An interview with Erik Spiekermann by Adrian Shaughnessy — Part 1

Taken from the book — Stu­dio Cul­ture: the Secret Life of the Graphic Design Stu­dio. This is a short­ened ver­sion of an inter­view with Erik Spiek­er­mann. Dur­ing the 1970s Spiek­er­mann worked as a free­lance designer in Lon­don before return­ing to Berlin in 1979 where, with two part­ners, he founded MetaDe­sign. In 2001 he left MetaDe­sign and started UDN (United Design­ers Net­work), with offices in Berlin, Lon­don and San Fran­cisco. Since Jan­u­ary 2009 he has been a direc­tor of Eden­spiek­er­mann, which employs over 100 peo­ple and has offices in Berlin and Amsterdam.

Unusu­ally among con­tem­po­rary design­ers, Spiek­er­mann has a sophis­ti­cated set of the­o­ries relat­ing to the lay­out, struc­ture and man­age­ment of design stu­dios. His the­o­ries have been exten­sively road-tested in the var­i­ous cre­ative enter­prises he has founded and run dur­ing a long career.

The inter­view was con­ducted in the offices of AIG, London.

Adrian Shaugh­nessy: You have a vision of your per­fect stu­dio. You’ve even got a name for it — The ‘Rund­buero’ Stu­dio (see dia­gram). Can you describe it?rundbuero
Erik Spiek­er­mann: Ide­ally it’s a round space. It’s made up of three or four con­cen­tric cir­cles. At the cen­tre is a recep­tion area. This is where every­body enters. It is linked to the rest of the stu­dio by a cor­ri­dor. In the cen­tral recep­tion area are the peo­ple who answer the tele­phones, do the emails and make the pho­to­copies. It’s where all the machin­ery is — the print­ers, the espresso machine. Every­body has to go in here sev­eral times a day to pick up print­outs, pick up mail, get cof­fee and so on. Now, the fur­ther you go from the cen­tre the qui­eter it gets. Peo­ple in the outer rings have win­dows, oth­ers don’t. The walls are maybe only shoul­der height. If a sec­re­tary wants to see if I’m in the outer ring, she can get up and look across and see if I’m actu­ally there.

So the walls don’t go all the way up to the ceil­ing?
Not at all. You can shout across the stu­dio. The peo­ple in the third or outer ring are the ones who need pri­vacy. These guys spend time on the phones, and do con­cep­tual work. Peo­ple like me, in fact. All we have is a desk and a lap­top — this is lap­top coun­try. In the sec­ond ring, there are proper com­put­ers with mon­i­tors. This is where the design­ers are; they actu­ally spend all day work­ing on screens. These peo­ple do phys­i­cal work. There might be another ring, where peo­ple have cut­ting tables and boards. These are peo­ple who have to make shit.

OK, so look­ing at your dia­gram, I see four rings joined by a cor­ri­dor.
Yes, in order to get any­where you have to cross through the var­i­ous rings. Every time you do any­thing, you have to meet other peo­ple. So, unless you never go for a pee or a cof­fee, you have to meet other peo­ple at least twice a day.

Clearly you think this traf­fic and human inter­change is impor­tant to the life of a stu­dio?
Yes. Some­thing hap­pened to me once that taught me an impor­tant les­son. I was with one of my ex-partners at Meta. We had an in-house restau­rant run by a proper chef. There were 120 of us, but we could only make about 50 lunches, no more. Some of our peo­ple would choose not to eat there, but our clients would come every lunchtime. I was free­lanc­ing at the time and I often dropped by at 12.30pm for lunch. I was stand­ing with five or six peo­ple and I said hello to one of them. My for­mer part­ner was there and actu­ally asked me to intro­duce this per­son to him. I said this is so and so from Siemens. But there was another per­son there and he held out his hand and said ‘I’m Michael, I’ve been work­ing here for two years.’ My part­ner didn’t know him. With 120 peo­ple, that’s a bit embarrassing.

To me, the only way to run a stu­dio is to have per­fect knowl­edge about the peo­ple and the work. The idea that you can ignore areas and not get involved is unthink­able. Do you agree?
I would come in at 8.30am and spend the first three hours just walk­ing around the place, and once a day I talked to every­body. Some­times only just to say hello. I usu­ally knew their names or their sis­ters or dogs and var­i­ous mem­bers of their fam­ily. But in the end, this old-fashioned ‘managing-by-walkabout’ wasn’t pop­u­lar with my part­ners. It led to ques­tions such as ‘why isn’t he at his desk?’

Today, I’ve got 30+ peo­ple in Berlin, but even when I had 100+ I could present any project within half an hour’s notice. I knew enough about it. I was involved in the brief. I was at the meet­ings. Peo­ple would come to me with ques­tions, often with just a choice of type or what­ever, but I always knew enough to do all the pre­sen­ta­tions. I find that incred­i­bly impor­tant, oth­er­wise you’re a man­ager and not a designer. I’m not a very good designer or man­ager, I’m ‘medium’ at both. But I’m a good moti­va­tor. Design­ers want to talk shop; they want to talk about design, even to an old git like me. My phi­los­o­phy is that I want the phys­i­cal space to inhale the traf­fic. I don’t want any­one slip­ping out unnoticed.

I want peo­ple to know that if they are slack­ers, or go to the toi­let too many times, or take 50 smok­ing breaks, there is some social con­trol. That’s not fas­cism, that’s sim­ply… good man­age­ment. When­ever I design a space these days, it’s the traf­fic that’s impor­tant. Cir­cu­la­tion for any archi­tect is a big issue. The blood sup­ply has to go in and out. It’s very sim­ple but I know so many stu­dios that have no inter­ac­tion at all.

I was always told that Ger­many didn’t have design stu­dios in the British or Amer­i­can sense, and that most of the com­mer­cial work was done by adver­tis­ing agen­cies. Is there such a thing as a model for the Ger­man design stu­dio?
I hate to say this, but I think I invented it. I started in 1979 while I was work­ing at Wolff Olins in Lon­don. We had a few Ger­man clients, and I went back and forth to look after them. One day they gave me a project because they just couldn’t han­dle it. Pro­duc­tion at British com­pa­nies was weak, com­pared to what was the stan­dard in Ger­many at the time. Michael [Wolff] knew this, and Wally [Olins] knew this, and so they handed me this project and this is how I started MetaDe­sign, while com­mut­ing between Lon­don and Berlin every two weeks. This was 1979, early 1980s even, when the largest Ger­man design stu­dio was about six or seven peo­ple. It was usu­ally a boss — a famous guy — with a cou­ple of assis­tants, usu­ally fresh out of school. And more often than not, Ger­man design­ers were also teach­ers, so they had a reg­u­lar income to fund their stu­dio. The rest of the peo­ple in the stu­dio would be stu­dents, usu­ally unpaid.

Was this the model for Otl Aicher’s famous stu­dio?
His stu­dio became famous for the Olympics in 1972, but the work started in 1969. All the peo­ple he employed were from this school in Ulm. Lit­er­ally, his entire class. I’m not say­ing they didn’t get paid, but it was a group of kids in their early 20s. For a long time, this was the Ger­man model — one guy with a few assis­tants. The stu­dio lay­out would echo that. The main guy would be in a cor­ner of his own office, and then there would be the stu­dio floor, but never more than six peo­ple. In 1983 or 84 I had eight peo­ple, includ­ing interns and we were the biggest stu­dio in the coun­try — out­side of pack­ag­ing and adver­tis­ing. So cor­po­rate design was done by adver­tis­ing agen­cies and pack­ag­ing design­ers. They were the ones who always put the stripes on the pack­ag­ing, you have this brand and then you make it like this [makes diag­o­nal motion with hands], with lots of stripes for the ‘light’ ver­sion. Then you have the spe­cial­ized peo­ple and they tend to be in Ham­burg for some rea­son. All the news­pa­per and mag­a­zine work, until today, was pretty much done in-house.

So you moved back to Berlin with the aim of start­ing your own stu­dio?
At the time — the late 1970s — Wolff Olins was 75 peo­ple. I thought if they can do it in Britain, surely we could do it in Ger­many? So I came back to Berlin with the inten­tion to build a large stu­dio. It went up to about 16 or 18 peo­ple in the mid­dle of the 1980s, which was quite large, and we started get­ting the projects that we should have been get­ting before. We got some large sig­nage projects and some large cor­po­rate design projects. But the whole mar­ket in Ger­many was one gen­er­a­tion behind Britain, which was one gen­er­a­tion behind the States. And then in 1989 I real­ized this was get­ting too big for myself or too small for the big mar­kets, so I real­ized I had to do some­thing else because I’m not a busi­ness­man. I decided to bring in a businessperson.

Is there a magic num­ber for stu­dio size?
You can have 125 peo­ple, but the work never gets done by more then five peo­ple. The teams are never big­ger than that. It’s all about group dynam­ics. More then seven peo­ple and you don’t increase effi­ciency or effec­tive­ness, you just have more meet­ings. If you have 12 peo­ple, you don’t work twice as much as six peo­ple, you work 50% more, so in other words you lose money. Seven peo­ple round the table, six peo­ple plus a project man­ager, maybe seven plus an intern. We know this from per­cep­tive psy­chol­ogy — the magic num­ber seven — and there’s a good rea­son for that.

Can you talk about recruit­ment — how do you go about hir­ing peo­ple?
Until the mid-1990s there were no employed design­ers in Ger­man design. The adver­tis­ing peo­ple employed design­ers but the design­ers in the design stu­dios were all free­lancers. Peo­ple wouldn’t want to be employed. I had a really hard time find­ing peo­ple. The Ger­man scene was very much what the Amer­i­cans call a ‘Mom and Pop shop’ — Pop did the work, Mom did invoices. This has per­pet­u­ated the idea of a strong stu­dio being one fel­low and a cou­ple of assis­tants until well into the mid-1990s. And if you talk to Ger­man design­ers — design­ers in their 30s, 40s or 50s — I’m afraid many of them worked with me at one time or another. Every year we do a sort of MetaDe­sign anniver­sary, a pic­nic in the park, and we had up to 300 peo­ple. I trained about 600 peo­ple in the years I was there. We looked at the per­son­nel files once, and there were always two or three interns, so that would be 20 interns a year over five years. That’s already 100 peo­ple; over ten years that’s 200 peo­ple. And if you count those, and if you count all the employ­ees, that’s well over 600 peo­ple who I’ve per­son­ally employed at one time.

A sec­ond part of this inter­view will be released in this sec­tion next Wednes­day 13th of Jan­u­ary.

The full ver­sion of this inter­view can be found in the book Stu­dio Cul­ture: the Secret Life of the Graphic Design Stu­dio, edited by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaugh­nessy, pub­lished by Unit Edi­tions. The book is avail­able to AGDA mem­bers at www.uniteditions.com

11 comments

  1. The office lay­out is hilar­i­ous, I’ve always been a fan of round build­ings. :-) Also I had no idea that the Ger­man work­force was pri­mar­ily free­lance at one point in time. That is very surprising.

  2. Suzu Pahlke

    I like this office model. To me, the most appeal­ing thing about it is the fact that is not directed at the hier­ar­chy, but focus­ing on the com­mu­nity. Talk­ing about China, your office model imme­di­ately reminded me of the tra­di­tional hous­ing model of a minor­ity group, the Hakka, in Fujian Province, south­ern China:

    The fam­i­lies of a clan live together in large round build­ings. Their pri­vate liv­ing rooms are arranged around a court­yard in the mid­dle, which is used for com­mon activ­i­ties and facil­i­ties, such as open kitchens (in sum­mer), ances­tral altars etc.. There is only one entrance lead­ing directly into the cen­ter. A thick out­side wall pro­tects the com­mu­nity against ene­mies. This model proves to hav­ing worked extremely well dur­ing the cen­turies. This might not only be due to archi­tec­tural rea­sons, but also due to the fact that the com­mu­ni­ca­tion obvi­ously worked very well inside the houses.
    http://www.eartharchitecture.org/index.php?/plugin/tag/tolou
    http://www.chinadwelling.dk/hovedsider/clan_homes-tekst.htm

    Although basi­cally dif­fer­ent form the rund­büro lay­out, tra­di­tional Chi­nese court­yard houses also always have an open square for com­mon activ­i­ties in their cen­ter:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siheyuan

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