Designer Spotlight

At Work With Ferdinand Ulrich

December 16, 2015 by
David Sudweeks
David Sudweeks

David Sudweeks interviews type historian and fellow FontShop editor Ferdinand Ulrich, known best here for his writing on type systems, the history of geometric sans serif type, and recently, a detailed look into rounded fonts. The past three years he’s also taught students at Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle/Saale, and he does serious investigation and conducts interviews of his own.

What perspective have you gained from teaching typography at the university level?

Ferdinand Ulrich | “Working with students, following their progress and watching how their perception of type and typography changes is an amazing experience. Many students like to break all the rules from the beginning – without being very familiar with them. While curiosity and the intention to experiment is a requirement in typography, knowing about rhyme and reason, effects and consequences as well as connotations that certain design decisions may have is also important. Therefore not only design parameters and type history should be taught; I want to raise an awareness that type can be a powerful tool.

After spending some time with the same students I find it satisfying to discover how much thought and conceptual approach they put into the selection of a particular typeface for example. We all know that the words ‘I did this, because I like it’ end any interesting debate. Therefore I encourage students to think about each step they take in a design process and to be able to clearly articulate them as well.”

The university’s new library building was inaugurated in 2015.
The university’s new library building was inaugurated in 2015.

Last semester Ferdinand conducted a typography seminar to first-year students focusing on ‘white space’. Seen here is a basic exercise: Words are translated into a abstract graphic language by using a set of squares.
Last semester Ferdinand conducted a typography seminar to first-year students focusing on ‘white space’. Seen here is a basic exercise: Words are translated into a abstract graphic language by using a set of squares.

This is a graphic translation of “dynamic”.
This is a graphic translation of “dynamic”.

You’ve also worked for Erik Spiekermann since 2012 collaborating on projects and conducting workshops at his p98a gallery and letterpress studio. How did you find each other?

Ferdinand Ulrich | “In 2008, after finishing the first year of basic courses at Berlin University of the Arts, I decided to move on to a class specializing in information design and visual systems. At the same time, Erik had been appointed guest professor for that particular field. This was an exciting time: I was quite a young student then and learned so much from Erik’s feedback, his experience and his brilliant anecdotes.

After two semesters Erik advised me to study abroad at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to deepen my interest in type and typography with professors Terry Irwin and Bob Swinehart. It turned out to be one the best experiences of all my studies, full of great encounters and discoveries. Upon my return to Berlin I interned at Edenspiekermann, working closely with Erik on ‘special projects’. Eventually this collaboration led to a more permanent arrangement – now at gallery p98a.”

Ferdinand’s office at the university
Ferdinand’s office at the university

Could you tell me about one of your auto-initiated projects?

Ferdinand Ulrich | “With my graduate thesis project on Hermann Zapf’s Hunt Roman typeface I developed a strong interest in type history. Some of Zapf’s typefaces, in particular Hunt, Comenius, a few of his ITC types and Marconi have captured much of my attention since. Comparing tools, technologies and design processes is an exciting research field. And beyond all strokes, x-heights and descenders one of my main emphases lies in collaborations and the people behind the types. I regularly lecture and write about these research topics.”

One of the first letterpress posters by Erik Spiekermann printed at Galerie p98a.
One of the first letterpress posters by Erik Spiekermann printed at Galerie p98a.

Home of the design department
Home of the design department

When you write about type and graphic design, what is the audience you imagine?

Ferdinand Ulrich | “I have experienced so many conversations in which people never wondered where the fonts on their computers come from. Therefore I imagine two kinds of audiences: people who are already interested in type and those whose attention we have yet to capture.

I hope to produce an entertaining read for beginners on the one hand, and one that also contains details and possibly new discoveries appreciated by experts on the other. Usually the latter point out the one typeface I ‘forget’ to mention in a historic overview. This leaves me satisfied, because I know they have carefully read my article.”

Ferdinand’s ride in Halle is a 1970s Diamant 35 105.
Ferdinand’s ride in Halle is a 1970s Diamant 35 105.

What do you collect?

Ferdinand Ulrich | “I collect a whole lot of things, mostly printed matter. Type specimens of course, by Stempel, Berthold, Bauer, ITC, Font Bureau, FontFont etc. I have a weak spot for small books that contain metal type-setting guidelines or letterpress printing manuals. As a book designer – of course – I collect the Inselbücherei series, too.

In recent years I have compiled quite an ephemera collection of bus tickets, receipts, transit maps, vouchers, packaging – basically anything and preferably in different languages. Also when I’m abroad, I can’t resist walking into the next post office and grabbing a stack of forms. From an information design perspective I find the structure and design of such things highly fascinating. Not to forget my box of Lufthansa merchandise …”

At the occasion of this year’s 100th anniversary of the university, Ferdinand Ulrich designed the ’Burg encyclopedia‘, edited by Matthias Noell. Read a FontShop review [here](/content/burg-giebichenstein-in-alphabetical-order-a-college-encyclopedia).
At the occasion of this year’s 100th anniversary of the university, Ferdinand Ulrich designed the ’Burg encyclopedia‘, edited by Matthias Noell. Read a FontShop review here.

What’s next?

Ferdinand Ulrich | “This fall I started a PhD in typographic research at the University of Reading. For a while now the history of digital type and typography has captured my attention. I aim to research the interaction between changing design processes, distribution models and the production of type in the digital era. Reading, with its amazing supervisors and extensive resources, is undoubtedly the perfect place for this.”

Photographs by Norman Posselt.