Erik Spiekermann | Essays


At first, Flat Eric just wasn’t flat enough. The opposite problem is true when exhibiting the work of typeface designers: it’s not three-dimensional. That’s not to say that the process isn’t full of layers.

Anybody remember this—a puppet called Flat Eric [sic] built by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop? The character was flat because a car had run over his head, which didn’t stop him and his friend Angel from riding around California, eluding the police. The French music producer Mr. Oizo featured Flat Eric in a video. Mr. Oizo, aka Quentin Dupieux, said of his collaboration with Henson, “When they first made him he looked too much like Kermit. He had a rounded body, which he isn’t supposed to have.” While I do remember seeing the video, or perhaps some Flat Eric commercials, I wouldn’t know all this information without MuppetWiki (which really does exist; this Internet thing is amazing sometimes). 

I was reminded of this when I underwent the opposite experience in 2011, going from being a very flat Erik to being an “Erik in space.” On the occasion of my being given the Federal German Design Prize for Lifetime Achievement (not bragging, just quoting), someone had the stupid idea to announce an exhibition of my work at the venerable Bauhaus Archives in Berlin. All my stuff—essentially flat pieces—had to be displayed in a gallery space, which by definition is three-dimensional, i.e., not flat at all. I may have been given a lifetime award (doesn’t that sound like an early obituary?), but I am not one of those old graphic designers who has spent his life doing posters or book covers—nor even record sleeves, let alone CD covers. Such works would have simply required an investment in some cool black picture frames and a trip to the framing shop. Bingo! There would have been an exhibition of flat stuff that the gallery people could simply hang on the walls, thus magically creating a spatial experience, or so curators often think.  

In graphic design BD (Before Digital), the originals were never made to be seen—they were made for reproduction only. Before we all had computers on our laps, the process of designing involved telling other people how to make things for us. Designers back then had to write legibly because we would spend a lot of our time writing instructions to typesetters, photographers, printers, and model-makers. Every designer friend I know loves looking at the traces of that process: how did he sketch, what did she write, how precise were their instructions? Some of those rough napkin scribbles end up framed as art, simply because the messages inscribed on them are too obscure to communicate anything to anybody outside the circle of initiated professionals.

As I expected most of the visitors to my exhibition to be other designers, I decided to display not simply the results of my efforts—logos, brochures, books, CD manuals, typeface showings—but some of the process that was involved in getting there. If you work mostly on large corporate design systems, as I have done, the actual results are seen in what other people make of the grids, rules, and instructions that we devise. For example, I couldn’t show an annual report, which although it had been designed following our instructions, was not directly designed by us, just as my type designs are never seen naked, in the flesh, but always through somebody else using my fonts. More often than not, I am totally and pleasantly surprised by how good some designers make them look. Occasionally, of course, I am disgusted. Designing a typeface is like writing a pop song: once it’s out there, you cannot stop anyone from singing it in the shower, horribly out of tune. 

My laziness by far surpasses my vanity and as a result my archives are patchy, to say the least. A fire, two floods, one break-in and several moves have further diminished what little I considered worth keeping in the first place. Putting those few bits and pieces on the walls, and making no effort to redress the effects of time and general negligence, still served to illustrate the way even complex design systems start with little scraps of paper that might nevertheless tell a story to those who have learned to read them. Black frames and neatly cut mounts would have elevated those fragments way above their worth. 

We made a feature out of the lack of slick originals by using pieces of corrugated card, screwed directly to the walls, and gluing sketches, proofs, print-outs, and complete books onto them. Heaps of materials created more than just one flat layer, while showing the process added a fourth dimension: time. Turning a bug into a feature also got us out of the “art” corner that any gallery space tends to have whatever is displayed on its hallowed walls. Like Flat Eric, what we do is fit only for commercials. 

This piece was originally published in the May 2011 issue of Blueprint

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