POINT 01: Erik Spiekermann interview

We're at POINT this week. One of yesterday's highlights was the incomparable Erik Spiekermann. We caught up with the German typographer and designer ahead of his talk ...

Computer Arts: The theme at POINT is authenticity. What does that mean to you?
Erik Spiekermann
: Everybody says they’re authentic. What’s the opposite? Bullshit? There’s one thing that makes you authentic – a rule I always obey myself: I never talk about anything I don't know about. I guess that makes me authentic. In business you tend to have to improvise and join conversations that maybe you don't know about. I keep quiet. I was in Israel, in front of 2,000 people, Germans and Israelis, who are already a little difficult, and my slides didn't work. I talked about my work and my life and stuff. Obviously it was authentic. I didn't make anything up. I didn't pretend, I knew what I was going. And that's a very simple rule: just don't pretend. Be authentic. It's very easy.

We tend to, in our business, say to clients, we can do this and we can do that. We lie and we cheat. If a client asks me to do something I've never done before, I say: I've never done this before – but I'm sure we can do it because I've learned other things. Know what your talking about, and don’t pretend. Ever. I also don’t pretend I like something when I don’t like it. I don’t pretend I’m enthusiastic when I’m not. It never works. It doesn’t internally. It doesn’t work externally. Clients see through it. My colleagues see through it.

CA: What can we expect from your talk?
ES:
I'll be discussing my new way of working. It’s called the agile method. Which means quick sprints. Don’t dwell on things. Don’t spend days in Photoshop massaging every single pixel. We insist the client is in the middle of everything. It’s a new way of working. The old moves don’t work anymore. Everything is connected. Again, you can’t bullshit because it will come out. Nothing’s ever finished, either. Life’s in beta. There is an end to it, but you don’t define it.

Everything will be reinvented, which is difficult to explain to clients. Especially engineering guys: we work with Bosch – guys who make spark plugs, power drills, mechanical components – and when you tell them their website will never be finished, they don’t want to hear that. The come from a world where a product is delivered and works for 20 years. They’re scared of the unknown. I like it. I’ve always been a bit of an anarchist. I’m very messy, but very pernickety in detail. That’s not a contradiction. I’m always on time – sometimes a year late, but then I’ll be on the minute. It’s an attitude that is very difficult to get across in a studio with more than 20 people. Once you’re that size, you start having rules and project managers and defined roles. I’m saying to those people: Fuck the roles. Start over. Improvise. I’m the oldest guy and I’m telling the young guys – forget the rules.

CA: There seems to be another theme developing, with several designers discussing storytelling. Is this something that informs your work?
ES:
Storytelling is an ancient theme. It’s been around since the mid-90s, essentially. People like stories. Companies tell stories about themselves: if the stories aren't not real, if they don’t tie in with the company's behaviour, if they’ve got a great logo and shitty behaviour, people sense it.

We're seeing this with Apple. Apple was everybody’s hero, certainly in the design business. We’ve just realised it’s as bad or as good as any other company. It’s just a large evil company that makes a shitload of money exploiting a million Chinese. Its stuff is kind of cool, but you wouldn’t kill for Apple anymore. I might have killed for Apple 10 years ago, because my livelihood depended on its kit. It probably doesn’t anymore. It certainly hasn’t done anything new for us as designers. Apple told us this fantastic story about how it makes this kit so we can make great things with it. That story is running a little thin. It's making things to consume. A lot of brands are moving from a genuine story to a made-up story. We like to buy stories, but we don’t buy stories that are fake.

CA: You speak lots of events like this. What do you take away from them?
ES:
One of the reasons I go to a lot of conferences, usually to speak, is because you meet your peers. Your mates. Some of the peers become your mates. I meet other speakers. People I’ve heard about. People I’ve worshipped. My heroes and role models. Finding new talent. I learn a hell of a lot. It’s dangerous, especially as you get older, to become satisfied and happy with yourself. You have to continue to challenge yourself. And it’s almost like a reunion – there are always half a dozen people I know. It’s the community. My little club. You hang out with people and learn new things.

CA: What is about design that you love? Why was it your chosen career?
ES:
On the surface, what we do is design products and surfaces. To me, the bigger question has always been about making the world more accessible. A lot of the stuff I’ve done was marketing for companies – I’ve made Volkswagen and Audi look better – but the work I really enjoyed was stuff like the signage system and passenger information for Berlin transport or airport. It’s makes the service accessible.

The world is getting more and more complicated. Our role is to make things more accessible. To make it understandable. Fun. We’re mediators between technology, products and the audience. I define the function, make things and services that work and also add a little bit of beauty. Just making it work is kind of the role of an engineer. I used to be shy to mention the word beauty. I will mention it now. It is our role to make things more beautiful.

Check our more from Erik Spiekermann, and full coverage of POINT, in the next issue of Computer Arts.

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