Erik Spiekermann

"The biggest kick I get is when I see people use my typefaces in ways that I never imagined." German design genius Erik Spiekermann reveals the inner workings of the type trade to Garrick Webster.

Having designed some of the most successful fonts of the last century, Erik Spiekermann commands the utmost respect from graphic designers around the world. But in addition to creating great typefaces like Meta and Info, he's also led a vibrant career in graphic design over the last four decades, including a redesign of The Economist which preceded a doubling of the title's sales. From his unique position in the industry, and over a plate of re-fried curry, he shares his thoughts on contemporary type, the recession and getting back to basics.

Computer Arts: Let's catch up. Can you tell us about Edenspiekermann and your current projects?

Erik Spiekermann: Project-wise, in 40 years of practice, I've never had a phase like this. All the existing clients totally got shocked into stopping all work. Stopping, not just easing off. They all went totally hysterical in March and April and put the brakes on. It went from 100 to zero in two days.

CA: How has that hit your company?

ES: In Berlin we had 36 people; that's including all the freelancers. I think we're 22 now. That's basically just staff. In Amsterdam there are 75 and I think most of those are on payroll, and some people may have to go, simply because there just isn't the money.

CA: Has the recession led you to think more creatively about clients?

ES: We've sat together in groups and said, 'Let's identify some areas, some clients, some projects that we would actually want to do; like what annoys you every day?' I go into this Boots-type of chain of chemist stores in Germany, and they annoy me. They use one of my typefaces so I kind of have an affinity, but it's so ugly - it could be so much better. So I write to the company, and two days later they invite me to go there.

CA: Your creative energy in that situation is a lot more honest than with a pitch...

ES: And people sense that. They sense that I am truly engaged, I'm interested. For good reason, I want their work. But I'm prepared to bring in enthusiasm and research.

CA: How effective is this approach?

ES: We've applied it four or five times. A group of people in the office designed a vodka brand: we found an old company in Berlin that's been making vodka, and we designed our own vodka brand. We're now going to approach [the] manufacturer.

Now we have a complete brand, including co-operation with a movie (being shot in Berlin as we speak) of a successful book written by a Russian ©migr© in Berlin in the 1920s. It's called The Russian Disco. We're going to promote the film and the vodka at the same time. It's an ongoing project.

CA: With your background in typography, where exactly do you see yourself on the design landscape?

ES: You do always look at the structure of how something is put together. Designing a logo is one thing but our task - and my main interest - has always been to build the tectonics. We construct pages - and that goes across media - that are recognisable. The page has a certain character, feel and look even without the logo, even without an image on it; even though you don't recognise a typeface, you know it's one of [ours].

CA: What qualities, in your opinion, make a good typeface?

ES: Well, it's the 95 per cent that has to be like any other typeface. We're talking about text here, not headline faces. The alphabet hasn't changed. If it deviates too far then it will be disturbing. A shoe is a shoe. A triangular shoe is not going to work. But, it has to have that little element in there that most people won't even notice - something a little different. It has a [slightly] different take; it may feel a little warmer or colder or squarer or whatever.

CA: Which of your typefaces are you most happy with?

ES: I would never do a typeface [just] because I feel like it - success is to solve whatever issues [you] set out to solve. Then it has to have this little added aesthetic five per cent on top.

Right now I'm doing something for Cisco. They're currently going into the consumer market, so they're going to be making things that have displays on them. Those displays need a typeface that is legible, which means it hasn't got quite the resolution of a TV or even the iPhone, so it will be a coarser resolution. Maybe they'll be less glamorous products, and maybe there won't be any colours. It also has to look like Cisco. So the constraints are quite tremendous; you have a few pixels to work with, and you have to make it specific.

CA: There's a lot of handmade type around at the moment. What do you feel about this trend?

ES: As soon as everything becomes so technology driven, you want to break out of it and start doing paste-ups again, which I grew up with and I hated because it was so imprecise. Now we can do precise stuff, we all want to go back to making stuff. We just bought a printing machine in Berlin - a proofing press and some metal type.

CA: So you're feeling it too?

ES: Yeah, of course. This laptop is very precise, but I can't touch anything in there. I depend on the guys who make the circuit, the displays, the programs - it's very, very indirect, even if you're a programmer yourself. It's not a tool really, in a sense; it's very, very far away from you. I want to buy one of those laser engraving machines, which are the size of a laser printer, they cost maybe $10,000. Then you can start making physical things again; you can cut into wood or you can cut into metal. I kinda like that. It's like having your own lathe or whatever. I've designed some house numbers - I could cut the metals myself - one-off stuff.

CA: How does it feel when you go out and see your typefaces around?

ES: The [biggest] kick I get is when I see people use my typefaces in ways that I never imagined.

Info was designed for D¼sseldorf Airport 13 years ago, then suddenly Sky over here uses the text version on large posters. I would never have done that, but it works - so I see a different typeface [with each new usage].

CA: Do you use off-the-shelf type design tools?

ES: I use Fontlab like everybody else, but I also use BitFonter a lot. I love bitmaps, I have no idea why. It is totally mind-bogglingly stupid. I wouldn't want to do it for weeks but I've spent days doing it. It's so satisfying: 'Click, click, click - does this work?'

CA: You often point out that you are a very German designer. How does German design differ from other design cultures?

ES: British design is very much ideas-based. I worked [in Britain] for a long time in the '70s and '80s - I know the good bits of both approaches. I love ideas-based stuff that is a great one-off. The stuff that I do, as one-offs go, is pretty boring and predictable. But I'm good at doing repetitive things. Though we have a rich German art tradition, even [in Germany] people tend to be more pensive and [good at] problem solving.

Asian design is much more thought-based rather than product-based. The Asian philosophy isn't about making things, it's about being. That doesn't mean the Chinese don't make anything, but it's a totally different approach. The one thing about Americans is they will always say, 'Yes, we will do this.' Germans, North Europeans, tend to say 'no' first. Anything that endangers the status quo is dangerous.