"Of course type is important! One can't prove it, that's all."
Urs Willmann is a science journalist who knows nothing about typography—the ideal requirements for a talk with Erik Spiekermann. Here, we publish his interview as an exclusive excerpt from our new book, Hello, I am Erik (Hallo, Ich bin Erik in German) which portrays the life and work of one of the world's leading type designers.
How do you explain the importance of selecting a font to a pig farmer?
Everything we read, we perceive rationally and emotionally. When we look at a sentence, we react emotionally to its form before we even rationalize its content. That makes it part of the message. Type is full of expression, sound and tone, since it is the form speech takes.
As a reader, however, I want nothing but pure, unadulterated information.
As a typographer I visualize content, which makes me its translator. Let us compare it to music: a composer writes melodies, and a musician then arranges them and makes them ready to perform. According to Watzlawick, one cannot not communicate. Therefore there is no such thing as neutral type design. Everything has a voice.
One doesn't usually notice this voice.
That's precisely when it works best. When you consciously notice it, it can distract you. You can develop an attitude towards it, but there's no defense against what you feel in your gut. It influences us subliminally, like background music in shopping malls. It gets under our skin.
But if I become aware of this acoustic treacle, I can actively try to ignore it.
That may work on an intellectual level, but not emotionally. I might say that the weather doesn't interest me. However, it still influences my mood. It's the same with typography; all cultural expressions influence us. Take buildings, for example: the way they look, how they work. Even if we're ignorant about architecture, buildings still influence us a lot. The same goes for typography—it influences all of us.
Your main tool is type. What letter do you like least?
For pragmatic reasons, it's a drag that the lowercase r has a shape that can barely be changed. When an r is before an n, it always looks a bit like an m. It is also impractical that that m and n are so confusable; they have the same origin. Confusing n with u is also easy to do: they look the same when one of them is upside down. Or p and b and q and d. The brain gets used to distinguishing letters after a while. But really it's impractical that p and d and q and b are the same characters, just mirrored or rotated.
Have you ever tried to change that?
No, you can't do that. The skill in type design lies precisely in working within this 90 to 95 percent established framework. An a is an a. Once again, it's like music: you work with clearly defined notes, but an oboe A sounds different to a violin A.
So your work is bound by a convention that you mustn't harm?
Sure. If I were to ignore the a, or change it so it doesn't look like an a anymore, then I'd be making art, not communication.
What is the most beautiful letter?
A small a! It has a vertical limit and two possible types of construction. There is the a with the simple bowl against the vertical line, and there is the a with the double bowl. With this a, one crosses the surface three times: at the top, in the middle, and at the bottom. That means there are two counters — one closed and one open. It's very complicated; there's a lot happening. On the other hand, n is merely a stroke and another stroke and a connection and an open space. The e is also tricky.
Does e make life hard for you?
On the contrary! The a and e may be complicated to design, but they give me the opportunity to play around with them. The same goes for s: like a and e, one crosses the surface three times. c, on the other hand, is nothing but a counter. This counter is separated on e, giving it two counters. What we really decode when we read is the contrast between black and white, between outside and inside. I find these to be clear points of reference; I can understand the letters better. One can compare it to people: I can't recognize you with the sun behind you; all I see is a masculine shape.
You would recognize me as soon as I walk.
But only then. Walking effectively corresponds to the rhythm of the letter in a word. Just like I don't recognize you by silhouette alone, but by your movement and physiognomy — it's the same with words. Just like individual letters do, words have inner and outer spaces. If I look at the outer space of a word, the outlines, I can barely recognize anything. And I recognize more in a line with both uppercase and lowercase than one with uppercase letters alone, which is like a sterile high rise building with few contours. When there are upper and lowercase, I see the tower, the tree, the stream. That's why I prefer signage using upper and lowercase. However, engineers prefer to use uppercase letters, since they are easier to define, and bigger. Some people think capitals have more letter bulk, and that one can express oneself more clearly using them, but that's rubbish.
And that's why the small, unmistakable a is your favorite letter?
Along with g. I like g just as much, because it's complicated too. Our alphabet is pretty refined, in spite of its weak points. The i, for example, is far too narrow.
How do you deal with it?
I like to put a serif on it, to give it some white space — i has no white space. Neither does l; it consists merely of a stroke without inner space. But inner space makes it recognizable. That's why I often put a little arch at the bottom right, to give it some inner space of its own. And a head serif on the left of the i, so that it can breathe. Plus my t's and f's are wider than usual. The t has a little stick. This creates white space, which stops words from looking like picket fences.
That all sounds pretty cerebral. At this point our pig farmer will be thinking “What is Spiekermann's problem?”
Why? Pig farmers talk in the same way to one another. I'm sure they have their own distinctions: how many ribs, how many bristles? But I suppose you're right — when 70 grown men stand around together at typography conferences talking about i's and a's, I do sometimes wonder whether we've all lost our marbles. There are wars and disasters out there, while we're talking about rhythm in type. But everyone does that. All experts have a nerdy side to them. As long as you don't forget that there is more to life, then it's OK. If we were all average, nobody would have invented the wheel.
Why does type have to be not merely readable, but beautiful too?
It doesn't—but consciously striving to make things beautiful is one of the things that separates us from animals. How much history do we have as homo sapiens?
Max Frisch once wrote that Man appeared during the Holocene.
And later he started to communicate. Not only when he was in pain or hungry — he started to reveal himself through signs and paintings: I was here in this cave, I killed four bulls. Later there was religion: the attempt to look for meaning in Nature. As social beings we have the urge to share our thoughts and to leave something behind. Culture also means that there is an aesthetic value beyond mere function. This value helps things work: if music sounds crap, nobody wants to hear it.
In the end, type has to be functional.
But beauty itself is a function. Beauty is not free of function. Put simply, we need beauty. Ugliness doesn't sell. Soon after the fall of the Berlin wall, in 1991, I designed the signage for the Berlin transport authorities. Naturally, a signage system like that has to work in the first place. Customers have to know where the exit is, and where to buy tickets. But I wanted to make it pretty too. Berlin is so gray! We used color for orientation, but also because it's decorative.
How do you work when there are a lot of parameters to take into consideration, like in this example from Berlin?
I start with the worst case. In this case something like: an old man in a bad mood, in an unpleasant situation, in a rush, in dim lighting... most people don't ride the subway for fun; everyone wants to get somewhere. The subway is only an interruption. In that respect, nobody reads a train schedule for fun. I have to bear in mind the person who has to find something out without really wanting to. I want to give that person a tiny bit of joy, so that afterwards he's both smarter and happier.
Surely the creative act begins with dry analysis though?
That's the way I learnt it. I'm very German and protestant like that. But after 40 years in the business I can no longer separate what comes from gut instinct, and what is down to experience. However, an analytical approach is always a good idea. The first thing is to gather material, write a briefing, and find out what the customer says — and what they really need.
That sounds as though those are very different things.
What the customer wants from you is often not what they need. What they say often has a lot to do with the balance of power, and constraints. We have to filter out and translate these aspects at the beginning, before we can start on intuitive design.
What skills does a good designer have?
They are able to recognize patterns and mimic them. They need to be analytically and aesthetically-minded. They need to juggle facts and emotions. One can't be purely cerebral about this sort of work — that would be like an author having a computer generate his sentences. Any calculator could produce sequences of words. Subject, object, predicate, and even case can be mathematically derived. These are complete sentences viewed analytically, but they have no feel for language.
I imagine you're constantly upset at bad type when you're out and about.
Age has mellowed me somewhat. It used to be different.
You'd see type or design and think “Oh dear”?
I guess I was like a top chef disgusted at every hotdog stand, and who has a fit when he sees processed food at the supermarket. That was me a lot of the time! It was clear to me that with a little extra effort they could have got it right.
I would like to hear an example.
I notice it most with paperbacks, even nowadays. A publisher who puts a book out every week should only need to develop a typographic concept for the inside of the books. But most of them don't bother to make the little effort required. Most paperbacks look dreadful. They all tamper with the cover: the sales people want this, the agents want that. But the inside is usually awful. And there's no excuse for that.
Why do they skimp on typographers?
Because a lot of publishers think it costs too much money, when all they'd have to do is pay someone like me for two days, and they'd have some nice typography for all their books.
Maybe the publishers just think that type isn't so important for them.
Of course it's important! One can't prove it, that's all. Even if a book sells more thanks to good typography, the head of marketing will still come around and say it's due to advertising, and the cover designer will say it's because of the cover, while the author will, of course, believe purely in the power of his brilliant text.
I have heard that much of your ire is reserved for the Arial typeface. Are there any other typographic sins that you would call “environmental pollution”?
It's not simply a matter of an aesthetic problem. What bothers me is the attitude behind it. There are enough experts to decide how to make a text more readable, and what adds aesthetic and functional value. Arial, or for that matter Helvetica, is a nightmare on an iPhone, for instance. Far too uniform, no contrast: it reads far too badly. Just try to make a password that includes 1's and l's and i's. You can't tell them apart! It's just a bunch of dumb lines; everything is way too tight!
Why don't these experts do something about it?
Most of them are just too lazy to look around and try something out. They make the same soup every day, but they present it as a conscious, almost heroic decision. “I don't need any other spices,” they say, “I don't need salt or pepper; I'm happy pouring hot water onto some instant soup powder...” It comes down to laziness in the end though. Being too lazy to look at a font and take a risk. Instead, they'd rather have the same soup every day. In designer speak they call it “conscious rejection of the status quo”. New magazines come on the market set in Times New Roman, and the choice of typeface is somehow presented as being worthy in its unpretentiousness, as though it were a rejection of the commercial world of modern typefaces that nobody needs anyway. But really it's all about the instant soup powder thing.
That sounds like a snob talking.
No way. Of course, some people moan about “these Spiekermen”. A massive hassle, and nobody will notice the difference anyway. I find that attitude cynical. That attitude is based on nothing but laziness.
Could it be a generational problem?
Probably. In the seventies I used to get a lot of abuse from the generation above me. They thought I was a cheeky upstart who broke the rules. But I didn't know the rules; I was naive.
Does that make a difference?
When one breaks the rules without knowing them, it's often naive or infantile. A toddler is allowed to pee in their pants, as long as they're not old enough to understand that they shouldn't do it.
The Rolling Stones are still allowed to pee in their pants.
A breach of taboo like that is something else altogether. When one knows one isn't allowed to do something but does it on purpose anyway, that's an expression of culture, of civilization. However, if I break rules without knowing them, even though they are not hard to know, then I'm being childish. Music has no function, thank god. It's fine in art free of function. Childish can be a good thing in that case, because it's fun. But unlike art, it just isn't possible in an applied discipline such as graphic design, where you're commissioned to work for someone. I can mess up my own texts as I see fit, but not someone else's, not in a working relationship.
I draw the conclusion that you are definitively not an artist.
But I work with artistic means, intuition, visual translation. Always on behalf of an employer. Which doesn't mean I'm a slave. When I work for someone, I'm 100 percent loyal. You pay the penny, I sing the song. I have to decide beforehand whether they're an idiot or not. Of course, I have returned work that wasn't quite right in form or content, but that doesn't mean it's alright to get mad at the customer, or badmouth them later.
Didn't you once want to blow up the Bundespost, the German Federal Mail, with a petrol bomb?
Yes, it's true — but I didn't have the contract then.
What made them think of asking you?
They didn't ask me personally. It was a bid between a couple of design studios. The idea was to design a new image for the postal service. The invitation to bid in itself was idiotic. The bidding task was to design a given note paper and business card. They even specified where each line had to be! A banal activity that any village printer could do! But designing an image for a national service provider is a huge task that goes so far as to influence German culture.
You got the chance to do something of that magnitude later for Deutsche Bahn, something that people see wherever they go.
The railway is another gigantic business whose image has influenced the entire republic. There's a lot of responsibility involved! That's why I had found the mail invitation to bid so petty. We still won it. Somehow they liked our note paper, as banal as it was. Before I knew it I was sitting at the postal ministry in Bonn, presenting my proposal. The Bundespost still used all kinds of different typefaces: in theory they used Helvetica as a house typeface, but I counted more than 20 different typefaces when I analyzed it. Presumably the printers employed at the time by the Bundespost often didn't have the right fonts, and used whatever they happened to have to print. So over the course of time, the Bundespost appearance had become increasingly fragmented. It had lost its unified voice, its unified tone.
You wanted to tidy up.
Yes, particularly since one could already digitalize fonts and put them on different typesetting systems. I had already done it for a bank, so I knew it was possible. But the Bundespost people didn't understand me. I had borrowed a little Mac in Frankfurt, so I went to Bonn and set the thing on the table in front of them. They just stared at me as though I was from the Moon. He's telling us there's type inside that thing? These guys had imagined trucks full of metal type! They furrowed their brows and looked me up and down. They probably thought “He's an artist! Just let him talk, he's harmless enough.”
Whatever happened to cooperation?
We spent years working on the new image for the Bundespost. Some forms we redesigned were even set and printed in an early version of the postal typeface (called PT55 at the time). But then the client, lacking foresight, got cold feet about the typeface, and the rest of the work was done using Helvetica. Later the Bundespost was divided into Telekom, Deutsche Post and Postbank. None of those companies has any courage when it comes to typography.
So was your work all in vain?
Not quite. I was lucky: I developed the Meta typeface out of the postal typeface, and that turned out to be one of the bestsellers of the modern era.
It even made it into Moma.
Meta in the early nineties was a new kind of thing. There hadn't been anything like it.
Perhaps we still needed new typefaces back then. Now there are countless typefaces. Do we still need new ones?
Well, do we need new books, or new music? We don't really need them, but we get them.
But books and music are also expressions of culture. You've just taught me that typography is different.
Then I have to put it into perspective. Naturally, typography is different form music or literature free of function, by definition. However, new digital technology makes it possible for everyone to simply make their own typefaces. So of course that's what's happening.
You must think that's just terrible!
Not at all! The market will decide whether the world needs these typefaces. Many creative people would like to make their own typeface, just like many people dream of writing a novel. Thanks to computers they can do that too. Of course there's going to be a lot of junk, and most stuff is just imitation — but so what?
You make that sound very forgiving.
I think it's perfectly alright. How many people have played Beatles songs? Millions! Just go on Youtube, you'll find umpteen thousand videos of spotty youths playing Yesterday in their party basements, with mixed success. It's the same thing with typography in this day and age.
Cheese has been around for 10,000 years. Nevertheless it's always being reinvented.
The same goes for wine. Who needs millions of kinds of wine? People have the need to keep being creative. I think that's wonderful! That's how culture emerges — from the need to communicate.
But does each company really need its own typeface?
In competition they do. Of course Telekom wants to look different from O2. Type plays an important role as the tone of speech. If I'm a boring designer I'll use Helvetica. It goes with everything. It hasn't played an important role for a long time for companies that are not really in competition. However, by now even those companies have grasped that it is even important for internal communication, to make it more identifiable. The company's own employees ought to notice: this note is from us; it has its own handwriting, it belongs to me. But one has to be careful when renewing things. I reached a certain limit with my typeface for Deutsche Bahn. It's expressive, almost too expressive. One can't go much further before it starts to get ridiculous. On the other hand, one mustn't be too cautious as a designer, otherwise the new typeface will be indistinguishable. There's a fine line between ridiculous and banal.
Isn't there a great danger of losing ones identity with a change of image?
I often say to my clients they should behave as they are, and also stay that way on the outside. Nobody can do something that's not them. Just recently I had a Chinese car manufacturer. He wanted to be like Audi. He even wanted a German designer, so that his cars would look German. That can't work — everyone can tell. It's similar for me as a contractor: if I jump through hoops to get a contract, or if I prostitute myself, then things are bad. Before you know it, you're on your back, suffering. Then you have no pleasure, and without pleasure there can be no good outcome.
The book launch, talk, and signing event of Hello, I am Erik will be held at Gestalten Space this Thursday, starting at 19:00. See you there.