An interview with Erik Spiekermann of Edenspiekermann by Adrian Shaughnessy - Part 2
12th January, 2010
An interiew with Erik Spiekermann of Edenspiekermann
by Adrian Shaughnessy, taken from the book - Studio Culture: the Secret Life of the Graphic Design Studio.
This is a shortened version of an interview with Erik Spiekermann. During the 1970s Spiekermann worked as a freelance designer in London before returning to Berlin in 1979 where, with two partners, he founded MetaDesign. In 2001 he left MetaDesign and started UDN (United Designers Network), with offices in Berlin, London and San Francisco. Since January 2009 he has been a director of Edenspiekermann, which employs over 100 people and has offices in Berlin and Amsterdam.
Unusually among contemporary designers, Spiekermann has a sophisticated set of theories relating to the layout, structure and management of design studios. His theories have been extensively road-tested in the various creative enterprises he has founded and run during a long career.
The interview was conducted in the offices of AIG, London.
What sort of designer had you become at this point?
Well, I'm not a very good designer; I'm an OK designer. I'm OK when it comes to complex things like grids. I like maths. I like geometry. I like multiples. How things are arranged on the page. I like that because it's all about discipline. I learnt about type through doing hot-metal typesetting. So I know that what is between the black marks is as important as the black marks themselves. With metal typesetting you have to touch it, it's not just the return key. So that's my discipline. I'm an art historian by trade; I'm slightly intellectual, maybe too intellectual. When it comes to visualizing things I'm too intellectual, it becomes too obvious. Neville Brody's the exact opposite of me. We've worked together successfully. Neville's a digital painter. He just throws it on the page and it looks great, but he can't repeat it. I'm the other way round. I provide the skeleton, I make sure things don't fall down. And he makes it look good, and I'm very happy with that.
When I set up my studio somebody said to me, ‘always employ people better then you'. It was the best advice anyone gave me. But I resisted it for a long time. It was hard to accept.
As a mediocre designer, I realized that I could look much better if I had good people. And because I'm good at certain things (I'm pretty good at type, especially the mechanical part of type, and I have a good knowledge of the historical), I can afford to hire good people. Some people are afraid of hiring better people but I've never been like that because actually it makes me look good. So the system was always that I'd hire really, really good people and let them do their shit.
That's the good thing about a large studio. If you had two or three people it is difficult because then you have the egos. When you have 20 or 30 people that evens things out. Also, the one thing I like about having more than 100 people, or more than 70 people, is you suddenly have this little grey area where you can hire two or three people who haven't really got a job description because it doesn't really matter. I hired this American programmer who I never told my partners about. He was doing database programming and C++ in the late 1990s before that really became a necessity, before we had PHP. I hired him because we could afford to.
I had another guy who was a conceptual person. He had no training whatsoever but he was just bright in a slightly weird way. You couldn't put him in a group of people. But you could feed him shit and he'd come out with this amazing stuff. Never to a schedule, never within a group, but I loved the luxury of having these guys who just prance about with bells on their caps. In a small studio you can't afford that.
Designers want to be credited for their best work. What is your view on credits?
I always give everyone a credit and make sure that everybody is in the bylines. I know how important it is to be able to say ‘I worked on this'. I don't mind listing ten names in a credit. If the client lets me, I'd put Edenspiekermann, and then list the five or six people who worked on the team. Those people can put this work in their portfolios without lying, or pretending. I've seen portfolios that people have presented to me containing work done by me. They weren't even there. Forgery has become so easy, so if you give somebody a credit, it's out in the open. Of course, a lot of clients won't let you. We have quite a few clients who will not allow any credits whatsoever, which I find very, very difficult. Also credits are not only there for your CV, it's like applause. Designers need applause, they need to be praised and I like praising people.
What do you look for when hiring a designer?
They have to know something really, really well. Something they're really good at. If somebody's good at C++, or someone's really good at drawing, it doesn't matter what it is, they just have to have one speciality. Also, they have to have general knowledge. I hate people who don't read. I hate people who don't cook, or don't know anything about music.
I couldn't work with anyone who only goes to McDonalds. I want people who know movies, who know music, who read books. As you know, not all graphic designers are ‘multidimensional'. They don't read, they don't do anything else, and I couldn't work with those people. I need team people who have general knowledge because that's what we do, and I want those freaks who can do one thing
that nobody else can do.
You touched on the importance of physical space with your diagram. What about internal details - does the furniture, the monitors, the shelving have an impact on creativity and efficiency?
Oh yeah. There are three or four major issues. The first is how you feel while you are working. I spend a lot of money on chairs. We couldn't save anything there because we spend 10-12 hours a day at work, and it's our health. At my age, I know what a bad chair can be like. Best chairs, best lighting, best desk, best equipment. I won't buy crap and I won't buy illegal software. I couldn't always afford the best furniture, but as soon as I could, I bought the best for my people. It doesn't have to look chic. I don't mind Ikea tables. They're fine as long as the y're the right height and they have the right surface. I want to have best tools, which for me always included great espresso machine, clean toilets, good drink, decent water, that sort of stuff.
The second issue is that it is not necessary to set out to impress clients. We don't need to show off. We don't need marble staircases; we don't need receptionists who constantly file their nails. But we need to show that we care.
The third part is the communal part of it. I want a space where people know what's going on. I want transparency and if we have a meeting room like the one we are in right now, with glass walls, we have transparency. But it's still sound-proof. You do certain things that need to be conducted out of earshot. Someone's review, for instance.
So privacy is necessary, but you want people to see that essentially you have your hands on the table.
Does location matter?
That's the fourth factor. It's important that the space is somewhere everyone has an easy time getting to. Here in London you could probably get cheap office space out of the centre, but if you want people to get to it easily, it has got to be in the middle of the city. The precise area is important too. People need to get out. They need to buy lunch for three or four pounds/dollars/euros, or whatever, and they also need to see other people. That's really important, that's why we get stuck in fairly expensive places. We need to be where it buzzes. You also need to bump into peers and colleagues. Wherever I go, even in London where I haven't lived for almost 20 years properly, I still bump into people I know. If I go to a bookshop I bump into people I know. I go to a pub or a restaurant and I bump into people I know. This is important.
So - a studio with good furniture, in a good urban location, near the centre of things. Anything else?
I always go round trying to tidy things. I'm not tidy myself. I'd like to be, but I fall behind like all of us and end up getting piles of paper on my desk. Then I get panicky and I file things into folders. I hate messy offices. I want clean toilets. I won't have posters all over the place. I won't have crappy notices next to the toilets; that annoys me. We don't print out stuff in Comic Sans, and even our office people in Berlin know that when they print out a notice they must use our studio typeface.
Should every studio have its own typeface?
I've always designed the typeface for every studio I've had. Always. It's easier for them to remember which one to use. I designed Unit for United Designers and now we have Espi for Edenspiekermann, and of course Meta had Meta, which I designed for them.
Do you think it's necessary for studios to socialize?
Yes, very important. We have a major crisis in Berlin at the moment; there's hardly any work. Some of the freelancers know they probably will have to go soon. The employees, the people on payroll, also know that it's getting tough. Everyone's getting cut down by 30%, and you can't just send people an email telling them this. You've got to have a get-together.
We have a tradition, when somebody has a birthday they bake a cake or they bring in a cake. Some buy it, some bake it. Now that we have 30 people, that's a birthday every other week. So there's a little email saying ‘cake in the kitchen'. Everybody knows, ‘oh it's somebody's birthday'. These things are important for team-building and loyalty-building. We have our Christmas parties, and we have our summer parties in between our picnics. We don't go over the top. We don't hire people to plan our parties. But I think they are important.
You've worked in and visited studios all over the world. Do studios exhibit national characteristics?
I've always been fascinated by how studios look different in different countries. Everybody in London works in spaces that we wouldn't even go into. Where British studios have eight people, we'd have two. You work in spaces that are incredibly small. My designers in Germany would just say ‘you gotta be joking, there's no way we'll work there.' And they'd probably call some Office of Environment Administration and they'd come and close you down because you are treating people like battery hens. Or you go to Tokyo and they work standing up. Why do Americans love partitions? They love their reception areas, and having their work on the walls. You walk into a lot of American consultancies - design studios or whatever you want to call them - and they look like advertising agencies. And in our case - in Germany - it's much more clinical. It's much more like industrial design. In the UK a lot of studios look more like artist's studios; Britain is still very art-based. British design studios never have a reception area. You always walk straight into the studio.
The full version of this interview can be found in the book Studio Culture: the Secret Life of the Graphic Design Studio, edited by Tony Brook and Adrian Shaughnessy, published by Unit Editions. The book is available to AGDA members at www.uniteditions.com
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