Matthew Carter: Designer of the Typeface Verdana, and Much More

September 4, 2009 | Design Basics

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MatthewCarterAs the type designer responsible for Verdana, and because of Ikea’s unpopular decision to start using Verdana exclusively, much attention has been brought to Matthew Carter.

I wrote my own post this week questioning Ikea’s decision to use Verdana in all applications including large scale headlines within their printed catalog. But I want to make sure my readers understand that this is not a criticism of the font itself, rather its application.

A Master Type Designer

I have been a fan of Matthew Carter’s work for years. Sometime around 1996, when I was a student at Mass. College of Art I organized an event for him to come and talk with the design students at the school. Many of his typefaces are my favorites, including ITC Galliard, Shelley Script, and Snell Roundhand. And in addition to Verdana, he has designed two other web standard fonts: Tahoma and Georgia.

Typefaces for Specific Applications

When I heard about the Ikea/Verdana debacle, there was another Carter typeface that came to mind.

Bell Centennial. This is a font designed by Matthew Carter for use in phone books. It was commissioned by the US Phone company in 1976, and was specifically designed to handle the conditions of a phone book: small type, limited space, and poor printing conditions. That was the initial use of the font, but since then, Bell Gothic became a popular font to use in other situations.

Bell Centennial was designed by Matthew Carter for use in phone books.

Bell Centennial was designed by Matthew Carter for use in phone books.

To help counter the effect of small type filling in when printed on the poor paper stock, Carter cut out the interior corners of some letters. This quirkiness became something that some graphic designers liked and have used it in large scale lettering.

Like Ikea deciding to use Verdana for print use, graphic designers are often searching for a different look or approach to create a unique design.

Type Design vs. Typography

I need to clarify that there are two different parts to the use of type, the type design and the typesetting. Type design is the creation of the actual typeface or font. Typography and typesetting is working with that finished typeface and putting it into a layout.

Matthew Carter is unquestionably one of the most respected type designers in the field. His development of Verdana successfully solved the issue at hand: making onscreen, small type very legible.

The application of a typeface by a graphic designer is about the decision as to which typeface is most appropriate for the situation. Whether you are talking about the Ikea catalog, or any other design project, this exploration and experimentation with type will continue and should continue. There will be successes and failures along the way, but design like other parts of culture evolve and change through this type of work.

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