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"Many rules of the craft have been forgotten"

Erik Spiekermann, born in 1947, is one of the most well-known typeface designers in the world.

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"Many rules of the craft have been forgotten"

Erik Spiekermann, born in 1947, is one of the most well-known typeface designers in the world. His work ranges from signage systems for airports (Düsseldorf) and underground trains (Berlin) to stamps and media: he designed the corporate typefaces of Bosch and Deutsche Bahn, the relaunch of the British "Economist" and, yes, even the small e in today's WELT brand logo. Book design is a matter close to his heart.

“Graphic artists are known to love making posters. Secondly, maybe book covers. I'm actually much more interested in books inside. After all, you read books – and not just look at them. So how are they designed in print? Due to today's computer typesetting, many rules of the craft have been forgotten. For example, when going from a right to a left page, i.e. when turning over, I would never hyphenate words.”

Anyone who only speaks to Spiekermann for five minutes is more aware of the way books are handled. “The shape hasn't really changed in 500 years. We still have two hands and two eyes, side by side, so the fact that I can open a book as a double page, i.e. landscape format and hold it with both hands and read it with both eyes, makes sense. The portrait format of the phone, on the other hand, is a disaster. Anyone who emphasizes this today is sometimes smiled at as old-fashioned, but certain continuities have their simple reason in the human physiognomy.”

Today, the haptic is more important to him than ever, which is why the entrepreneur, who founded companies such as MetaDesign, FontShop and EdenSpiekermann, now runs his printing workshop (Hacking Gutenberg: P98a) with an affiliated publishing house (TOC Berlin). Touching things is "the best way for people to understand something, that's why it's called that". Which books Spiekermann likes to hold in his hands and why, he reveals below in his own words:

My absolute favorite book is by a Swiss. Specialist literature, completely nerdy, but it contains everything a person could possibly know about typographic design. The textbook, published in 1980 by the publishing house of the professional association of Swiss typographers, consists of two volumes: "Technical basics for typesetting" and "Mathematical basics for typesetting". The math book is superfluous today because the computer calculates everything. But the basics that compositional technique once had are contained here in a sensationally comprehensive way. Can you multiply octal numbers? No? You're probably wondering what octal numbers are anyway...

The volume on the technical basics deals with writing systems. Here, for example, Bosshard has classified all the jewelry inventory that one can encounter in written documents. Borders: lilies, roses, acorn leaves, fir branches, lichens... arabesques: simple ribbons, plaited ribbons, braided ribbons, chain ribbons, beaded ribbons… What drives a person to grasp all of this? This meticulousness is a bit reminiscent of people who recreate the Eiffel Tower with matches. But: Bosshard's compendium contains the erudition of a Renaissance man. Every industry needs people who have comprehensive and also a little pedantic knowledge. Bosshard, born in 1929, is one of the most important living experts in his field. You can also eat great schnitzel with him in Zurich and drink a good wine.

If I want to praise a single work that I have produced myself, then of course it has to be our Fontbook catalogue. The typeface encyclopedia lists more than 17,000 typefaces, all classified. As a book, the compendium weighs almost six kilos in its last printed edition from 2007 - actually much too heavy, but as the last rebellion of the analog before the digital, it was intentional.

A mammoth work that reflects the status of the international typeface market in three languages ​​(English, German, French) and lists classics of the printing art as well as the typeface successes of the computer generation. With the "FontBook" I once became almost as encyclopedic as Bosshard. Even today, I get a headache when I think about the challenge of proofreading: After ten minutes of concentrated reading of typefaces, everything melts away.

I was 15 or 16 when I bought the first Dtv books, I remember the often three-line headlines and the white cover with the distinctive drawing. According to conventional industry laws, such a design could not work: white envelope! That doesn't work, it gets dirty immediately! It was daring to do something ahead of its time against the omniscient salespeople, but of course it worked, especially since the covers were laminated with a glossy finish, making them insensitive. The concept was simple: a single typeface, Akzidenz Grotesk semi-bold (for literature; AG Normal then for specialist books) and drawings by a Swiss graphic artist with a name that fitted his pictures: Celestino (heavenly!) Piatti.

I met him in Frankfurt on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the publishing house: a charming, unassuming colleague who was himself surprised by the success of this simple concept. His drawings were immediately recognizable: colored figures with bold outlines. The Bernard Buffet of the book cover! In art this style was called mannered, for dtv he created an image that immediately turned the publisher into a brand. Today I know that Celestino Piatti had a major influence on my career choice. In recent years I have designed more than 50 books for the Berlin Secession Verlag, both the covers and the typographic concept and typesetting of the text. And since I allow myself the luxury of reading the books I design beforehand, I've also come back to novels. I had almost completely given up fiction for about 20 years.

A classic of fine literature, which is one of my all-time favorites and which still gives me goosebumps when I read it, is Kleist's story "Michael Kohlhaas". In terms of scale, this is actually a Greek tragedy: it's about a horse dealer who suffers so many blatant injustices that he throws himself into blind vigilantism. This is understandable on the one hand and suicidal on the other. Like everything by Kleist, the story is not told at length, which impressed me even as a schoolboy. The Reclam exercise book from my school days wasn't yellow yet, but rather looked scruffy with its chamois paper.

I have remained a Kleist fan. It was only years ago that I was made aware of his legendary essay “On the Gradual Formation of Thoughts While Speaking”, which is contained in a letter. A friend mentioned it to allude to my professional inclination to walk into a conversation without a plan but to get off the table with a solid plan. Later I had the Kleist essay translated into English (PDF). John S. Taylor translated it: "On the gradual completion of thoughts during speech". A bilingual edition produced in post-digital book printing has just been published by TOC Verlag.

Here's another hero from my line of work, who definitely deserves a tribute, because Adrian Frutiger (1928-2015) was probably the most influential inventor of typefaces of the 20th century. A Swiss who worked mainly in Paris. We were friends too. My son, who is English, translated Frutiger's book "Fonts" into English in 2009. For me as a typeface designer, Frutiger's typeface oeuvre is the work at all.

It may not be known to everyone out there, but Frutiger designed the typeface for Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, for example, the Frutiger, which in a modified form, namely Astra-Frutiger, later also became the typeface for the traffic signs on the Swiss motorways became. My typeface for BVG is also based on Frutiger.

I have around 3,000 books at home, most of them specialist books, of course. Who needs all of them? But I adore the Other Library created by Hans Magnus Enzensberger in 1985 and own practically all 400 volumes of this series, which was initially designed and published by Franz Greno. "The Watermark of Poetry" was one of the first volumes in the series that impressed me. A milestone in book design, especially in the typesetting of the text.

The Other Library fills a separate wall of shelves in the hallway at my house. The series, which has been published by Aufbau for a number of years, always offers discoveries and has retained its bibliophilic charm in terms of equipment and design. I am also pleased that there are always new and especially young designers working there. After more than ten years as editor by Christian Döring, the writer Julia Franck will be the new editor next year.

For a long time I only knew Twain as a reader in English. Then, many years ago in America, in a bookstore under the trees in Ojai, California, I bought Twain in German. "Selected humorous writings" in a dirt cheap, red bound Imperial Edition, set in Fraktur, from 1895 or so. In the volume "Travel Pictures" there is also a wonderful text about Berlin. Twain spent a long time in Europe in the 1870s and 1890s. When comparing the German and English original editions, I noticed that the Robert Lutz publishing house in Stuttgart deleted several not-so-nice passages. Apparently they didn't want to make too much mockery of Berlin from the Wilhelmine audience.

I also really like Mark Twain's funny essay The Awful German Language, which first appeared in the 1880 appendix to A Tramp Abroad. The predecessor book, published in 1869, the report of his Mediterranean cruise on board the "Quaker City", which takes him to Egypt and the Holy Land ("The Innocents Abroad", dt. "The innocent abroad") is one of them funniest texts that exist by Twain at all. Unsuspecting compatriots, as he described them then, still travel the world as cruise tourists. In that respect, not much has changed. I prefer to read Twain in English because nobody has taken the trouble to appropriately translate his humor into German.

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