The recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, Carter's iconic typefaces include Verdana and Georgia. Today he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but we spoke with him in Cape Town, South Africa, where he was a speaker at Design Indaba.
You said this morning that influence doesn't always come in pure form. Can you talk about how you refill the creative well?
I wish there was a formula. I wish I could say, Okay, I’m going to an exhibition, I’m going to walk out with a great idea. It doesn't work that way for me at all.
I once heard Chuck Close interviewed on television. He said, Inspiration is for amateurs. What artists do is they show up, they put in the time, and they do the work. And I think that's even more true for designers, or at least my kind of design, than for artists.
I'm not someone who sits around waiting for light bulbs to go on above my head.
So you go places like cemeteries, not for inspiration, but because of curiosity?
I am endlessly curious. I always carry a camera. New England gravestones are so amazing because for a long time they were not influenced by typography. You can look at these late 17th, early 18th, century gravestones and have no idea where the lettering comes from. But it certainly doesn't come from books. I love to look at lettering, at old books, museums, and art galleries.
Can you tell me a bit about your early encounters with typefaces? Small children are effectively learning to make their own fonts by hand, with a pencil. But then most lose interest.
My dad was a book designer and a historian of typography, so there were books about the history of all this around the house.
I was born just two years before the Second World War: 1937. My dad went off to the war. There weren't a great many toys. My mother made a capital alphabet cut out of linoleum. I can actually remember the shapes of some of those letters. They were Gill Sans, which of course was absolutely the correct thing in the 30s in England.
My dad was not the sort of dad to push me to follow in his footsteps. I think he would have been very happy if I'd done something completely different because it would have made conversation at the dinner table more interesting.
Once I did get interested, then he was very kind and made introductions. I was very lucky in my youth with people that I was as in contact with, who encouraged me. An awful lot of people were kind to me when I was starting out by treating me not as an equal, but by taking me seriously.
We all have easy access to fonts like Verdana and Georgia—but there are also untold ugly ones, ones that are very hard to read, and ones that might be okay on their own but are unskillfully put with others. What do you think of this font abuse?
We're hostages to the people who use our typefaces.
Sometimes you see a typeface that you designed being used, say, badly, or in a way that you did not expect. The paradoxical thing is you often learn something more from that. It's very nice if somebody picks up a typeface and they do a really good job of it. It's good for the morale. But I don't know that I learn anything from that.
Compared to when I was starting out, there's much more type, and also more knowledge about type. You can have a perfectly intelligent conversation about fonts with a 9 year old. It's a very different world to the one I grew up in, where nobody knew what a type designer was. Or if they did know, they would say to you, Oh, I thought they were all dead.
Typeface is essentially an anonymous business. I have no business getting between an author and a reader. Or if I do, I'm doing my job badly. I'm happy to take a back seat. I think any other posture is incorrect. If that sort of notoriety is important to you, you're probably not going to go into type design.
As a writer, I do tend to have that want for a font that disappears. Yet when we see something like the Fiona Apple cover of Rolling Stone, your lettering is striking and bold and it has to be that way to work well. When should typeface design become invisible, and when should it be a design feature in itself?
How people react to typefaces—I never feel I’m a very good judge of this.
Typefaces do have an emotional content. People get upset if the magazine is redesigned and they don't like the new typeface.
I get asked commonly, What's your favorite typeface? I don't have favorites in that sense. What I react to is a really good use of typeface or a really bad use of a typeface. It's a very subjective reaction.
If somebody thinks it's good for an intellectual journal, fine. If somebody thinks it's good for a children's book, fine. Perhaps I'm too close.
How do you work with a client who doesn't have the typographic vocabulary to discuss their needs?
Clients come in all kinds. Sometimes I’ve had very tight briefs from somebody who knew exactly what they wanted. Sometimes I get a very loose, broad instruction. And it's rather hard to know, at least at first, what it is that somebody wants. I’ve had to train myself. If I get called into a magazine, the person in charge may not be a typographer. They may be an expert in doing terrific covers, handling photography and illustrations. But if they want a new typeface, they don't really know what it is they want. I have to try and suss out what they want by figuring out what other things they like and dislike. The decor of their office, what do they wear, what do they drive.
Sometimes that works smoothly and efficiently. Sometimes it's much tougher. It's a very difficult thing to design a typeface for an artist who's doing a portfolio of prints about Bob Dylan on Monday and then work for Microsoft on Tuesday. But I like being put in different situations.
It's a very different thing when a publication wants a new font, compared to an entire institution, like Yale, where the typeface can be used in so many contexts.
The Yale situation has been extremely happy, mostly because of John Gambell, the university printer. I first met him when he was a student. He has piloted this whole project and set up the availability of Yale typeface in a very good way, administratively. It gets used quite well.
It's like big corporations and their house styles. How much of a Nazi are you when you mandate how it's going to be used? Do you allow people to send memos in whatever typeface they like or is it always going to be in the corporate typeface?
You’ve worked in all different mediums and technologies. There are some revivals of old, hand press lettering. What do you think the future will bring?
The easy thing would be to say, is that this letterpress revival is a simple reaction against the computer. I’m fairly sympathetic. I'm not a printer. I would never get involved in letterpress printing or bookbinding. But I think it’s very healthy.
In the business of type design, in the past, many people came to it from other disciplines such as calligraphy or cutting letters in stone. Type design was inaccessible. Now the opposite is true. Anyone who’s got a Mac and FontLab can at least try their hand at designing type. It’s much harder to learn now how to cut a quill pen or how to cut letters in stone. The flow has reversed.
I am endlessly grateful that I’ve survived into the digital age because I regard it as the best medium for making type that's ever existed. I was making digital type in the mid 70s. Not desktop type, not personal computer type, but digital type. We've lost some things, but we've gained some things. If I put them in the balance, for me, the gains far outweigh the loss.