The handwriting of Erik Spiekermann
BY SANDY STRASSER
He is one of the most well-known graphic designers in the world – Erik Spiekermann. He represents German typeface design and brand leadership like no other, and has had an unparalleled influence on contemporary graphic design for over 30 years. The immense quantity of work he has is thanks to, among other things, his ability to find partners and employees who support him in his plans and activities. He explained to us what it is about the most normal thing in the world – typeface – that fascinates him and what peculiarities this can bring with it.
Erik, why is the choice of a particular typeface important when you want to create something?
Erik Spiekermann: Because the typeface is the tone of language. Typeface is to language what tone is to music.
Why does typeface not only have to be legible and functional but also look good?
E. S.: If something works well, it usually looks good. But it is better if a created object – and that is typeface – also provides an aesthetic contribution. That is not a contradiction.
To what extent does typography influence us subconsciously?
E: S.: We always read without analysing why it looks as it does. But just like the background music in the shopping centre, the visual element influences us even if we do not consciously notice it.
What is the fascinating thing for you about designing font types?
E. S.: An ‘a’ always has to look like an ‘a’ and a ‘b’ like a ‘b’. There is very little scope beyond the convention of readability. And we design within exactly this narrow span. I am interested more in such limits than complete freedom as I am a designer and not an artist.
How do you approach the task of creating a new typeface?
E. S.: The formal guidelines always lie in the task: for what company (the visual voice), for what purpose (print, small monitors, infographic TV …). That makes up a considerable part of the briefing. Then I look at what already exists in that field and what works or not. Quick sketches limit the possibilities before we move to the digital process on the computer.
What are your favourite letters? Which ones have annoyed you now and then?
E. S.: I like the small ‘a’ the best. Letters which can get mixed up such as the big I and the little l are annoying (sic). With my typefaces, the little l often has a small kink at the bottom right or the big I has two serifs – little horizontal lines at the top and bottom. Or both.
What skills should a good designer have in your opinion?
E. S.: Curiosity, otherwise you learn nothing. Modesty, otherwise you will only surround yourself with people who are worse than yourself.
You founded the company MetaDesign West in San Francisco together with Bill Hill and Terry Irwin in 1992. Soon, the aspiring technology companies of Silicon Valley became aware of you. What appealed to you about America?
E. S.: MetaDesign Berlin was founded in 1979 and in the middle of the 80s I got my first contracts from the USA – from Adobe, Apple, ITC and others – as a result of my connections in the typographical scene. It was only logical that we would open an office on the west coast sometime in the future. I was often over there from 1987 on, and that’s where I met our future partners Bill and Terry, at different times, and then introduced them to each other.
One of your first customers was Adobe, who assigned your team with the creation and production of ‘Stop Stealing Sheep’. How proud were you to have been able to acquire such a company, which was later followed by companies such as Apple?
E. S.: They were all customers. I had been in the TypeBoard at Adobe since 1988 and I had worked for Apple in 1986. Bill had already created the symbols on the back of the first Mac with his former employer, IDEO. So we had the best connections. But I’m proud of every customer, famous or not.
What philosophy did you and your colleagues live inside the company?
E. S.: We don’t work for assholes and we don’t work with assholes.
How long did your era with MetaDesign last and what are you doing today?
E. S.: In 1979 I founded the company with two partners and in 2001 I left. Since then I have been running Edenspiekermann, today with more than 100 employees in Berlin, Amsterdam, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Singapur. I moved from the executive board to the advisory board in 2014 and have sold a large part of my shares to my partners, thereby guaranteeing the continued existence of the company for the next generation. I did not succeed in doing this at MetaDesign.
What plans would you still like to realise?
E. S.: I would like to print books on old letterpress machines with digitally created templates, thereby linking the advantages of one technology with the other.
Who or what do you think has influenced your character the most? Where does your diligence and care for everything that you do come from?
E. S.: My father was a trained machine fitter and my mother a post office employee. Both started afresh after the war and really grew a lot. I’ve learnt that this does not depend on an academic title and certificates but that you can learn everything if it interests you. I have always done what I could do well and never made the effort to do something which didn’t interest me just because it was necessary for an exam. At school I always refused to do homework and still managed to achieve a good Abitur (A-levels). My father taught me to deal with all so-called authorities critically and to only trust my reason and my gut feeling instead of hierarchies. And then I learnt that you always have to do things as well as you can. Otherwise you should leave it. Things done by half are a waste of time. (My father also said: “being half drunk is a waste of money”. That means more or less the same, even if I have never followed this motto.)
The typeface creator, designer, entrepreneur and author Erik Spiekermann was born on 30 May 1947. As a boy he drew, painted and illustrated obsessively – but above all it was his passion for printing which didn’t loosen its grip on him. And so, during the course of his professional life he designed some of the most important typefaces, including FF Meta and ITC Officina, which are seen as modern classics of our time.
This article was published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue Q4 2015. Picture credit © Robbie Lawrence