An Interview with Ludwig Ãœbele

After studying graphic design in Germany and Finland, Ludwig Übele worked for a number of years in the industry until he decided to concentrate on type design, and set off for the Netherlands. Since graduating from KABK’s TypeMedia course in 2007, Ludwig works freelance as a professional type designer—designing type for both text and display—and works on brand development.

What did you do before The Hague? What’s your background?

Originally I studied graphic design in Germany. Already my main focus was on type related courses. I had very good teachers in typography and calligraphy, who inspired me to go further with type. After I graduated from graphic design, I worked for several years in that field. It was a good experience, but in the long run not really satisfying. Whenever I had a job which was related to type design I was much more enthusiastic. This was the time when I decided to do the Type and Media course in The Hague, to find out if I could concentrate on the design of typefaces. 

Why and how did you get started in type design?

I did my first type designs while studying graphic design. But I owe my introduction to type design to Hubert Jocham, who is an excellent type designer and friend of mine since I was fourteen. We are from the same hometown and I often visited him in his studio where he would always show me his new type designs. I think I was fascinated that someone actually makes something as basic as type. An instrument which everybody uses every day and yet nobody recognizes. And it’s that that still fascinates me. Type is a highly fundamental element of our culture. I find it extremely interesting to design a typeface that creates its very own impression or pattern on text.

Augustin is one of my earliest typefaces. The letterforms are based on classic proportions. I looked a lot at early types of the Italian Renaissance.

You’ve already designed several typefaces. Can you describe the process? Do you start from a specific letter? And how long does it take to create a typeface?

I try to start with a general idea, such as a certain ductus of the stroke or a certain kind of construction. Very often I just sketch all over the place, and when I see an interesting element, I try to apply it to the whole alphabet to figure out if it is strong enough to serve as a general theme. I don’t have a specific letter I start with. It’s not very useful to start with a single letter. It’s better to start immediately with a whole word. It gives you more freedom and prevents you from working too detailed too early on.

How long it takes depends very much on the kind of typeface you are working on. A headline font can be done in a single weekend; a text face with several weights and styles can take a whole year. 

What do you like most and least about designing type? How do you usually start designing a typeface?

The nicest part is to start: sketching randomly, finding an idea and a general construction or characteristic; drawing the first letters and making the first words. As I said before I don’t have a specific letter which I usually start with, but there are some key glyphs which show the basic forms: n, b, o, v for instance for lowercase, A, H, O for uppercase.

I try in the begining not to concentrate too much on single letters but work on the whole alphabet and balance the single letters in relation to each other. That way I can set text very early on, and see how the typeface looks in small printed text—that’s usually very different from what you see on screen. Once the basic letters are done, then the real work starts. Never-ending corrections on details, and expanding the character set. This can be painful when the family is extensive and contains endless number of characters and styles. It is very tempting to add lots of characters and features to the first font, but exhausting to implement it through the rest of the family. 

Your typeface Marat has received the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design. How was it started and what inspired you?

I started Marat at my Type and Media postgraduate course at the KABK in The Hague 2006/2007. My concept was very simple. I wanted to design a nice and useable typeface. Not necessarily for books but for magazines, brochures or for corporate use. In contrast to books, magazines have more varied content (from straight, linear text to very fragmented information), with different weights, styles and sizes all appearing on the same page. Marat should meet these (conflicting) requirements: open and legible for small text, compact for tight headlines and narrow columns. Another inspiration was an experiment with Erik van Blokland’s Superpolator. I moved a so-called ink trap gradually from left to right and from top to bottom.

Superpolator experiment

I based the construction of Marat on one of the interpolation results.

Do you visit type-related sites and communities like Typophile.com? If so, do you find them useful? Do you communicate with people in the industry?

Yes, there are some type blogs which I visit regularly. And I find it absolutely helpful in keeping me up-to-date, and for finding solutions to specific technical or linguistic problems, or for historical research. Work in progress I usually discuss with type-designer friends.

Who is your favorite contemporary type designer and typeface?

I don’t have one favorite, neither a designer nor a typeface. But there are some which I admire. Matthew Carter for instance or Gerard Unger. Bram de Does’ Trinité and Lexicon are two of the nicest typefaces ever made. I like the work of Roger Excoffon (although he is not contemporary). František Štorm does amazing stuff. I also like the types of Alejandro Lo Celso (Pampatype). The sans serifs of Georg Salden* are excellent (Polo, Planet, Axiom).

Is it possible to become a professional type designer without a KABK or Reading background?

Many people who are now professional type designers didn’t study at KABK or Reading and many who studied there don’t do type design anymore. But since designing typefaces is a very complex undertaking, it is of course a great chance to spend time exclusively and very intensely on this subject and meet and discuss with many of the best type designers around. I only can recommend these type courses. For me it was essential in making the move to professional type design.

What are your favorite books on type design?

Honestly, I’ve hardly ever seen good books on type design. Most books teach the basics, but remain on the surface and don’t have their own view on type design. I like Gerard Unger’s “While You’re Reading“. Also Walter Kaech’s “Rhythm and proportion in lettering” (Rhythmus und Proportion in der Schrift) seems very interesting, but I couldn’t get hold of my own copy yet. Gerrit Noordzij’s writings are also compelling. There are some excellent books on existing typefaces. In particular I like the collection of Max Caflisch’s articles from the Swiss magazine Typographische Mitteilungen (“Schriftanalysen“). 

What plans do you have? Are you working on a new typeface?

From the very beginning of its development, Marat was planed as serif and sans serif. Actually it started out as a as sans serif. So I’m working on Marat Sans. I have just finished expanding and updating Walhalla, an Uncial face I created some years ago. And then I have some ideas and sketches for new faces. We’ll see where it goes …


Ludwig’s typefaces can be found here; and the letter a from Marat can be found on my front door.
* An interview with Georg Salden on Type Radio.

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