Categories / Design Basics

Typefaces, Humanism, and Rhythm: Introducing Matteson Typographics

Laura Busche January 18, 2022 · 11 min read

If you’ve ever created or read text set in Open Sans, you’re already familiar with Steve Matteson’s work. Over the last 30 years, Matteson has designed or revived over 90 typeface families, crafting well-known typefaces like Segoe, Droid, and Carnero. His impressive list of clients includes Microsoft, Google, Toyota, and Unilever. 

Today, we’re honored to welcome Steve’s exceptional talent, devotion to type, and unique catalog to Creative Market. We recently sat with him to learn more about his story and lessons learned. Read on to get a closer look at the making of an extraordinary career in type.

What inspired you to design typefaces in the first place?

I was always drawn to letters. Like many kids, I loved drawing block letters and may have had an unusual awareness of people with unique handwriting. Later on, I took calligraphy classes in high school and did some architectural lettering. That opened my eyes to handmade letters. However, it was college typography that blew my mind open to what typography really is. Letterpress printing and working with physical type drew me to letterforms in new ways.

This wasn’t type design per se, but it’s the path that led me there. The thing about working with physical type in a letterpress environment is that it teaches you that type is a tool. It’s just one of the resources that you use to reproduce information. You’ve got drawers and drawers of metal type and go around picking through and thinking, “oh, this is unique” or “this one fits the page I’m trying to print”. By introducing typography like this, you naturally find yourself thinking in terms of use cases.

My mentor, Goudy award-winner Chuck Bigelow, had a great quote to express this:

“Today’s type designer ought to aim for designs that are made for specific needs.”

That idea rang true to me. Ultimately, type designers are making tools that leverage technology in order to communicate.

This was the late 80s: desktop publishing was taking off and driving new typeface designs. Throughout my career, I’ve used technology’s impact to steer my efforts.

Is that what led you to create fonts for Microsoft and Google?

Yes. There was a very pivotal moment in type technology where the first TrueType fonts were being made for Microsoft Windows. I had the opportunity to be a part of the team that made these fonts. PostScript had been successful, but Microsoft and Apple were fully invested in this new TrueType technology. 

Once again, we were seeing a tech-driven shift in typographic design. Instead of letterform design, the challenge here was to represent typefaces accurately and faithfully with a different technology. You’re taking a letterform that has been around for years and are trying to faithfully represent it with pixels instead of toner or ink.

The Android platform is a great example of that. When smartphones first came out, they didn’t have 300 DPI screens; they were still relatively low-resolution. My brief was to design a typeface for Google that represented the user interface clearly, remained readable, and looked like it belonged to Google. The Droid font family was a result of this effort. Later on, I also designed Open Sans for Google’s brand system.

Were you thinking about legibility when you made Droid a serif font?

Yes. Low-resolution display informed that early Android work. This is technology, again, impacting typographic design. Back when newspapers were offset-printed, they’d turn the press on at high speeds and use cheap paper. Letterforms, therefore, had to be designed in a way that made them robust enough to handle that kind of stress. Having that experience with offset printing helped me navigate the challenges of screen displays.

Do you still design letterforms on paper?

Quite often. Paper helps my mind catalog the ideas I want to apply and identify anything I don’t want to see in the typeface. It’s easier to scratch and refine initial concepts.

There’s an argument that it’s just easier to draw a circle on a computer. I agree: if you are going to have a circle on your typeface, you might as well just draw it on the computer. However, for my designs, I try to not be that mechanical. I always try to bring some kind of human element and you can’t really have the computer create those for you.

I suppose you could write an algorithm that feeds you a whole bunch of shapes and you say “yeah, I like that one”, but I am older school and would rather create the form myself and then represent it on a computer. I’d prefer to either digitize the letterforms with drawing tools on the computer or re-draw what I drew on paper from scratch—which is another way that I work.

Where do your typeface design ideas come from?

A lot are driven by what the customer wants. Usually, the customer will hand a brief with resolution specs or brand pointers like “we’re rebellious” or “we’re after a conservative look”. All those little elements will go into certain features of the typeface. Quite often you will come to a brand with what you think is a really great, cutting edge idea and the corporate brand is just not ready for that kind of change. A lot of corporate designs get watered down.

But even with simple geometric designs, like the custom typeface I created for Toyota, they had this element that made them unique. While neutral and clean, I tried to infuse a human element that aids legibility and makes reading engaging.

From Toyota’s Visual Identity System

I don’t like to introduce features that are distracting or disruptive— particularly for corporate customers. You don’t want to turn off readers or make it exhausting to differentiate letterforms. For instance, I will often present an l with a little foot on it because a capital I (i) and a lower-case l (L) get bashed around all the time because you can’t tell the difference.

Clients will often come to me with questions like “Why are you making the letterforms so open?”. You have to consider that most of your texts are being read on screen, so you need to make typefaces as readable as possible. There is a lot of concession and education involved.

For my own work and retail typefaces, I look at a lot of vintage lettering. I’m especially inspired by typefaces that were done in metal but never made it to photo, digital, or webfonts, even. Why were they drawing such unique characteristics?

Frederic Goudy is my favorite type designer all the way back to school. I remember learning about him as an innovator who pioneered the concept of independent type studios. Creating typefaces, licensing them to type foundries, what so many of us do today: he was one of the first to really do that.

He also worked on a lot of private typefaces that either have never been revived or have been interpreted haphazardly. I have been trying to do right by his old designs. A lot of them are quirky and have a signature sense of Goudy to them. A sense of his own hand.

Some of them also represent historical references that he set out to revive, whether it is a French type, or an Italian Renaissance typeface that he saw somewhere. Looking at printed pages and figuring out where his inspiration came from is interesting to me. I want to do my part to preserve Goudy typefaces for history.

There are a few Goudy revivals in your Creative Market shop. Do you have a favorite? 

I think my favorite is Goudy Titling, based on his woodcut letterforms. He cut these tiny 3-by-3 inch squares into wood illustrations from a book about Trajan capitals. Those actual cuts turned up at RIT, my alma mater, and it was just amazing to see them in physical form. These letterforms were so graceful I was convinced they should be digitized. So I did it myself, along with other weights that made the typeface even more useful.

Do you think this Rennaisance look in type is coming back?

I think that’s quite true. People have had time to think during the pandemic and reconnect with literature and philosophy. I think there is a need for human contact, craftmanship, humanism, and avoidance of mechanical typefaces.

What is your signature typeface design style? Classic Matteson.

I like to play with vowels. Because they appear more frequently, they’re going to bring more character to the typeface. I’m also drawn to two-story lower-case g’s because they bring a totally different texture to a typeface than a single-story g. I think a single-story g brings a certain monotony to the rhythm, whereas a two-story g adds some syncopation.

I am also a musician, so I think rhythm and syncopation are part of what I try to infuse into an otherwise mechanical design. My signature style involves bringing an element of humanity, rhythm, and syncopation into a typeface.

How does your love for music come together with your love for typography?

I think that music and type design are similar in the balance you need to strike between your left and right sides of the brain.

The best musicians will tell you there’s an element of free play and a level of structure. One of the type designers I used to work with, Jim Wasco, was a great jazz pianist, but he couldn’t read music. I, on the other hand, am not a good improviser at all. He would envy me if I sat down and played piano because I could read the notes.

“Tell me what the chords are and I’ll play it, you know.” I envied him for that, and he envied me for my ability to read the music. Free play and structure.

When I sit down and start drawing a new typeface, I’ve always got music playing. I think, in a way, having the music playing will remind me of that connection. “Wow, this composer really balanced rhythm and melody or counterpoint.” I should be doing that in my design. It’s a subtle, subliminal reminder that I need to be thinking in those terms when I am drawing something new: free play.

Then there’s the phase of type design where there is a lot of repetitive work. You don’t really have to think anymore:  you’re just on a roll combining accents or kerning. I’m usually just playing straight ahead rock and roll for this.

What makes a good typeface, in your opinion?

I see a lot of student work where they will try to make every letter unique. While there is a place for that, the trick in a typeface is to build harmony throughout. If you introduce something that is really disruptive, or not part of the DNA, it looks foreign.

People might also stumble on reading it. There is a tendency to say “I want to do a lot of swash caps and flourishes,” but you have to think again about what Chuck Bigelow said: is it solving a problem, to have all of these extra features? It may be satisfying to the designer, and there is nothing wrong with that, but when you think of the end-user and how they might put these letters together, it may be very complex. When shopping for type, don’t let tons and tons of alternates necessarily sway you. That might be a lot of frosting with no cake.

I think that typography should be such that it sustains the rhythm and contains enough flourish to retain the interest of the reader. There’s a fine balance there. 

What resources would you recommend to a typography enthusiast?

There is no question in my mind that Glyphs is the tool of choice. It’s intuitive, powerful, and led by amazing developers. They have a great community of people who help each other out through the process. If I had had Glyphs 30 years ago, I would probably have twice as many typefaces.

What many don’t understand about typeface design is that it makes you use both sides of the brain. On one hand, you’re exercising creativity: there is art in your individual letters. However, these glyphs also have to work well together, as part of a system. As a designer and musician, Steve Matteson understands that typefaces are crafted to hit high notes but also play beautifully as a melody. It’s about art and expression, but also math and rhythm.

We’re honored to have Steve Matteson’s catalog at Creative Market and can’t wait to see what you’ll create with his typefaces!

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About the Author
Laura Busche

Brand strategist. Creating design tools to empower creative entrepreneurs. Author of the Lean Branding book. MA in Design Management from the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

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