Like most beings who can have their day ruined by a sign set in Comic Sans, we’ve long admired the typographic genius of Erik Spiekermann, but who knew he was also a master of similes? “Having a color copier in ’77 was like having your own nuclear reactor in the basement,” he told a rapt audience earlier this week at Parsons The New School for Design, where he appeared with designer Johannes Erler to promote Hello I am Erik (Gestalten). Edited, written, and designed by Erler in close cooperation with Spiekermann (who designed the book’s lone typeface, “and whose son, Dylan, provided the English translation), the biography-cum-pictorial history documents the self-described typomaniac’s projects, traces milestones in his life, and offers his perspectives on design alongside essays by the likes of Neville Brody and Stefan Sagmeister. Below are some of the most illuminating Spiekermann-isms of the evening, which was organized and sponsored by the Type Directors Club.
On Hello I am Erik:
I had nothing to do with this book except I employed somebody to go through what little archives I have—because I had this big fire in ’77 and then a couple of floods, and my ex-partners threw away all my archives, so there was very little there. Poor Inga had to spend a year finding stuff, which was impossible.
On the typeface he created for the book:
I kept out of the design [of the book] because I was the subject, not the doer. The one requirement I had was that I’ve always wanted to do this particular typeface that is based on the weight of Akzidenz-Grotesk. There’s a specific weight that only existed in very large wooden or resin letters, and I’ve always liked it…and this was the opportunity to do it. So I said to Johannes, OK, I’m going to design this typeface—one weight only—and you will only use one weight in this whole book.
On the fluorescent cover:
We both happen to like dayglo. I’m not much of a color person. I’m very black and white. But I’ve always liked orange dayglo.
On his path to design:
In university, I studied history of art. I didn’t ever study design. I got to it from finding a printing press, literally. Well, my father found it. I’m not sure whether he actually found it or stole it or organized it. We called it “resocializing” in those days—putting it back into society because it was in some basement or other….at a young age the bug bit me. I thought, I want to be one of those people that can make words out of metal and ink.
On Berlin in the 1960s and early 1970s:
It was a very messy place. Messy in the sense that nothing cost anything. I had a very cheap workshop that I never paid rent for, because nobody ever came to collect it. I signed a contract with some sort of guy there and he said, “It’s going to be one mark per square meter,” and I said, “Fine.” I moved out two years later—I never paid a penny, because nobody came to collect. It was very, very, very primitive.
I had a phase when I wore a bow tie.
On the smell of letterpress:
There’s a specific smell—the smell of ink, the smell of paper, the smell of solvent, because you spend more time with solvent than you do with ink, cleaning the sh*t up, in other words.
On his preference for “hefty” typefaces:
I’ve always thought that, especially these days on the screen, most faces are too thin. This is something to do with age—for twenty-two-year-old designers, right out of school, it’s great to look at Helvetica Ultralight at that size [gestures to frame the size of a desktop computer screen]. By the time it gets to the iPhone, it’s not that size anymore. But the kids who work in Cupertino are all twenty-two and fresh out of school. They usually come out of England, out of Clerkenwell, and they have this tradition there that you love Helvetica when you graduate.
They smell nice and you can put them under your screen. Bicycles, music, books—n+1. You always need more.
Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’ve done anything good. It just means I’ve done a lot of sh*t—stuff, sorry.