed.  Matthew Carter is the best and his Ted Talk does a great job of telling the story of how typography has changed.

14:49Well, it's been 18 years now since Verdana and Georgia were released. Microsoft were absolutely right, it took a good 10 years, but screen displays now do have improved spatial resolution, and very much improved photometric resolution thanks to anti-aliasing and so on. So now that their mission is accomplished, has that meant the demise of the screen fonts that I designed for courser displays back then? Will they outlive the now-obsolete screens and the flood of new web fonts coming on to the market? Or have they established their own sort of evolutionary niche that is independent of technology?In other words, have they been absorbed into the typographic mainstream? I'm not sure, but they've had a good run so far. Hey, 18 is a good age for anything with present-day rates of attrition, so I'm not complaining.

My wife had never heard this story.  I’ve told it so many times I couldn’t believe I hadn’t told her.  She finished by saying “it is another project, where you don’t credit for.” My response was “that’s what happens when you work at a big company. You do the right thing.  Don’t play the politics right, and you don’t get the credit.  That’s OK. I have so many more better ideas that I’ll get the benefits of given we own the company we are developing the ideas for."

The politics behind Verdana were complicated.  I wrote a post back in 2009 on it.


7/26/1994 Later in the afternoon, Dave Ohara called, with Matthew Carter and Tom Stephens in the room, to talk about the Verdana face. Matthew said that he was sad to read my note the other day, but found out soon after that we would still get a chance to work together on the Verdana face.


So, let’s start off when the first time I got in trouble for Verdana. One afternoon, my Microsoft general manager Steve Shaiman came looking for me, and he yelled “what the hell did you do?” What? BillG (Bill Gates email alias, back then we called people by their email alias, I was DaveO) thinks we should be doing fonts for screen and Pan-European typefaces.