Listgeeks Feature #7 – Erik Spiekermann

Erik Spiekermann is a highly accomplished, Berlin-based designer, typographer, educator and information architect.  As the founder of both MetaDesign (1979) and Edenspiekermann (2007) Erik has worked on large-scale branding projects for a host of high profile international clients over the years, including Audi, Deutsche Bahn, Nokia and The Economist (he completely redesigned the magazine in 2001).  In 1988 he founded FontShop (with Joan Spiekermann and Neville Brody) in order to facilitate the production and distribution of digital typefaces.   Though he’s won numerous prestigious awards for his work, including – most recently – a Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the Ger­man Design Coun­cil, and could easily rest on his laurels, Erik remains fully engaged with both emerging technologies and, more importantly, the many younger designers and typographers who continue to be inspired by his dedication, focus and artistry.  The Bauhaus Archive/Museum of Design in Berlin is currently running, “erik spiekermann. the face of type,” (through June 6th, 2011) and Erik will be MCing at the upcoming Typo London (October 20th-22nd, 2011), among other engagements.  After you’ve read the below interview, be sure to check out Erik’s Listgeeks lists.

Listgeeks: As a result of your success, you’re involved with numerous conferences, the subject of countless student projects (and, as a result, queries), and of course called upon to deal with a wide variety of very different types of clients through your company, Edenspiekermann.  In the midst of all the action, how do you manage to stay inspired and excited about design and typography?

Erik Spiekermann: If it were down to me, I’d simply collapse and read all day, and especially at weekends.  But I have never learned to say “no,” so I have to find the time to answer questions from students, prepare for lectures, travel there, write columns for magazines, write forewords for all my friend’s books, etc.  All this next to my “normal” work, which is running a design firm with some 40 people.  The only way I can do this is by avoiding it until the pressure is too much to bear, until I run out of excuses or until my friends become desperate because they, in turn, might have promised my involvement to a third party.  Like these few questions: I put off answering them for 3 months now, where it would have only taken half an hour to do so in February.  But there were always other people who gave me more grief. . .

"My Car Amongst the Windows" - Erik Spiekermann (via Twitpic, May 7, 2011)

LG: Whether type-design-related or brand/identity-oriented projects (Audi, Nokia, Deutsche Bahn, BVG) for clients, it seems that if there’s a consistent emphasis, in your work over the years, on openness and accessibility.  Would you say that the drive to communicate as transparently as possible is the single greatest motivator behind what you do?

ES: Yes. Simply because, like other designers, I am also a consumer and user of things and services.  I presume that, if things annoy me because they don’t work or are ugly or (usually) both, then they’ll annoy other people as well.

Erik Spiekermann's FF Meta in use (Photo by Stephen Coles)

LG:  Do you feel that design, as an increasingly web-oriented activity, is in danger of becoming too uniform, internationally?  In other words, is our visual sensibility merging at the expense of more local (or regional) innovation/variation that may have been prized in the past?

ES: Yes and no.  For every service or website that thinks it has to communicate in international bad English, there are lots of activities that celebrate the local and regional.  It’s just that, by definition, you would only be aware of them if you were part of that group.  If you only travel the etherspace looking for stuff in your own language, that is what you’ll get. Learning languages is the key to other cultures, and they certainly exist. The more things get globalized, the more there will be local activities, expressed in a specific style.  And if all of us knew about them, they wouldn’t be local anymore.

LG: Finally, what parallels would you draw, if any, between the emergence/application of web fonts in the last year or two and the early days of FontShop International, when you first started digitizing and licensing typefaces?

1992 Olympics Stamps for The Netherlands by Erik Spiekermann

ES: Then, as now, we were ahead of the curve.  The WOFF standard was co-developed by Erik van Blokland who interned with me before FontShop was even started and who has been on our TypeBoard ever since.  And FSI was the first major foundry to work with Typekit because we believe that easy access is the key to working with new typefaces.  I have always been active as a graphic designer in a studio full of designers, so – perhaps unlike some colleagues who only ever design typefaces or produce fonts – I have always known how they use fonts.  Hardly anybody will spend much time looking; if it isn’t on their hard drive or on the server, they won’t use it.  The foundries have to make it as painless as possible for users to find, download and pay for fonts.  We’re beginning to get there with webfont services and standards like WOFF (except Safari), and the web is beginning to look better for it.  There must be human need for variety, whether it is in art, music, literature or design.  Technical constraints are never there to stay.  Except perhaps gravity.

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Listgeeks Feature #5 – Jason Forrest

Jason Forrest is a Berlin-based American electronic musician who also runs two record labels (Nightshifters and Cock Rock Disco) and recently launched a fantastic Web-based television network called, appropriately, Network Awesome.  His new album, “The Everything,” representing a bold move into increasingly less sample-based/mash-up territory from that on his previous full-lengths (including his most recent, “Shamelessly Exciting,” in 2005), was released in Europe on April 15th (Staatsakt), and comes out the first week of May everywhere else. Be sure to check out Jason’s Listgeeks lists after you’ve read the below interview.

Listgeeks: Let’s start with your most recent non-music action: How did Network Awesome come about?  

Jason Forrest: Network Awesome began as a way for me to “get involved with TV.”  I researched and conceived it over a 8 month period last year.  I connected with my partner Greg Sadetsky in late November and 10 days later we had a working version.  Two weeks later we launched the site – that was on Jan 1, 2011.  In many ways Network Awesome is a way to enjoy watching TV again!  So much mainstream media has corroded over time and yet there is so much amazing content that the mainstream seems uninterested in.  Everyday we work our hardest to share what we think is amazing stuff to watch and – oh yeah – Network Awesome is free and you can watch it everywhere in the world.

LG: Which three or four shows/films that you’ve featured so far best embody the concept of the network, from your perspective?

: Last week we had an AMAZING live blues show from West German TV in the mid-60s. The producers placed incredible blues musicians in a train-station-as-stage-set surrounded by a few thousand mod Germans having the time of their lives. Super incredible stuff.  Earlier in that week we had Pete Dev/Null collect this great and very fun collection of early 90s Rave videos.  And we are deeply, deeply obsessed with The Prisoner.  Easily the weirdest TV series ever on air, it set the bar higher than shows like “Lost” could ever get to. It’s totally mod, incredibly well written and just captivating on so many levels.

LG: A recent Pitchfork review (of the Utopia EP) suggested that, on the musical front, you might be moving towards, “something resembling maturity.” Do you think the new album (listen to a stream here) reflects a shift along these lines?

JF: Yeah, I think that Utopia review was actually amazing because the writer really got where I was coming from. “The Everything” is most definitely a more mature version of what I did in the past, but that said, it’s still fun! It took me about 6 years to finally pull it together, and in the process I was inspired by a lot of different things like Morricone and Noise Rock. You can kind of hear a 50s vibe in some of the tracks too. It goes all over the place but still holds together, somehow.

LG: It feels like “Raunchy” kinda meshes your past obsessions with something a little darker, sonically.  How much of the composition of your recent stuff is sampled Vs. self-generated?

JF: Yeah, that’s a great question. Basically I use samples a ton still but the sample size has shrunk over the years. Now, instead of sampling a whole hook or few bars I just sample one note.  It’s allowed me to compose the songs more freely and they shed a bit of context in the process. It’s pretty much just all “me” at this point.

LG: You’re one of those rare people who seems to be able to juggle 4,000 things at the same time: running two record labels, making your own music, playing shows, collaborating on videos, promoting art/music, and now working on your network.  How do you find the time to do so many things so well at once?  Do you think living in Berlin helps to make it all possible?

JF: Yeah, I’m a busy guy for sure!  What I’ve developed over the past two years is more confidence in doing something the first time directly.  For example, I do the design work and a lot of the commercials for Network Awesome, and most of the time I do them very quickly and rely on my gut. I think it’s actually made the work more creative.  I do think Berlin helps in an abstract way. It’s relatively inexpensive and the quality of life here supports creative types in a way that NYC never did. That said, they are just really, really different places.

LG: What are you most excited about in terms of technological development?  Which tools/apps created in the last few years have most inspired your work?

JF: Two years ago I actually made an innovative iPhone music app, which I am still proud of, but I actually have become a bit skeptical of the iOS lately. I think touchscreens are the way to go but the existing iOS and app structure has become too large and restrictive of late.  I’m not that excited by hand-held devices, in fact I use my iPhone less and less. To me content has taken more precedence than technology this past year.  If anything, what I am the MOST excited about is the amazing generosity of people as it relates to technology.  I mean, every second you have millions of people sharing their videos, images, and music online for people to enjoy. While “The Internet” has become many horrible things, it also has become a very giving place, too.

Jason Forrest on Listgeeks
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Listgeeks Feature #4 – Christoph Niemann

Christoph Niemann is an award winning, Berlin-based artist/illustrator with a plethora of high-profile covers and editorial pieces (including for Wired, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Atlantic Monthly) to his credit.  Conveying his ongoing fascination with the sights and sounds of New York City (Niemann lived and worked in NYC from 1997 to 2009) through his Abstract City Blog (which recently became Abstract Sunday), Christoph has delighted and enlightened New York Times readers with his remarkable insight, singular wit and superior illustrating skills on a regular basis since 2008.  His most recently released books include “The Pet Dragon”, a book created to acquaint kids with Chinese characters, and the NYC-centric “I LEGO N.Y.” and “Subway.” His latest children’s book, “That’s How!,” comes out next month.  Christoph’s Web site is the best place to keep up-to-date on his latest projects, and you can also follow him on Twitter.  After you read the interview, check out Christoph’s “Vanilla to Pomegranate” list.

Listgeeks: You’ve recently worked with a very wide range of materials – paint, pencil/paper, legos, fabric, coffee, computers, tile on the NYTimes blog . . .  Is it hard to decide which projects are destined for which materials? Does the material you’re working with frequently lead you into new or unexpected concepts?

Christoph Niemann: Usually I start with the concepts and then think of the appropriate way to execute the ideas. With the 3D objects I have been doing for my blog, there are obviously a few unexpected things that happen, mostly due to my impatience and clumsiness. But since I usually develop the concepts with pencil and paper and only start building the items once the whole project is figured out, there are relatively few surprises.

LG: Your kids seem to have a big impact on your personal work – especially the projects featured on the Abstract City Blog.  Has being a dad changed your approach to illustrating?

CN: Not really. Obviously life with the kids is a pretty rich source for strange mementos that can be abused for my visual essays, but I am very wary of focusing on my kids too much. As a reader, the last thing I want to read about is how interesting or peculiar the life of the author is. I am keen on finding stories that a reader can relate to by finding experiences we all share. As for the Lego series, the kids are less of an inspiration but rather an excuse for me to spend hours each weekend playing with what is still my favorite toy.

LG: How did the Abstract City Blog come about? You started that with the NYTimes in the summer of 2008, right?

CN: Yes, at that point I had been working as an editorial illustrator for about 12 years, which I still consider the most important part of what I do. But I also felt that in order to stay fresh, I had to force myself out of my comfort zone and try out projects that were scary and that would involve a greater amount of mistakes and dead ends. It’s not that I don’t mess things up in my editorial work, but after a while one becomes rather smart in avoiding disasters by (more or less consciously) avoiding risk. Coming up with my own stories and relying on handmade art goes so absolutely against my instinct that it seemed like the perfect way to shake things up.

LG: I’m curious about the differences between projects for which you’re required to generate a concept of your own/on your own vs. projects for which there’s a more clearly defined, explicit goal (or something very specific to illustrate).  Do you find one way of working easier than another? Is it sometimes helpful to have restrictions in place?

CN: I am infinitely more comfortable with the restrictions of a normal assignment. Part of it may have to do that I have much more routine with these kind of assignments, but a tight framework gives you a lot of good angles to start. If there are rules you can think about how to break them (or at least get close to breaking them). The self-generated work is much harder, because instead of just creating a solution, you have to create a problem first. And things don’t work out, I am never sure if I didn’t try hard enough with the drawings and the copy, or whether the overall concept is so wrongheaded that failure is inevitable.

LG: Finally, you have a well-documented bond with NYC.  After a few years of being in Berlin, how has your perspective on New York changed? Do you see yourself moving back at some point?

CN: I can absolutely imagine moving back there at some point (probably not before the kids are out of school though). I still go to New York five times a year and enjoy every minute of it. In a perfect world I would split my time 50/50, enjoying the possibilities and creative freedom of Berlin AND taking advantage of the energy, speed and determination that come from living in NY.

Christoph Niemann on Listgeeks
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