Erik Spiekermann: My perfect studio

New book Studio Culture seeks to examine the inner workings of 28 top graphic design studios. Here, we have an exclusive extract

This is a shortened version of an interview with Erik Spiekermann conducted for the book Studio Culture. During the 1970s, Spiekermann worked as a freelance designer in London before returning to Berlin in 1979 where, with two partners, he founded MetaDesign. In 2001 he left MetaDesign and started udn (United Designers Network), with offices in Berlin, London and San Francisco. Since January 2009 he has been a director of Edenspiekermann, which has offices in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Unusually among contemporary designers, Spiekermann has a sophisticated set of theories relating to the layout, structure and management of design studios. His theories have been extensively road-tested in the various creative enterprises he has founded and run during a long career. The interview was conducted in the offices of aig, London.

You have a vision of your perfect studio. You’ve even got a name for it – The ‘Rundbuero’ Studio [see diagram in picture 1]. Can you describe it?

Ideally it’s a round space. It’s made up of three or four concentric circles. At the centre is a reception area. This is where everybody enters. It is linked to the rest of the studio by a corridor. In the central reception area are the people who answer the telephones, do the emails and make the photocopies. It’s where all the machinery is – the printers, the espresso machine. Everybody has to go in here several times a day to pick up print­outs, pick up mail, get coffee and so on.

Now, the further you go from the centre the quieter it gets. People in the outer rings have windows, others don’t. The walls are maybe only shoulder height. If a secretary wants to see if I’m in the outer ring, she can get up and look across and see if I’m actually there.

So the interior walls don’t go all the way up to the ceiling?

Not at all. You can shout across the studio. The people in the outer ring are the ones who need privacy. These guys spend time on the phones, and do concept­ual work. People like me, in fact. All we have is a desk and a laptop – this is laptop country. In the second ring [3], there are proper computers with monitors. This is where the designers are; they actually spend all day working on screens. These people do physical work. There might be another ring, where people have cutting tables and boards. These are people who have to make shit.

OK, so looking at your diagram, I see four rings joined by a corridor.

Yes, in order to get anywhere you have to cross through the various rings. Every time you do anything, you have to meet other people. So, unless you never go for a pee or a coffee, you have to meet other people at least twice a day.

Clearly you think this traffic and human interchange is important to the life of a studio?

Yes. Something happened to me once that taught me an important lesson. I was with one of my ex-partners at Meta. We had an in-house restaurant run by a proper chef. There were 120 of us, but we could only make about 50 lunches, no more. Some of our people would choose not to eat there, but our clients would come every lunchtime. I was freelancing at the time and I often dropped by at 12.30pm for lunch. I was standing with five or six people and I said hello to one of them. My former partner was there and actually asked me to introduce this person to him. I said, ‘This is so and so from Siemens.’ But there was another person there and he held out his hand and said, ‘I’m Michael, I’ve been working here for two years.’ My partner didn’t know him. With 120 people, that’s a bit embarrassing.

To me, the only way to run a studio is to have perfect knowledge about the people and the work. The idea that you can ignore areas and not get involved is unthinkable. Do you agree?

I would come in at 8.30am and spend the first three hours just walking around the place and, once a day, I talked to everybody. Sometimes only just to say hello. I usually knew their names or their sisters or dogs and various members of their family. But in the end, this old-fashioned ‘managing-by-walkabout’ wasn’t popular with my partners. It led to questions such as ‘why isn’t he at his desk?’

Today, I’ve got 30+ people in Berlin, but even when I had 100+ I could present any project within half an hour’s notice. I knew enough about it. I was involved in the brief.

I was at the meetings. People would come to me with questions, often with just a choice of type or whatever, but I always knew enough to do all the presentations. I find that incredibly important, otherwise you’re a manager and not a designer. I’m not a very good designer or manager, I’m ‘medium’ at both. But I’m a good motivator. Designers want to talk shop; they want to talk about design, even to an old git like me. My philosophy is that I want the physical space to inhale the traffic. I don’t want anyone slipping out unnoticed.

I want people to know that if they are slackers, or go to the toilet too many times, or take 50 smoking breaks, there is some social control. That’s not fascism, that’s simply… good management. Whenever I design a space these days, it’s the traffic that’s important. Circulation for any archi­tect is a big issue. The blood supply has to go in and out. It’s very simple but I know so many studios that have no interaction at all.

I was always told that Germany didn’t have design studios in the British or American sense, and that most of the commercial work was done by advertising agencies. Is there such a thing as a model for the German design studio?

I hate to say this, but I think I invented it.

I started in 1979 while I was working at Wolff Olins in London. We had a few German clients, and I went back and forth to look after them. One day they gave me a project because they just couldn’t handle it. Production at British companies was weak, compared to what was the standard in Germany at the time. Michael [Wolff] knew this, and Wally [Olins] knew this, and so they handed me this project and this is how I started MetaDesign, while commuting between London and Berlin every two weeks. This was 1979, early 1980s even, when the largest German design studio was about six or seven people. It was usually a boss – a famous guy – with a couple of assistants, usually fresh out of school. And more often than not, German designers were also teachers, so they had a regular income to fund their studio. The rest of the people in the studio would be students, usually unpaid.

Was this the model for Otl Aicher’s studio?

His studio became famous for the Olympics in 1972, but the work started in 1969. All the people he employed were from this school in Ulm. Literally, his entire class. I’m not saying they didn’t get paid, but it was a group of kids in their early 20s. For a long time, this was the German model – one guy with a few assistants. The studio layout would echo that. The main guy would be in a corner of his own office, and then there would be the studio floor, but never more than six people. In 1983 or 84 I had eight people, including interns and we were the biggest studio in the country – outside of packaging and advertising. So corporate design was done by advertising agencies and packaging designers. They were the ones who always put the stripes on the packaging, you have this brand and then you make it like this [makes diagonal motion with hands], with lots of stripes for the ‘light’ version. Then you have the specialised people and they tend to be in Hamburg for some reason. All the newspaper and magazine work, until today, was pretty much done in-house.

So you moved back to Berlin with the aim of starting your own studio?

At the time – the late 1970s – Wolff Olins was 75 people. I thought, if they can do it in Britain, surely we could do it in Germany? So I came back to Berlin with the intention to build a large studio. It went up to about 16 or 18 people in the middle of the 1980s, which was quite large, and we started getting the projects that we should have been getting before. We got some large signage projects and some large corporate design projects. But the whole market in Germany was one generation behind Britain, which was one generation behind the States. And then in 1989 I realised this was getting too big for myself or too small for the big markets, so I realised I had to do something else because I’m not a businessman. I decided to bring in a businessperson.

Is there a magic number for studio size?

You can have 125 people, but the work never gets done by more then five people. The teams are never bigger than that. It’s all about group dynamics. More than seven people and you don’t increase efficiency or effectiveness, you just have more meetings. If you have 12 people, you don’t work twice as much as six people, you work 50% more, so in other words you lose money. Seven people round the table, six people plus a project manager, maybe seven plus an intern. We know this from perceptive psychology – the magic number seven – and there’s a good reason for that.

Can you talk about recruitment – how do you go about hiring people?

Until the mid-1990s there were no employed designers in German design. The advertising people employed designers but the designers in the design studios were all freelancers. People wouldn’t want to be employed. I had a really hard time finding people. The German scene was very much what the Americans call a ‘Mom and Pop shop’ – Pop did the work, Mom did invoices. This has perpetu­ated the idea of a strong studio being one fellow and a couple of assistants until well into the mid-1990s. And if you talk to German designers – designers in their 30s, 40s or 50s – I’m afraid many of them worked with me at one time or another. Every year we do a sort of MetaDesign anniversary, a picnic in the park, and we had up to 300 people. I trained about 600 people in the years I was there. We looked at the personnel files once, and there were always two or three interns, so that would be 20 interns a year over five years. That’s already 100 people; over ten years that’s 200 people.

And if you count those, and if you count all the employees, that’s well over 600 people who I’ve personally employed at one time.

What sort of designer had you become at this point?

Well, I’m not a very good designer; I’m an OK designer. I’m OK when it comes to complex things like grids. I like maths. I like geometry. I like multiples. How things are arranged on the page. I like that because it’s all about discipline. I learnt about type through doing hot-metal typesetting. So I know that what is between the black marks is as important as the black marks them­selves. With metal typesetting you have to touch it, it’s not just the return key. So that’s my discipline. I’m an art historian by trade; I’m slightly intellectual, maybe too intellec­tual. When it comes to visualising things I’m too intellectual, it becomes too obvious. Neville Brody’s the exact opposite of me. We’ve worked together successfully. Neville’s a digital painter. He just throws it on the page and it looks great, but he can’t repeat it. I’m the other way round. I provide the skeleton, I make sure things don’t fall down. And he makes it look good, and I’m very happy with that.

When I set up my studio somebody said to me, ‘always employ people better than you’. It was the best advice anyone gave me. But I resisted it for a long time. It was hard to accept.

As a mediocre designer, I realised that I could look much better if I had good people. And because I’m good at certain things (I’m pretty good at type, especially the mechanical part of type, and I have a good knowledge of the historical), I can afford to hire good people. Some people are afraid of hiring better people but I’ve never been like that because actually it makes me look good. So the system was always that I’d hire really, really good people and let them do their shit.

That’s the good thing about a large studio. If you had two or three people it is difficult because then you have the egos. When you have 20 or 30 people that evens things out. Also, the one thing I like about having more than 100 people, or more than 70 people, is you suddenly have this little grey area where you can hire two or three people who haven’t really got an exact job descrip­tion because it doesn’t really matter. I hired this American programmer who I never told my partners about. He was doing database programming and C++ in the late 1990s before that really became a necessity, before we had PHP. I hired him because we could afford to.

I had another guy who was a conceptual person. He had no training whatsoever but he was just bright in a slightly weird way. You couldn’t put him in a group of people. But you could feed him shit and he’d come out with this amazing stuff. Never to a schedule, never within a group, but I loved the luxury of having these guys who just prance about with bells on their caps. In a small studio you can’t afford that.

Designers want to be credited for their best work. What is your view on credits?

I always give everyone a credit and make sure that everybody is in the bylines. I know how important it is to be able to say ‘I worked on this’. I don’t mind listing ten names in a credit. If the client lets me, I’d put Edenspiekermann, and then list the five or six people who worked on the team. Those people can put this work in their portfolios without lying, or pretending. I’ve seen portfolios that people have presented to me containing work done by me. They weren’t even there. Forgery has become so easy, so if you give somebody a credit, it’s out in the open. Of course, a lot of clients won’t let you. We have quite a few clients who will not allow any credits whatsoever, which I find very, very difficult. Also credits are not only there for your cv, it’s like applause. Designers need applause, they need to be praised and I like praising people.

What do you look for when hiring a designer?

They have to know something really, really well. Something they’re really good at. If somebody’s good at C++, or someone’s really good at drawing, it doesn’t matter what it is, they just have to have one speciality. Also, they have to have general knowledge. I hate people who don’t read. I hate people who don’t cook, or don’t know anything about music. I couldn’t work with anyone who only goes to McDonald’s. I want people who know movies, who know music, who read books. As you know, not all graphic designers are ‘multidimensional’. They don’t read, they don’t do anything else, and I couldn’t work with those people. I need team people who have general knowledge because that’s what we do, and I want those freaks who can do one thing that nobody else can do.

You touched on the importance of physical space with your diagram. What about internal details – does the furniture, the monitors, the shelving have an impact on creativity and efficiency?

Oh yeah. There are three or four major issues. The first is how you feel while you are working. I spend a lot of money on chairs. We couldn’t save anything there because we spend 10–12 hours a day at work, and it’s our health. At my age, I know what a bad chair can be like. Best chairs, best lighting, best desk, best equipment. I won’t buy crap and I won’t buy illegal software. I couldn’t always afford the best furniture, but as soon as I could, I bought the best for my people. It doesn’t have to look chic. I don’t mind Ikea tables. They’re fine as long as they’re the right height and they have the right surface. I want the best tools, which for me always included an espresso machine, clean toilets, good drink, decent water, that sort of stuff.

The second issue is that it is not necessary to set out to impress clients. We don’t need to show off. We don’t need marble staircases; we don’t need receptionists who constantly file their nails. But we need to show that we care.

The third part is the communal part of it. I want a space where people know what’s going on. I want transparency and if we have a meeting room like the one we are in right now, with glass walls, we have transparency. But it’s still sound-proof. You do certain things that need to be conducted out of earshot. Someone’s review, for instance.

So privacy is necessary, but you want people to see that essentially you have your hands on the table.

Does location matter?

That’s the fourth factor. It’s important that the space is somewhere everyone has an easy time getting to. Here in London you could probably get cheap office space out of the centre, but if you want people to get to it easily, it has got to be in the middle of the city. The precise area is important too. People need to get out. They need to buy lunch for three or four pounds/dollars/euros, or whatever, and they also need to see other people. That’s really important, that’s why we get stuck in fairly expensive places. We need to be where it buzzes. You also need to bump into peers and colleagues. Wherever I go, even in London where I haven’t lived for almost 20 years properly, I still bump into people I know. If I go to a bookshop I bump into people I know. I go to a pub or a restaurant and I bump into people I know. This is important.

So – a studio with good furniture, in a good urban location, near the centre of things. Anything else?

I always go round trying to tidy things. I’m not tidy myself. I’d like to be, but I fall behind, like all of us, and end up getting piles of paper on my desk. Then I get panicky and I file things into folders. I hate messy offices. I want clean toilets. I won’t have posters all over the place. I won’t have crappy notices next to the toilets; that annoys me. We don’t print out stuff in Comic Sans, and even our office people in Berlin know that when they print out a notice they must use our studio typeface.

Should every studio have its own typeface?

I’ve always designed the typeface for every studio I’ve had. Always. It’s easier for them to remember which one to use. I designed Unit for United Designers and now we have Espi for Edenspiekermann, and of course Meta had Meta, which I designed for them.

Do you think it’s necessary for studios to socialise?

Yes, very important. We have a major crisis  in Berlin at the moment; there’s hardly any work. Some of the freelancers know they probably will have to go soon. The employees, the people on payroll, also know that it’s getting tough. Everyone’s getting cut down  by 30%, and you can’t just send people an email telling them this. You’ve got to have a get-together.

We have a tradition, when somebody has a birthday they bake a cake or they bring in a cake. Some buy it, some bake it. Now that we have 30 people, that’s a birthday every other week. So there’s a little email saying ‘cake in the kitchen’. Everybody knows, ‘oh it’s somebody’s birthday’. These things are important for team-building and loyalty-building. We have our Christmas parties, and we have our summer parties in between our picnics. We don’t go over the top. We don’t hire people to plan our parties. But I think they are important.

You’ve worked in and visited studios all over the world. Do studios exhibit national characteristics?

I’ve always been fascinated by how studios look different in different countries. Every­body in London works in spaces that we wouldn’t even go into. Where British studios have eight people, we’d have two. You work in spaces that are incredibly small. My designers in Germany would just say ‘you gotta be joking, there’s no way we’ll work there’. And they’d probably call some Office of Environment Administration and they’d come and close you down because you are treating people like battery hens. Or you go to Tokyo and they work standing up. Why do Americans love partitions? They love their reception areas, and having their work on the walls. You walk into a lot of American consultancies – design studios or whatever you want to call them – and they look like advertising agencies. And in our case – in Germany – it’s much more clinical. It’s much more like industrial design. In the UK, a lot of graphic design studios look more like artist’s studios; Britain is still very art-based. British design studios never have a reception area. You always walk straight into the studio.

The full version of this interview can be found in the book Studio Culture: The Secret Life of the Graphic Design Studio, edited by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, published by Unit Editions. CR readers can obtain a signed copy of Studio Culture for £20 (regular price £24.95) by going to uniteditions.com/shop/studio-culture and entering this offer code: UED_CR001


 

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