John Walters lauds Erik Spiekermann

John gave this short speech on the occa­sion of me receiv­ing the Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the Ger­man Design Coun­cil.

John Wal­ters

Andrej Kupetz and Erik Spiek­er­mann

When I went to Berlin a cou­ple of years ago, in prepa­ra­tion for Eye 74, our Berlin spe­cial, I kept run­ning into Erik Spiek­er­mann. Not lit­er­ally, though I did later spend a pleas­ant evening in the com­pany of Erik and his wife Susanna. But I quickly realised that I couldn’t avoid encoun­ter­ing Erik and his legacy. For a start, nearly every per­son I met had some con­nec­tion to him: either they had col­lab­o­rated with him, or worked for him, or they’d been taught or oth­er­wise encour­aged by Erik early in their career. And even peo­ple who didn’t know him very well, or who had never met him, seemed to have an opin­ion about him. They knew him as a designer, as a typog­ra­pher, as a type evan­ge­list and as a writer – chiefly on the sub­ject of typog­ra­phy, but with opin­ions about every other sub­ject: pol­i­tics, soci­ety, cul­ture, art, music and so on. Also, quite apart from all the peo­ple I met, there were traces of Erik every­where I went, on the sub­way, in the signs and the many dif­fer­ent civic and com­mer­cial pub­lic projects that bore the stamp of one of his design prac­tices, or that used one of his typefaces.

So that’s why we called the Eye 74 piece ‘Six degrees of Erik Spiek­er­mann’. We devoted a gate­fold infor­ma­tion graphic to all the con­nec­tions that he had made through­out his career, span­ning the years since 1979, when the com­pany that would become Meta was founded, to the present-day activ­i­ties of Eden­spiek­er­mann. Like Kevin Bacon, Erik seemed to con­nect any­one who was any­one in graphic design, visual com­mu­ni­ca­tion, brand­ing and typog­ra­phy. Yet if our world were Hol­ly­wood, Erik would per­haps be more like Steven Spiel­berg than an actor like Bacon.

Erik is both a gen­er­al­ist and a spe­cial­ist. The first time I ran into him, at an inter­na­tional typog­ra­phy con­fer­ence, he asked me how I could stand to be sur­rounded by so many ‘nerds’? He knows how design­ers and typog­ra­phers think, in the most minute detail, because that’s the way he thinks, too. Yet he’s man­aged to lift his head above the cubi­cle that all too often restricts the graphic design world, and look dis­pas­sion­ately at com­merce and gov­ern­ment and char­i­ties, tak­ing the time to under­stand how they think, too. I have daily rea­son to be grate­ful for Erik’s advice, since his ideas about the Rund­buero, expressed in Unit Edi­tions’ book Stu­dio Cul­ture, helped me make some changes in the way I organ­ise my own office.

William Owen described Erik (in Eye 18) as a ‘con­sum­mate plu­ral­ist’, while also tak­ing on Erik’s own def­i­n­i­tion of him­self as a ‘typo­graphic designer’, who designs ‘from the word up’, a phrase later used for a slim vol­ume on Meta’s work. William also noted that Erik ‘val­ued work of a kind he could never or would never want to do.’ But that is not sur­pris­ing. It is almost the def­i­n­i­tion of a any­one with a rounded inter­est in cul­ture and the world at large: you don’t have to sing opera to value Nixon in China, nor do you have to paint in oils to appre­ci­ate art.

I think it is Erik’s abil­ity to work and show curios­ity at both micro and macro lev­els (and all points between) that makes him a good writer, as well as a good designer. His writ­ing is clear and to the point, whether in a col­umn for Blue­print mag­a­zine or in an email con­tain­ing direc­tions to his house. Even if he had done lit­tle else, the book he wrote with E. M Gin­ger, Stop Steal­ing Sheep and Learn How Type Works, would be an inter­na­tional call­ing card of huge pro­por­tions, since it’s one of the few gen­uinely infor­ma­tive, enter­tain­ing and read­able books about type writ­ten in the past few decades.

When I first watched the DVD of Gary Hustwit’s Hel­vetica, whose extras sec­tion includes an extended inter­view with Erik, I was amused to hear him say how much he liked being an ‘unknown designer’. Today’s cer­e­mony seems an odd place to talk about Erik’s lack of recog­ni­tion. Yet he was mak­ing an impor­tant point about the role of design – graphic design, type design and typog­ra­phy in par­tic­u­lar – in civic life. As Erik explains in that doc­u­men­tary, neatly divert­ing the direc­tor from too many ques­tions about a type­face he doesn’t much care for, a nation’s cul­ture, the stuff that sur­rounds us, is made of good archi­tec­ture and build­ing, good food and cafes and sup­pos­edly nerdy things like the small type in timeta­bles for pub­lic trans­port, or the signs in sta­tions, or the lit­tle details that make your iPhone work intuitively.

Erik gets a kick out of being the unknown author behind some of this stuff, even when the money is ter­ri­ble, and he has to fight ‘the sys­tem’ – the con­ven­tional way of doing some­thing – to make things just a lit­tle bit bet­ter. Few peo­ple might notice, or remark out loud that the timetable has acquired more leg­i­ble, read­able type, or bet­ter nav­i­ga­tion, but as Erik would say, ‘That is the point.’ Many design­ers get a kick out of mak­ing things bet­ter, or find­ing a solu­tion, or being part of the team that did that, whether their name is on the fin­ished prod­uct or not. So I think we could regard this prize as one that Erik can share, just a lit­tle bit, with all the unknown design­ers out there, who play their part in mak­ing our lives bet­ter, our small print more legible.

Around the time I became edi­tor of Eye, we pub­lished an updated ver­sion of Ken Garland’s ‘First Things First’,* call­ing on design­ers to exam­ine their pri­or­i­ties. The new man­i­festo included these sen­tences: ‘Unprece­dented envi­ron­men­tal, social and cul­tural crises demand our atten­tion. Many cul­tural inter­ven­tions, social mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, books, mag­a­zines, exhi­bi­tions, edu­ca­tional tools, tele­vi­sion pro­grammes, films, char­i­ta­ble causes and other infor­ma­tion design projects urgently require our exper­tise and help.’ Erik was one of 33 design­ers who put their names to ‘First Things First 2000’, and that state­ment sounds just as rel­e­vant today – throw mobile devices and social media into the mix and it still holds good.

I agreed to come here on the strict under­stand­ing that the Design­preis would not sig­nify or her­ald any slow­ing down on Erik’s part. He still works at a furi­ous pace. He even has a proof­ing press in his house, where he’s cook­ing up plans to com­bine dig­i­tal and ana­logue, mak­ing plates with a laser cut­ter. And in addi­tion to all the usual client work, he is pub­lish­ing a series of book­lets of writ­ings that he likes, and more lit­tle red books of his own work – the thoughts of Chair­man Erik.

These thoughts are worth shar­ing. Erik is con­cerned about nerdy details, yet he loves to con­struct the big pic­ture. He’s a great advo­cate of design’s role in civilised soci­ety, all the bor­ing, behind-the-scenes stuff, but he is also quick to spot what is new and cool, and to cham­pion and men­tor young tal­ent – the new Eden­spiek­er­mann schol­ar­ship is a sig­nif­i­cant addi­tion to this aspect of Erik’s life and work. For all these rea­sons, Erik is a wor­thy recip­i­ent of what­ever awards get thrown his way – and they won’t go to his head.

By John L. Wal­ters, edi­tor, co-publisher, Eye mag­a­zine, 2011

* Pub­lished simul­ta­ne­ously with sev­eral other design mag­a­zines, includ­ing Blue­print, Form and Emi­gre, see http://bit.ly/FTF2000

9 comments

  1. Enjoyed read­ing this blog post thor­oughly, thank you very much for shar­ing it. And my hearti­est con­grat­u­la­tions to Mr. Spiek­er­mann for the Life­time Achieve­ment award.

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