Internationally renowned graphic designer, typographer, and type designer Erik Spiekermann is notorious for his no-bullshit attitude; for founding Fontshop, the world’s first mail-order distributor for digital fonts; and for the output of his Berlin-based agency Edenspiekermann. His work is unanimous with his city and country: Berliners see his work daily while traversing the BVG (the city’s transit system), and in the form of his large-scale campaigns for Audi, Volkswagen, and Nokia.
Today, as well as speaking at almost every German design conference that takes place, Spiekermann runs his letterpress design studio p98a. We caught up with the typographer to hear the story of his very early “client” jobs.
“The first thing I ever designed—where does that start? The time when I was 16 and won the competition for the cover of the local library’s catalog? I probably didn’t know what a designer was back then.
“Later, in my early twenties, after a short apprenticeship as compositor I studied History of Art at the Free University in Berlin and made a living of sorts, printing things on my little platen press. If the job was too big for my press, I made artwork—Letraset, handlettering, handset type—and took it to the small printers round the corner. I suppose those were my first ‘design jobs’.
“The flat files with my archives were lost in a move 15 years ago and very little remains. I just found these business cards, printed around 1969-70. I had bought a very small amount of type from the Adana shop in London while on a visit: Rockwell Light 9pt and Gill Sans Light in a few sizes. So this is what my ‘clients’ got: Geoffrey in 18pt Gill, all lower case, either because I didn’t have enough caps or maybe because it looked cooler. When you get paid a flat fee for a job like this, you want to spend as little time as possible on it. No fancy stuff then, every ‘design’ decision is borne out of expedience, the material you have and the constraints of the technology involved.
“In other words: it wouldn’t have taken me more than an hour to set and print 100 of these cards. No brainstorming, no sketching, no presentations.
“Amongst the type and equipment I had been collecting in the late ’60s when everybody else was throwing away their letterpress machinery and their metal type were lot of these little blocks—woodcuts, stereos, copper engravings. When Joan, my wife at the time, and her friend Joan decided to set up a little fashion label in Berlin around 1970, I used that ready-made illustration (probably from the ’30s), set the type in Rockwell (all lower case again) and we had ourselves a brand. Except we didn’t call it that at the time. There were just business cards and also served as labels for the back of the dresses.
“The cards have rounded corners because I had bought a stack of cards in various sizes—the credit card standard didn’t exist at the time.
“I am not proud of the printing quality, nor of the typographic detail. I never had a formal education as a graphic designer but having to wing it was perhaps the best training I could have had. These simple cards were the beginning of what has turned out to be a life of designing for clients, digitally so since my first Mac arrived in 1986. And now, at almost 70, I am back with a letterpress shop in Berlin. We don’t print for money, we just have fun. My early experience has always served me well: getting stuff done quickly without overthinking everything, using constraints to keep me focussed.”