This article originally appeared on AIGA’s Eye on Design blog.
It’s fitting that the first words in Hello, I am Erik (Gestalten), the phenomenal new monograph by Johannes Erler about typographer, designer, and entrepreneur, Erik Spiekermann, are about the type used in the book. It’s even more fitting that the chosen typeface, Real, is one of Spiekermann’s own, and by way of an introduction he doesn’t just list the various weights and styles used throughout the text, he details how it was inspired by Akzidenz-Grotesk, fondly referred to as AG, or “the mother of all sans serifs,” and which he had “cast in hot metal” for use in his letterpress studio in Berlin. Things are already heating up, and we haven’t even hit page one yet.
It’s this visceral approach (to say nothing of his deep-seated love affair with type) Spiekermann brings to his work that makes him one of the most exciting communication designers of his generation, and a legend in his own time. And Erler, a longtime friend and colleague, gives the reader more than a glimpse into Spiekermann’s “own special world;” he effectively draws back the curtain and invites us into Spiekermann’s family home and private office. While I don’t claim to be an expert on the graphic design monograph, it’s rare to see so much of a designer’s work presented along with so much personal context. As a result, you not only get to know the man behind the design (for better and for worse), but you gain a fresh appreciation for his work.
Neville Brody, who Spiekermann partnered with on FontShop and later FUSE, describes his demeanour as “[swaying] gloriously from inspiring to infuriating, from impatient to incredibly interested, interesting, and impassioned.” That picture of Spiekermann is reinforced by many of his other designer friends who lend their voice to Erler’s narrative—Christoph Niemann, Michael Bierut, and Stefan Sagmeister, to name just a few.
We also hear from his family. When Spiekermann was 12 his father gave him his first case of type. At first, this spawned a love for typesetting simply as a way to communicate written information, but eventually he started to care about the way the letters looked.
“Communication becomes type becomes design…I aim to be clear, because I find there’s so much to discover and understand.”
Spiekermann is first shown to us in light of his German forefathers: Herbert Bayer, the Bauhaus modernist, Jan Tschichold, the grid-based “New Typographer,” Willy Fleckhaus, the outspoken iconoclast, and Otl Aicher, the purpose-driven democratic designer. What follows shows what Spiekermann has learned from “the big four,” and proves beyond all doubt that he’s earned a seat at the table.
But his devotion to clarity and grid-based design is apparently the result of the natural disorder of his own mind. “I’m totally chaotic!” Spiekermann insists. “I’m so untogether, my left leg doesn’t even know what my right leg is doing. I need order. I need systems. I don’t really do anything without a design grid.”
So where does type come into play? Spiekermann’s work in communication design has involved so many different projects: books, advertisements, posters, editorial, corporate design—“typography is the element that connects them.”
Not that he planned it this way, of course. According to him, his career and the legacy of work he’s created just sort of happened. “I never had a plan,” he insists. “At least, not one that was longer than two hours.”