Hello I Am Erik, Johannes Erler’s new visual biography of Erik Spiekermann, takes over 30 years of work by one of the world’s most prominent graphic designers and typographers and distils it into a single volume.
Its subtitle, “Typographer, designer, entrepreneur”, attempts a definition of the man, but as the book reveals the polymathic Spiekermann, 67, remains hard to pin down – he is a writer and teacher, too. And unusually for a design monograph, it’s not all work, work, work: the book favours little division between Spiekermann’s professional life and his personal one, and Hello… includes candid contributions from friends, family and the designer himself.
In the following extract from the Gestalten book, Urs Willmann, a science journalist who “knows nothing about typography”, interviews Spiekermann and gets to the heart of what he thinks about type, design and the craft of communication via art, music, books and a few of his favourite letterforms.
Alongside the Q&A, our timeline also lists Spiekermann’s many achievements in design, from his burgeoning interest in print in the 1950s, through to his role in founding studios and organisations such as MetaDesign, FontShop, TYPO Berlin and Edenspiekermann, the design group he was chairman of until May this year.
Spiekermann has recently turned his attention to a new venture, Galerie P98a, a printing and typesetting workshop which takes him back to his first love: the printing press.
How do you explain the importance of selecting a font to a pig farmer?
Everything we read, we perceive rationally and emotionally. When we look at a sentence, we react emotionally to its form before we even rationalise its content. That makes it part of the message. Type is full of expression, sound, and tone, since it is the form speech takes.
As a reader, however, I want nothing but pure, unadulterated information.
As a typographer I visualise content, which makes me its translator. Let us compare it to music: a composer writes melodies, and a musician then arranges them and makes them ready to perform. According to [Paul] Watzlawick, one cannot not communicate. Therefore there is no such thing as neutral type design. Everything has a voice.
One doesn’t usually notice this voice.
That’s precisely when it works best. When you consciously notice it, it can distract you. You can develop an attitude towards it, but there’s no defence against what you feel in your gut. It influences us subliminally, like background music in shopping malls. It gets under our skin.
But if I become aware of this acoustic treacle, I can actively try to ignore it.
That may work on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. I might say that the weather doesn’t interest me. However, it still influences my mood. It’s the same with typography; all cultural expressions influence us. Take buildings, for example: the way they look, how they work. Even if we’re ignorant about architecture, buildings still influence us a lot. The same goes for typography – it influences all of us.
Your main tool is type. What letter do you like least?
For pragmatic reasons it’s a drag that the lowercase r has a shape that can barely be changed. When an r is before an n, it always looks a bit like an m. Confusing n with u is also easy to do: they look the same when one of them is upside down. Or p and b and q and d. The brain gets used to distinguishing letters after a while. But really it’s impractical that p and d and q and b are the same characters, just mirrored or rotated.
Have you ever tried to change that?
No, you can’t do that. The skill in type design lies precisely in working within this 90 to 95 per cent established framework. An a is an a. Once again, it’s like music: you work with clearly defined notes, but an oboe A sounds different to a violin A.
So your work is bound by a convention that you mustn’t harm?
Sure. If I were to ignore the a, or change it so it doesn’t look like an a anymore, then I’d be making art, not communication.
What is the most beautiful letter?
A small a! It has a vertical limit and two possible types of construction. There is the a with the simple bowl against the vertical line, and there is the a with the double bowl. With this a, one crosses the surface three times: at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom. That means there are two counters – one closed and one open. It’s very complicated; there’s a lot happening. On the other hand, n is merely a stroke and another stroke and a connection and an open space. The e is also tricky.
Does e make life hard for you?
On the contrary! The a and e may be complicated to design, but they give me the opportunity to play around with them. The same goes for s: like a and e, one crosses the surface three times. C, on the other hand, is nothing but a counter. This counter is separated in e, giving it two counters. What we really decode when we read is the contrast between black and white, between outside and inside. I find these to be clear points of reference; I can understand the letters better. One can compare it to people: I can’t recognise you with the sun behind you; all I see is a masculine shape.
You would recognise me as soon as
But only then. Walking effectively corresponds to the rhythm of the letter in a word. Just like I don’t recognise you by silhouette alone, but by your movement and physiognomy – it’s the same with words. Just like letters do, words have inner and outer spaces. If I look at the outer space of a word, the outlines, I can barely recognise anything. And I recognise more in a line with both uppercase and lowercase than one with uppercase letters alone, which is like a sterile high rise building with few contours. When there are upper and lowercase, I see the tower, the tree, the stream.
That’s why I prefer signage using upper and lowercase. However, engineers prefer to use uppercase letters, since they are easier to define, and bigger. Some people think capitals have more letter bulk, and that one can express oneself more clearly using them, but that’s rubbish.
And that’s why the small, unmistakable a is your favourite letter?
Along with g. I like g just as much, because it’s complicated too. Our alphabet is pretty refined, in spite of its weak points. The i, for example, is far too narrow. I like to put a serif on it, to give it some white space – i has no white space. Neither does l; it consists merely of a stroke without inner space. But inner space makes it recognisable. That’s why I often put a little arch at the bottom right, to give it some inner space of its own. And a head serif on the left of the i, so that it can breathe. Plus my ‘t’s and ‘f’s are wider than usual. The t has a little stick. This creates white space, which stops words from looking like
That all sounds pretty cerebral. At this point our pig farmer will be thinking, “What is Spiekermann’s problem?”
Why? Pig farmers talk in the same way to one another. I’m sure they have their own distinctions: how many ribs, how many bristles? But I suppose you’re right – when 70 grown men stand around together at typography conferences talking about ‘i’s and ‘a’s, I do sometimes wonder whether we’ve all lost our marbles. There are wars and disasters out there, while we’re talking about rhythm in type. But everyone does that. All experts have a nerdy side to them. As long as you don’t forget that there is more to life, then it’s OK. If we were all average, nobody would have invented the wheel.
Why does type have to be not merely readable, but beautiful too?
It doesn’t – but consciously striving to make things beautiful is one of the things that separates us from animals. How much history do we have as homo sapiens?
In the end, type has to be functional.
But beauty itself is a function. Beauty is not free of function. Put simply, we need beauty. Ugliness doesn’t sell. Soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1991, I designed the signage for the Berlin transport authorities. Naturally, a signage system like that has to work in the first place. Customers have to know where the exit is, and where to buy tickets. But I wanted to make it pretty too. Berlin is so grey! We used colour for orientation, but also because it’s decorative.
How do you work when there are a lot of parameters to take into consideration, like in this example?
I start with the worst case. In this case something like: an old man in a bad mood, in an unpleasant situation, in a rush, in dim lighting…. most people don’t ride the subway for fun; everyone wants to get somewhere. The subway is only an interruption. In that respect, nobody reads a train schedule for fun.
I have to bear in mind the person who has to find something out without really wanting to. I want to give that person a tiny bit of joy, so that afterwards he’s both smarter and happier.
What skills does a good designer have?
They are able to recognise patterns and mimic them. They need to be analytically and aesthetically-minded. They need to juggle facts and emotions. One can’t be purely cerebral about this sort of work – that would be like an author having a computer generate his sentences. Any calculator could produce sequences of words. Subject, object, predicate, and even case can be mathematically derived. These are complete sentences viewed analytically, but they have no feel for language.
I have heard that much of your ire is reserved for the Arial typeface. Are there any other typographic sins that you would call “environmental pollution”?
It’s not simply a matter of an aesthetic problem. What bothers me is the attitude behind it. There are enough experts to decide how to make a text more readable, and what adds aesthetic and functional value. Arial, or for that matter Helvetica, is a nightmare on an iPhone, for instance. Far too uniform, no contrast: it reads far too badly. Just try to make a password that includes 1’s and l’s and i’s. You can’t tell them apart! It’s just a bunch of dumb lines; everything is way too tight!
Why don’t these experts do something about it?
Most of them are just too lazy to look around and try something out. They make the same soup every day, but they present it as a conscious, almost heroic decision. “I don’t need any other spices,” they say, 2 3 “I don’t need salt or pepper; I’m happy pouring hot water onto some instant soup powder.” In designer speak they call it “conscious rejection of the status quo”. New magazines come on the market set in Times New Roman, and the choice of typeface is somehow presented as being worthy in its unpretentiousness, as though it were a rejection of the commercial world of modern typefaces that nobody needs anyway. But really it’s all about the instant soup powder thing.
That sounds like a snob talking.
No way. Of course, some people moan about “these Spiekermen”. A massive hassle, and nobody will notice the difference anyway. I find that attitude cynical. That attitude is based on nothing but laziness.
Could it be a generational problem?
Probably. In the 70s I got a lot of abuse from the generation above me. They thought I was a cheeky upstart who broke rules. But I didn’t know the rules; I was naive.
Does that make a difference?
When one breaks the rules without knowing them, it’s often naive or infantile. A toddler is allowed to pee in their pants, as long as they’re not old enough to understand that they shouldn’t do it.
The Rolling Stones are still allowed to pee in their pants.
A breach of taboo like that is something else altogether. When one knows one isn’t allowed to do something but does it on purpose anyway, that’s an expression of culture, of civilization. However, if I break rules without knowing them, even though they are not hard to know, then I’m being childish. Music has no function, thank god. It’s fine in art free of function. Childish can be a good thing in that case, because it’s fun. But unlike art, it just isn’t possible in an applied discipline such as graphic design, where you’re commissioned to work for someone. I can mess up my own texts as I see fit, but not someone else’s, not in a working relationship.
I draw the conclusion that you are definitively not an artist.
But I work with artistic means, intuition, visual translation. Always on behalf of a client. Which doesn’t mean I’m a slave. When I work for someone, I’m 100 per cent loyal. You pay the penny, I sing 2 3 the song. I have to decide beforehand whether they’re an idiot or not. Of course, I have returned work that wasn’t quite right in form or content, but that doesn’t mean it’s alright to get mad at the customer, or badmouth them later.
Do we still need new typefaces?
Well, do we need new books, or new music? We don’t need them, but we get them.
But books and music are also expressions of culture. You’ve just taught me that typography is different.
Then I have to put it into perspective. Naturally, typography is different from music or literature which are free of function, by definition. However, new digital technology makes it possible for everyone to simply make their own typefaces. So of course that’s what’s happening.
You must think that’s just terrible!
Not at all! The market will decide whether the world needs these typefaces. Many creative people would like to make their own typeface, just like many people dream of writing a novel. Thanks to computers they can do that too. Of course there’s going to be a lot of junk, and most stuff is just imitation – but so what?
You make that sound very forgiving.
I think it’s perfectly alright. How many people have played Beatles songs? Millions! Just go on Youtube, you’ll find umpteen thousand videos of spotty youths playing Yesterday in their party basements, with mixed success. It’s the same thing with typography in this day and age.
Cheese has been around for 10,000 years. Nevertheless it’s always being reinvented.
The same goes for wine. Who needs millions of kinds of wine? People have the need to keep being creative. I think that’s wonderful! That’s how culture emerges – from the need to communicate.
This is an edited version of an interview by Urs Willmann, which features in Hello I am Erik – Erik Spiekermann: Typographer, Designer, Entrepreneur, and is republished by permission (© Gestalten). The book is edited by Johannes Erler and published by Gestalten; £40. The book’s text is set in Real, a new typeface Spiekermann designed specifically for the project, and each copy includes the regular weight of this font for free. See gestalten.com and spiekermann.com
Erik Spiekermann born in Stadthagen near Hanover; Aged seven, ES visits nearby printing press
The Spiekermanns move to Bonn, near to the university’s printing press; Aged 12, ES receives his first printing machine as a gift – an old ‘platen’ (his father gives him the instruction book); ES writes for school magazine
ES moves to West Berlin with his father to avoid conscription and meets graphic design student and pavement artist, Gert Wiescher
ES gets work at the Mercator printing press owned by Tagesspiegel newspaper
ES studies history of art at Freie Universität and obtains a Boston platen machine, using it to print cards and invitations; Begins collecting printing machines in earnest; Meets future wife, Joan Sargent; Carries out small jobs as a printer and graphic designer, for artists and musicians
ES marries Joan and son Dylan born; Takes over Personality Posters distribution, delivering British-imported posters of Hollywood stars to West German shops; Erik Spiekermann Hand Press installed in the family’s new house, with a design studio on the second floor
ES manages Berlin branch of Objects&Posters
For three months, ES becomes director of pre-press at Format printing press; The family moves to London; ES works at London College of Printing teaching layout design to journalists
ES goes back to Berlin (the family remaining in London) and starts studio Fischer & Spiekermann with Florian Fischer – they design print and small advertisements, as well as their own publications
ES returns to London, taking all his printing machines with him and storing them in some railway arches – but a fire destroys the entire collection; Begins work as a typographer for typesetters, Filmcomposition, setting type on positive film, a method still unusual outside Germany
ES works as consultant for Wolff Olins and meets Dieter Heil – the pair look after the agency’s German clients eg Audi and VW; Designs typefaces for H Berthold AG (Block italic, redesigns Lo-Type and Berliner Grotesk); Freelances for Pentagram and Henrion Design; Co-founds the London Type Directors Club (now Typographic Circle)
ES co-founds MetaDesign in Berlin with Heil, Fischer and Gerhard Doerrié. The name refers to the phrase “design for design”
ES and family return to Berlin; MetaDesign moves offices – the older site becomes the MetaCafé, selling largely organic produce (and run by Meta staff)
ES publishes Rhyme and Reason: A Typographic Novel, essentially a guide to typographic practice in the form of an entertaining novel
MetaDesign ‘mark one’ is bought by Sedley Place Design in London (becoming its Berlin office); ES elected to board of the Bund Deutscher Grafikdesigner professional association
Deutsche Post commission Sedley Place, with ES as a consultant, to redesign its graphics, including ‘bugle’ logo, all forms and telephone directories; ES argues against Helvetica and presents designs for PT55 (‘PostType’ in ’55’ weight) which later becomes FF Meta, one of the most successful of the new breed of digital typefaces
ES creates new identity for the Bund Deutscher Grafikdesigner; ES and Joan Spiekermann separate
MetaDesign designs issue 6 and 7 of Baseline magazine, with ES as publisher, designer and one of the writers; EScreates new corporate design for Berthold
ES purchases his first Apple Mac – a MacPlus with built-in nine inch monitor for 16,000 DM – having borrowed a Macintosh 128k to present to Deutsche Post the year before
MetaDesign develops document templates for the new PageMaker program for the Mac, the first to make the production of professional typesetting available on a PC; ES selects Lucida, News Gothic and Univers for Adobe’s Type Library package; ES presents research findings to BVG, the Berlin public transport company (the project is unused but reworked in 1990)
ES helps develop Correspondence typeface to replace typewriter fonts which were no longer practical for laser printers; ES features in Mary Sprent’s Typomania programme for the BBC
FontShop founded by Joan Spiekermann and ES, with Neville Brody, who also designs its ‘FF’ logo – its first typeface is FF Beowulf by Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum; Meta-Design joins with other studios to form EDEN – European Designers Network
Potsdam transport company, VIP, commissions a new identity from MetaDesign – the studio’s first East German client; Another studio renaming results in MetaDesign plus GmbH; ES is involved in the launch of Rick Poynor’s Eye magazine, credited as “acting chief editor (German issue)”; ES designs stamps for Dutch Postal Service
After reunification, Berlin’s public transport network requires a unified info system – ES leads the team to develop a new signage system for BVG, using the typeface Transit; FontShop publishes FF Meta, previously the PT55 face until the project with Deutsche Post ended. (In 2011 the typeface is placed in the permanent collection of MoMA as one of the first digital typefaces)
MetaDesign West in San Francisco opens; ES writes Stop Stealing Sheep book, aiming to make understanding typography easier;
ES meets wife-to-be, Susanna Dulkinys
MetaDesign develops a logo for Berlin introducing a stylised Brandenberg Gate – it is used on official correspondence
ES redraws VW logo with Lucas de Groot, reducing the 3D designs to more manageable file sizes; Meta also rework Audi’s logo and corporate design
MetaDesign opens in London with Tim Fendley and Robin Richmond as partners – early clients include The Economist Group, Lexus and Ferrari; Meta in Berlin develops a corporate identity system for VW, including the house typeface Volkswagen Headline; FUSE 95 symposium opens – spawning the TYPO Berlin conference concept in Germany, later translating to London and San Francisco
A fire at Düsseldorf Airport means ES is asked to work on a new signage system for the site, with a six week deadline – FF Info is used, alongside a series of new pictograms, in a yellow, white and dark green colour scheme
Meta’s London office develop the identity for the City of Glasgow – due
to be the UK City of Architecture and Design in 1999 – and launch a typeface influenced by the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh; ES becomes VP of German Design Council
MetaDesign commissioned to create new identity for Heidelberger Druckmaschinen
AdBusters revisits the First Things First Manifesto, publishing an updated version of Ken Garland’s 1964 original – ES is the only German designer to sign it
ES leaves Meta-Design – by now the biggest design studio in Germany. According to ES, during an explosive board meeting his lawyer advises him to leave the company or face being found guilty of delayed filing for insolvency (Erler charts the story as a messy divorce in the new book)
MetaDesign merges with agency, Lost Boys; ES has to give up his positions as a supervisory board member and shareholder; With three colleagues from Meta in London, ES redesigns The Economist, introducing colour and reworking typeface EcoNew Type – it almost doubles its weekly readership to just under 1m; ES designs the bitmap fonts for screens on Nokia phones
ES buys house in London and creates new corporate design for Bosch, creating Bosch Sans and Bosch Serif with Christian Schwartz; Founds United Designers Network, a small group of freelance designers, with Susanna Dulkinys; ES starts his Spiekermann Condensed column in Form magazine
FontShop releases FF Unit, designed by ES and Schwartz; New identity for Deutsche Bahn, the German railway company, is rolled out: using DB Type typeface, again created with Schwartz
ES redesigns Bauwelt architecture magazine with Fabian Rottke and Eva Schekkor of UDN; The group also redesigns the German edition of Le Monde for its tenth anniversary – typefaces used are Benton Gothic and Arnhem
The Trans European Road Network commissions new typeface and signage for highways which will bring together the use of pictograms and text on standard signage and dot matrix displays through Europe – ES creates the TERN typeface and TERN Condensed becomes standard on all roads in Austria; ES designs the identity for Swiss publishers Birkhaüser based on a red and white ‘book ribbon’
ES puts together Made With FontFont book with Jan Middendorp; UDN create identity for German Apple distributor, Gravis (logo by Susanna Dulkinys)
ES takes part in Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica documentary, stating that using the typeface is “like going to McDonald’s instead of thinking about food”; UDN is renamed as SpiekermannPartners; With Dulkinys, ES designs the identity for US chocolate company, TCHO
ES starts Achtung! Erik Spiekermann column in Blueprint
ES joins Twitter on @espiekermann and gradually becomes one of the most followed graphic designers in the world; SpiekermannPartners merges with Eden Design and Communication to form Edenspiekermann
Edenspiekermann creates the corporate design for prosthetics company, Ottobock Healthcare
ES receives the German Design Award, the highest distinction for design in Germany; Bauhaus Archiv stages Erik Spiekermann: The Face of Type (ES designs the poster himself using a range of his own typefaces)
ES and Ralph du Carrois design Fira face for Firefox OS; ES announces he is to step down as chairman of Edenspiekermann from May 2014
ES installs six proofing presses with partner Jan Gassel in a new printing and typesetting workshop, Galerie P98a