Erik Spiekermann Has a Beef with Silicon Valley The legendary designer may be retired, but he hasn’t…
Erik Spiekermann is retired — or at least that’s what he tells himself. Three years ago, the famed graphic designer stepped down as chairman of EdenSpiekermann, the design agency he founded in 2009, and decided to slow down. Except that hasn’t really happened. Earlier this month, Spiekermann launched a Kickstarter campaign with WIRED magazine founder Louis Rossetto to fund Change Is Good, a book about the early days of San Francisco’s technology boom that he’s printing on an old Heidelberg letterpress machine. And that’s just one of many current projects.
Since he retired, Spiekermann has amassed a collection of old letterpress machines and opened a new workshop, Galerie P98a, where he’s developing a new technique he calls post-digital printing. This new method, which allows designers to create layouts on a computer before they get exported and laser cut onto metal-backed plates, is a fitting hobby for Spiekermann, who’s spent his career straddling the digital and analog divide.
Throughout his 45 years as a designer and entrepreneur, Spiekermann has designed typefaces like FF Meta and a revamped and digitized version of Berliner Grotesk. He opened MetaDesign, a branding agency in Germany, and FontShop, a company dedicated to designing and distributing electronic fonts. He’s done branding for technology behemoths like Apple, Nokia, and Adobe. He’s also been a devout acolyte of letterpress printing, which he first took up during his teenage years in Germany. Today at P98a, Spiekermann is working on a handful of projects for various clients in between experimenting with how to bring old letterpress technology into the future. Retired? Not exactly. But that seems to be the way he likes it.
I trained as a typesetter, a compositor, as it was called in the day. And when the factory burned down in 1977, I became a graphic designer because you don’t need any tools. You just needed, at the time, a pencil and paper. Now you need a computer. I was one of the first guys in Germany to buy a Mac. I worked for Apple, and Adobe, and I was very digital for somebody of my generation — I’m 70 now. When I told my partners in my studio I was going to retire in a few years’ time, I sold my shares, so I had a bit of an income and decided to go back and do a bit of letterpress.
Turning a hobby into a business
Letterpress was supposed to be a hobby, but with the rent and assistants I’m paying, it’s beyond a hobby. We invented this post-digital method whereby we make analog plates digitally and then we print them on analog machines. So it’s become a business. I’m still thinking once it’s taken care of and it pays for the rent here, I can go back to doing my experiments. I just want to try out what I can do with this stuff here.
I’ve designed, typed, and cut in large wood, but it’s sort of fun to work with my hands again. It’s like a lot of people when they retire as designers: They run hotels in the south of France, or they open restaurants. They all want to do something that’s in one place only that doesn’t involve travel or making decisions for other people. You only want to make decisions for yourself, where you see the result immediately.
The pleasure of working for yourself
Most of my projects have been large corporate design projects, and it can often take five years before you see anything. There are all these people involved and the decision making is often hidden from you. You don’t know what happens or when it happens. The concept that you start off with often doesn’t make it all the way through. So it’s often a little alienating. What I’ve always liked is the studio, working with cool people, especially people half or a third my age these days. It’s always inspiring. It keeps me on my toes, and I don’t get bored or boring. The clients and their issues don’t really interest me anymore. Here I can do it at my own pace. Doing something analog takes a long time, but it takes a long time in a refreshing way; it’s a long time, but it’s my time, nobody else’s time. Theoretically I don’t have to come in everyday, but normally I’m here early, and I leave late. Nothing’s changed except I don’t take shit from anybody.
Limiting screen time
I just got my IBM Selectric out of storage. It works, so I made a resolve yesterday that in my letterpress workshop I will not bring my computer anymore. I’ll keep my iPhone, but I will not be a slave to my screen all the time when we have all this analog stuff next door. We have a dozen presses, lots of paper, lots of type, and I spend all my time looking at a fucking screen? It’s ridiculous.
The right clients
Choosing clients is a struggle all the time. I’ve done the branding for German railways, and that was a good thing. We did the whole Berlin transport after the wall came down. To get paid to make a city better? That’s fantastic. You should do it for free, really. I would’ve done it for free — don’t tell them now — -because it was such a great opportunity. Can you imagine if Brooklyn and Manhattan had been divided for 40 years, and then suddenly they got together? That is what happened with east and west Berlin. And then somebody comes and says, “Wait a minute, now that people will be moving back and forth, we’ve got to get them a proper transit system. We’ve got to get them information.” We got that job, and we got paid for it. How cool is that? Those are the jobs that we thrive on. But you have got to take that with the other stuff. Sometimes a job is just a job, and it pays your people and it doesn’t make the world a worse place, but it doesn’t make it a better place, either.
The beauty of letterpress
The thing about letterpress is that you get a slight impression into the papers, and it has a certain warm feel to it. It’s a bit like wool compared to nylon. It’s physical, it’s haptic. Whereas with digital, there’s no touch anywhere. There’s ink on the surface, but it’s not quite the same. We print a lot of digital stuff because it’s cool for certain things, but to actually have a letterpress book, where you can actually feel the indentation, is something else.
Silicon Valley’s design problem
We have a house outside of San Francisco, and it’s not a pleasant place anymore, because it’s all about money. There are all these kids in their early 20s who are designing the world I live in, but they’ve never been exposed to this world. Out of college and into Google or Apple or Facebook, and they’re designing the next new thing, but they have no experience with life whatsoever. It’s a really scary thought.
The purpose of procrastination
Having done this for 45 years, I’m very, very fast. It doesn’t take me any time. It takes me two weeks to procrastinate. I still write a column for the English magazine Blueprint. I’ve been doing it for like ten years. I know it’s coming every six weeks. Johnny the editor writes me an email usually on Thursday and says, “Can I have it on Friday?” I never know what to write about. It’s up to me, which is scary — I don’t get a brief. I go downstairs and close my eyes for two minutes and say, “Oh I’m going to write about the colors of cars.” I looked out the window onto the street where I live and all the cars were silver, so I wrote a column about the color of cars. If it weren’t for the pressure, I wouldn’t sit down [to write].
With every project you procrastinate because if there no pressure. Why the fuck should you do it? You procrastinate because there are always other things to do, and then you avoid doing the thing because it might be a wicked problem. In my case, I’ll start cleaning my bike or changing the tires or do shit around the house. I haven’t ironed my shirt in two weeks. You know how it is. You procrastinate, but meanwhile it’s there. It’s cranking around in your brain. The little cogs are going around, and by the time I sit down, I always have it sorted intellectually — maybe not physically, but I know the concept.
I’ll do a sketch myself or pass it on because I have other people who are better than I am at visualizing. They’re quicker, and I’m so very strict and teutonic, but I get the problem solved — the semantic problem as it were. To put it into color and physical appearance is another skill that I don’t possess in such great quantities.
I can do certain things very well. I’m very good at structure. I should’ve been an architect. I can take things apart and find the things that are important and then put them back together again. That’s my big skill. I have verbal skills, and I can explain what I’m trying to do, but I would be lousy if I did record covers all day long, or magazine covers. Book covers are something else because they’re very dedicated, but even there I don’t work in illustration ever or hardly ever because I’m not good at it. I’m very much a word-based person, and words have a structure. There’s a grammar. Without grammar, there’s no writing. I like the grammar of objects and the grammar of environments. How do things work together? That’s what interests me.