Matthew Carter was born 1937 in Lodon, the son of type historian Harry Carter and probably also a mother, who fails to me mentioned in many internet-biographies and seems thus to have had a less relevant obligation. Being confronted with type design from early on, he started to study punchcutting for a year in Haarlem at the Joh. Enschede en Zonen foundry with P.H. Rädisch. After his return to London he started working independently as a lettering artist and typographic advisor. After this he joined Mergenthaler Linotype in Brooklyn, working together with others on appropriating the Linotype Library to phototypesetting which started taking off around that time. He and a couple of his Mergenthaler colleages left in '81 to start their own and one of the first digital typefoundry, Bitstream. In the early nineties he left Bitstream and started Carter&Cone, another digital typefoundry in collaboration with Cherie Cone, where he still freelances for a large variety of clients. He has worked with pretty much every possible medium regarding type design and has created fonts for many different purposes. His most distributed and popular Fonts are propbably Verdana and Georgia, which he designed for Microsoft to be highly legible on-screen, as well as Miller and of course Bell Centennial, which is still in use and part of the MoMa collection of design, as are six more of his typefaces.
The Bell Centennial font was developed between 1075 and 1978 by Matthew Carter for the Mergenthaler Linotype Company / Linotype Library GmbH, it was a comissioned work for the At&t company on occasion of their 100th anniversary. As it was meant to be used in their phonebook, it was clear from the beginning that there was a very specific intention for the utility of the typeface, which was to fit a large amount of directory information into relatively small space while still remaining highly readable. Every weight was assigned a certain function, which also made for it's name. The four styles are Address, Name&Number, Sub-Caption and Bold-Listing and allowed a much more diverse hierarchy then the two weights of the then used Bell Gothic typeface.
It also needed to be taken into consideration that the predeceding typeface, Bell Gothic, had been developed for hot metal composing and not for the then-new method of high speed off-set lithography pressing and the use with inappropriate printing-methods had made it less clear. Through the process of Cathode Ray Typesetting and the off-set printing it thinned out, strokes started to vanish which would be compensated by over inking of the plates which led to smudging, bleeding of letters and also raised the production costs. So primarily Bell Centennial had to be designed to adjust to newer (and in this case very specific) technologies.
The CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) typesetting machines required the characters to be designed as bitmaps and to make the typesetting machines go as fast as possible it required the least amount of bits, rendering the fonts coarser. Thus Carter had to translate the smooth characters he had designed into much rougher bitmap shapes (http://www.underconsideration.com/speakup/archives/005274.html).
Shapes & Appearance
As the text as well as the numbers were set at such small scale in the phonebook, the single glyphs had to be clearly distinct. Especially the numbers that are slightly similar had to be very unambiguous, like 3 and 8 or 5 and 6. This made for quite interesting numbers, like the 8 with a disconnected stroke. To take the potential ink-spread into consideration and also allow optimal legibility, the letter-shapes were constructed quite open with an emphasis on the counterspace, which is particularly visible in the square cut terminals and curved strokes. The single letters were also allowed a bit more breathing space as it was likely for ink to spread and melt letters together, for this reason also so called notches were incorporated in the design to prevent the expected spreading of ink on the low-quality paper to cause legibility issues, the ink was trapped in the left-open corners and the letters looked nice and crisp as soon as printed on paper. This gives the typeface a very specific look when used digitally or with different printing methods or high quality paper that doesn't allow any ink-spread, as the notches make it look somewhat ornamental. This is very apparent in the Bold Listing weight, which has no lowercase characters and a slightly exaggerated capital height - sitting below the baseline in the space normally used by lowercase descenders. An alternate version was also developed to sit on a standard baseline, in the new OpenType version Bold Listing sits on the baseline by default though. Different or similar kind of ink-trapping methods can also be seen in other typefaces, examples are Amplitude which has less obvious and visually quite interesting deep angled cuts, Tang, where ink-traps are explored more as a design-feature than to prevent actual ink-spreak, which gives it a slightly awkward, cartoonesque look, and Kurier, which has an alternative, trap-less version called Iwona and consists of actually disconnected lettershapes.
The production techniques of newspapers and similar media like the phonebook incorporate high speed printing on cheap paper and mostly of a lot of information on little space. Thus a lot of possible mishaps have to be predicted and prevented by the designers. A functional newspaper font will most likely be printed in smallest newsprint sizes at a high speed while still maintaining legibility, that means that it has to be quite condensed for an economical usage of the restricted space, but with enough breathing space to not let the letters bleed into each other and enough contrast to prevent breaking apart of lettershapes. Bell Centennial has very open letter-shapes for optimal legibility of particularly the numbers, which play an essential role in the directory information in the phonebook. If a minimum of 5 or 6 words per line is not reached (which can be hard in a multi-column layout which many newspapers feature), the viewer's view becomes strained and uneasy, thus it is crucial to make the point size large enough to maximize readability (particularly consdering how a large part of newspaper readers are increasingly seniors) but also provide a sufficient number of words per line (http://www.ronreason.com/personal/bodytext.html). Conventional fonts used in a newspaper (bodytext) context are Miller, Helvetica, Franklin Gothic Condensed, Poynter, Gazette and Chronicle.
The opposite of Bell Centennial, a font particularly designed with the predicament of being printed on semi-optimal material and therefore taking all sort of precautions that are reflected in the digital look of the typeface, particularly the bold-listing that features massive notches to catch the ink-spread, would be screenfonts, which are created particularly to be used for all things digital, like websites, emails, generally texts that are rather displayed on screen than in print. Important features of the earlier screen font were that they used to not be scalable to any size (outline fonts) but bitmapped, which was more harmonic with the square pixel grid of what were mostly pretty low resolution screens. Every character was represented by a certain arrangement of pixels in order to be very clear and easily readable on screen and thus less stressful for the eye. Matthew Carter said regarding this issue:
"In graphic design circles, people think of screen fonts as preview mode -- it's only when the toner hits the wood-pulp that we usually judge a typeface."
"Larger numbers of computer users spend their entire time in front of a screen and never (or seldom) print anything. So it became obvious to us that this was a reversal of priorities -- we should not approach this as doing printer fonts adapted for the screen, we should design them as screen fonts from the outset. The printer fonts are secondary in this case."
These days mostly outline fonts (which are geometrically defined and developed with the capacity of modern monitors in mind) are being used, which are more flexible as they can be enlarged and scaled down without any loss of quality, as most computers have a much higher resolution and are able to display also very detailed fonts. Microsoft commissioned Matthew Carter to design fonts that worked well specifically on low resolution screens - and thus worked well on the web. His fonts Georgia and Verdana are widely distributed today and helped to improve readability on the web.