Achtung Spiekermann!

Achtung! is the title of my monthly col­umn in Blue­print mag­a­zine that I have been writ­ing since Octo­ber 2008. That head­line has to do with the Brits’ con­tin­u­ing stereo­typ­ing of us Ger­mans as heel-clicking, orders-shouting men in jack­boots. I have long since learned that the best way to live with that pre­oc­cu­pa­tion is to go along with it, even bring it up before they do. So when the edi­tors came up with the title, I rolled my eyes but agreed. This was writ­ten in Sep­tem­ber, before the size of the finan­cial cri­sis became to be fully known. My con­dem­na­tion of peo­ple pro­duc­ing “invis­i­ble earn­ings” could have been much harsher.


THESE DAYS, even cities and coun­tries are branded like wash­ing pow­der. When I hear a line like ‘Lon­don is the cre­ative cap­i­tal of Europe,’ (or was it ‘the World’?), the first thing I ask myself is whether this is the result of objec­tive research, a tabloid inven­tion or another gov­ern­ment cam­paign to take peo­ples’ minds off increas­ing infla­tion, pro­hib­i­tive prop­erty prices, ter­ri­ble traf­fic and weird weather. Yet there is some truth behind the slo­gan. I live and work in Berlin, San Fran­cisco and Lon­don, and there is some­thing dif­fer­ent about the British capital.

Berlin today is made up of many cities: the old Pruss­ian cap­i­tal, left­overs of Nazi pom­pos­ity, ruins from the War with patched-up bullet-holes on every sur­viv­ing build­ing, post-war cap­i­tal­ist plan­ning in the West and social­ist archi­tec­ture in the East, plus 18 years of post-post-war devel­op­ments. A his­tory of dis­rup­tions. Low prices attract artists and would-be artists, but hardly any cor­po­rate head­quar­ters or seri­ous busi­nesses. Nobody in Berlin has jobs, but every­body has ‘projects’.

Lon­don, on the other hand, is the prod­uct of cen­turies of con­ti­nu­ity. Every­thing that has ever hap­pened on the British Isles, from the Roman occu­pa­tion to the days of the Empire, from Nazi bomb­ing to Thatcher’s hard­core cap­i­tal­ism, has man­i­fested itself in this city. You get to live in one of the cen­tres of the known uni­verse if you are pre­pared to put up with all the inad­e­qua­cies, bad air, hor­ri­ble traf­fic, atro­cious ser­vices and ridicu­lous prices. If you sur­vive in Lon­don, noth­ing will scare you. And hav­ing man­aged to do so is a great boost for anybody’s self-confidence. Walk­ing (or, in mycase, cycling) through the streets of Clerken­well, I notice that the aver­age age of every­body out there must be half mine. The way they go about look­ing busy while stroking their iPhones, the fash­ion they pre­tend not to wear and the bars, cafes and restau­rants they fre­quent all sug­gest that nobody earns their money mak­ing any­thing phys­i­cal any­more. Which leaves ‘invis­i­ble earn­ings’ as their main con­tri­bu­tion to the econ­omy. That term was invented for the City, where peo­ple make their money by bet­ting other peo­ples’ cash on any­thing that grows, flows or might one day be man­u­fac­tured. How­ever, the Square Mile turned out to be fuelled by greed more than by exper­tise, and the sex appeal has dis­ap­peared with the bonuses.

Enter the cre­atives. If we place any­body in this cat­e­gory who works in film, TV, pub­lish­ing, adver­tis­ing, fash­ion and design, we realise that prac­tis­ing these occu­pa­tions poses no dan­ger to any­body. In other words: if all the cre­ative busi­nesses went on strike tomor­row, we wouldn’t imme­di­ately notice. Elec­tric power would still be gen­er­ated, breads baked and con­crete mixed. Trains might still leave plat­forms (which, look­ing at Britain from a Ger­man per­spec­tive, is a small mir­a­cle in itself), the Con­ges­tion Charge would be enforced, news­pa­pers printed and hearts trans­planted. But what of the news­pa­per fea­tures? The pic­tures? The dif­fer­ent styles of head­lines, the char­ac­ter­is­tic look of your favourite mag­a­zine? If you’ve ever been to a coun­try with­out adver­tis­ing (I used to live next door to East­ern Ger­many), you may have realised how drab every­thing looks, and devel­oped a long­ing for even the most stu­pid wash­ing pow­der advertisement.

Imag­ine, for a moment, a typ­i­cal high street with­out any adver­tis­ing at all. An attrac­tive thought at first, until you realise that even neon signs and adver­tis­ing hoard­ings deliver cru­cial infor­ma­tion, per­haps dec­o­ra­tion and some­times even amuse­ment. And who would want to go back to the unde­signed objects from the past? The com­plex­ity of tech­nol­ogy may need to be hid­den from us for our own good, but the look and func­tion of sur­faces and inter­faces can­not be left to the engi­neers and mar­ket­ing peo­ple alone. Things may just about work with­out design­ers, but don’t we also derive plea­sure from using objects, phys­i­cally and aes­thet­i­cally? With­out fash­ion we’d all be forced to wear the same prac­ti­cal gear, Mao-style. Refresh­ing for some of us for a while per­haps, but every man knows what women are capa­ble of if they haven’t bought a new pair of shoes for awhile. You get my drift: us cre­atives may not save lives, and mankind would cer­tainly con­tinue to exist with­out our involvement.

How­ever, we have impor­tant roles to play. The first one is to put icing on the cake of cap­i­tal­ism, no doubt about that. The other one could befor us to use our unique tal­ents to actu­ally solve real prob­lems. We can visu­alise thoughts, ideas, issues. That is a very pow­er­ful gift. Also, in spite of all the iPhon­ing, tele­con­fer­enc­ing, button-pushing and Face­book­ing going on, we like to be around each other. The more cre­ative tal­ent you have in one place, the more you attract. We’re not afraid of mov­ing into ‘bad’ areas, we like to try exotic foods, hang out with inter­est­ing peo­ple from far­away places, lis­ten to strange sounds, read mate­r­ial that is incom­pre­hen­si­ble to out­siders and gen­er­ally treat bugs as fea­tures. Where could there be a bet­ter envi­ron­ment for this species than in Lon­don? One good thing about Britain’s colo­nial past is the fact that half the world speaks Eng­lish as their first lan­guage, while the other half takes courses. Many smaller coun­tries are already bilin­gual. Try learn­ing Dutch or Swedish: impos­si­ble – they’ll always answer back in Eng­lish. Still, nobody speaks it as well as you do here in Britain. If you could be both­ered to learn another lan­guage, you could appre­ci­ate that there are other ways of see­ing and say­ing things. If you could get your tongues out of your cheeks now and again, the con­tri­bu­tion Lon­don makes to the cre­ative trades, indus­tries and busi­nesses could be even greater. Nobody is ask­ing you to become Ger­man and actu­ally make things.



  1. Nobody in Berlin has jobs, but every­body has ‘projects’ Spot on Eric!

    Don’t be sad that Ger­man cul­ture isn’t that obvi­ous and easy to under­stand, at least your cul­ture isn’t sold on a can with a label.

  2. I notice that the aver­age age of every­body out there must be half mine. The way they go about look­ing busy while stroking their iPhones, the fash­ion they pre­tend not to wear and the bars, cafes and restau­rants they fre­quent all sug­gest that nobody earns their money mak­ing any­thing phys­i­cal anymore.

    haha that reminds me of nathan barley’s rant a bit :)

  3. Great arti­cle Eric!

    I guess Lon­don (and New York) are the per­fect cities if you want a shot at every­thing. There’s not one thing that you can’t get there.

    Mov­ing to Lon­don for 3 years was one of the wis­est deci­sions I ever made as a graphic designer. Let’s just hope that mov­ing back to Mex­ico City proves as wise…

  4. eric, i must say that i am very happy i tuned in to pbs tonight and saw an excel­lent episode of “inde­pen­dent lens” which focused on the hel­vetica font, and ulti­mately lead me here to your site.

    this is the first post i’ve read but it will cer­tainly not be the last…

  5. Achtung Spiek­er­mann! , made me laugh, edu­cated in Ham­burg in the sev­en­ties,
    and for the very first time I saw a pris­oner of war belong­ing to us, the allies!
    Am nor­we­gian, with the most pro-english par­ents who dis­liked my choice to go to Ger­many. Artschool, and I was the only stu­dent who said no, when this was required. To me it was almost as a mil­i­tary acad­emy, but it was an extremely
    good school. On top of it all I was arrested on the Reeper­bahn because i drove an am. car, a Mus­tang fast­back and that was a pimp´s car. I did not dare tell that to my
    very proper parents!

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