Life Story of a Legend
Om: Erik, I know you are a guru of typography and you are from Germany. But I don’t know much about how you became who you are. Would you mind telling me more about yourself?
Erik: I grew up in the north near Hanover, which is a boring part. Both of my parents went there after the war, even though they came from elsewhere. My father was a truck driver. After he came out of the war, there wasn’t much else to do. He was a mechanic by trade, but he was in the navy.
The “type” thing started early. We lived next door to a printer who was a good friend of my mother’s. This neighbor had a print shop. I used to go in there as a five-year-old. I would get the narrow pieces of paper that they would cut off whatever they were printing, and I would make long drawings.
A print shop in the old days had a specific smell. It’s ink, petrol and paper and stuff. That’s one thing that I remember really well, hanging out at that shop and seeing all the machinery. I didn’t know what it was at the time.
Anyway, we moved to Bonn, then the capital. When I was 16, my dad told me to go to Berlin [to avoid getting drafted]. My dad had been in the navy in the stupid U-boats. He said, “I don’t want any of my kids to ever wear a uniform, because just fucking Nazis,” as he put it, “stole the best years of my life.” He was one of the few people who survived. Out of 100,000 U-boat guys, only 10,000 survived. He was grateful. He said, “My sons will never wear a uniform.”
So off I went to Berlin at 16 and lived there on my own for a couple years, which was pretty cool. I had little odd jobs. I worked at print shops. I did chalking on the sidewalks and played music. I had to make my own money. My parents didn’t have anything.
I had always been drawing. I had a little tabletop printing press when I was 12. That’s how I got into the printing part of design. I collected all this equipment in the late ’60s, because everybody was throwing it away. I had this pretty large letterpress shop. Then, for various reasons — I won’t go into it. My wife was English. We got chucked out of the house. So we decided to go and live in London. This was in ’73. Eventually I brought my print shop over there. We went for a vacation, came back, and the place had burned down. There had been a fire next door. Some guys were welding cars. My whole printing press, which was supposed to be my livelihood, was gone.
If you’re a printer and you know about type and type settings but you haven’t got equipment, what are you? A graphic designer. Because I could sketch. Instead of doing my own printing, I’d get somebody else to do my printing. Because I know so much about typesetting, I was a consultant for some typesetting companies in London. That’s how I got into type. I also knew the Berthold machines well, and the advertising business in London used those machines. Also, I was metric, and the Brits were trying to go metric, so I had an advantage.
Design Back in the Day
Om: What was London like in the 1970s, from a creative standpoint?
Erik: It was great, because there were a lot of things happening ahead of the curve of the rest of Europe. London has always been a creative capital, and in those days new technology was moving into society. The whole corporate design business was actually invented. I mean, it came out of there. There was Landor, but I worked for Wolff Olins, and the two of them, Michael Wolff and Wally Olins, certainly invented the idea that you could have a studio of 60 people and still do cool work. I learned that business and design — or business and creativity — aren’t opposites. They need each other.
Om: Now we talk about “experience design” as part of the business process. Was it like that in the ’70s? Did people think about design?
Erik: It was mostly communication, [something to] enhance their business. It would give them the upper hand, or another value. The word “brand” hadn’t been invented, but that was what we were doing. We were creating and shaping brands, and the good companies saw it. Those are the ones who are still around today. We did work for Audi and VW in the late ’70s, because at the time they knew it was important to be branded properly, internationally.
Om: When you started MetaDesign in 1979, what was the design process like?
Erik: Because we were German, we were very much about implementation. Making sure you had rules that you could actually follow, because it was monolithic. There was no internet. The English were good at concepts, and then they lost it. That’s actually a good combination, the English with their creativity and their weird ideas and then you get a German to make it work. To tighten all the bolts.
On English Eccentricity
Om: Why do you think the English have weird, creative ideas? I mean, Jony Ive is another example of that. It can’t be the beer that makes them weird.
Erik: No, the beer is lousy. It’s because the Brits are all over the place. There’s the Celtics, the Irish, the Scots and the Germanic part, the French part. The language itself is an amalgam of many languages. Their culture is a total mix of other cultures, but then it’s also preserved because of that island. Everything in England is idiosyncratic. I don’t know how they ever managed to have their stupid empire. I mean, how did the Brits conquer people? That’s another issue, I know, especially with you. How did they rule India, for Christ’s sake? For 200 years.
Om: It’s like why companies become big, right? Microsoft became big not because it was exceptionally brilliant. All its competitors were stupid, like Netscape making bad decisions upon bad decisions. Now Google is not full of super geniuses; it doesn’t have a grand design. I think a lot of its competitors didn’t quite measure up, so it is winning.
Erik: But I think half the English creativity comes from the fact that they have always been an international country. There’s nothing there in Britain. They had a bit of coal and a bit of steel, but it’s not a country that has a lot of resources other than the weird people who went all over the world and brought back — I mean, they had immigrants there. The first black people I saw were in England. We didn’t have any black people in Germany in the ’60s. They were all Jamaican bus drivers in London in the ’60s, when I first went there. Indians? We didn’t have any Indians in Germany in the ’60s.
We had nothing. We killed our own Jews and we had no immigrants until the Turks came in. So I wasn’t used to foreign cultures, and in London, everybody was foreign. London’s been like this for a few hundred years, though the Brits wouldn’t admit it. The fact that you go and have a curry. A curry is an English meal. It’s just as English as bangers and mash.
I think that’s part of it, by definition having been a mixed place whose people have traveled and started colonies and brought English to other countries.
Om: They make good shoes, though.
Erik: Totally. I used to have English cars all my life. I still have English bicycles. I wish they hadn’t ignored their industrial background. I mean, they invented the Industrial Revolution for chrissake. The Germans only invented chemistry when it came to it, but the British had the mechanics down. They invented the first steam engines. They lost that, for various reasons.
They’re still good at making certain things. Maybe it’s because they can’t make things on a large scale, maybe that’s why they are so creative. They start things they never can finish.
We go the other way around. We’re not creative in Germany; we’re good at making things. Too good. We always make things 120 percent. You buy anything from us, it’s always over-engineered.
Om: Back in 1979, when you started MetaDesign, was the process still manual? No computers, right?
Erik: I got my first Mac in ’85 ‘
81. I was ahead of the curve. A lot of my clients were from the typesetting industry, so I was quite computer literate, as much as you could be in the late ’70s. Linotype code was like HTML.
Om: When did you see the transformation of design business to the computer?
Erik: In 1985 I had the job to design a new typeface for the German post office. I went to Linotype to talk to them about digitizing my sketches, and they had a Macintosh. I had seen photographs but not held one. So I lifted it up and put the little floppy in, and then I borrowed this thing and went over from Frankfurt to Bonn, to the ministry.
I went in and told these guys, “This is typesetting & is the future. And this floppy, which I have in my shirt pocket, has the typeface on there.”
They looked at each other and went, “This guy’s gone mad.” But I knew intuitively, just like with the first smell of printed paper, that this was the future of my business.
I bought this first Mac. I was the first graphic designer to own one in Germany. My friends in the business thought I had gone mad, because it was crummy compared to a piece of typesetting equipment. You had the stupid bitmaps and the tiny black-and-white screen; it took forever.
Those floppies in there? [Imitates grinding noise] I didn’t even know, but I felt this was going to be the future for our business. I stuck with it, and then I did some work for PageMaker in Seattle in early ’87.
I did some work for Apple in ’86, ’87. I got the first LaserWriter as payment, which at the time was like 20,000 marks. It was more than a Golf, the car. I did a lot of work for Adobe, and I got free Photoshop and stuff. My instincts had been right.
I knew everybody, and so we started FontShop in early ’89. We were the first-ever distributor of fonts. Everybody else sold their own fonts, and we sold everybody’s. Our first catalog was 800 fonts, and then it quickly grew to 330,000. And the Font Book, the last one that came out in 2008, was 1,600 pages. And then we stopped printing, because there’s no point printing anymore.
Om: How did you react to the internet when it came out?
Erik: It was a godsend. We started MetaDesign in San Francisco in 1992, and by 1993, when the first browser came out, we designed our first website. We designed a website for IDEO at the time. We did a lot of early websites in 1993, 1994. We worked for Apple. We did some flat interface for them. We did icons for Apple, we did stuff for Adobe, stuff for HP. We worked for all the high-tech guys, so it was obvious that we had to have computers.
One of our challenges was to always have the best equipment. We never saved money. We always bought the best equipment: the most expensive computers, the most expensive printers.
We made our own color printer in 1990. We bought a Canon 100, and I knew from Adobe that they were working on a RIP, which Adobe wouldn’t admit. And the Canon guy said, “No, no, it’s a copier.” And I said, “No, I can make it into a printer.” They said, “No way.”
I had these two Dutch guys who hacked a printer driver. We physically soldered it, our own self-made hack to the Canon 100 copier, and made it into a printer before there was anything on the market. I always had some hackers in there, because I wanted to have the coolest shit. We had an A3 color printer, which nobody else did, that I could drive off my Macs in April 1990.
Om: It must have been frustrating for you in the late ’90s when the internet was exploding, because the typography was so bad.
Erik: Yeah, but it was obvious then. Everybody was complaining, but I said, “Just wait.” I said the same 10 years ago, and I say the same now about e-books.
There’s a tendency for human beings to interface with things that are pleasant to us. It’s taken 600 years, from Gutenberg to now, for the book to achieve the shape that seems to be optimal for our eyes and hands. Everything that is electronic will achieve the same standard. It will be a different substrate, but there is obviously something in it. Otherwise it wouldn’t have survived for 500 years. The same goes for the screen. I knew it wasn’t going to stay as bad as that. In ’91, Adobe published ATM, Adobe Type Manager, when some of the bitmaps went smooth and there was anti-aliasing. I know it has taken 20 years, but now it’s as good if not better.
The typesetting you get on the computer these days is way better than anything that had ever happened in metal before. It’s a thousand times better. It doesn’t mean people do it as well, but they can. The tools are the best we’ve ever had.
Photoshop! When I saw my first Photoshop demonstration, in ’87 at Adobe someplace, I thought my world had just opened up. You could put pictures on the screen and manipulate them. I remember that picture so well. There was a guy in a raincoat on some square in Italy with pigeons around him. They took this guy and gave him a motion blur so it looked like he was walking on the computer in real time. I thought I’d died. I knew that this would not only change my world but also expand it tremendously. It’s a threat, but disruptive technology’s what we thrive on.
The Future of the Screen
Om: Now we have a lot of new things out in the market. For example, Typekit came out. Where do you see web design and tablet design going?
Erik: As always, things are in flux. A lot of things haven’t found their final form yet. Like I said, the book took a few hundred years to find its final shape, which hasn’t been improved on since the 1600s: The binding is still the same. The printing is still the same. It’s gotten better, but the principle hasn’t changed.
The same is true for the computer: The interface is there to stay. But we’ll have a flat screen that’s backlit. Tablets haven’t found their final form, our intelligent phones haven’t found their final form. But all these things will coexist, and they’ll also be developed until they have found 100 percent of what they’re good at.
Right now we’re doing things on certain machines that we shouldn’t be doing. We shouldn’t be reading long text on a standard phone. It’s stupid. We do it because it’s there, but that’s going to go away. The iPad already moved that over. None of these things have matured yet, but they all give a promise. Some of them will disappear.
Om: Do you think content consumption is defined by screen size?
Erik: There are physical limitations as to certain size. It’s nice to read 10 words a line, 50 to 60 characters. This is science. This is not me. This is something that we like, the way our eyes move in little segments. There are physical limitations to our eyes: the curvature of our eyeballs, the space we have in front of us, the distance from the eyes. That’s human, and no machine can ever change that.
There’s a certain size that looks good to us. There’s a certain contrast. Total black and total white is horrible. That’s why books are nice, because they’re not totally black or totally white. We like a little softer.
I download all my German papers. They either come as PDFs, which is pretty stupid, so you have to zoom around, or they come as dedicated apps. What it cuts out is coincidence, happenstance, whatever you call it.
Whether it’s The New York Times or especially the Frankfurt Allgemeine paper — a big, large format, twice the size of this — I open [the paper version] and I find things that I wasn’t looking for. On the screen, you have to have a hierarchy, because you can’t fit so much. You have to look for something. Whereas I open the [printed] page and I will find something I wasn’t looking for, I would have never looked for. I wouldn’t know what to look for. I find things that I wasn’t expecting, and that is enriching. I only need a couple headlines to know it says Ukraine or it says Sochi and I’m done, but the stuff that enriches me is the stuff that I wasn’t expecting.
If I read The Economist, which I designed myself, of course, I will go to the contents page, because there I can find all. Opening up and relaxing and finding shit, that’s one thing that is prevented by the constraints of the screen.
We have different physical demands and psychological, mental, emotional demands that can’t be met by one machine nor by a book nor by a magazine. That’s why all these things coexist, and they will coexist in the future.
Waste Not, Want Not
Om: What do you make of the whole internet of things and all these connected devices?
Erik: There’s a great promise as much as a threat. For me, the great promise is that a lot of things that are not happening in this country and other countries — for example, transport. People get stuck in two hours of traffic jams and stuff; it’s horrible. One guy sitting in a car crossing the bridge is stupid. It could be four people in there, right? And the same goes for buildings. The same goes for anything that 90 percent of the time isn’t being used. That’s one thing I have great hopes for, that whatever equipment we use will be more accessible and therefore more cleverly used.
It also means that, of course, the industry will be selling less of those things. Not everybody needs a car anymore. What’s going to happen to the car industry? Which my country totally depends on. The younger people in Germany don’t buy anymore; they use Zipcars or Car2Go or bicycle, trams, taxis. They are pragmatic about transport. There’s going to be a big revolution in transportation in America.
I think we are going to see a lot of change in the next 10 years there. You have an app; you know when you can get on the bus or in a car or bicycle. You don’t have to chance it. So you can plan your day without having your own car. That’s a great promise.
The same goes for the waste of energy that happens in our houses every moment. All day we are heating up water that we use once a day. The issue is with the stupid tanks here, which we don’t have back home, heating a whole house. Then there’s lighting streets, lighting bridges, lighting stations when there is nobody there. All that stuff will go away — that’s my great hope. It’s going to take at least 25 years, another generation.
Om: In a conversation a couple of years ago you were critical of Apple’s use of Helvetica Neue. I wonder now that we are in the mobile age, Why aren’t we inventing special mobile-first fonts?
Erik: We have some, just Apple chose not to [use them]. Steve Jobs loved Helvetica, and they put it in there. It’s rubbish. I designed the Mozilla typeface called Fira, which is meant for mobile. It does way better on screen than Helvetica. Mobile fonts are doable, but for some reason are behind there.
Om: Why do you think no one is doing it?
Erik: It’s ignorance, because these are engineering companies. Essentially, so is Apple. Jony is a mate of mine, and he is a good designer, but he is more of an engineer. He is surrounded by these kids in their twenties, and they go for whatever is trendy. For some reason there is nobody in management to tell these guys to go to us for some advice.
They’re all bound by these 25-year-olds who pick whatever is trendy. [The mobile app] hasn’t got into their culture yet, but it will, I’m quite sure. User experience and user interface are becoming so important. In the end, that’s going to make successful products.
Advice for the Next Generation
Om: If you were to give advice to younger designers, web developers, web app makers, what would you tell them?
Erik: Learn as much about our culture as you possibly can, by reading, by traveling, by involving yourself in things that go on. But don’t become an artist. Don’t think, “I’ll do it intuitively.” You have to learn if not to code at least to appreciate code, to understand code. Because code is what nuts and bolts were a hundred years ago.
If you don’t know anything about mechanics, you can’t survive in this world. If you don’t know anything about how a computer works or code works, as a communicator, which is what a designer is — the interface between machines and man, that’s what we are. We are the interface, we interpret what the machine says into visible language. If you don’t understand how the machine works, you’re going to be laughed out of the room by the engineering guys, because you can’t communicate with them.
Om: Do you feel satisfied with your career and what you have achieved so far?
Erik: It’s difficult, because I never thought I had a career. I never had any plans. I just did shit because it came up, and I got out of MetaDesign on bad terms. There was a major design issue that we all disagreed on, and I left. It’s still going, but it’s not me anymore. That was a major black spot in my history, as it were, that I never managed to finish that.
But other than that, yes, whatever I’ve touched, I’ve never made a loss. I’ve created work for a few hundred people. A few hundred families have survived because I have had ideas and I’ve started businesses. In that way I’m quite proud. But I can’t measure my advancement, my success or anything, because I never had a young self who said, “I’m going to make a million.” I never sat down and said, “I’m going to do this.” It just happened. It’s chaotic.
A few years ago Eye Magazine realized that everyone they talk to in Berlin worked with me at one time. So they had this chart of about 600 people that work on their own or have their own studios or whatever, and they all worked with me at one time. That’s been my major achievement, that I’ve empowered a couple of generations of designers in Germany, America and Britain.
Photos courtesy of Erik Spiekermann by Cliff Englert and Erik Spiekermann.