Ben Fehrman-Lee

Read the full interview here.
Dhwani Garg
The first thing worth asking is also the most obvious: Can you talk a bit about your background and how you got into designing books?

Ben Fehrman-Lee
My road to graphic design is a bit more wandering than most. I think I grew up drawing and painting my whole life. I will say I had a big influence in a sort of unforeseen way. I grew up as an only child. So part of that, like creative space, was, I think, afforded by the fact that I had to invent my ways of playing and thinking. I would draw for hours and hours at a time, and I was studying anatomy by the time I was eight or nine. This is a great credit, and thanks to my parents. My mom had a big coffee table set of books, two big volumes in a case. It was like drawings and processes of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and I would sit and draw what I saw. So, I had a real love and interest in that. It is just that there was never an emphasis. 

[…]. I can credit one friend who sent me a job posting for something. Oh, hey, I thought of you about this, you know, some artistic role at some company. I forgot what exactly, but it was just a moment where I thought of life as being a professional creative. I was making posters, and album covers for my friends at the time. We’re all musicians between Los Angeles and San Diego. I decided I would do this, and I ended up applying. I put together a portfolio over the course of about a year, and I applied to a place called Art Center College of Design. I was already 25 when I went to study graphic design and get a BFA at Art Center, and I fast-tracked that because I had already done many prerequisite courses, which was a big immersion. I went there because I knew I had read enough about some institutions. 

Simon Johnston was teaching at the Art Center College of Design, and he is a British designer who moved to Los Angeles a couple of decades ago and was a very influential force in the kind of contemporary typography that was part of Octavo. Anyway, it was wonderful to be around him, near him. He was a very humble, gentle, but brilliant presence, and very informative for me regarding typography, but I came to the end of Art Center. I didn’t know what kind of designer I wanted to be. 

[…]. It was not until I went to graduate school right after that, pretty much that I fell in love with publishing with editorial design. Also, the majority of my time work is on branding, frankly, and identities, but I have carved out time to design books and be involved with institutions, museums, galleries, and publishers to do that kind of work. That’s really where my love and interest lies. 

In summation of this, my interest went from a love of the written word to a love of the visual word. As a literature major all I did and theology, all I did was read and write, read books, read texts, write essays about it, and form opinions. A  lot of that has come to bear in many ways, for one, to pay attention to what the more does and then pay attention to what the typography, what meaning the typography carries for that work. It also is great as an asset. To articulate even for branding, you know, writing copy or writing strategy for a client or an organization, and envisioning things for them is helpful. So it’s kind of been a funny cyclical thing. 

Drawing itself requires focus on the human hand because I learned that at an early age, there’s an old adage. If you could draw the human hand, you know, in any way, you can draw anything because it’s such a complex form. Drawing and painting really laid a foundation for being able to draw type because understanding sort of figure just form in that’s really elemental state. I don’t know if I would be doing that if I hadn’t been, spending all that time as a kid doing that kind of thing. I’m not sure I would be the kind of designer that would necessarily be into it. But I am. (Laughs) Yeah. That’s how I got into graphic design if that’s low-end book design.

I love what you shared about your journey into graphic design and book design. In my case my parents enrolled me into drawing classes when I was like 4 years old. 

I finished my undergraduate studies right at the end of the pandemic, not knowing where I was going. When  I came here to Boston University to know what I really wanted to do and also have the option to design and print books using various type systems, I fell in love with it.

I think books to me and it’s not a secret there, especially in today’s very digital culture for many things. They are a total work of art because it has dimension, volume, sequence, and something cinematic about it. It’s both visual and tactile. It’s both a static and time-based medium. There’s just something so satisfying and a very complex process. To be honest, it’s not, and no book is the same. The work that goes into producing a book, from the authorship to the editing to the designing to the production, is extreme. But you know, it’s amazing.

I have books on my shelf designed in the ‘60s, in the late ‘80s, the late 1800s, or even in the ‘70s. Here’s this, you know, collection of images and texts that have been preserved, and it’s like, it can’t get wiped from a website, it’s physical, and it can, they can last, and it’s got this certain timestamp on it. It will never change outside of that. But every time you come back to it, it might surprise you, so there’s a lot that I love about it (Laughs).

It’s also about what the materiality communicates to you, which is as important as the typographic arrangement or tone of voice, and it all carries meaning. It all has an attitude, in other words, one can feel very casual and informal and ad hoc, and the other can be a very severe or polished astute kind of thing. They all have these personalities, have their own logic, and are almost a world unto themselves often when done right.