Erik Spiekermann, one of the best known typographers and graphic designers in the world, talks about his new Galerie P98a project to redefine letterpress in the digital age…
We recently spoke with Erik about his passion for combining the digital and the analog, his advice for emerging designers, and his favorite makers.
Can you tell us a bit more about how P98a is redefining letterpress?
We want to make type using laser engravers, CNC routers and 3-D printing. We’re also making our own polymer plates and are happy mixing old and new technologies. I have already designed a typeface to be cut with a pantograph, the old method now almost extinct. Using digital outlines, I addressed issues specific to that production process, like not having any sharp corners which would have to be finished by hand, making the process slow and too expensive.
At P98a, we’re looking at which constraints are useful, what mechanical methods can offer to people trained in digital ones, and whether the letterpress process can offer more than nostalgia and dirty fingernails.
What other makers do you collaborate with at P98a?
I share the workshop with Jan Gassel and Ferdinand Ulrich. Ferdinand was one of my students before I retired from teaching and then he became my assistant and archivist. Jan worked and studied in Switzerland, England and the US, and our paths crossed many times. He is very fluent with code as well as mechanical things. Both are much younger than me but have the same interest in bringing the digital and the analog together.
Can you describe your path as a maker?
I was a printer and typesetter while at university studying art history. When my printshop burned down in 1977, I became a graphic designer – essentially a printer without hardware. Now, after 40 years in front of computer screens, I’m back using my hands and not having all the type in the world at my fingertips. I thrive on constraints. We won’t ignore our digital knowledge but bring together the digital and the analog, like making new wood type from digital outlines.
You’ve achieved great success. How would you advise emerging makers on building their personal brand and getting noticed?
I never consciously built my brand. Just worked and told people about it. I’ve always considered other designers not competitors but colleagues. I shared my knowledge as much as my failures and perhaps that has made me credible amongst other designers.
What is your favorite thing you’ve made and why?
The passenger information system for public transit in Berlin. 1990, just after the wall had come down, the two halves of the city didn’t know anything about each other. Our work made it easier for people to use the city and to see it as one for the first time since 1961. The system still works after almost 25 years. Every time I see a yellow bus or tram or underground train, I am reminded that our work can be useful as well as pretty. And we got paid.
Who are some of your favorite makers?
I love people who build good bicycles, like American Cyclery in SF and Cicli Berlinetta in Berlin. Both have built great bicycles for me and my wife. I also like Rob Forbes who started Design Within Reach, then sold his shares and started Public Bikes in SF with the charter to change the way people use bikes in the US: away from just sports to being the preferred mode of transport in cities.
My brother has a company, Electric Espresso. He converted Italian three-wheelers to electric drive, put La Marzocco espresso machines, a water tank and a grinder inside them and can now serve great espresso everywhere. He can even drive those cars into buildings because they have no emissions.
What are your sources of inspiration?
Everything. I am curious to the point of obsessiveness.