Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Erik Spiekermann

By Stephanie Murg Comment

The avalanche of fan e-mail, likes, and tweets that greeted our recent dispatch from Erik Spiekermann’s evening with the Type Directors Club at Parsons The New School for Design has inspired us to glean additional knowledge morsels for your reading pleasure. Enjoy these ten things you (probably) didn’t know about the Spiekermann, the Spiekermyth, the Spiekerlegend:

1. He got his start as a gofer for Wolff Olins.
In the mid-1970s, while working the nightshift at a typesetter’s, Wally Olins hired him to work for Wolff Olins in London. “They had 60 or 70 people at the time and lots of German clients [such as Audi and VW],” said Spiekermann. “Some of them couldn’t communicate with their German clients, because the German clients spoke German and the Brits spoke English—at the time not everybody spoke English, unlike today—so I became the gofer, I guess, between the German clients and Wolff Olins.”

2. He used to blow clients’ minds with color prints.
“[In the mid-70s] you would go into clients with color printouts…11 by 17…and it was like glass beads for Native Americans—they would think you were from Mars. They would pass them around,” he explained. “I had the same effect after German reunification in 1990, when we had a client in East Germany and we went there with color prints. By that time in the West everyone had them, but they thought we were from Mars: ‘Look at these guys from the West. They have color prints! Amazing! They have a machine does them. And it’s on ordinary paper and it only take a minute!’ It was like having gunpowder.”

3. Wolff Olins is also to thank for his first project.
“It was a German bank that was Wolff Olins couldn’t handle, so they said why don’t you take this over—the implementation. Because the Brits were never very good at getting sh*t done.”

4. He is wholly unimpressed by the U.S. Postal Service.
“The American Post Office is one of the crummiest design outfits ever,” said Spiekermann matter-of-factly. “It is embarrassingly bad. It embarrasses me at times. So does their service for that matter. UPS and FedEx—they wouldn’t exist if you had a decent post office.”

5. He finds constraints “refreshing” rather than stifling.
“If you open your fridge and you’ve got flour and eggs, you can make bread, or a cake. But you can’t make broccoli. You make what you can, based on what is there. That often is refreshing, if you have a few choices at least. And every [designer] who has a digital presence finds it refreshing to not have any choices.”

6. He first saw a Mac in the summer of 1985, while designing a typeface for the German post office.
“I saw the Macintosh at Stempel—the foundry for Linotype—and I borrowed the Macintosh because you could take it [by carrying it under your arm] and I took it on the train to Bonn, a hundred miles away, and put it on the desk and said, ‘OK guys, the new type is in there.’ And they looked at me like, this Spiekermann guy—he’s totally nuts. They just thought I was totally crazy—which I was, because in ’85, Macintosh? People thought you were from the moon.”

7. His FontShop published Tobias Frere-Jones’s first typeface.
“He was 20, still at RISD,” said Spiekermann of Frere-Jones. “He gave us Dolores, which was a total mess. It was like the worst data we had ever seen. It had no spacing. It was all over the place, but it was great—it had this energy. So we published that.”

8. He was in Berlin when the Wall came down—on November 9, 1989—but didn’t know about it ’til the morning after.
“I didn’t watch TV that evening,” said Spiekermann with a shrug. “I came downstairs at seven the next morning to pick up my [news]papers and there was two guys on the doorstep—my only two East German friends. And I said, ‘What the hell are you doing here? Did you run away?’ And they said, ‘No, the Wall’s down.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ I just didn’t believe it…Later we danced on the wall. And that was the end of the Cold War, the beginning of a totally new era. And I was there—it was pretty cool.”

9. He is against the use of letterpress as a verb.
“Letterpressing. To letterpress. It’s rubbish. It means squeezing it into the paper until it squeaks, which is what I learned to avoid. For us it was to kiss the paper…because otherwise it would destroy the type, and metal type was really expensive.”

10. He is currently redesigning The Economist—again.
“How cool is that after fifteen years?”