Autumn 1995

Meta’s tectonic man

In Erik Spiekermann’s hands, typographic design is a tool for rendering the world more accessible

Erik Spiekermann is a consummate pluralist. Able to move, seemingly without effort, between roles as a typographer, designer, writer, public speaker and merchandiser, he was once even a politician - A Green Party member of the Berlin Senate. Spiekermann is the author of Stop Stealing Sheep and Rhyme & Reason - two models of typographic rectitude for a lay audience - and the articulate upholder of standards of public design in many a conference lecture. He is the designer of Meta, one of the most successful typefaces of this decade, and founder of the typeface distribution company FontShop. Spiekermann is also a partner in MetaDesign, now an international consultancy with offices in Berlin, London and San Francisco, and it is this manifestation - the graphic designer - that has received the least attention. For while Spiekermann has been busy promoting his own particular brand of rational Modernism-with-character, the polemicist has sometimes overshadowed the practitioner.

Spiekermann himself rejects the title of graphic designer to describe his practice: ‘I am a typographic designer. A typographic designer starts from the word up; a graphic designer starts from the picture down.’ This idiosyncratic explanation - few would place the two disciplines in opposition, and one is usually regarded as inclusive of the other - has a certain logic. But how, then, does Spiekermann distinguish his approach from that of an avowed graphic designer such as Gert Dumbar?

‘Dumbar always uses space. He can’t have three-dimensional space because paper is flat, so instead he uses cross-sections - he dissects objects in space and puts them on the flat page. He is a spatial kind of image guy: he thinks in theatrical terms. I think in page terms. The page is the lowest common denominator of the book system. The page is the molecule and the atom is the word. You see, I read. I read before I design, and I write. I design outwards from words.’

A respect for words and evident talent for using them might seem incongruous in the visual arts were it not that Spiekermann so often speaks and writes in pictures. His conversation is a stream of aphorism and metaphor. On national stereotypes in graphic design, for instance, we learn: ‘France is olive shaped; Holland is triangular, always very pointy and narrow; Germany is very square; and England is round.’ And on being a designer: ‘I am a servant, I’m not an artist. If I was an artist I would be oval, like an olive.’

As a typographic designer, however, Spiekermann is distinctively quadrilateral. His trademarks are a rectangular or braced bar that bleeds off the page and a palette of just two colours - black and red, in the craft tradition. While he is generous with words, Spiekermann is extremely parsimonious when dispensing colour, shape and typographic variation.

He ascribes this frugality to his background. The eldest of four children, his father a lorry driver, he was born into an impoverished post-war Germany, near Hannover, in 1947. He paid his way through Berlin’s Free University, where he studied art history, by setting up a jobbing letterpress printer. He had only two typefaces, in three sizes, and could rarely use more than two colours (he learned to give the impression of three-colour work by reversing type out of a colour in white). Economy was a function of necessity, and Spiekermann has used this experience to establish a method which exploits scarce resources to the full rather than attenuates or reduces. He is used to getting a lot from a little, but philosophically he is a maximalist, not a minimalist. When more is available he will take advantage of it, even to the point of adding elements which, although too tectonic and rationalised to be called decorative, may be strictly speaking superfluous.

Seven years spent in England also left its mark, most obvious in a knowing anglophilia and a native’s grasp of colloquialisms and popular culture picked up from television and from students he taught at the London College of Printing. As a freelancer for Wolff Olins and occasionally for Pentagram and Henrion Design Associates, Spiekermann was introduced to an anglicised design culture and gained experience in corporate design offices much larger than any in Germany. It is these which he is now striving to emulate, in terms of their size and teamwork, in MetaDesignPlus.

When I first met Spiekermann in 1987 he had been back in Berlin for five years. He owned a small design company with a handful of staff which operated from an office in his apartment building. The practice had recently changed its name from Sedley Place to MetaDesign and was building a reputation for information design through its work with the Berlin transport system (BVG) and German Post Office (Bundespost), for which Spiekermann had designed an alphabet for use on official forms. This was the typeface - then called PT - which was later published in extended form as Meta. To its designer’s evident frustration, it was never used by the client it was intended for. Spiekermann railed against the literal-minded thinking of the German design bureaucracy, which attempted to reduce information design to a set of sterile rules it implemented badly, and against the ubiquity of Helvetica as the house style of German business. His proposed solution was to exploit the new digital technology to customise typefaces with characters for businesses and institutions.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was as a marketing man and distributor - as founder of FontShop - that Spiekermann became a far more effective agent of typographic diversity than he ever could have been as a designer. His work with Günter Gerhard Lange, artistic director of Berthold, in digitising its finely crafted range brought one of the world’s great type foundries into the digital age and he wrote Rhyme & Reason: a typographic novel (in German, Ursache & Wirkung, literally ‘Cause and Effect’) for Berthold to encourage typographic quality at a time when standards were being eroded by de-skilling technology. In addition, to promote his favourite themes - systems, not schemes; character, not conformity - Spiekermann began what became almost a second career as a speaker at design conferences.

This was how the garrulous, outspoken, often charming and sometimes cantankerous Berliner became known to the international design community. Spiekermann had links with a more ascetic past, with the craft tradition of typesetting, yet he was prepared to embrace a future which would extinguish the practitioners of that tradition. He was informed and articulate, and while most of his peers damned digital production, he recognised its creative potential and was determined to educate design professionals and amateurs in its art. Nor was he prescriptive. Despite his didactic personality, he valued work of a kind he could never or would never want to do. As a result, Spiekermann has found himself with a foot in many camps, parlaying between analogue and digital, between irrational youth and his functionalist contemporaries, between academics and practitioners.

This spirit of compromise - call it pragmatic or simply a talent for resolving contradictions - is at the heart of Spiekermann’s approach to design. He has written that his intention for Meta was that it be ‘neutral design - not fashionable, nor nostalgic’, yet also ‘unmistakable and characteristic’. As far as is possible, these apparently mutually exclusive aims are resolved in the finished version. Meta has a News Gothic base - neutral - with an exaggerated contrast between bowl and counter-shapes for legibility and highly distinctive curved and flared (or ‘pseudo-serif’) stems. The fact that it has become the height of typographic fashion is ironic rather than blameworthy. Meta is a blue-collar typeface, workmanlike, practical, sleeves rolled up ready to do a job. It is well-balanced, neither pretty nor elegant, pragmatic but not unprincipled - not unlike its maker. Spiekermann is contemptuous of modern type which puts geometric harmony before contrast and therefore before legibility (he means Helvetica) and of highly formalised, theoretical design. ‘I detest Rotis,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘It’s overstarched, too perfect. I like to leave some dirt in my work, some imperfection. That’s why I like deadlines and budgets, otherwise the work can be too finished.’

‘Legibility is not communication; but in order to communicate type has to be legible’ is a truism with which MetaDesign likes to decorate its stationery. Another company motto, ‘My role is to communicate my client’s message - not my own’, sounds self-righteous until Spiekermann elaborates by adding the notion of interpretation, removing the conceit of objectivity. ‘What I like to do most is to interpret a message so that people can understand it. At the same time I like to add colour, in the journalistic sense, by using colourful language, in my case visual language.’

This is another compromise, between the mechanical constraints of legibility and the creation of a pleasing visual narrative, or simply of variety - legibility is qualified by readability. Information design and public signage have usually been regarded as zones of pure functionality in which there is no need to persuade people to want to read. But according to Spiekermann, the communication of hard information may be enhanced rather than impaired by the stimulation of the brain’s emotional centres. The trick (the word is used advisedly, it implies sleight of hand) is to add colour without sacrificing clarity. You can see the theory in action in MetaDesign’s timetable for the BVG, with its simple elaborated typography bounded by tectonic elements - bars, arrows, circles, each doing a job of signage - and underlaid by a page-sized circle in a contrasting tint out of which the bus number is printed. There is a manifest danger that this will make the timetable harder to read, in direct proportion to the extra visual stimulus it provides. The dilemma is solved by the change of scale between the display and the text faces, which forces the eye to focus on one or the other, rarely both.

The same principle is applied to the signage system for the newly unified Berlin underground and overground railways. MetaDesign exploits the riot of colour provided by the inherited coding of 19 different S-bahn, U-bahn and regional lines and adds to it the favourite brew of squares, pictograms, arrows and bars to grab attention and indicate direction. The result is noisy, a striking contrast to, for instance, Vignelli’s frankly dreary scheme for Milan or his austere, industrial New York subway signage. Does it work? Nobody knows. Sitting and consistency of implementation are at least as important as typography in a system as complex as Berlin’s city transport, yet MetaDesign has had almost no control over the way its work has been used and there has been no systematic evaluation of its success through pilot programmes. Spiekermann regrets this, of course. Many signs are poorly positioned and carry too much information and he would like to know how effective the system is.

The problem with such projects lies in establishing the boundaries of graphic (or typographic) design: where does graphics end and behavioural science begin? And how are clients to be persuaded to give designers greater responsibility? MetaDesign has provided good answers to both these questions in its corporate design work. But in information design, where the client is usually a state enterprise or city council, political manoeuvring and committee mentality foster conservatism. Spiekermann continues to complain that what the subway signs say and where they are placed are beyond his control.

MetaDesign preceded its work for BVG with a subjective study of how people act on the underground. The designers went to the stations, looked and learned, yet Spiekermann remains suspicious of schemes based on objective scientific analysis: ‘You know what to do from experience and intuition. You don’t have to go down the research route. Cognitive science ignores the fact that people are fuzzy, meaning out of focus - they have all sorts of personal preoccupations and don’t all act the same way.’ Spiekermann prefers to rely on his ‘designer’s instinct’, his informal rationalism and non-aligned, undogmatic common sense. Though he can draw on empirical and quantative studies of legibility and has evolved his own heuristic approach to readability, these lack the force to move German bureaucracy.

To recognise that the education of clients is as important as the genius of the designer is to lose innocence, to mature. The complete designer must be acquainted with the baser skills of persuasion, cunning and diplomacy. Spiekermann, who possesses the first two but lacks the third, used to protest too much that jobs turned out badly because of the client’s short-sightedness. Now, when I ask him what are his ambitions for MetaDesign, he responds immediately: ‘We must become more professional.’ This means, for instance, that MetaDesign now employs a psychologist to orchestrate client presentations and to persuade the designers to work in teams.

MetaDesignPlus today is a strikingly large organisation, consisting of some 80 staff. This is the second MetaDesign, founded in 1989 as a partnership between Spiekermann, art director Uli Mayer and business manager Hannes Krüger. Six years on in a refurbished industrial unit in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, there is a design office, a multimedia subsidiary - MetaLog - and a print and process bureau as well as a ten-strong San Francisco office with a similar speciality in corporate and information design and a London associate, MetaUnion Design. Spiekermann is now able to put his distinctive method into practice with corporate clients on the scale of VW / Audi and Elf Oil, with scientific book publisher Springer, food retailer Tegut, the Green Party and, of course, the Berlin city government. The method which might be said to be grounded in the principles of typographic design, consists in devising a framework of constants and variables based on proportion, orientation, spatial arrangement, colour and, of course, type, which combine to form a distinctive but flexible system. ‘A system offers an infinite number of possibilities,’ observes Spiekermann, ‘and a scheme is dead.’

Proportion is the fundamental constant. ‘I always use what we call rational proportions,’ says Spiekermann. ‘There are 20 rational rectangles, for example. The golden section is one, the DIN section another, 2:3, 4:3, et cetera. Proportion is the common denominator of any page or surface and it provides the basic discipline, out of which we derive the grid, and then add colour: the grid for reason, the colour for emotion.’ But Spiekermann himself uses only two colours: red and black. He admits that his colour sense is undeveloped: ‘Maybe deliberately so, I don’t know. But I certainly don’t trust it. I know colours are emotional and I don’t want to make a statement exactly about it, but … ’. For once he is nonplussed, because MetaDesign and Spiekermann are no longer synonymous, though he remains its primary force. He recovers, ‘Uli is our colour woman. She’s absolutely brilliant. She spends half an hour with a Pantone book and comes up with amazing colour combinations.’

Colour is used in a confined way, almost always within rational shapes, most commonly the bar or broken rectangle. Usually Spiekermann – or rather MetaDesign, for all its designers follow the same principle – will bleed the bar to provide a dynamic tectonic element which defies the arbitrary confines of the page. This element is common to Spiekermann’s personal card, his type specimen sheets and forms for Berthold, MetaDesign’s stationery, the Berlin city identity, the identity for Cologne-based radio station WDR, the Berlin railway signage, et cetera. The BVG identity does not include the bleed, but only because the client forbade it.

We spent a long time talking about this device, long enough for Spiekermann to begin to bristle. ‘How can we spend so much time talking about a stupid piece of rectangle?’ But is there not a danger that the elements of the system are too repetitious? Might not the DIN style be replaced by an equally ubiquitous Spiekermann style?

The answer combines attack with defence. In attack: ‘The device is used for obvious reason. It’s tectonic: it’s a roof, it’s the slab across the door. The square denotes territory, and it works like a colon, pointing somewhere , and like a hand on a shoulder it is possessive, saying “this belongs to this”; it represents the corporate embrace.’ In defence: ‘I must admit I am always appalled when I’m doing another tectonic element, but the page is tectonic, the page is rectangular – I didn’t invent it. I agree with you, there is a danger. I have a very limited box of tricks, but it is because they are so obvious and so rational. Yet despite this few people use them because they are trying so hard to be clever or to excel, or they simply cannot see the obvious.’

‘Don’t forget,’ he adds, ‘that I have to stay within my cultural framework otherwise I won’t communicate.’ I am reminded that the cultural framework is German. I think of the Lufthansa in-flight magazine I flipped through on the plane, set in three sizes of one weight of Helvetica, looking about as convivial as a mail-order catalogue for plumbing equipment. It helps me to understand why, when contemplating acts of typographic non-conformity as minor as making 7 point caption type bolder rather than lighter, Spiekermann cannot help a devilish glint coming to his eye. In Germany there is a way of doing things and you diverge from the norm – The Deutsche Industrie Normen – only at your peril.

The strength and flexibility of MetaDesign’s systematic approach is evident in the brevity of its corporate design manuals, which tend to contain a set of principles rather than a dictionary of canon law in which the design of every last item of stationery, product packaging or delivery vehicle livery is set in stone. ‘An identity manual is not stable – it must react to change within the company,’ says Mayer. This approach is symptomatic of the way digital production has transformed the nature of corporate design. Creating systems for use by non-designers is now an increasingly important process, as is the implementation of production systems, the installation of templates, logotypes and pi-fonts, and putting database management systems in place. These are all skills Spiekermann has nurtured since his work with Berthold in the mid 1980s. MetaDesign’s practice is based on the belief that without due attention to this larger part of any corporate design programme – consultation, implementation, training and maintenance – its visible manifestation will be weak and incomplete. The method exposes the fallacy that graphic design is solely about the creation of good-looking visual images – here it is as much about enabling others to create. In stark contrast with the heroic designer / client relationship of the past in which the designer sought direct access to an aristocratic chief executive, MetaDesign seeks consultation at every level in order to command support and participation. As a consequence, its solutions have tended to towards distributed, modular forms and away from monolithic identities.

The approach is realistic as well as complete and unpretentious. The overwhelming impression at MetaDesign is of efficiency, thoroughness and conscientiousness. ‘Meta goes very deep’ is an expression they like to use about themselves. MetaDesign is marked by consistent ingenuity and quality – Qualität, to use the nation’s favourite expression – rather than by creativity or pictorial brilliance. Indeed, its pictorial work is sometimes heavy and unimaginative by British or Dutch standards, but like Spiekermann himself, most of its designers are trained to start from the word rather than from the image. As Spiekermann says, ‘I provide the grammar. I’m the modest guy in the background. Nobody ever said, “Wow, what a great grid”.’

MetaDesign’s character is derived to a large extent from Spiekermann’s own motivation, which is the promotion of a high standard of public life rather than the private pursuit of transient beauty. He says he became a designer to change things that annoyed him as a citizen: ‘I use the underground every day, I use forms every day, I use my city every day. Street furniture, signage advertising – their standard is a measure of the quality of life. That’s why design, that kind of design, is so important to me – it is the interpreting of data, it is making the world accessible.’ But for someone educated in a progressive political tradition, does the retention of old-fashioned notions about work and society not clash with the reality of running a successful design group that does an increasingly large proportion of corporate work? I called Spiekermann to check some facts after the interview and he told me that MetaDesign had just won a corporate design contract with Boehringer, Germany’s largest pharmaceutical company. ‘We have to get more designers,’ he said jubilantly, then added: ‘It’s too good to turn down.’

Spiekermann is clearly happiest when the words he communicates can be seen to serve the public good. I suspect that in this respect, he is a citizen before he is a designer. He undoubtedly adheres to notions of ‘good taste’ and is something of an aesthete, but if the typographic designer in him has any moral superiority, it lies in his conviction that the meaning of words is more important than how they look. What words look like matters so that they will be noticed and understood. For Spiekermann, typographic rigour is about the preservation of literacy and efficient communication and not, as with some other sticklers in his own country and abroad, a fetish for what is pure and correct.

First published in Eye no. 18 vol. 5, 1995

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