home archive font wall
I Love Typography

An Interview with Verena Gerlach

After more than 10 years, Verena Gerlach has revised and extended her FF Karbid super family, an interpretation of German storefront lettering from the early 1900s. The new FF Karbid is a harmonized redesign of the original typeface. Rounder and less narrow letters lend the shapes more space and balance. Although the contrast was reduced to obtain a harmonious monolinear typeface (without losing its liveliness) it was increased in the bolder weights to improve legibility and achieve a certain elegance. FF Karbid Display is the most obvious spin-off of the original family. More than merely having been assimilated, the letterforms were revised according to a new concept.

From top to bottom: FF Karbid Text, FF Karbid Display, FF Karbid Slab, FF Karbid.

The FF Karbid family has been augmented with two entirely new sub-families. The first one, the Text version, is intended for body copy in small sizes. The eccentric, serif-like swashes in select letters have been abandoned, while the friendly, lively forms of l, y, z and Z show the close relationship to the FF Karbid family. The other new sub-family is a Slab version. It has a sober, journalistic character, inspired by the typography in magazines of the 1920s (see Memphis, etc.). The strong serifs lend the typeface footing and an air of reliability. To improve legibility and balance the contrast was increased in comparison to the sans serif version. FontFont’s Christoph Koeberlin and Ivo Gabrowitsch recently had the opportunity to talk with Verena Gerlach about her diverse super family.

1. Verena, please tell us a bit about your professional background.

I studied Communication Design at Kunsthochschule Berlin Weißensee from 1993 to 1998 with a focus on typography. Right after my graduation in 1998, I started to work as a freelancer, mainly in graphic design for cultural organizations.

Since then I have been busy in classic graphic design as well as type design, art direction for pop music videos, advertising and exhibition design. At the moment I am focusing on book design.

Since 2003 I have been teaching typography, design and type design in Germany as well as abroad; for example, in Algeria, Jordan, Sweden, and USA. Additionally, I have been giving lectures in several other countries.

Verena Gerlach.

2. Was the step of designing your own typefaces foreseeable due to your work as a graphic designer specializing in book design?

I did both simultaneously. Actually, I started with type design and later got involved in book design. Now, I find it extremely important for my work that I am doing both. When designing books I can do a better job of choosing the right typefaces and make better use of the chosen typefaces. Conversely, when designing typefaces I have a better understanding of type as text and as a part of an overall design.

3. What do you like the most about the type design process?

I like to have a finger in every pie, from drawing the single letters to programming the font. I most like the first drawings, which I do rather quickly; but I also enjoy the zen-like fine tuning of all the curves. I’m very happy when other designers use my typefaces and when beautiful things are designed with them.

FF Karbid has grown from 2 families with 5 styles to 4 families with 40 styles.

4. On the other hand, what’s the biggest challenge in this regard?

The clear decisions you have to make. There is only form and counter-form, that as single characters and combinations must add up to a balanced overall picture. There is only yes or no — no maybe. You are moving within very narrow borders and you must achieve the best possible result. There are also those moments when you change a form, spacing or kerning, and then the whole system no longer works and again you must change something, and so on. Finding the exact moment when you consider the font complete is very difficult because you are never really content.

5. How do you go through the process of a new type design? Are there any certain steps that you follow during the process?

My fonts are always conceived from scribbles on paper. I always start with a hand-drawn sketch, followed by drawing in a font program.

6. We know that FF Karbid was inspired by German storefront lettering from the 1930s. What made you so interested in this theme that you chose it as the inspiration for your digital typeface?

I’m in the lucky situation to have witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and the happiness of the following years. To preserve the impressions and the excitement of this time in this city with its story, I collected a lot of visual material. Between 1991 and 1998, I documented the old shop lettering that was painted directly onto the façades in the former East Berlin – mostly in Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte. This lettering had not just survived WW II, but the more than 45 subsequent years of the post-war period. The reason why these traces from the early twentieth century could survive was the poor economy of the GDR. The whole political system was living on the leftovers of the ‘glory days’. I was fascinated when I got access to these massive resources of the suffering originals.  Because the old structures in the East were in very bad condition, the city started with the widely planned reconstruction of most of the façades, as soon as their ownership was discovered. The only way not to lose all of this beautiful lettering and the stories behind them was to record them in photographs and try to find a way of showing them later on in another context. Therefore, I took pictures of the lettering, ‘portraits’ of individual characters, and even the spaces in between. I call this method ‘search, find, and rescue’:

Berlin façades now and then:
Most of the lettering has gone.

To show how the old shop lettering was disappearing over the past 15 years, in 2005 I returned to the same places where I’d taken so many photographs. I took new pictures, trying to get to exactly the same position, and keeping the same angles as the first shots. This was not easy, partly because so many cars are parked on the streets these days, compared to the relatively car-free days of the GDR. The thing I found out is that more than 98% of the old lettering has vanished forever. Just a handful of building owners cared about these old traces and conserved the originals on the façades by painting the new color around them.

To transfer the characters into a new mission, I examined the distinctive appearances of individual letters and tried to find out about their origins in old type specimen books. Old techniques for printmaking and reproduction and contemporary innovations, together with the everyday life in the early twentieth century are all very well reflected in the shapes of the letters. In the FF Karbid family the results of this research process come together in a new typeface, to be used in a new time and new media. In this way, the old lettering can live again.

The shapes of FF Karbid Display stick quite closely to the found originals, while FF Karbid Text shows its historical background less obviously. The typeface has been trimmed down to the bare essentials of a text face, which makes it eminently readable, especially at small point sizes. Despite this back-to-basics reduction, FF Karbid Text is a font that captivates through its sheer liveliness. The sweeps that replace the serifs and link the characters create a flowing movement.

Here are some examples for the process behind FF Karbid Display’s design:

At the turn of the last century it was very popular to design typefaces whose lowercase ‘a’ sits with its full weight on the baseline. This is a kind of reference to the organic shapes used in Art Nouveau.

Due to technical limitations of the time and the German standard baseline specification of 1905, foundries started to truncate the descenders of roman faces so that they could be combined with blackletter faces in the same line. While it was easy to amputate the descenders of letters like ‘p’ and ‘q’, the ‘g’ provided a much harder challenge for the type designer to play with its short tail. The strangest shapes suddenly appeared in the ‘modern’ typefaces, whose unique look was applied to façade lettering as well, although there was technically no need for this.

Some of FF Karbid Display’s letters directly link to storefront lettering.

A reflection of the speed of modern times in a busy city like Berlin are the rally stripes of A, E, F, and H. The shapes of these characters are taken directly from the found lettering.

One very important graphic and type designer of this time was Lucian Bernhard (1883–1972), who created the typefaces, Extrafette Bernhard Kursiv and Bernhard Antiqua. The sweeps of ‘n’ and ‘m’ in FF Karbid are taken from Bernhard Antiqua, as if it has been enlarged by a photocopier. These shapes replace the serifs and link the characters to create a flowing movement.

FF Karbid’s terminals and serifs are irregular: as if they have fallen off, as actually happened to the originals when the plaster fell off the old façades in the East.

7. Why did you decide to redesign FF Karbid after all these years?

I acquired more knowledge in all the years since designing the original FF Karbid, by designing typefaces and using them in book design. I found the forms of the old FF Karbid rather unsuitable for body text, and there are some other things that I have a different view on now. An Italic/Oblique was missing, and I thought a matching Text and Slab version would be great. The weights were not balanced and a Light was missing. You could say that the new FF Karbid Pro is like Berlin: it evolved during this time; it has grown up and has become serious despite all the party hype. Many different people have moved to Berlin and perhaps FF Karbid Pro is the gentrified version of the old FF Karbid.

8. Where does the name ‘Karbid’ come from?

The working title was Kabinett as a reference to the curiosity cabinets of the turn of the century. I eventually found this name too kitschy and thought it should be based on the lettering found on the facades of the workshops and stores of that time in the neighborhoods around Hackesche Höfe and Pappelallee. The numerous signposts of coal stores (Kohlehandlungen) supplied me with a nice collection of ‘Ko’ lettering, but also the idea for the name of the typeface, Karbid, the German word for Carbide, a carbon compound. Carbide is not only the main ingredient of the extremely bright carbide lamps (used for cinema projectors at the time) but also highly explosive which I found very appropriate.

9. What are the special features of FF Karbid? Why should a designer use it in his/her work?

The features consist mainly of alternate characters – by using them you can strikingly change the appearance of the typeface. These alternate letters have forms reminiscent of the Art Déco without being obtrusive: the higher or lower waists of the capitals in SS01 and SS02, or the almost circular forms of C, E, G, and O. There is also a non-diagonal, rounded upwards A in SS03. And the several styles of the fonts enable ambitious graphic design with many different text hierarchies. For example, the new FF Karbid Text Pro is a softer version of the FF Karbid Pro without those serif-like terminals to enable discreet but lively body copy. In this sober version the references to the store lettering are just visible as a little friendly salute.

Low-waist alternates of Stylistic Set 1 and high-waist alternates of Stylistic Set 2 (SS02), contained in FF Karbid, FF Karbid Text and FF Karbid Slab.

The Slab is a stronger, louder variant which combines perfectly with the other more prosaic styles.

10. Could the family unfold its glory only through the OpenType format?

I could have made separate fonts from all those features, but this would be redundant and confusing in these OpenType times. By clicking on the features you can play with the font and choose the most suitable features. You will need a bit of intuition but that’s something every designer loves to be challenged by, right?

Many hidden gems to be found in FF Karbid’s Stylistic Sets: Single-storey a and g in Set 5, alternative ampersand in Set 7, rounded A in Set 3, and circular letters in Set 4.

11. With FF Karbid Slab you added to the superfamily a completely new variant. What inspired you for this?

I always liked Memphis which was suitable only to a limited extent for body copy. When used with justification, for example, you get bad gaps in shorter lines. So, I looked for a narrower Egyptienne and then I had the idea to just apply square-edged serifs to FF Karbid and to raise the contrast. Thanks to the new font program, Glyphs by Georg Seifert, this was done quickly.

What I transferred from the original Memphis is the upright-standing rounded upwards ‘A’ which I then also used for the other weights, and which was already part of the FF Karbid Display variant. I had taken it from lettering in a Bauhaus version, but the idea for this form, for a Text capital ‘A’, came from Memphis.

FF Karbid Slab used in ‘The Murder of Crows’ (Hatje Cantz, 2011).

12. How does a historically influenced super-family like FF Karbid make sense in the new webfont environment?

I find it appropriate to transfer the lettering onto the web. The point with webfonts is that they must be well hinted and readable on screen. Of course, it’s up to the designer to select the right font for the right purpose and use it accordingly (size, colour, contrast, space, etc.). It’s a bonus if all the beautiful lost letterforms of the reconstructed façades in Berlin can live on on the web.

13. Compared to the other variants, FF Karbid Text differs from FF Karbid only slightly. Why did you decide for such a separate family instead of a stylistic set extension?

I see the problem in marketing the stylistic sets. This version is very different from the normal FF Karbid Pro but you can just see it in text. The individual letters are partly the same, but the new FF Karbid Text Pro is a softer version of FF Karbid Pro without those serif-like terminals to enable discreet but lively body copy. In this sober version the references to the store lettering are just visible.

14. Since FF City Street Type, that you designed together with Ole Schäfer, as well as your typefaces Tephe and PTL Trafo are all based on type that you’ve explored in Berlin, would you see yourself as the prototype of a Berlin graphic designer? How does the city influence your work in general?

I see myself as a designer who observes her environment and finds inspiration in it. I can’t go through life without handling what I see in my graphic work. As I’ve lived in Berlin for many years, my inspiration is Berlin. And given the history of this place during the last 100 years it was so special that it has left many traces throughout the city. I had the same feeling in Algiers which is also a rich source for inspiration, as well as Damascus, and even Monaco. I would see myself rather as a prototype of a designer inspired by any environment.

15. Do you have plans for a new type design in the near future?

Yes, I have. But first I’d like to design using my typefaces. Some time, in the not too distant future, I will surely again design and publish a new typeface.

Links: FF Karbid | FontFont | @FontFont