Matthew Carter and the Future of the Book

POSTED ON Sep 30, 2010

Joel Friedlander

Written by Joel Friedlander

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I was innocently going through my inbox yesterday when the following email from a friend popped up:

matthew carter has just gotten a macarthur grant… hooooooo haaaaaaa!

It was astonishing. I’m sure very few people outside of graphic designers and typographers would have ever heard of Matthew Carter. But he is a legendary figure in type design and has been for many years.

What was even more astonishing is that Carter is 72 years old. As he says in the video released by the MacArthur Foundation, it was very gratifying to have such a vote of confidence in his ability to continue to produce work at the highest level.

Here’s the video:

An Extraordinary Type Designer

matthew carter typography

Some of Matthew Carter's type designs (Wikimedia)

Carter has had a long career, and learned the ancient art of punchcutting—actually cutting the shapes of letters in the ends of metal rods that are then used to make molds in which the metal type is cast—at a type foundry in Holland.

He is the founder of Bitstream, the world’s first independent digital type foundry, and he is a principal of Carter and Cone Type, Inc. His career spans the entire history of type design and production, Carter clearly relishes the changes that digitization have brought to the world of typography.

He designed many of the typefaces used by the New York Times and over 60 typeface families in all. His type designs include:

  • Bell Centennial
  • Bitstream Charter
  • Cascade Script
  • ITC Galliard
  • Georgia
  • Monticello
  • Shelley Script
  • Snell Roundhand
  • Skia
  • Tahoma
  • Verdana

It’s rewarding to all type fans to have a designer of Matthew Carter’s incredible accomplishment win this award, which is intended to finance future work. I hope it will be a catalyst for him to do something truly memorable. Web typography is at yet another changepoint, with the onset of HTML5 and other infrastructure upgrades that will usher in a new era of typographic design online. Truly an amazing day.

. . . And The Future of the Book?

Coincidentally, another video has been making the rounds that bears directly on the byproducts of the collision between the culture of books and digital technology.

The video presents three versions of new tablet reader technology from IDEO, a global design consultancy. Here’s their introduction:

What new experiences might be created by linking diverse discussions, what additional value could be created by connected readers to one another, and what innovative ways we might use to tell our favorite stories and build community around books?

And here’s the video:

The Future of the Book. from IDEO on Vimeo.

The three applications are variations on socially engaging multimedia ways of extending textual material into other dimensions. They each take a different type of material as the starting point.

The third variation, Alice, is a transformation of the story that’s very profound. Part of the narration explains:

With the written narrative at the center of the reading experience stories unfold and develop through the reader’s active participation, blurring the lines between reality and fiction.

The result is a collaborative and social environment with real-time components and the possiblity for all kinds of social engagement around the various ways text is used as an anchor for other experiences.

You would have to consider these visions “super-enhanced ebooks” for their promise to combine every form of media to deepen and extend the text, along with many forms of social networking and even using the GPS ability of tablets to take the reading experience into three dimensions.

But Where Is the Book?

No matter how exciting these new books may be, the overwhelming characteristic is that they aren’t really “books” at all, but some new, never seen before hybrid creation.

There’s a little irony in Matthew Carter being honored for his lifetime in typography and type design at the exact time that the book itself seems ready to shrug off its ties to this world and become “text” in the service of some larger product.

I don’t think printed books are going to disappear anytime soon. But I’m not sure that “ebooks” and “ebook” readers which are designed to look and act like paper books—including the fancy “page turning” simulations—aren’t a transitional fad.

How long will the young and robust digital technology be contained within the confines of the stuffy old form of the book?

Here’s what I think: I’ve begun to see books—the sheaves of paper printed on both sides and bound for ease of transport and access—as mere holders for text. They keep the text safe, and allow it to be transmitted, very slowly, over hundreds of years.

Separating text from the book leaves the book exactly where? Maybe its job is coming to an end. Are we glimpsing the future of the book?

Photo licensed under a Creative Commons license. Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Joel Friedlander

Written by
Joel Friedlander

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