Erik Spiekermann Interview

Erik Spiekermann
The European design hall of fame winner 2007

Interview by Frederico Duarte

1. You have just received the 2007 European Designer Hall of Fame Award. This is not your first award, but the fact you have been nominated by your peers from all over the continent must have a special meaning. What does it mean, to you, to have received this accolade?
Getting the vote from the readers of professional design magazines means a lot. It shows me that design is, indeed, an international language. And it proves that there is a design community which knows who has been doing what for quite a few years.

2. Stefan Sagmeister once said a famous graphic designer is like a famous electrician. Merit and fame are still only recognised inside their milieu. Rarely the general public, or even mainstream media, pay real attention to the discipline and to its practitioners. Your open criticism of the UEFA 2006 World Cup put you briefly in the German “public eye”, but despite your considerable work in your country and beyond, you are still to become “a household name”. Do you think there is a place for public and media recognition for graphic design? Will we witness the rise of the “star graphic designer”, as we have seen the “star architect”?
Public recognition is important because it makes every designer more of an equal partner for the client. As long as we are considered a lower form of production service, clients will not involve us properly and will not pay us the money our work deserves.

3. In your almost 30-year old career, you have developed a myriad of typefaces, systems and interfaces, which have been applied to magazines and books and TV channels, trains and cars and planes, motorways and airports and cities. All this has truly shaped our living environment and visual landscape, not only in Germany and Europe, but indeed around the world. Do you ever stop and think on the impact of your work in everything that surrounds millions of people?
I do. Every time i use the U-Bahn here in Berlin (the Metro), I love the fact that we helped make this a prettier environment than before, plus one that actually helps to get people from A to B effortlessly. And I love the fact that nobody knows who did this. Public design should be invisible. And when people read messages from Deutsche Bahn (German Railways) set in my typefaces, that gives me a kick as well. And again, they don’t need to know that someone actually did that, they just need to enjoy reading. Except potential clients: they need to be told that this was done by designers, not machines.

4. Having said that, and also knowing your role in consulting to cities and government institutions and governments themselves, it can be said you are often a “designer of the establishment”. How often is your work a victim of politics, or how much does bureaucracy and politics get in the way of your work?
All the time. Politics are just as important with commercial clients, if not more so. We have to play the politics and stay out of them at the same time. I think i have got pretty good at that and I hope that I still do not betray my principles. I still remember being thrown out of offices because I told clients the truth about their companies, and I still have arguments with them. As long as I have enemies as well as friends, I am not totally corrupt.

5. In 1979 you started Meta, and when that got too big you started the United Designers Network in 2000, which in 2007 became SpiekermannPartners. “Thinking small” to you still means running three offices in three different time zones. Will small ever give way to smaller?
Small is relative. Nobody ever has more than 7 designers work on one project at the same time, but clients still take work to the big studios because it is safe. It is like using Helvetica: it is never very good, but never really bad. We are not big, but we get big projects because my reputation comes from the big projects I have been responsible for. I could happily just design book covers, but nobody will give me those.

6. Your work is often associated with German Graphic, and Typographic, Design. Do you acknowledge this “Germaneness”? Do you cultivate it? Do you fight it? Does it matter?
I cannot help being German. But i also lived in London for 9 years, was married to an Englishwoman for 25 years, have an English son and now i’m married to an American lady and spend a lot of time in the US. I consider myself an international German. I like all the good German things about myself. I am reliable although chaotic; punctual, but sometimes a year late, fussy about detail but generous with other peoples’ mistakes.

7. A lot of what you do is about improving existing systems or elements, and make them work better for their users, by removing clutter, rethinking processes, optimising outcomes and providing solutions. Is simplifying our lives making our lives too simple? Is there still room for complexity?
Complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers. You cannot make complex things simple, but you can make them approachable by designing the interface and the process so that people will actually be encouraged to solve complex problems. Clutter is one of the biggest problems of our lives — too much of everything.

8. Do you still wear that bow tie sometimes?
No, but I look at it now and again.

These questions were sent to Erik Spiekermann following the attribution of the European Design European Hall of Fame Award in 2007, on request of the Awards’ organisation.