Interview with Erik Spiekermann
The font of all knowledge
Spiekermann has worked with Audi, Volkswagen and Skoda (amongst others), was responsible for the redesign of The Economist and has created font families for Nokia and Deutshce Bahn.
Closer to (our) home, Spiekermann created the Glasgow 1999 identity and he even designed a font after the city – FF Govan – following his work in Glasgow. He was also guest speaker at this year’s Eastern Digital Scottish Design Consultancy of the Year.
The Drum caught up with Erik Spiekermann while he was in Edinburgh. But prior to meeting the typographic legend, we asked a host of Scottish designers, if they had one question that they would like to ask Spiekermann, what would it be? And then we asked him.
Brian Copeland, founder, North & East
What is your favourite character of the alphabet, and which one do you find the hardest to design?
Lowercase a. It has the most character. It is the also the most difficult to design. I identify most typefaces by the lowercase a. Once you have created that, you know that you have a typeface.
There is a lot of movement going on. There are two openings and it points to the left rather than the right. This makes it difficult, but significant.
Jonathan Evans, creative director, Navyblue
If you were to offer one piece of advice to a creative at the beginning of their career what would that be?
Think. You asked for one piece of advice... That’s one piece of advice.
What should they think about [The Drum]?
I don’t know. Use your fucking brain. People don’t think enough. People don’t use their brain. They use copy-paste. Your brain is free. It is fast. Wickedly fast.
Kenny Allan, creative director, The Hub
Is it time that the ‘Modernist Movement’ in typography in Britain evaluates itself in a far more experimental, expressive, movement, reflecting the 21st Century? If so, should typography evolve to reflect today’s culture and overpowering forms of communication?
You could only ask that question in Britain. In Britain ‘Modernist’ conjures up a style rather than an attitude. This attitude appeared after the First World War, after millions of people had died. We are used to war these days, but this was the first major catastrophe of that century. But it was also a watershed in cultural arts. Europe’s map was redrawn. We became more rational, less prejudiced. That is why it’s still a modernist movement, and valid.
But here it’s become like a Bauhaus. Like a style. But for me modernist is an attitude. It is being open-minded, trying to avoid prejudice - even though we are all full of it.
Expressive and experimental – that’s what modernism was at one time. But it got hijacked. It became an ideology, like all the other movements. Even expressionism became an ideology. Many things become ideologies... and then they stop working.
I still call myself a modernist, but that doesn’t mean that I have to use Futura all the time. It just means I question things.
Adrian Searle, managing director, Freight
Where does the inspiration come from for a new typeface?
The answer is in the problem. So, I wouldn’t call it inspiration – I would call it analysis.
Inspiration comes from who you are. From what you’ve seen in your life.
I won the competition for the Glasgow 1999 Festival without showing a typeface. Which I like. The premise was that I was going to design different ligatures for the different ways that English words are pronounced. Read or read. They are both ‘ea’. Or the way that ‘ow’ is pronounced. Or ‘augh’ – laugh or daughter. There are four or five ways to pronounce most vowel combinations - especially the dipthongs. Especially if you add the Scottishness to it. Accents usual differ in vowels rather than consonants...
They liked the idea, but thought that it might be slightly complex for your local designer. What we did, in the end, was create different ways of moving the characters around. A little Macintosh-ish. But it comes from a phonetic approach to the alphabet.
Of course, there is the architecture too. We used a nine degree slant on the grid because Glasgow is built on a grid – a nine degree grid. The only city in the UK that’s built on a grid. The design was moved on nine percent because of the way the coast goes. A nine degree grid on 1999. You can’t miss that one.
Inspiration comes from dissecting the issue. By thinking about it. In my case, the big idea comes from analysis. But I, like everyone else, carry around just as many emotions and influences... But I can’t necessarily put my finger on them. I am a hunter and gatherer. I take pictures ten a minute. And I goggle at stuff - goggle, goggle, goggle... Not Google. Goggle. It’s stored somewhere. I don’t know where, though. On bad days it just isn’t fucking there.
For me inspiration only comes with pressure. If I go home at six O’clock at night something is wrong. Something is missing. It doesn’t have to be two O’clock in the morning anymore like it used to be. But ten or 11 is usual, as it always takes longer than you think.
Jane Hall, managing director, Teviot
What was the thing you most wanted to do that you havent and why?
Read all the books on my shelves at home.
Richard Bissland, partner, 999
As I recall, you were openly critical of the German World Cup logo saying [and I paraphrase] that it was guilty of trying to be all things to all men [nations] at a global event and not intrinsically German. You called it ‘embarrassing’. How do you feel the 2012 Olympics and 2014 Commonwealth games logos measure up as marks for global events?
The Commonwealth Games logo? [He checks that he’s talking about the right one] As far as logos go, it’s not so bad. But I think Glasgow could have done a lot better than that. It doesn’t look Glaswegian to me. It’s pleasant enough. It’s not as bad as that football thing. Obviously the committee was smaller.
If you do something for FIFA, you have half a dozen nations at the table, you have the functionaries – who, by definition, have no taste, otherwise they wouldn’t be functionaries – and all the different governing bodies, so at least a dozen different clients around the table. It’s a nightmare, as a designer, to face up to those people as you just can’t win the arguements.
The London logo? I used to work at Wolff Olins in the 70’s, so I still have a soft spot for them. I think it was a brave, intellectual approach... which, unfortunately, doesn’t work.
The idea is great – something that isn’t ready, which you can manipulate, which you can move around. The trouble is that it’s so fucking butt-ugly. It turned off a lot of people.
It could have been better looking. The type could have been more enticing.
Ugliness doesn’t sell. There is a point to it, if it’s being deliberately ugly. It’s a childish thing, it’s what artists often do, it’s against the establishment. You put a turd on the table and you think it’s art just because it’s not pretty.
David Freer, co-founder, O-Street: Do you think typefaces will have to change with the advent of new digital touchscreen technologies such as the iPhone and Microsoft Touch?
The resolution on this phone is 192 dpi [he says fiddling with his i-Phone]. The font is only Helvetica, but I’m reading this at nine point. How good does it have to get? This is today. Give it a couple of years and these screens will be as good as paper.
We are used to reading books with serif faces, which on a device like this is an annoyance. When you have a device like this you want to keep the noise down. That is why it uses fonts like Helvetica. Although in Helvetic, numbers look like crap. To make a type small, but legible, you have to make it wide. But wide means it takes a lot of space. It’s very difficult.
Victor Brierley, director, The Hub
What effect will the surge towards the measurement of online effectiveness have on digital communications? Will all websites end up looking horrible?
No. Not necessarily. There is one lesson I have learnt recently. Ever since Google has become a verb, people have been using websites differently. Home pages aren’t important any more. You search for what you are searching for and you will appear somewhere.
The home page is now almost like the cover of a book. It’s there, but it’s not what you read. It’s becoming much, much more important to design deep, deep web pages. It’s important that you can find a complete hierarchy and that you know where you are.
In old-fashioned websites, you would have a home page and if you went deep you could never get back – you never knew where you were, but that wouldn’t matter, you went down then you went out.
Now, no matter where you are, you can go in any direction. It means that clutter will make it worse and sites will have to be designed a little more tidily.
One of the most important things in any design is to chuck out the stuff that isn’t necessary. That is very difficult. If you design a website you have more than one ‘client’. There are different managers that all want their own input. You also have coders and user-interface guys and they all make demands on the website. And these demands, more often than not, are contradictory. We find ourselves in the middle and sometimes we have to sacrifice one of these demands.
Jim Ramsay, creative director, Crombie Anderson
Which typeface would Erik have his epitaph inscribed in and why??
Rotis. It would have to Rotis, as everyone knows I hate it. It would insinuate that I was really dead! All my mates would probably die laughing.