"There is Matthew Carter and then there is the rest of us"

Matthew Carter is often described as the most widely read man in the world being in charge of created one of the most popular and widest used typefaces worldwide. Amongst his clients that are using his fonts you find Time Magazin, AT&T, The New York Times, Wired and many many more. He is unique because he saw and lived a technical revolution and managed to be one of the leading figures in all the time periods. He has been confronted with type design from early on due to the fact that his father was a type designer. He first studied english at Oxford University but soon decided to switch to type design. He started to study punch cutting for a year in Haarlem at the Joh. Enschedé en Zonen foundry with P.H. Rädisch at the age of 19. Where he designed the semibold version of "Dante". After his return to London he started working independently as a lettering artist and typographic advisor. One of his first jobs was the logo for the british satirical magazine "Private Eye". 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. While working for Linotype he also got to know Adrian Frutiger which he met in Paris. His typedesigns were a big influence for Carter´s later designs of "Bell" and also "Verdana". One of his biggest project at Linotype was the design of the type for the telephone company Bell. He created the typeface Bell Cenntenial which was excessivly used in telephone book. It was designed to work on small sizes and with quick printing on cheap paper and thin paper. Like many of his colleagues he most of the time got a task that had to solve a certain problem. For him it was never about "How it look" it was about "How it works". Which you also can call a very modernist approach to typedesign. There are a few stories that he first was testing the typeface on the real printing presses and the original paper, for example the typeface for Wired magazine, before he did the final decisions. He and a couple of his Mergenthaler colleages left in '81 to start their own and one of the first digital type foundry, Bitstream. Bitstream was one of the biggest and also first digital type foundry mostly specialized in digitalization of old typefaces. 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. In 1994 Microsofts Virginia Howlett approached Matthew Carter with the goal to create an Typeface which will provide perfect readability on the screen. A font entirely designed for display use.


Verdana can be called a humanist sans serif typeface. Or as Mr. Carter says: "…Verdana is certainly more industrial than classical…" It is probably the most expensive, labor-intensive font ever produced. It includes characters used to write an extremely wide range of languages, and each of these characters had to be adjusted to be readable at every point size between 9 and 60 (at 60pt the resolution is sufficient to display the letterforms accurately). The three critical sizes were 8, 10 and 12 point on Windows, which are 11, 13 and 16 ppem (pixels per em) respectively. All of these sizes where hand hinted with Tom Rickner (A nice interview with him about the hinting process). He said about the process: "Rather than spending time thinking about what the best pixel pattern was for a particular letter, I spent my time figuring out how to create with hints what Matthew had done in pixels" In other words, each of more than 890 characters was 'redesigned' dozens of times, once at every point size. It took over two years to finish Verdana. To improve readability the x-height was made bigger. Verdana is extended, but more importantly, it has extra space between characters so they don't touch. Special care has been taken with letters like 1, I, l, i and J so that they aren't confused. For Example the lowercase "i" is slightly shorter than the lowercase "l", which also makes them more distinct. Letter combinations such as "fi" "fl" and "ff" are designed so they clearly do not touch, as touching letters can create hard-to-read blobs on-screen. Curves are reduced to a minimum in the counters. Lowercase characters are a pixel taller than their uppercase counterparts at key screen sizes, to aid the distinguishing of particular characters. The width of the pixel also dictated the width of the letter. So the bold version is the double as thick as the regular size which also improves the readaiblity on the screen. Also an entirely different technique was used to create the font. As the font was only suppose to work on the screen, Carter started with a Bitmap skeleton of the font. He was playing around with the bitmap till it reached perfect readability in all sizes and than wrapped the outlines around it. Which was a completely new approach on designing a font which usually starts with the outline. A bitmap font is a font where the glyph is shaped out of a array of pixels and transformed into a raster image. Bitmaps fonts where necessary back in the days when the resolution of the computer display was not good enough and the working speed of the computer was slower. A bitmap font had the big advantage that it was extremely fast and simple to render. Nowadays Bitmap fonts is mainly used in programming. While we almost only use vector fonts nowadays though to the fact that the computer screen is getting a higher and higher resolution. Widely criticized especially for the use of the typeface on paper, Carter says: " I must admit that I’m often gratified by the way Verdana and Georgia stand up to the rough and tumble of the web after 15 years of hard use " So it do seems to be one of the best working typeface for web use. Recently there accured problems with high resolutions screens like the Retina display from Apple. This is happenig because the Verdana was originally designed for displays with a low resolution.

Font Hinting

Type and web designers usually think of "hinting" as instructions built into digital fonts to improve their rendering on a grid of pixels. Hinting pushes the points of a font’s Bézier curves around according to contextual conditions, such as the font’s rendering size. It is basically a contextual typeface modification. Though it’s now associated with type on screens, hinting was first used in the 1980s to improve rendering on low-resolution printers. The idea of modifying a typeface’s letterforms for different situations is nothing new. As far back as Gutenberg, each size of a letterpress typeface has traditionally featured 'optical size' variations that altered the spacing, proportions, weight, and other details for optimal results. This concept has been applied to some digital typefaces that are offered as "Text" and "Display" versions, for example. Hinting basically describes the process of how to find the spacing around the letters and the space between the glyphs aswell as the overall proportion of the typeface to succeed in the best readability. Hinting is also a very important topic in web typography do to the fact that nowadays website are not only watched on a laptop screen but also on different mobile device with different sizes and different resolutions such as Smartphones or Tablets. Only between just a MacBook Air, a Nokia Lumia 900, a Samsung Galaxy, and an iPad3 alone we have four different screen sizes and resolutions. This leads to several ideas. One is about the idea of Responsive Typography. It is the idea that a typeface always looks and feels the same on whatever device you watch it. The use of typography in these new medias will be a important one over the next years and how to do with the problems of different screen sizes and resolutions. There is also the idea about Micro Hinting: intelligence to modify a typeface according to variables beyond the nominal size. Such modifications could happen automatically according to the instructions of the type designer, or they could be adjusted by the specifications of the typographer. A few contextual typeface modifications that could be possible with macro-hinting include:
  • Ascenders and descenders that dynamically shrink when the line height is reduced.
  • Glyphs that condense as column width is reduced.
  • Hairlines that are always exactly one pixel, gradually increasing the overall contrast between thick and thin strokes as the size increases. (This would be a hit with fashion magazines.)
  • Subtle weight adjustments to give a consistent feeling across different rendering environments, without needing separate font files.
There are different types of hinting:
  • Black and White Hinting
  • Black and white hinting, developed in the days when operating systems could only turn pixels on or off, controls which pixels will be displayed at a given point size. This kind of hinting is called grid-fitting because the outlines of the font are significantly modified to fit the pixel grid of the screen. It is the most time-consuming hinting process, and it takes an experienced hinter at least 80 hours to hint a single font with the basic 256 character set. This process also usually adds white pixels between characters to improve legibility, which can create a difference in length between printed and screen versions of a text. Microsoft’s Verdana and Georgia are one examples of black and white hinted fonts. The technical developments made black and white hinting basically obsolete because onscreen results are pretty true to the original letterforms.
  • Greyscale Rendering
  • Here a technique called anti aliasing is used. Anti-aliasing is a technique that was introduced in Windows 98. It smooths visibly jagged lines by using varying shades of grey to render type on screen, so instead of being limited to only black or white pixels, the rasteriser can also choose to compromise between them. So grey pixels are added to the letterforms to make them appear smoother. When hinting fonts for grey-scale rendering, characters don’t need to be forced into precise pixel positions. Characters are modified both horizontally and vertically, but using fewer instructions. Greyscale hinting is almost as time-consuming as black and white hinting, and a hinter typically spends 72 hours hinting one font of 256 characters.
  • ClearType Hinting
  • ClearType is a rendering technology introduced by Microsoft. It attempts to improve the appearance of text on flat-panel monitors by using the fact that every pixel is made from three elements which can be controlled separately. ClearType takes advantage of the way your eyes perceive colour, using shades of blue, red and green to simulate higher screen resolution. All three color pixels can be changed separately. This means that text resolution can be three times greater, but only horizontally. That also means that in ClearType hinting, characters are not adjusted along the vertical axis, which effectively halves the amount of work.
  • DirectWrite Hinting
  • Windows 7 introduces a new font rasteriser called DirectWrite. It uses the ClearType sub-pixel text rasterising technique, but applies anti-antialiasing both horizontally and vertically. This means that curves look smoother than with the ClearType rasteriser. Hinting is the same as for normal ClearType. The most dramatic change with DirectWrite is that it also improves rendering of OpenType fonts with PostScript outlines. Developing hinting instructions can be extremely difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. Automated hinting tools have begun to ease some of this pain, but for smaller body type—often the most important type on any page—there’s still no substitute for the quality that can be achieved through tedious manual hinting. That’s why most people who deal with hinting today eagerly anticipate a future when they’ll no longer need to worry about it. They optimistically cite advances in display resolutions and rendering software as sure signs that hinting will be obsolete within a few years. But this is said since more than 20 years and nowadays it looks like hinting is more important than ever.
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