Man of letters

You've read their books, but you've never heard of them. You've probably read their magazines, newspapers, billboards, telephone books, and even their candy-bar wrappers. They're the people who design the letters that form the words you read.

These "type designers" work in the shadows of the publishing world to invent new ways of writing our ancient alphabet. Different "types" or "typefaces," the term for a particular style of letters, can vary enormously in personality, as do the letters in the title of this article. But there can be subtler differences between type-faces as well, as you'll see when you compare the different sections of a newspaper page.

One of the most renowned type designers in the world is Matthew Carter. If you've read Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, or the Boston Globe, you've seen his alphabets in action. And untold gallons of ink have come to a dry end in a type called "Bell Centennial" that he designed for the US telephone directories.

Mr. Carter even did a stint for the queen of England, serving as typographical adviser to Her Majesty's Stationery Office (also known as the British government printer) from 1980 to 1984.

A print revolution

The profession of type designing grew out of the success of the printing press. In the Middle Ages, monks spent their whole lives copying religious books and the classics, one page at a time. It was tedious work, and the monks made mistakes.

In the 1440s, a German named Johann Gutenberg turned a machine used for pressing grapes into a machine for pressing letters onto paper. The key innovation of Gutenberg's press was "movable type." A printer could move the letters around, one at a time, like magnets on a refrigerator to set a page. Then he could rearrange the letters for the next page.

Fine blacksmith's tools were used to carve the letters from pieces of iron. A whole profession of specialized craftsmen developed to satisfy demand for sculpted letters. By 1500, printing shops numbered more than 1,000 in Europe, and had produced a few million books.

Carter's first step into the field of type design was an apprenticeship at a type foundry in the Netherlands after he graduated from high school in England. There, he learned to sculpt type the old-fashioned way, with hand-held carving tools. The year was 1955.

"I had been making type by hand, and by that time, typemaking had long been mechanized," says Carter. Most printing houses, except the one where Carter had studied, were using a machine called a Linotype ("line of type"). The Linotype allowed technicians to set several lines of type per minute, which made typesetting much faster. That freed letter designers to focus on letter design.

Today, Carter works independently from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He sculpts his letters on the computer, and he is one of only about 20 designers in the world who are proficient enough to make a living exclusively from type design. But that doesn't mean the work is easy.

Sometimes the customers bring to Carter a very narrow idea of what the letters should look like. Sports Illustrated commissioned Carter to revamp an old typeface, not to create a new one, leaving little wiggle room for personal interpretation.

"They thought [the face in use] was too light. It needed more physique. But writers didn't want to use any more space. I couldn't make it any wider, but I had to make it heavier."

Inspiration everywhere

Though his tool is a mouse, not an engraver's knife, Carter doesn't regret having learned to make letters the old fashioned way. A modern type designer often reaches back into the distant past for inspiration. To design a general-purpose type called "Alisol," Carter looked at handwritten books predating the invention of the printing press.

"At some stage of history, all type is derived from written forms," he says. "In the case of roman type, the type that we have has evolved a long way from its calligraphic origins."

(Very) slow and steady

Type design is a job for the tortoise, not the hare. There is a wooly hide draped over Carter's chair to cushion his backside during the long hours he spends sitting in one position. It takes weeks, maybe months, to design a new typeface from scratch.

Carter says one can't rush into the business seeking quick gratification. "You'd do one and a half letters and throw up your hands and get sick of it. You have to have a certain perseverance built into your temperament in order to be able to do something like this without going mad."

One who wishes to be a designer of type should practice drawing as a child, says Carter. "Whether it's pencil on paper or whether you're manipulating forms on screen, you need some ability to get whatever's in your mind out into some medium."

Patience has helped Carter endure the hours of minute adjustments that constitute the design process. But the more profound force tugging him forward is a love of the infinite cornucopia of letters to be found in the world.

"There are letters everywhere," he says. "They could be in books, on computer screens, billboards, on television."

Some type designers are known to port a camera about the city and snap photographs of signs, posters, laundry machines, or anything that presents a curious use of letters.

Wherever he travels, Carter pays a special visit to the local cemetery and spends some time perusing the stones. Graveyards, particularly in New England, are chock full of superb masonry. "To the extent that the pilgrims have a form of art, it was tombstones."

Carter has never lifted a typeface from a gravestone for commercial use. But, he thinks it is likely that the bank of graveyard images in his memory has influenced his type creations in ways he cannot fully comprehend.

Easy on the eye

To test the quality of a finished type, Carter runs the design through diagnostic software that displays the letters side by side in a variety of word combinations the reader is likely to encounter.

After decades of work, Carter can easily judge typefaces for their beauty and readability. The ultimate mark of a great text type are letters that harmonize well when combined into words. The words should flow like a continuous stream of light into the reader's eye.

So, at what point is he satisfied to let go of the mouse? "A poem is never finished, it's only abandoned," he says. "The same of true of a type face. At a certain point, you have to say 'enough.' "

Making letters by the number

Designing readable letters requires a command of the ABCs, not the 123s. But for centuries, mathematicians have been trying to improve on the work of type-designers. The mathematicians thought they could do this by applying their favorite geometric proportions to the shapes of letters. Today, you can buy software that uses advanced algorithms to calculate the proper shape of letters. But the numbers method has a lot of drawbacks - it always has.

In 17th-century France, King Louis XIV convened a team of scientists from the Royal Academy to come up with a type that would reflect the enlightened, intellectual spirit of the time. By elevating the design process from the bumbling influence of the hand to the realm of the mind, they hoped to create a perfectly proportioned type.

Until this time, most type designs were efforts to mimic the forms of handwriting. The gothic style of Germany was an imitation of the thick, pointed brush strokes of the clerks. The Roman typeface of Italy was a copy of the stately letters chiseled into the marble ruins of the ancient monuments.

Most of the customers who bought books wanted to see typefaces that were as familiar as the ones that had been used before the invention of the printing press in the 15th century.

The type the mathematicians came up with was named the romain du roi (the roman of the king). It was poorly received and looked like a stodgy, bland variation of the basic roman type.

Someone in the king's court had the wisdom to hand over the romain du roi to a talented type cutter named Philippe Grandjean. Grandjean managed to nudge, pinch and fatten the letters here and there, adding a little spunk to the yawning curves. After the modifications, the romain du roi went on to become a smash success in print.

Today, there are computer programs available that will calculate the shape of the letters for a type designer, based on a few initial measurements.

Matthew Carter (see main story) knows this technology very well, but he prefers to rely on his own wits. Throughout his career as a type designer, he has developed a sense for the visual relationship between letters and way they collaborate to make words. "The eye does not parse out individual characters, but recognizes the entire word," he says. For this reason, Carter calls himself a "shaper of words," rather than of letters.

"There isn't a manual that will tell you, if the 'o' has this much space then the 'h' has this much," says Carter. "If you pick up too much visual trickery [in an elaborate typeface], the eye will pick it up. If the reader has noticed the typeface, its probably because it's not doing its job."

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