Erik Spiekermann is an art historian, information architect, type designer, author, and the founder of MetaDesign (1979) and FontShop (1988).
He has received numerous awards and accolades, including being made an Honorary Royal Designer for Industry by the RSA in Britain in 2007 and awarded the TDC Medal & National German Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. Erik was managing partner and creative director of Edenspiekermann with offices in Berlin, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Los Angeles until June 2014 when he moved from that position to the supervisory board.
He now runs galerie p98a, an experimental letterpress workshop in Berlin. Erik splits his time between Berlin and San Francisco and London. A book about his life and work, Hello I am Erik, was published by Gestalten Verlag in 2014.
We are honored to have Erik Spiekermann as our next interview subject, and hope you enjoy the conversation below.
How did you get into the business of type design?
I designed my first typefaces for Berthold, a German foundry, in the late ’70s. They were hot metal faces that I thought should be brought into the new technology, which at that time was phototypesetting. I also designed lots of literature for many type companies in the ’70s and ’80s, and knew everybody in the business.
When fonts became available for another new technology in the late 80s, this time PostScript, I knew that designers wanted them, and quickly.
So we started the first mail-order type business, FontShop, in 1988. I called in favors from my connections in the business, and soon had 800 fonts to ship.
What fonts or type design trends are you loving these days?
I like the fact that companies or brands now recognize how important type is for their communications.
There are a lot of useful and appropriate corporate typefaces out there. I count my own work for Deutsche Bahn, Bosch, Autodesk, Cisco, ZDF German TV, Heidelberg Printing, Nokia, Mozilla, et al. amongst them. I also like the fact that there are more type designers around than ever, and they are better than ever.
It is a typographic paradise out there for graphic designers, if they take the trouble to look.
Which of your designs are you most proud of, and why?
I still like FF Meta because it works for the purpose it was designed for—i.e. small type under bad circumstances—but it also works well for other types of work that I never imagined when I designed it 30 years ago. It is always gratifying to see what other designers make with my faces.
I also like the work we (Christian Schwartz and myself) did for Deutsche Bahn. That type has become the perfect expression for the world’s fourth-largest logistics brand, working from the smallest type on timetables to large letters on the side of locomotives. Our Fira typeface, which Ralph du Carrois originally designed with me for Mozilla, is now a free font with Google and seen everywhere. That’s fun, if not lucrative.
And, finally, I am always surprised how good ITC Officina still looks after 25 years.
As design projects go, I am still proud of the passenger information we designed for the BVG, Berlin’s transit system, shortly after the two halves of the city got reunited in 1989. It still works, if it’s a little tired in places. It has become a symbol for the new Berlin.
Describe your dream project.
I’d love to redesign the information system on Germany’s highways, the Autobahn. The system is still useful, but conditions have changed since it was originally devised in the ’30s and ’50s.
It needs a functional update, and perhaps a slightly fresher aesthetic. Information doesn’t just work by displaying facts. It also works through evoking an emotional response.