Erik Spiekermann calls himself an information architect. He is equally comfortable and prolific as a writer, graphic and typeface designer (ff Meta, itc Officina, ff Info, ff Unit, LoType, Berliner Grotesk etc), but type is always at the epicentre of this communication dynamo. He founded MetaDesign in 1979, started FontShop in 1988, is a board member of ATypI and the German Design Council, and president of the istd International Society of Typographic Designers. In July 2000, Erik withdrew from the management of MetaDesign Berlin – which created a bit of a stir – and set up his new studio, United Designers Network in the same neighbourhood. PingMag was very lucky to enjoy some of his precious time to talk about his latest project for Deutsche Bahn (German railways) and share some general thoughts about design.
Interview by Uleshka
You went through all kinds of different phases doing typography since the 70s: from typesetting with a letterpress to setting up FontShop and now your own blog, in which you write about design matters and typography.
United Designers Network
Erik at his United Designers office
What has changed in the way you work, i.e. the general process of “getting work done”. Is there now more time for creativity? Do you get more or less done than in the old days?
There is much less time for creativity today, because our work also has to incorporate all the production issues, all the documentation, all the templates and shit, which used to be delegated before. Now, we have to do it all ourselves, from thinking right through to printing.
So you think that even though it got easier in terms of technical opportunities and accessibility for everybody everything is actually taking much more time?
Yes, because it brings everything in house and the deadlines have totally shrunk. What basically happened is that the productivity has gone way up, deadlines gone way down and we’re all much, much busier with technology. No more sharing of labour.
So less time for designing?
The thinking part of designing – yes. It became much more production orientated. Whatever you do it has to look really great. You can’t set up a rough sketch any more. Now it needs to be a fairly perfect looking color PDF from a color print out. It looks like it’s almost “ready”, but it isn’t.
We spend a lot of time making things perfect, that aren’t supposed to be perfect yet and then those have to be re-made 5 times over.
One of your most recent projects is the new typeface you designed for Deutsche Bahn. A blunt question, but why did they need one in the first place?
Well, that’s very simple: in theory they had Helvetica as a family of typefaces. In theory meaning, they were officially using it for brochures and advertising, but in fact they used about 30 typefaces, different ones for their annual reports, magazines… since Helvetica is just not appropriate for that kind of different work, people were using all kinds of fonts even those that didn’t look like Helvetica at all (Garamond and other traditional typefaces).
When I do a corporate design for a large company I always give them at least a text family, a sans family and a serif family, because we have different habits of reading as you know. The idea for DB (Deutsche Bahn) was to develop a family that caters for all those from Garamont to Helvetica, but still looks a bit similar.
We started designing a serif typeface for their newspapers and magazines and then we developed a sans type out of that one. Now they can use the appropriate typeface for long or short copy, for advertising, for tables,… there is a condensed and a compressed version, but everything still looks related. It’s a family rather than before, when everything was just kind of junked together.
What is special about the new one? e.g. the numbers all having the same width for bills…
Well, that goes without saying! We have figures that look nice, that are kerned together and we also have those which all have the same width, because that is important for them to to set their annual reports and time tables, but that’s normal crafts-stuff – for me anyway!
The main issue is that this will be the first time it’s ensured that everybody will be using the same typeface, which is not just a design matter but also a financial issue. They’ve been paying large amounts of license fees to all the different people in the past, but now they’ve got their own. The agencies will have to buy it, which means the DB will probably get all the money back, that they paid for it by selling licenses to their suppliers.
We did the same for Bosch too, who had been paying over 400 000 dollars over the last couple of years in licenses to various type-manufacturers. You get your own typeface for much less than that!
Bosch typeface examples
Futura and Volkswagen font
How personalized, tailored to the customer needs can a typeface be? For Volkswagen, you optimized the Futura to match their character, for example making the O perfectly round like a perfect tyre, since Volkswagen is all about cars. Does the DB font express anything in particular?
No! For somebody who delivers a service it’s fairly arbitrary, but I still think you can give it a little personality. In this case, we wanted it to feel sort of warm and personal. A lot of companies, especially in Germany used to have their own typeface like BMW or Telecom, but all they did was to take Helvetica and make it look a little different to save their money for the license – but that’s not different enough! The problem with designing typefaces is that 90% has to look like everything else, because an A has to be an A and a B has to be a B. But you have to use that other 10% of leeway to make it look different!
There are quite a few brands out there, which have their own typeface that is quite unique looking, like Mercedes Benz or Marlboro. You recognize their typeface immediately, because they are using it all the time and consistently.
You use FontLab for digitalizing and optimizing new fonts, but still mainly design on paper. Why do you think that designing with a real pencil is better than designing directly on the screen?
Its the difference between thinking and drawing. I draw an idea, an expression, a spirit or whatever you wanna call it, a feeling – and that doesn’t make a difference, wether that’s half a millimeter wider or narrower. If you start with the artwork right away on the screen, it all tends to become a little more mechanical.
first sketch for Meta 15th Jan 1985
sketch for Meta medium
font sketches for DB Font
If I design a typeface, I just look if it needs to be thicker or thinner or softer or harder and that’s so easily done with a pencil. It’s very very quick! I spend about 2 hours sketching to develop the basic essence of it and then it becomes technical. All good type designers I know sit down with a pencil first, no matter how fast they are on the screen.
How much time is actually spent designing the different cuts of a font and how much is kept for the software to calculate?
At first you design the most important weight, the regular or whatever and you spend a lot of time working on that. Once you sorted that out you make some sketches for the others. If we go for the most frequently used ones, you would have to design the regular the bold and also the lightest as possible (for example ultra light). Then the software can calculate the in-betweens like medium etc. You still have to correct those computer generated ones a little though.
You definitely need those 3 poles because you cannot simply interpolate all the way from light to black. Based on the regular, you can basically draw light and black on the screen: cutting, pasting and using some of the automatic features.
The nice thing about all this software is, that if somebody wants a slightly more condensed version, then you can change them all quite easily without going over each one again, really. Whatever you want to change, it gets changed in all the instances that you have.
FF Meta: different weights and cuts
FF Meta: different weights and cuts
What about international typefaces? Many people like to try Japanese Katakana or even Kanji sometimes and I noticed that e.g. your Meta is also available in Greek and Cyrillic… How can you design a font if you cannot understand it yourself and aren’t used to it?
Yes, it’s a real problem. I can do Greek, because I can read it, but I hate doing Cyrillic, so I always get somebody Russian or Bulgarian or so and then I do corrections. Those corrections are really only physical and esthetic corrections. I can’t do it. You are absolutely right there: it doesn’t work! I would have to learn the language fist!
Your Nokia screen font is one of various pixelfonts you created. What is different when designing for screens?
Well, it’s obviously more constrained, since you only have a certain amount of space. The job for Nokia was to make it legible, but to also try and have a sort of Nokia style, so that even between the 8 and 17 pixel font, there would be some similarities. You switch on your phone and you know immediately that you are on a Nokia screen: the icons, the typefaces….
A lot of screen companies only make their fonts look good for one particular size but then they totally change their character when they get bigger or smaller.
To create that certain Nokia style, I was very careful to give them enough contrast, even at the smallest size. I kept the concept of two pixels down and one pixel across all the way up to the top and down to 9 or 10 pixels. Below that size, you can’t have double pixels anymore. We didn’t have any round shapes, everything was fairly square and that became the feature, the outline typeface.
How can you establish a style for bitmaps and pixel-stuff, if it is so constrained?
Well, you can always add noise, add an extra pixel, like I always do as a little serif on the lower case i. There is a good reason for that, since the i needs to have a little more space. You can always add and make it look more specific, but than it might also get unreadable.
I’m sure that there is another company in the world that has exactly the same bitmaps than the Nokia font at some small size, because you just don’t have all that much leeway, but the aim is to find something that makes it look the same across all the ranges.
So what does a screenfont need in order to work then? Do you think there are any particular rules?
Well, like all letters, the important thing is that you don’t actually design the black, you design the white: the space inside it and the space around it. That is very important. If you apply that to screenfonts, you can make a really legible screenfont.
Sometimes the letters I design for bitmaps are a little ugly if you look at the individual letter, because you have to take away little pixels or add little pixels to make a character more distinct. Nobody looks at individual letters on a screen, as long as the words look good.
The main problem is that most people who make screenfonts are engineers, trying to imitate Helvetica or Arial, instead of designing to the fact that we read contrast, we read rhythm, blacks and whites, ins and outs, tops and bottoms…. They have a drawing of Arial beneath their work and just build up some pixels to make it look kind of similar. That’s rubbish, of course!
some of Erik’s fonts: ITC Officina
some of Erik’s fonts: LoType
some of Erik’s fonts: FF Unit
some of Erik’s fonts: FF Info
What do you generally think about websites and typography? There is not much of a variety and individuality, if basically everyone is forced to use Arial or Verdana due to accessibility.
Well, on the whole: that’s too bad, but that’s the constraint you have to work with. There are loads of people using Flash for example for that very reason, or PDFs.
Obviously, there is a need for subtle typography and screen resolutions are getting better and better, printers are getting better… a screen in 6 years time will be as good as a 600dpi printer now.
Just look at the little telephone screens, they are 200 dpi, which is like an inkjet printer resolution or if I look at a PDF on a Mac screen, then I can read 9 point type! The quality is amazing! You can tell the difference between Helvetica and Akzidenz grotesk, that’s how good the quality of the screen is. You can now get twice as many pixels on a character than you used to before, so we actually don’t even need bitmaps anymore.
In a nutshell: there’s going to be more and more new technology all the time that will try and render whatever type I design to the user and that technology is just moving very very quickly. There are system fonts on the one hand, but there will be more and more individual solutions on the other.
Form Magazine Special
In your monthly articles in Form Magazine you often write about the design market and values. What do you think about the increasing possibilities to purchase “cheap design”, done by people claiming to be designers or better opportunities to let software design for you?
Good, yeah! There is a market for fast food- I don’t eat it but, there is nothing wrong with it. There are lots of people who are probably well served with it. In fact, the more of that cheap stuff is out there, the higher we get pushed.
Most stuff isn’t even badly designed, it just isn’t designed at all. But the more stuff actually gets designed, it pushes up the demand for design. That’s just what happened to typefaces: before we had maybe 1500, now we have more than 30 000. The demand is always increasing and the quality will also always increase.
But do you think things will develop to a state where a few elite designers at the top of the line will prevail and the rest will be handled by software, or….
No, the number of people isn’t going to change, simply the quality. There’s more noise out there, people get more demanding and its going to get more difficult to distinguish yourself, because essentially, you can get a fairly average, ordinary, “templated” good website ready made, and to look different and to be better, you’d have to push a little harder. Basically for everything new, you’d have to try a little harder and the customers will have to invest money if they want to be different.
Now that there is a certain “democracy”, meaning that basically everyone can have the same tools to create something splashy and fancy looking, which used to be a designer’s privilege only: do you think that design lost a certain kind of respect?
No! I think it gained respect. Everybody who ever sat down (and that’s said in my experience) to design something, saying: Ah! This is easy! I can do something like that! finally compares his design with the one you did in the same time and realizes why we spent years in school and in training. That always happens! There are all these do-it-yourself-options but in the end people realize how good an expert has to be.
What would you say has changed in typography in the last 20 years? Is there more innovation now than there used to be?
In the early 90ies, people struggled with technology. They weren’t very comfortable with the new tools yet. Things looked very stiff, because they were trying so hard to learn how to use it best. Now that they’ve became good with the tools, it all becomes a little more of an expression of yourself.
Good type designers know the condition of what we need and there is a certain general agreement, of what you have to go by, when talking about the latin alphabet. Those designers have become very, very sophisticated.
There are people who I like, e.g. Christian Schwartz is one of my favorite type designers, or Jonathan Hoefler and Tobias Frere-Jones in NY, they are all in the end 20ies to mid-late 30ies. When they studied the Mac was already around, but they are sophisticated and educated enough to know all the history, too. They looked at the old samples, the books, went to museums, and practiced enough in the last 10 years to be able to design in their sleep. They can be very fluent and express themselves in their work. I think, there is some really cool stuff happening there.
Those guys just did fonts called Mercury and Farnham, which aren’t all that differernt looking from each other, but still show some differences. They look at stuff (here obviously at some old scottish typefaces) and make their own interpretation. It’s all a little different and it’s all called culture.
Erik coming to Tokyo soon
Thank you very much for your precious time! You will come to Japan in a few days. What will you be doing during your stay?
I’ll give about 3 or 4 lectures. One of them is at the Tokyo University on the 31st, one is in Kobe on the 2nd and one will be a discussion for the Goethe institute as part of their designLab in Tokyo on the 3rd. That’s all I hope! I want to have a little time being a tourist, actually…..
Thank you very much again and see you on the 3rd!