Meet the Man Behind Tech’s Most Recognizable Fonts

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Font designer Steve Matteson, 46, is behind some of the most recognizable typefaces on consumer products today. From the Droid series of fonts in Android’s mobile phone platform to Xbox, Xbox 360 and the suite of fonts that comes with Microsoft products, such as Windows 7 and Microsoft Office, Matteson’s work is everywhere.

While attending the School of Printing at Rochester Institute of Technology, he became enchanted with the text printed on the pages of books. He studied calligraphy, design and typography, and set out to turn this passion into a full-time career. He now works at Monotype Imaging, which specializes in typesetting and typeface design. It’s the company that has brought us various popular fonts including Helvetica, Times New Roman and ITC Franklin Gothic.

Mashable spoke with Matteson about his love for design and what drives him to keep pushing the creative envelope.

Q&A with Steve Matteson, Font Designer

How would you describe your design style?

I approach design from a problem-solving perspective. Most of my work over the past 25 years has been focused on creating custom typefaces for specific environments, such as mobile-device screens or corporate branding. This gives me a set of rules to work within and depending on the project, it can either restrain me or free me up to embrace self-expression.

Are you particular about font styles?

Type gives a voice to the author’s message, and it’s bothersome when there is a disconnect between the two. The only time I’m very particular about typeface styles is when they’re used inappropriately or without imagination. It’s how a musician feels when a certain composition is played in a style that’s out of place. For example, Comic Sans is perfect for comic books but awful in formal settings. G.F. Handel’s Messiah would be bad in a hip-hop mix.

What’s your font of choice?

“Type gives a voice to the author’s message, and it’s bothersome when there is a disconnect between the two.”

The typefaces I use every day are dictated by what I’m producing. I’m a big fan of book typefaces and those with some character. I tend to use designs with an organic, non-mechanical appearance. My favorite design is the Font Bureau‘s version of Californian, originally designed by Frederic Goudy for University of California at Berkeley.

How does one become a font designer?

People have come to type design from many different backgrounds. Thanks to type-design computer software and a few college degree programs that now allow students to study design type from an early age, more are attracted to the field. It seems like a narrow discipline, but it requires a wide variety of influence. Some of the best text-type designs came from book designers such as Bruce Rogers, Fred Goudy or Jan Tschichold. Lettering artists and calligraphers have made huge contributions to expressive type designs. Again, type design is similar to music. You have a framework within which to work: key signatures, tempo, rhythm, genre and so on. Successful composers are drawn to this framework and work within the limitations. Designers see a similar framework to work within in type. They are either smitten by it or never come back.


Droid Sans, the font


What design or project of yours are you most proud of?

My proudest achievement is probably the designs I did for Google’s Android mobile platform. Droid Sans, Droid Serif and now OpenSans — based on Droid Sans — have become very popular. I really like these because while they are highly utilitarian, they also have a lot of me in them. They weren’t made so neutral as to prevent me from expressing myself. It’s also rewarding to see my work used by huge numbers of consumers every day.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced with design so far?

The typeface family I designed for the hardware of XBox 360 was the biggest challenge. The company wanted a new typeface family to reflect the redesign of the device, but I couldn’t see any of the hardware designs in progress or how the typefaces would be rendered on the XBox screens. I had to take the designer’s word for it that I was headed in the right direction throughout the six-month project. When I saw the final product with my typefaces, it was a relief that it successfully provided a unified brand voice.

How is design for companies different now than it was a few years ago?

The adoption of web fonts technology by browser manufacturers has created a rebirth in typographic expression on the web. Companies are seeing a huge shift towards recreating their collateral for the web and mobile. Even in the last 2 years, we saw a lot of ‘web safe’ system fonts conveying corporate messages — such as IKEA’s switch to Verdana — now you see the corporate brand voice in the proper corporate typeface. It’s like the desktop publishing revolution all over again.


What advice would you give to inspiring and up-and-coming designers?

Don’t be discouraged by the overnight success of peers. This can lead to impatience and bad-decision making. I’ve seen a few designers flame out as they try to keep up with self-promoters with large web-based followings. Hard work is definitely the only way to succeed, but balance is also important. I turn to cycling on the roads and trails of Colorado. I also play trumpet in two ensembles and carve letters into stone. The creative energy has to come from somewhere, and if it’s constantly depleted, it’s not going to recharge.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto, esolla

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