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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