Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Matthew Carter and Me

Note: This is an expanded version of a piece I recently wrote for the AIGA Boston blog.

In a previous post from 2008, I wrote about how my rather humble profession of copywriting has enabled me to come face to face with some truly brilliant individuals, such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web; and Robert Langer, a chemical engineer whose name is frequently bandied about in Nobel conversations. Some of the people I’ve been honored to meet, interview, or work with may be considered geniuses, but one just became a genius in fact: world-renowned type designer Matthew Carter, who was just awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as “the genius grant.”

Matthew was part of a small group of ambitious and visionary people who left Linotype to found Bitstream Inc. in 1981 as the world’s first independent digital type foundry. Prior to Bitstream, customers bought type from their equipment vendor. For example, Linotype fonts worked only on Linotype machines. Bitstream’s founders applied both actual and artificial intelligence in creating digital fonts that could work on any platform.

I worked at Bitstream from July 1988 to May 1992. It was, for me, a truly transformational experience. I entered a young public relations professional with just one prior job on my resume; I left an experienced copywriter with a sure sense of what I wanted to do in my career. I entered not knowing much at all about type; I left being able to identify the fonts on almost any restaurant menu. I entered not yet having met anyone in the working world I truly admired and who inspired me. I left knowing Matthew Carter.

My first year or so, I didn’t have much interaction with Matthew. He was just this imposing figure who strode slowly on his long legs, usually on the design floor, among the creatives. Tall, thin, with a proud, elegant face and long, straight silver hair – the only affectation being his ubiquitous ponytail – he spoke with a proper English accent and it seemed that if only he had a cape and a cane he could have sprung directly from literature.

It was when I became Bitstream’s copywriter (the company being entrepreneurial at the time, all I had to do was ask) that I started getting to know Matthew better. He would explain the particulars of different typefaces for me. I would interview him for articles that I had been assigned to ghost-write for him. I would prepare materials for events at which he was invited to speak. With every interaction, I came to respect his deep intelligence, to enjoy his warm and patient manner, and to revel in my good fortune that I could learn from a world-renowned master.

I recall one time when Matthew had been invited to address a group – perhaps the Type Directors Club – at a dinner; he would be giving the after-dinner remarks and in the invitation I was asked to write, I worded it just that way. When I gave the copy to Matthew to review, the only change he made was to cross out “after-dinner” and in its place he wrote “postprandial” – a word I’d never heard before. “What does postprandial mean?” I asked. “After dinner” was his nonjudgmental response. If you ever have the choice between being an English major or being English, I’d suggest you choose the latter.

My proudest moment came when the Marketing Communications department in which I worked was saddled with a hopelessly dull and creatively constrained advertising concept imposed on us by the Vice President of Marketing. No matter what we did with it, it was bland and uninspiring – as were the results. The VP decided she would take the advertising out of house. We were all pretty peeved about this, and I asked that we at least be given the chance to come up with something new ourselves. This was granted, and I proceeded to develop a series of ads promoting our typeface families, with headlines like “At Bitstream, the Futura Is Now”, as well as an image ad featuring a photo of Matthew and the headline, “Introducing Bitstream’s most important face.” The VP presented them in a meeting with the other execs, mentioned that I had created them, and later told me that Matthew responded to them by saying, “He’s a bit of a dark horse, isn’t he?”

The department kept the ad work.

I departed Bitstream voluntarily after having survived three layoffs. I went to a company that Bitstream’s VP of Sales had left for some months earlier. I was laid off after three months. I then spent a largely unsatisfying year as a communications specialist for a specialty chemical company, the only highlight being the opportunity to work with another brilliant person, the company’s chairman, Samuel Bodman, who had been the #2 guy at Fidelity and later served as U.S. Energy Secretary under George W. Bush, for whom I wrote speeches.

Needing to nurture my soul, I took a pay cut to work for public broadcasting powerhouse WGBH. I was there for four-and-a-half years. One night in the mid-1990s, WGBH was presenting an Ornette Coleman concert. I was excited to go and through a contact was able to procure comp tickets. In the lobby prior to the show, I saw a tall, slim, silver-haired man wearing cowboy boots. No question about it, it was Matthew Carter. Turns out he’s a big jazz fan, as if he didn’t have enough qualities to recommend him.

It was a good dozen years before I saw him again, on Friday, September 24, 2010, at Cambridge Public Library, when he became the sixth recipient of the AIGA Boston Fellow Award at a gala event. I am the chapter’s director of communications and had the honor of heading up the committee that organized that well-deserved recognition. It was a wonderfully successful evening, and four days later came the news that Matthew had won the MacArthur.

I don’t know when or whether ever I will see Matthew again, but I certainly hope I do and before long. His work so far precedes him that his mere presence is inspiring. Being around very smart or very talented people is like being around very beautiful people. It’s a given that you won’t quite measure up, but there’s a glow you receive from them that elicits a sense that you’re better off for having been in their orbit. I first sensed that with Matthew when I was 25; now that I am 47, I realize how fortunate I was, and how fortunate I still am that I have access to greatness to serve as inspiration and perhaps a measuring stick. I’ll never gain direct access to the rarified air that Matthew, Tim Berners-Lee, and the others occupy, but my front-row seats provide quite a nice view.