Category Archives: writings | texte

From metaphor to maturity

This arti­cle was pub­lished in Blue­print mag­a­zine in 2011 (too lazy to check which issue exactly). It was then re-published by John Board­ley in his Codex mag­a­zine, albeit slightly edited. I re-re-publish it here because the dis­cus­sion about dig­i­tal kitsch and appro­pri­ate metaphors has just come up again, mainly because Apple’s OS Lion now also fea­tures faux leather and adds pseudo-physical fea­tures like ani­mated turn­ing of pages to the inter­face which first appeared on the iPad, a pop­ulist device, not a com­puter that the likes of us depend upon for work.

The list of avail­able fonts on iOS men­tioned at the end may be out of date, but you’ll get the mes­sage. Since I wrote this, the new iPad has appeared, fea­tur­ing the amaz­ing Retina high-resolution screen. Its sharp­ness sud­denly shows up the flaws in type­faces. To me – an old per­son – this reminds me of the dis­cus­sion we had when pho­to­set­ting took over hot metal type in the 70s. And every­body makes the same assump­tions again. Mostly the wrong ones, look­ing for a solu­tion in tech­nol­ogy instead of design.


“A typog­ra­pher who hasn’t found the appro­pri­ate type­face may not have decreased the infor­ma­tional value of a text, but gave up the oppor­tu­nity to con­sid­er­ably increase its effectiveness.”

Thus wrote G.W. Ovink, Dutch typog­ra­pher and his­to­rian, way back before he knew any other media besides paper.

Every medium has always had con­straints for the type that goes with it. Whether you design a news­pa­per, a poster, a stamp or a web­site: you have to con­sider the tech­ni­cal envi­ron­ment, the reader, the client, the con­tent. As the sur­faces of sub­strates used for print­ing got smoother, the res­o­lu­tion of type went up along with it. If you look at a Guten­berg Bible through a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, you’d never believe the craters, bumps and blotches that look like gor­geous let­ters from a safe read­ing dis­tance. Bright and shiny, smoothly coated paper for high-quality off­set print­ing requires the let­ters to be sharp and well-defined, even though the human eye doesn’t like too much con­trast. Tech­nol­ogy, being what it is – a means to pro­mote itself if not mankind – kept pro­vid­ing more res­o­lu­tion and thus invis­i­ble detail than we ever needed. Once print­ing could hardly be more refined, along came the Cath­ode Ray Tube, and all the high def­i­n­i­tion that the sup­pli­ers of type­set­ting and print­ing equip­ment had declared not only inevitable but vital, was bro­ken down into crude bits of colour, red, green and blue only. Type sud­denly looked like Lego bricks when com­pared to the refine­ment a printer like Bodoni had been capa­ble of at the begin­ning of the 19th cen­tury, long before pho­to­set­ting and off­set print­ing, let alone coated stock.

The web has always just been bad paper. Now it’s start­ing to look like good paper and design­ers will have to treat it as such. But as always at the begin­ning of a new par­a­digm, we have to imi­tate the old one while we get used to the new pos­si­bil­i­ties that peo­ple over a cer­tain age always con­sider a chal­lenge. Apart from what tech­nol­ogy will allow us to do, there are phys­i­cal laws — our eyes, our brain, light, con­trast; we can­not ignore those if we want to com­mu­ni­cate. Cul­tural para­me­ters like read­ing habits, lit­er­ary cul­ture (or lack of) – our deeply embed­ded fear of change, all these give an excuse to imi­tate the old, even though there are no tech­ni­cal rea­sons to do so. But we read best what we read most.

Every new medium raises the same ques­tions. Things which were thought mature in one media will take a while to mature in a new one. Look at the new elec­tronic books, par­tic­u­larly those on Apple’s amaz­ing iPad: a book is pre­sented as a repro­duc­tion of the tra­di­tional stack of bound pieces of paper. Going from one page to the next is accom­pa­nied by an ani­ma­tion of it being turned, even with the sound of paper being rus­tled. While you keep thumb­ing pages, how­ever, the stack stays equally thick on either side, turn­ing the metaphor into a lie, into dig­i­tal kitsch. It feels wrong and it is wrong. Metaphors are use­ful because we do not really want to know what goes on in the dig­i­tal maze under the bon­net that the oper­at­ing sys­tem hides. Super­flu­ous visual noise doesn’t make the read­ing any eas­ier, it just pre­sumes that we’re too stu­pid to notice the dif­fer­ence between a stack of glued paper and a battery-driven piece of plas­tic. If peo­ple really wanted to emu­late the whole phys­i­cal expe­ri­ence, why not give us the musty smell of old books, the scent of print­ing ink?

Worse than those mis­guided and patron­iz­ing metaphors is the fact that pub­lish­ers can no longer decide which type­face their text is set in. Apple pro­vides just five (Baskerville, Cochin, Palatino, Times, Ver­dana), and only one of them (Palatino) can be con­sid­ered a book face suit­able for read­ing on a screen. Some­how, the dichotomy seems weird between cool alu­minium shapes, high-tech dis­plays and amaz­ing tech­nol­ogy on the one hand, and wooden book­shelves on the other, as a metaphor for an online book­shop which pro­vides books that look older on screen than they do in the real world. Per­haps the indi­vid­ual design depart­ments respon­si­ble should talk to each other? The indus­trial design­ers cer­tainly seem to be ahead of the User Inter­face peo­ple at Apple.

Still, while elec­tronic books have a way to go (the Kin­dle is actu­ally a lit­tle fur­ther ahead in typo­graphic mat­ters), there are signs that the web will soon allow the same degree of typo­graphic refine­ments that we’re used to on tra­di­tional paper. Not only can we use every exist­ing type­face to be dis­played in a browser, but new mark-up lan­guages will give us typo­graphic treats like lig­a­tures, small caps and old style fig­ures that print­ers in the 15th cen­tury devel­oped for their books which we still con­sider bench­marks today. If only some­body could invent a bat­tery that lasted as long as paper does.

Fear of the First Line

Now and again, Blue­print mag­a­zine pub­lishes one of my monthly columns on their web­site. This is the Novem­ber column.

ONCE I KNOW what topic I want to (or have to) write about, the most crit­i­cal deci­sion becomes inevitable: how to begin? No evening class in Cre­ative Writ­ing, no jour­nal­ism course fails to men­tion how impor­tant the first sen­tence is for the impres­sion a text makes upon the unpre­pared reader. Nor­bert Miller, a Ger­man lit­er­ary his­to­rian, pub­lished a col­lec­tion of essays about what he called this ‘rad­i­cal deci­sion’. The first sen­tence com­presses the infi­nite space for reflec­tion into a finite object, set­tling on one ver­sion out of a mul­ti­tude of vari­a­tions and pos­si­ble strategies.

Con­sider these alter­na­tives: ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ and ‘One morn­ing, as Gre­gor Samsa was wak­ing up from anx­ious dreams, he dis­cov­ered that in his bed he had been changed into a mon­strous ver­minous bug.’
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From Metaphor to Maturity

This is a piece I orig­i­nally wrote for my Achtung col­umn in Blue­print mag­a­zine. When John Board­ley asked me to con­tribute to his forth­com­ing mag­a­zine Codex, I was too busy to write any­thing from scratch. As, how­ever, I con­sid­ered the over­lap between Blueprint’s and Codex’s read­er­ship to be neg­li­gi­ble, I offered this arti­cle. John sug­gested send­ing him a pho­tog­ra­phy of my infa­mous book­shelf that runs over two floors in our house in Berlin, where the top shelves can only be reached by strap­ping one­self into a climber’s har­ness which is moved up and down by an elec­tri­cally oper­ated winch.

I don’t think John edited my piece very much, but I did notice that he changed my British alu­minium to the US alu­minum. As you can see below, I would have insisted on my orig­i­nal spelling. No idea why one would ever change that word in the first place – in Ger­man word we also write (and say) Alu­minium. John did me a favour though: he found the source for the Ovink quote below. Thank you, John, for that and for Codex.
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Year Zero?

I have just returned from the OFFF fes­ti­val in Barcelona. Ear­lier this year, they asked me for a state­ment about the future. They announced this the Year Zero, a restart. Go back to zero, wipe out the past, etc. Not sure I agree with that, but that’ll be the topic for another comment.

Usu­ally, I deny these requests because I don’t like mak­ing pre­dic­tions about sub­jects I don’t know. But they insisted, and in the end I sent them this lit­tle piece:


Rethink Design, Redesign Think­ing.
As a designer, I like the future.

After cen­turies of being dom­i­nated by tech­nol­ogy – from cut­ting wood to print­ing neg­a­tives, from bak­ing mud bricks to rein­forc­ing con­crete – design­ers of all dis­ci­plines now have the tools to present and make any­thing imag­in­able. There is no excuse for not com­ing up with new con­cepts. Design­ers and archi­tects can no longer blame their short­com­ings on the lim­its of tech­nol­ogy. There will always be clients to blame – that has not changed since the Pope asked Michelan­gelo to paint the ceil­ing of that lit­tle chapel in the Vatican.

The best thing, how­ever, is the fact that we are begin­ning to real­ize some­thing else: we have tal­ents that go beyond mak­ing things work well and look good. We can also take apart ideas, look at them, throw away what is not needed and put them back together again. Design­ers can redesign think­ing. And we need to, because nobody else will.

The dog ate my homework!

Every day I get emails from stu­dents who have a project to fin­ish. They ask me about my work, my opin­ions and often want me to send them my fonts as that would make the design of their the­sis much eas­ier. More often than not they ask about things they could have found out about if they had only spent a bit more time look­ing around or by going to a library, instead of just check­ing the first page of a Google query. So I tell them that I will answer proper ques­tions that are directed at me and that con­cern my work, my expe­ri­ence or even my opin­ions, but that I will only do so once they’ve done their home­work.
Just the other day I got a request from a stu­dent who is inter­ested in the typog­ra­phy on foot­ball shirts. Great topic, and one that has been writ­ten about a lot. But he obvi­ously hadn’t looked any­where before writ­ing to me. He even asks me why this »infor­ma­tion is lim­ited and dif­fi­cult to get hold of?«.
But read our cor­re­spon­dence for yourselves.

***


Dear Mr Spiek­er­mann,
My name is Rajeev Saroy and I am cur­rently study­ing Graphic Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Wolver­hamp­ton. The final year of my degree requires me to write a dis­ser­ta­tion on a topic of inter­est related to a major sub­ject within my degree. Foot­ball is a very big part of my life and I have always ques­tioned the typog­ra­phy on foot­ball t-shirts. This is the sub­ject that I have cho­sen to explore and inves­ti­gate.
I am hav­ing great dif­fi­cul­ties in gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion around my cho­sen sub­ject and I have put together a few ques­tions that I would like you to answer in as much detail as you pos­si­bly can.

1.     Who designs the type­faces that are employed on foot­ball t-shirts?

2.     Why is this infor­ma­tion lim­ited and very dif­fi­cult to get hold of?

3.     Why is it that many foot­ball teams can­not choose their own shirt num­bers and fonts?

4.     In the Eng­lish Pre­mier League, all teams are obliged to obtain the same type­face. Who autho­rises this?

5.     Type­faces and the arrange­ment on foot­ball t-shirts is spe­cial job for graphic design­ers. How many design­ers have con­tributed towards this that you are aware of?

6.     If type­faces are not designed by Graphic design­ers, who has cre­ated them in the past and who has it been approved by?

7.     Do FIFA, UEFA and the FA have a set of rules and reg­u­la­tions, which restrict the true form of type? Is it due to these rules that type is deformed, chopped and changed?

8.     Once a type­face is cre­ated, who approves it?

9.     Is typog­ra­phy neglected on foot­ball t-shirts? If the answer is yes, why is this? Is it down to mega cor­po­ra­tions or is it due to the lack of typo­graphic knowl­edge by foot­ball organisations?

10. Are there any con­tem­po­rary typog­ra­phers that can con­tribute their skills towards type on foot­ball t-shirts?

11. Can new/existing type­faces replace ones that have been manip­u­lated?
If there are any issues or views that you would like to men­tion, please feel free to do so.
May I thank you for your time and co-operation.

RAJEEV SAROY.

***


Dear Rajeev,
most of your ques­tions can only be answered by the peo­ple in the foot­ball busi­ness. How should I know who approves the design? Why do you ask me why this infor­ma­tion is dif­fi­cult to get hold of? Aren’t you the stu­dent who is sup­posed to do the assignment?

Could it be that you haven’t done your home­work? Surely this is some­thing the FA or FIFA will answer. Those are scary bureau­cra­cies, but I’m not going to tackle them on your behalf.

There is plenty of infor­ma­tion out there, on the blogs, on typophile.com. The mak­ers of kit, like Puma, Umbro, Adi­das et al com­mis­sion this stuff, of course, because they make it.
One designer in Lon­don has actu­ally designed type for foot­ball shirts (Puma?): Bruno Maag, of Dal­ton Maag.

Ask him, but do more of your home­work first. If foot­ball is a very big part of your life, then get off your arse and look around. Of course it’s dif­fi­cult, but it is also dif­fi­cult for me to spend part of my spare time on a sat­ur­day answer­ing emails from kids who haven’t even looked at the infor­ma­tion from the asso­ci­a­tions, the mak­ers of kit.

Being a stu­dent means learn­ing to learn, not sim­ply writ­ing an email and hop­ing that some­body else will do the work for you. There was a world before Google.

Learning from La Vegas

My col­umn in Blue­print mag­a­zine always cov­ers the main topic of the issue. This time they asked me to write about Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is
a car­toon of itself, a stand­ing joke, but with­out the slight­est hint of irony, or self-distance. It is per­haps the most Amer­i­can of US cities, built evi­dence to the fact that big­ger is bet­ter and that bet­ter is big­ger. Noth­ing in Las Vegas started as an orig­i­nal idea, and noth­ing seems older than 10 years, but the sheer amount of bor­rowed images makes the whole totally incom­pa­ra­ble.

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Easypeasy

While avoid­ing writ­ing my next col­umn for Blue­print mag­a­zine, I found the piece I wrote last year about the same topic, Japan. There is no other rea­son to pub­lish it here and now except the fact that I have it right in front of me now, an unfor­mat­ted text file.
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How we work

The new web­site for Eden­spiek­er­mann is up. A lot of the projects are fairly main­stream and a lot of the copy sounds rather “cor­po­rate” to me. That is the result of hav­ing to agree on every sen­tence between nine part­ners and 100 col­leagues. My per­sonal take is rep­re­sented by the text I wrote about the HOW.

We run our busi­ness by shar­ing respon­si­bil­ity among nine part­ners. Each of us run project teams. We do not take money from face­less net­works and don’t have to be account­able to their con­trollers. We alone decide who we work for and how we orga­nize our­selves. And we put our money where our mouths are: we are share­hold­ers and inter­ested in the long view.
Most design con­sul­tan­cies or brand­ing agen­cies (pick your own name) offer pretty much the same type of work. It is how they go about their work that makes the dif­fer­ence. It is a ques­tion of atti­tude, per­son­al­ity, even morals.

The cur­rent cri­sis is also a cri­sis of val­ues: are peo­ple account­able for what they do? Is suc­cess rewarded with fat pre­mi­ums but fail­ure paid for by soci­ety? Can we carry on ask­ing for growth as the only way for­ward? Do we need new values?

Even design­ers are not only judged by the vis­i­ble results of their work, but more and more so by how they achieved them. Orig­i­nal­ity, per­son­al­ity, account­abil­ity are new buzz­words. Atti­tude is more inter­est­ing than cleverness.

Brands are suc­cess­ful when they when they are authen­tic, when they show atti­tude. They show how they make prod­ucts, how they treat their peo­ple, how they look at the future. Cheap stuff – the What – will still be made in China and else­where. Com­plex processes – the How – are designed here.

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.

erik_blueprint
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.

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