I just got around to watching Matthew Carter’s excellent TED talk, “My Life in Typefaces”. In it, he talks about his experience designing type for the past 5 decades, and how technical constraints influenced his designs. The central question he tries to answer is, “Does a constraint force a compromise? By accepting a constraint, are you working to a lower standard?” This is a question that comes up in every discipline, and with every technological change. Matthew Carter’s take on this subject is interesting because he’s experienced numerous technological changes, and has designed superb typefaces for all of them.
At first blush, it’s easy to conclude that constraints force designers to compromise their vision. But design isn’t produced in a vacuum, and ultimately must be realized through one or more mediums (print, screen, radio, etc.). Therefore, one must work within constraints to produce the best designs. To do so, designers must understand the technology that enables their designs to be experienced, be it code, the printing process, and so on. As Matthew Carter said in this talk, “I’m a pragmatist, not an idealist, out of necessity,” which is a valuable lesson that all designers should take to heart.