Erik Spiekermann on Typography “A font should fuzz a bit”

Erik Spiekermann
Erik Spiekermann | Photo: Max Zerrahn

More than anyone else, the Berlin communication and type designer Erik Spiekermann has shaped Germany’s visual culture. In August, a visual biography of him by Johannes Erler was brought out.

Mr Spiekermann, could you enjoy the book, or did you think: “Oh, I would have done it differently”?

I’m quite capable of letting others do their thing; I don’t want to bring everything into one line. I laid down only one guideline: you have to use this font for the whole book!

Which font?

It’s called “Real”– which means “genuine”, or also “royal”. Up to now it’s been used only in and with this book.

Your most successful fonts and families of fonts have been the FF Meta, which the Museum of Modern Art in New York has added to its Architecture and Design Collection, and the ITC Officina, which was designed specifically for today’s office correspondence. What qualities must a font have so that it’s easily readable on a monitor?

There are several criteria. To begin with, the historical: we read what we’re accustomed to. In Germany, this is two fonts: the sans-serif typeface Grotesk and the Antiqua. A font must fit into the culture and I must be able to see from it whether the text will be longer or shorter. Then there are the physical criteria: the contrast shouldn’t be too strong. Jet black typefaces on glossy paper or on a screen are hideous! We can now make very precise fonts because pixels have become so small. Then they’re like nylon. But I wouldn’t want to wear that on my skin; I’d prefer cotton. It’s fuzzes, but is more comfortable. Fonts should fuzz a bit; they should be pleasantly soft. As with letterpress printing: the letter was pressed into paper and created its own fuzziness. The fuzziness, the rounded corners, make it handsome and pleasant.

You’ve also trained many designers. For some, you’re Germany’s typography pope. Were you also sometimes a typography missionary?
 

  • Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“ © Gestalten 2014
    Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“
  • Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“ © Gestalten 2014
    Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“
  • Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“ © Gestalten 2014
    Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“
  • Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“ © Gestalten 2014
    Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“
  • Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“ © Gestalten 2014
    Foto aus „Hallo, ich bin Erik“
  • Cover „Hallo, ich bin Erik“ © Gestalten 2014
    Cover „Hallo, ich bin Erik“
  • Galerie P98a Foto: Erik Spiekermann
    Galerie P98a
  • Galerie P98a Foto: Erik Spiekermann
    Galerie P98a
  • Galerie P98a Foto: Erik Spiekermann
    Galerie P98a
Yes, of course! A practical missionary, because in the last thirty years about 600 people have passed through my office. And at the same time I also taught at the university. My mission is to represent content appropriately. As designer, my job is to bring a text to the public. This also applies to the monitor. Online too there are not only short texts but also longer ones, and then people expect a different sort of design. Because no one knows how big the screen will be – whether I’ll have it in my pocket or on my desk – I have to adapt the font. We can again work with all the elements of design as we’ve known them from books and newspapers for centuries. So far the Web has adopted only the bad habits of science and scholarship: to throw a lot of information on a page without design. In this respect, the Internet was a step backwards. The traditional rules of designing content also have to be followed on the screen – but broken every now and then.

You’ve long been working internationally: Is there, in your opinion, still a “typically German type design” – can you see from a font where it comes from?

I recognize type designers, who in turn stand in their tradition. The British are somewhat more conservative, the French somewhat Baroque and the Germans still very reduced, as are the Swiss. They’re engineers; everything is very fine and very clean. The Dutch have a very horizontal emphasis – a flat country with no mountains. But I recognize rather the signature of a designer, who can’t of course disown his origin. And my own fonts all look very much like one another.

As founder or co-founder of FontShop, MetaDesign and Edenspiekermann, you are yourself a businessman. What’s the secret of your success?

I’m terribly lazy by nature and therefore always make decisions very fast and intuitively. Obviously, I have a knack for some things. But I’ve also surrounded myself with people who know what they’re doing and trusted them. And I’ve thereby relatively seldom fallen flat on my face. Then too I’m always walking about and looking over people’s shoulders, praising or correcting them – “managing by walking around”, as the Americans say.

In the course of your career as a communication designer and typographer, you’ve witnessed and helped shape quite a few radical changes: from hot type to photo and computer typesetting and desktop publishing to working with digital text and image processing. Having arrived in the future, you’re now indulging yourself in the luxury of going back to the beginnings of your craft. What’s your Galerie P98a all about?

I already had a print shop as a student; I’ve always been an enthusiast of the craft side of things. And a few years ago I bought some machines again and suddenly I needed a room. In the last few years I’ve also noticed that working on the monitor alienates us. And I think that young people lack a sense of restriction. Back then I had six typefaces, three days and x number of D-mark at my disposal and had to have the work done with this. A single colour was already expensive, and using four colours was impossible; I therefore restricted myself to black-and-white. That was really easy. But with a computer today I can do everything and shift pixels back and forth endlessly. The restriction that arises out of the material has something liberating about it! It’s useful because it teaches us to pay attention to and deal with content. Then, afterwards, you have to clean up. And in addition there’s this magic moment when you place the white sheet on the greasy metal bed and it spins through the machine and then something very precise, black on white, comes out, which you can hold in your hand. Today we lack this sensual experience. I believe it’s a fundamental human need. Because if we exist only as an interface between multiple machines, that’s no human existence any more!
 

Erik Spiekermann is an author, information designer and typographer. He is Honorary Professor at the University of Arts in Bremen and Honorary Doctor of the Art Centre Pasadena (California/USA). In 2011 he received the Design Award of the Federal Republic of Germany for his lifework. He created, among other fonts, the “DB Type” for the Deutsche Bahn, the orientation system of the Berlin Transport Services, and developed the corporate design of Volkswagen and Audi. Some of his typefaces, including FF Meta and ITC Officina, have already achieved the status of modern classics.

Hello, I am Erik – Erik Spiekermann: Typographer, Designer, Entrepreneur by Johannes Erler, Gestalten Publishers 2014, 320 pages, 45,00 Euro