T for Toronto

Ever since I led the team that designed a new passenger information system for Berlin in 1990, I’ve become a total public transportation nerd. I seek and find information about transportation information systems and their application everywhere. At the time, we were lucky enough to be presented with a historic opportunity: the two halves of the city had been divided for 30 years with two distinct transportation systems. We had to start from scratch, and as the work had to be done while passengers were using the existing services, we had to learn by doing. There were a few things we found out very quickly: the new information system had to look distinct from either of the two existing systems to avoid confusion. People had to trust the new maps, diagrams, schedules, and vehicles. A common denominator was needed. Buses, trams, underground trains and ferries all had different liveries which stemmed from a time when they had been run by separate companies. In the East, the provider was called BVB, in the West it was BVG (don’t even ask)! The tram people didn’t talk to the bus people while the underground people considered themselves to be the best and most up-to-date service. There were beige buses, orange trams, lemon-yellow trains in the East and dark-yellow ones in the West. The answer was: yellow. Vehicles were to be yellow, bus- and tram stops featured yellow posts, the letters BVG were featured in a yellow square (that became a heart shape during the pandemic).

Buses and trams in East Berlin, before the redesign of the city’s transit system

The underground used the U in a blue rectangle as their symbol, while the other services spelled out their names: BUS and TRAM. They each got their symbol in different colors and easily distinguished shapes on signs that are dominated by a horizontal yellow stripe. 

BVG design manuals: the company logo and the product logos

It took a few years before the majority of vehicles had been repainted or ordered in the new livery. Today the BVG is yellow. The logo features rounded lettershapes in a yellow square. Berliners know that you can trust any large yellow vehicle to get them to their destinations. The blue, red, purple and green symbols point to the individual services within the system but are always subservient to the big yellow square. When they want to go somewhere, people simply say that they take the BVG – it’s the trusted friend for getting around the place. The BVG logo has become the most known and best liked symbol for Berlin, way ahead of all the attempts to design a graphic identity for the city. 

Berlin buses, trams and trains color the city yellow

Wherever I’ve traveled since the early 90s, I’ve taken a close look at how public transit works in cities around the world. Our diagram for Berlin’s trains was very much influenced by the iconic London Tube Map, which has become the model for most other such diagrams. When the bus and train services in London were brought together under one roof in the early 2000s, it was a no-brainer to use the famous roundel as the symbol for the whole system. Without the word Underground on it, the roundel can appear in the colours of the tube lines as well as in a neutral grey, black or white on bus stops or on printed literature. While bus services are run by several private companies, their logos are limited to appear over the driver door only, so not to confuse passengers about who actually runs the system. The London Transport roundel has become the graphic shorthand for London, beyond its application for public transit. 

When you see the roundel, you know that you’re in London

Other cities I frequently visit, like NYC or San Francisco, are far behind when it comes to public transit. They don’t even have a common fare structure, let alone coordinated passenger information for their MTA, PATH, BART or MUNI services. That is a shame, but also a chance to learn from other cities in order to attract passengers and increase ridership. The budgets will be there!

New York City and San Francisco Bay Area transit logos look like competitors rather than integrated systems

One thing we did learn was that insufficient information is a bigger obstacle to people leaving their cars for public transit than the price of a ticket.

I was very happy when colleagues recently pointed out to me that at least one large North-American area had got its act together and emulated what makes Berlin and London so successful. I’m not familiar with politics in Greater Toronto, but I believe that like London, they have several municipal transit companies running buses, streetcars and trains across the region. Of course, as other cities have found out, passengers don’t really care about the business side of it – they just want to recognise and trust one service. So I was very impressed to see that the regional authority, Metrolinx, has taken on the task of producing a single identity and standard for public transit information. 


Using a big T in a circle is an obvious and thus brilliant solution as a symbol for this one coordinated service. T for Transit, T for Together, T for Toronto! The strong letter in a circle looks like a sheltered stop itself. It has immediate authority and visitors will presume that it’s been there forever. The T is visible from far away and easily reproduced in all sizes for all media. I don’t know how many operators and city officials providers had to be brought together to agree on this simple and effective device, and experience. Experience tells me that discussions weren’t easy. I am sure egos may have been hurt and compromises were necessarily made, but the end result has made the effort worthwhile. Not only will it help the region’s residents get more from an expanding network but visitors, who tend to gravitate to Toronto, will experience a city intent on Every visitor will immediately identify Toronto’s transit system above or underground, while Toronto natives can be proud of their city for making good passenger information a priority and public transit more accessible.

The T is a great symbol for the region’s transit systems

Metrolinx and the region’s operators will be paid back in loyalty and higher ridership once people have understood that it has become much simpler to use public transit across the city and the region. I wouldn’t be surprised if Greater Toronto was followed as a shining example by other cities in North America.

My workshop needs help

My typographic workshop at https://www.p98a.com/about needs support. After more than one year with hardly any income (no workshops!), I may have to close it down, sell the presses and the type, let everybody go who’s been running this place since 2014, and tear apart a large collection of typographic treasures.
We are a non-profit foundation – Erik Spiekermann Foundation gGmbH – any contributions are an immediate write-off. 
Our workshop is a unique place – we have a collection of historic materials like a printing museum, but no “hands-off” signs: everything is available for hands-on work. We do not stop at collecting, but develop new methods and techniques to bring letterpress printing and physical type into the digital age. We call it postdigital printing.
If you’re in publishing, software house, or any other culturally engaged institution, you should be interested in keeping a place like p98a alive. We’re not talking millions, just a reasonable sum to pay the rent and two employees.
Get in touch with me to discuss details, solutions, possibilities and to find out more. erik@p98a.com

And read this article: https://spiekermann.com/en/back-to-basics/

Me at work on a Korrex proof press

p98a workshop tour

The Type Directors Club New York – TDC – asked me to give a tour of our letterpress workshop. Because of the Corona virus pandemic, we’re all getting used to these online events. They may be less satisfying than the real thing, but how else would we fit 400 people into the workshop? And how else would people afford the journey to Berlin?

Here’s the video

Printing a digital newspaper

Krautreporter is a news service, run by journalists in Berlin. More than 12,000 subscribers pay a minimum of 5 Euros a month to get daily updates on the news and well-researched long-reads. Just like newspapers used to do.

Wir drucken Krautreporter from erik spiekermann on Vimeo.

Once we had finished restoring our Johannisberger stop-cylinder press from 1924, we were looking for projects to test the machine. When I suggested to the friends at Krautreporter that perhaps we could print one special issue, they immediately went for that crazy idea.

We had already built our laser-setter and were able to make metal-backed plates up to 52 by 72 cm (approx 20×28in) directly from data, without going through photographic negatives. These plates fit our Heidelberg Cylinder press where we can print 8-up, i.e. 8 book-size pages on one plate. For the newspaper, however, we wanted to print the classic Nordic format, 44×57cm. In Germany we still have a few daily papers which are printed that size, the FAZ – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – being the most prestigious one.

The newspaper folded down for mailing

Making four aluminium bases to get the thin plates to the height of metal type (23.56mm = 0.928in) was an adventure in itself. All the other things we didn’t know about this large press took us five months to figure out, but eventually we started to print. We had enough paper (60gsm newsprint) to print 6000 copies, 8 pages, all on one sheet, back and front, 88×114cm plus some trim. One side black only, the other black and red. 18,000 prints altogether, at a speed of not much more than 300 an hour, with 2 people at the press at all times. We ended up with almost 5000 good copies. The sheet was perforated in half inside the press but not separated. We wanted the readers to get the full effect – the exact opposite of a smartphone screen. For the mailing we folded the large sheet into a narrow strip with a label around it.

The movie shows our own Daniel Klotz at the press. His buddy Sebastian came to help whenever he could. Daniel spent more than half a year figuring out how to make everything work. Now we know why printers used to go through a three-year apprenticeship. That press wasn’t made to print from polymer plates, and it still holds a few secrets. But we have our proof of concept, a full-size newspaper. It is so popular with Krautreporter subscribers that we may have to print more issues.


Spiekerstuff is on p98a

We keep making all sorts of things – posters, magazines, notebooks, house numbers – and some of those used to be available from the website aptly named spiekerstuff.com. That url still exists, but now takes you to the real site: p98a. We finally have a proper backend which works out sales tax (or not) and shipping cost and provides you with a proper invoice that you can print out and show to your accountant (or not). The shop is here: p98a.com/shop.

And even if you don’t need house numbers or posters (but who doesn’t?), you can find other information; about the typefaces we hold at the workshop, some of the presses we have and what else goes on there at Potsdamer Straße 98a in Berlin. We make display type, publish our own magazine, PAPER,  and even roast our own coffee, inevitably named Letterpresso.



Back to Basics – why the old is new

Graphic designers have been bending over backwards for years, pulling all the stops in order to turn a message into communication. We’ve spent hours finding the right typeface, fussed with tiny increments in size, introduced refinements in OpenType fonts containing hundreds of ligatures, alternate characters and content-sensitive positions.

The workshop at Potsdamer Strasse 98a in Berlin
The workshop at Potsdamer Strasse 98a in Berlin

And now ”letterpress” is back. Suddenly we’re happy to take a lowercase l and use it for a figure 1 because that particular typeface doesn’t have enough figures? WTF? Wood type sucks when it comes to kerning because you would have to cut away bits of the letter itself in order to achieve “perfect“ spacing. There are no half sizes, let alone fine increments in letterspacing, unless you want to spend hours inserting slivers of brass or thin paper to refine a line of type. The material defines not only how you work but also what the result will look like. If you only have a large wood type font in one size, you run out of certain characters very quickly. So you’ll pick a smaller size which will have more of each character or you’ll choose another typeface altogether. If that doesn’t help, you’ll change the message.

The typographic system of letters and spaces – horizontal and vertical ones – has been refined since Gutenberg first invented printing with movable type almost 600 years ago. The whole system is one giant grid systems that can be divided and multiplied in myriad ways. Pages will always look good as long as you work within the constraints, time being one of them. If you spend too much time tweaking the system, things will look mannered and inappropriate. Modesty is a virtue when working with well-defined but finite elements and tools.

You need to know what quads are, spaces, reglet, furniture. You learn to use a composing stick, chases, cases, hacksaws, pincers, awls, spanners, screwdrivers and heavy lifting equipment. You’ll be working with dirty rags and virgin white paper, inks, grease, machine oil and petroleum. And you’ll find out that the work isn’t done until all those materials are back in their proper places and that cleaning up can take almost as long as setting up without being any fun. Everything you touch is either very heavy or very delicate. Or both.

p98a_stege_bwFurniture and reglet, the “invisible” parts of the page

You’ll never have the right size type, never enough characters and you’ll always run out of the right size paper just a few sheets from the final print. At the weekend. Mistakes will manifest themselves in loss of materials and too much time spent in the shop. But there is nothing like setting up a forme (yes, with a silent e at the end) from bits of lead, steel, aluminium, brass and wood – a very messy sight, as these materials have all been around and aged differently – and then running a clean white sheet of paper through the press and over that colourful forme. Suddenly and quite magically, there is a message: words on paper, exactly where you wanted them.

You know what it took to compose the words into the forme, with all those bits of metal in between. (No return key here and no tabs either; the white space isn’t.) The dear reader doesn’t know, nor needs to. But she senses that this message is the result of a physical process, made with things that have been touched by many hands. The process communicates itself. It doesn’t get in the way of the message, it enhances it.
Photos: Norman Posselt

Cheap is no good

CfcGhOfWEAANn9DNo idea where this line comes from; I’ve heard it often, not necessarily with “Design” as the keyword. After 50 years in the business, I can guarantee that it is entirely true.

We set the words from our brand new Real wood type (based on FF Real), 20cicero tall, cut for us by Tudor Petrescu in Romania. Tudor is busy right now, cutting a smaller size of 12 cicero in Real Regular as well as in Real Demi.

As always, the poster is printed on MetaPaper Rough Warm White 160 gsm in Black and Pantone Warm Red ink. From original wood and metal type on our Korrex Frankfurt, 50×70 cm.

The 50 posters each are num­bered and signed by Erik Spiek­er­mann. We ship every­where and you can pay by Pay­Pal. Price is the same in these cur­rencies: £, $, €; always 98, includ­ing tax (where applic­a­ble) and ship­ping, wrapped in a solid card­board tube. Please go to spiekerstuff to order. You can also check out the other prints there as well as the metal housenumbers I designed a few years ago. Some of them are still available from spiekerstuff.

Ui/Ux et al

A few days ago I replied to an article on Medium about User Interface design. A lot of the issues brought up sounded familiar, so I dared add a few remarks to put things into perspective.

> Again and again I am pleasantly surprised that, as an older designer (69 now and computer literate since the late 70s) I find that what is considered a specialty discipline (UI, UX and whatever the flavour of the month) keeps finding the same constraints and thus solutions as us old print designers. When I design a magazine or a book or a newspaper, I need to consider the substrate (resolution, grain, coarseness…), the audience (viewer, reader, user, the client!), the content (long, short, informative, vital, not-so-urgent, entertaining), the audience’s situation (sitting down, in meetings, traveling, at a table, in a hurry, at work, under water), the audience’s motivation (interested, bored, dependent, adverse, reluctant) and, of course, the technology that generates the marks (not always pixels), how many colours it can display and how the pages are marked (offset, inkjet, flexo, silkscreen, letterpress, laser).
Now that resolution on screens often matches that on paper and typographic features can pretty much all be emulated across browsers, we get down to the real issue: taking the information apart and reassembling it for the specific purpose. I always start with the smallest element and work up from it. In a book that may be the footnotes, in a timetable that would be the numbers, in a magazine the main text. If those elements work, the other ones are scaled up from them. The baseline for the footnotes is the common denominator and all other text follows multiples of it. As you go up in sizes for subheads or headlines, certain sizes are eliminated for certain formats. A tabloid newspaper will have smaller headlines than a full size Nordic spread. If you count the hierarchies, the biggest element will be H1 and you may have to get down to H5 or more for complex publications.
You do the same for screens. So what’s new? The present generation of UI/UX designers may think that they invented a new way of designing, but we’ve had these issues forever. Trying to fit a lot of text onto the how-to page inside a pharmaceutical package is probably more difficult than doing the same on a screen. There’s no zoom on that paper, so it has to be really well done just for that one version and circumstance.
My method? Think. Consider. Sketch. Think again. And look around you. It’s all been done before, albeit with different code. My code was having to convince clients with rough sketches, pencil lines emulating small text. If you can do that, everything else is easy. You can call it Mobile First or Small Screen Rules or Whatever Makes Us Feel Important. Ultimately what we do is take messages apart and rearrange them. We are the interpreters and our purpose is to serve our clients and their customers, the users. We can only do that if we understand all the constraints as well as the content. I couldn’t design a book I haven’t read nor a website in a language I don’t understand. <