Tag Archives: research

Eye Magazine | Feature | Meta’s tectonic man

Eye Magazine | Feature | Meta’s tectonic man.


FF Meta on the ZVV Nighttime network map, Zurich

Invitation Retail Design Conference, 2012 (FF Meta Serif and FF Meta)

Invitation Retail Design Conference, 2012 (FF Meta Serif and FF Meta)

Stamo ‘Liberalisme’, Belgium, 1996

Stamo ‘Liberalisme’, Belgium, 1996

Book cover Hermann Hesse biography

Book cover Hermann Hesse biography (Suhrkamp)

Erik Spiekermann is a consummate pluralist. Able to move, seemingly without effort, between roles as a typographer, designer, writer, public speaker and merchandiser, he was once even a politician – A Green Party member of the Berlin Senate. Spiekermann is the author of Stop Stealing Sheep and Rhyme & Reason – two models of typographic rectitude for a lay audience – and the articulate upholder of standards of public design in many a conference lecture. He is the designer of Meta, one of the most successful typefaces of this decade, and founder of the typeface distribution company FontShop.


‘I am a typographic designer. A typographic designer starts from the word up; a graphic designer starts from the picture down.’


But how, then, does Spiekermann distinguish his approach from that of an avowed graphic designer such as Gert Dumbar?

‘Dumbar always uses space. He can’t have three-dimensional space because paper is flat, so instead he uses cross-sections – he dissects objects in space and puts them on the flat page. He is a spatial kind of image guy: he thinks in theatrical terms. I think in page terms. The page is the lowest common denominator of the book system. The page is the molecule and the atom is the word. You see, I read. I read before I design, and I write. I design outwards from words.’


His conversation is a stream of aphorism and metaphor. On national stereotypes in graphic design, for instance, we learn: ‘France is olive shaped; Holland is triangular, always very pointy and narrow; Germany is very square; and England is round.’ And on being a designer: ‘I am a servant, I’m not an artist. If I was an artist I would be oval, like an olive.’

As a typographic designer, however, Spiekermann is distinctively quadrilateral. His trademarks are a rectangular or braced bar that bleeds off the page and a palette of just two colours – black and red, in the craft tradition. While he is generous with words, Spiekermann is extremely parsimonious when dispensing colour, shape and typographic variation.


He has written that his intention for Meta was that it be ‘neutral design – not fashionable, nor nostalgic’, yet also ‘unmistakable and characteristic’. As far as is possible, these apparently mutually exclusive aims are resolved in the finished version. Meta has a News Gothic base – neutral – with an exaggerated contrast between bowl and counter-shapes for legibility and highly distinctive curved and flared (or ‘pseudo-serif’) stems. The fact that it has become the height of typographic fashion is ironic rather than blameworthy. Meta is a blue-collar typeface, workmanlike, practical, sleeves rolled up ready to do a job. It is well-balanced, neither pretty nor elegant, pragmatic but not unprincipled – not unlike its maker. Spiekermann is contemptuous of modern type which puts geometric harmony before contrast and therefore before legibility (he means Helvetica) and of highly formalised, theoretical design. ‘I detest Rotis,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘It’s overstarched, too perfect. I like to leave some dirt in my work, some imperfection. That’s why I like deadlines and budgets, otherwise the work can be too finished.’

‘Legibility is not communication; but in order to communicate type has to be legible’ is a truism with which MetaDesign likes to decorate its stationery. Another company motto, ‘My role is to communicate my client’s message – not my own’, sounds self-righteous until Spiekermann elaborates by adding the notion of interpretation, removing the conceit of objectivity. ‘What I like to do most is to interpret a message so that people can understand it. At the same time I like to add colour, in the journalistic sense, by using colourful language, in my case visual language.’

This is another compromise, between the mechanical constraints of legibility and the creation of a pleasing visual narrative, or simply of variety – legibility is qualified by readability. Information design and public signage have usually been regarded as zones of pure functionality in which there is no need to persuade people to want to read. But according to Spiekermann, the communication of hard information may be enhanced rather than impaired by the stimulation of the brain’s emotional centres. The trick (the word is used advisedly, it implies sleight of hand) is to add colour without sacrificing clarity. You can see the theory in action in MetaDesign’s timetable for the BVG, with its simple elaborated typography bounded by tectonic elements – bars, arrows, circles, each doing a job of signage – and underlaid by a page-sized circle in a contrasting tint out of which the bus number is printed. There is a manifest danger that this will make the timetable harder to read, in direct proportion to the extra visual stimulus it provides. The dilemma is solved by the change of scale between the display and the text faces, which forces the eye to focus on one or the other, rarely both.

The same principle is applied to the signage system for the newly unified Berlin underground and overground railways. MetaDesign exploits the riot of colour provided by the inherited coding of 19 different S-bahn, U-bahn and regional lines and adds to it the favourite brew of squares, pictograms, arrows and bars to grab attention and indicate direction. The result is noisy, a striking contrast to, for instance, Vignelli’s frankly dreary scheme for Milan or his austere, industrial New York subway signage. Does it work? Nobody knows. Sitting and consistency of implementation are at least as important as typography in a system as complex as Berlin’s city transport, yet MetaDesign has had almost no control over the way its work has been used and there has been no systematic evaluation of its success through pilot programmes. Spiekermann regrets this, of course. Many signs are poorly positioned and carry too much information and he would like to know how effective the system is.

The problem with such projects lies in establishing the boundaries of graphic (or typographic) design: where does graphics end and behavioural science begin? And how are clients to be persuaded to give designers greater responsibility? MetaDesign has provided good answers to both these questions in its corporate design work. But in information design, where the client is usually a state enterprise or city council, political manoeuvring and committee mentality foster conservatism. Spiekermann continues to complain that what the subway signs say and where they are placed are beyond his control.

MetaDesign preceded its work for BVG with a subjective study of how people act on the underground. The designers went to the stations, looked and learned, yet Spiekermann remains suspicious of schemes based on objective scientific analysis: ‘You know what to do from experience and intuition. You don’t have to go down the research route. Cognitive science ignores the fact that people are fuzzy, meaning out of focus – they have all sorts of personal preoccupations and don’t all act the same way.’ Spiekermann prefers to rely on his ‘designer’s instinct’, his informal rationalism and non-aligned, undogmatic common sense. Though he can draw on empirical and quantative studies of legibility and has evolved his own heuristic approach to readability, these lack the force to move German bureaucracy.

To recognise that the education of clients is as important as the genius of the designer is to lose innocence, to mature. The complete designer must be acquainted with the baser skills of persuasion, cunning and diplomacy. Spiekermann, who possesses the first two but lacks the third, used to protest too much that jobs turned out badly because of the client’s short-sightedness. Now, when I ask him what are his ambitions for MetaDesign, he responds immediately: ‘We must become more professional.’ This means, for instance, that MetaDesign now employs a psychologist to orchestrate client presentations and to persuade the designers to work in teams.


The method which might be said to be grounded in the principles of typographic design, consists in devising a framework of constants and variables based on proportion, orientation, spatial arrangement, colour and, of course, type, which combine to form a distinctive but flexible system. ‘A system offers an infinite number of possibilities,’ observes Spiekermann, ‘and a scheme is dead.’

Proportion is the fundamental constant. ‘I always use what we call rational proportions,’ says Spiekermann. ‘There are 20 rational rectangles, for example. The golden section is one, the DIN section another, 2:3, 4:3, et cetera. Proportion is the common denominator of any page or surface and it provides the basic discipline, out of which we derive the grid, and then add colour: the grid for reason, the colour for emotion.’ But Spiekermann himself uses only two colours: red and black. He admits that his colour sense is undeveloped: ‘Maybe deliberately so, I don’t know. But I certainly don’t trust it. I know colours are emotional and I don’t want to make a statement exactly about it, but … ’. For once he is nonplussed, because MetaDesign and Spiekermann are no longer synonymous, though he remains its primary force. He recovers, ‘Uli is our colour woman. She’s absolutely brilliant. She spends half an hour with a Pantone book and comes up with amazing colour combinations.’

Colour is used in a confined way, almost always within rational shapes, most commonly the bar or broken rectangle. Usually Spiekermann – or rather MetaDesign, for all its designers follow the same principle – will bleed the bar to provide a dynamic tectonic element which defies the arbitrary confines of the page. This element is common to Spiekermann’s personal card, his type specimen sheets and forms for Berthold, MetaDesign’s stationery, the Berlin city identity, the identity for Cologne-based radio station WDR, the Berlin railway signage, et cetera. The BVG identity does not include the bleed, but only because the client forbade it.

We spent a long time talking about this device, long enough for Spiekermann to begin to bristle. ‘How can we spend so much time talking about a stupid piece of rectangle?’ But is there not a danger that the elements of the system are too repetitious? Might not the DIN style be replaced by an equally ubiquitous Spiekermann style?

The answer combines attack with defence. In attack: ‘The device is used for obvious reason. It’s tectonic: it’s a roof, it’s the slab across the door. The square denotes territory, and it works like a colon, pointing somewhere , and like a hand on a shoulder it is possessive, saying “this belongs to this”; it represents the corporate embrace.’ In defence: ‘I must admit I am always appalled when I’m doing another tectonic element, but the page is tectonic, the page is rectangular – I didn’t invent it. I agree with you, there is a danger. I have a very limited box of tricks, but it is because they are so obvious and so rational. Yet despite this few people use them because they are trying so hard to be clever or to excel, or they simply cannot see the obvious.’

‘Don’t forget,’ he adds, ‘that I have to stay within my cultural framework otherwise I won’t communicate.’ I am reminded that the cultural framework is German. I think of the Lufthansa in-flight magazine I flipped through on the plane, set in three sizes of one weight of Helvetica, looking about as convivial as a mail-order catalogue for plumbing equipment. It helps me to understand why, when contemplating acts of typographic non-conformity as minor as making 7 point caption type bolder rather than lighter, Spiekermann cannot help a devilish glint coming to his eye. In Germany there is a way of doing things and you diverge from the norm – The Deutsche Industrie Normen – only at your peril.

The strength and flexibility of MetaDesign’s systematic approach is evident in the brevity of its corporate design manuals, which tend to contain a set of principles rather than a dictionary of canon law in which the design of every last item of stationery, product packaging or delivery vehicle livery is set in stone. ‘An identity manual is not stable – it must react to change within the company,’ says Mayer. This approach is symptomatic of the way digital production has transformed the nature of corporate design. Creating systems for use by non-designers is now an increasingly important process, as is the implementation of production systems, the installation of templates, logotypes and pi-fonts, and putting database management systems in place. These are all skills Spiekermann has nurtured since his work with Berthold in the mid 1980s. MetaDesign’s practice is based on the belief that without due attention to this larger part of any corporate design programme – consultation, implementation, training and maintenance – its visible manifestation will be weak and incomplete. The method exposes the fallacy that graphic design is solely about the creation of good-looking visual images – here it is as much about enabling others to create. In stark contrast with the heroic designer / client relationship of the past in which the designer sought direct access to an aristocratic chief executive, MetaDesign seeks consultation at every level in order to command support and participation. As a consequence, its solutions have tended to towards distributed, modular forms and away from monolithic identities.


MetaDesign is marked by consistent ingenuity and quality – Qualität, to use the nation’s favourite expression – rather than by creativity or pictorial brilliance. Indeed, its pictorial work is sometimes heavy and unimaginative by British or Dutch standards, but like Spiekermann himself, most of its designers are trained to start from the word rather than from the image. As Spiekermann says, ‘I provide the grammar. I’m the modest guy in the background. Nobody ever said, “Wow, what a great grid”.’

MetaDesign’s character is derived to a large extent from Spiekermann’s own motivation, which is the promotion of a high standard of public life rather than the private pursuit of transient beauty. He says he became a designer to change things that annoyed him as a citizen: ‘I use the underground every day, I use forms every day, I use my city every day. Street furniture, signage advertising – their standard is a measure of the quality of life. That’s why design, that kind of design, is so important to me – it is the interpreting of data, it is making the world accessible.’


Spiekermann is clearly happiest when the words he communicates can be seen to serve the public good. I suspect that in this respect, he is a citizen before he is a designer. He undoubtedly adheres to notions of ‘good taste’ and is something of an aesthete, but if the typographic designer in him has any moral superiority, it lies in his conviction that the meaning of words is more important than how they look. What words look like matters so that they will be noticed and understood. For Spiekermann, typographic rigour is about the preservation of literacy and efficient communication and not, as with some other sticklers in his own country and abroad, a fetish for what is pure and correct.


A World Digital Library Is Coming True! by Robert Darnton | The New York Review of Books

A World Digital Library Is Coming True! by Robert Darnton | The New York Review of Books.


In the scramble to gain market share in cyberspace, something is getting lost: the public interest. Libraries and laboratories—crucial nodes of the World Wide Web—are buckling under economic pressure, and the information they diffuse is being diverted away from the public sphere, where it can do most good.

Not that information comes free or “wants to be free,” as Internet enthusiasts proclaimed twenty years ago.1 It comes filtered through expensive technologies and financed by powerful corporations. No one can ignore the economic realities that underlie the new information age, but who would argue that we have reached the right balance between commercialization and democratization?

Consider the cost of scientific periodicals, most of which are published exclusively online. It has increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1986. The average price of a year’s subscription to a chemistry journal is now $4,044. In 1970 it was $33. A subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology cost $30,860 in 2012—the equivalent of six hundred monographs. Three giant publishers—Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and Springer—publish 42 percent of all academic articles, and they make giant profits from them. In 2013 Elsevier turned a 39 percent profit on an income of £2.1 billion from its science, technical, and medical journals.

All over the country research libraries are canceling subscriptions to academic journals, because they are caught between decreasing budgets and increasing costs. The logic of the bottom line is inescapable, but there is a higher logic that deserves consideration—namely, that the public should have access to knowledge produced with public funds.


The struggle over academic journals should not be dismissed as an “academic question,” because a great deal is at stake. Access to research drives large sectors of the economy—the freer and quicker the access, the more powerful its effect. The Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion in federal funds to develop, and thanks to the free accessibility of the results, it has already produced $796 billion in commercial applications. Linux, the free, open-source software system, has brought in billions in revenue for many companies, including Google.


According to a study completed in 2006 by John Houghton, a specialist in the economics of information, a 5 percent increase in the accessibility of research would have produced an increase in productivity worth $16 billion.


Yet accessibility may decrease, because the price of journals has escalated so disastrously that libraries—and also hospitals, small-scale laboratories, and data-driven enterprises—are canceling subscriptions. Publishers respond by charging still more to institutions with budgets strong enough to carry the additional weight.


In the long run, journals can be sustained only through a transformation of the economic basis of academic publishing. The current system developed as a component of the professionalization of academic disciplines in the nineteenth century. It served the public interest well through most of the twentieth century, but it has become dysfunctional in the age of the Internet.


The entire system of communicating research could be made less expensive and more beneficial for the public by a process known as “flipping.” Instead of subsisting on subscriptions, a flipped journal covers its costs by charging processing fees before publication and making its articles freely available, as “open access,” afterward. That will sound strange to many academic authors. Why, they may ask, should we pay to get published? But they may not understand the dysfunctions of the present system, in which they furnish the research, writing, and refereeing free of charge to the subscription journals and then buy back the product of their work—not personally, of course, but through their libraries—at an exorbitant price. The public pays twice—first as taxpayers who subsidize the research, then as taxpayers or tuition payers who support public or private university libraries.

By creating open-access journals, a flipped system directly benefits the public. Anyone can consult the research free of charge online, and libraries are liberated from the spiraling costs of subscriptions. Of course, the publication expenses do not evaporate miraculously, but they are greatly reduced, especially for nonprofit journals, which do not need to satisfy shareholders. The processing fees, which can run to a thousand dollars or more, depending on the complexities of the text and the process of peer review, can be covered in various ways. They are often included in research grants to scientists, and they are increasingly financed by the author’s university or a group of universities.


The main impediment to public-spirited publishing of this kind is not financial. It involves prestige. Scientists prefer to publish in expensive journals like Nature, Science, and Cell, because the aura attached to them glows on CVs and promotes careers. But some prominent scientists have undercut the prestige effect by founding open-access journals and recruiting the best talent to write and referee for them. Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate in physiology and medicine, has made a huge success of Public Library of Science, and Paul Crutzen, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, has done the same with Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. They have proven the feasibility of high-quality, open-access journals. Not only do they cover costs through processing fees, but they produce a profit—or rather, a “surplus,” which they invest in further open-access projects.


DASH now includes 17,000 articles, and it has registered three million downloads from countries in every continent. Repositories in other universities also report very high scores in their counts of downloads. They make knowledge available to a broad public, including researchers who have no connection to an academic institution; and at the same time, they make it possible for writers to reach far more readers than would be possible by means of subscription journals.

The desire to reach readers may be one of the most underestimated forces in the world of knowledge. Aside from journal articles, academics produce a large numbers of books, yet they rarely make much money from them. Authors in general derive little income from a book a year or two after its publication. Once its commercial life has ended, it dies a slow death, lying unread, except for rare occasions, on the shelves of libraries, inaccessible to the vast majority of readers. At that stage, authors generally have one dominant desire—for their work to circulate freely through the public; and their interest coincides with the goals of the open-access movement.


All sorts of complexities remain to be worked out before such a plan can succeed: How to accommodate the interests of publishers, who want to keep books on their backlists? Where to leave room for rights holders to opt out and for the revival of books that take on new economic life? Whether to devise some form of royalties, as in the extended collective licensing programs that have proven to be successful in the Scandinavian countries? It should be possible to enlist vested interests in a solution that will serve the public interest, not by appealing to altruism but rather by rethinking business plans in ways that will make the most of modern technology.

Several experimental enterprises illustrate possibilities of this kind. Knowledge Unlatched gathers commitments and collects funds from libraries that agree to purchase scholarly books at rates that will guarantee payment of a fixed amount to the publishers who are taking part in the program. The more libraries participating in the pool, the lower the price each will have to pay. While electronic editions of the books will be available everywhere free of charge through Knowledge Unlatched, the subscribing libraries will have the exclusive right to download and print out copies.


OpenEdition Books, located in Marseille, operates on a somewhat similar principle. It provides a platform for publishers who want to develop open-access online collections, and it sells the e-content to subscribers in formats that can be downloaded and printed. Operating from Cambridge, England, Open Book Publishers also charges for PDFs, which can be used with print-on-demand technology to produce physical books, and it applies the income to subsidies for free copies online. It recruits academic authors who are willing to provide manuscripts without payment in order to reach the largest possible audience and to further the cause of open access.

The famous quip of Samuel Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” no longer has the force of a self-evident truth in the age of the Internet. By tapping the goodwill of unpaid authors, Open Book Publishers has produced forty-one books in the humanities and social sciences, all rigorously peer-reviewed, since its foundation in 2008. “We envisage a world in which all research is freely available to all readers,” it proclaims on its website.


Google set out to digitize millions of books in research libraries and then proposed to sell subscriptions to the resulting database. Having provided the books to Google free of charge, the libraries would then have to buy back access to them, in digital form, at a price to be determined by Google and that could escalate as disastrously as the prices of scholarly journals.

Google Book Search actually began as a search service, which made available only snippets or short passages of books. But because many of the books were covered by copyright, Google was sued by the rights holders; and after lengthy negotiations the plaintiffs and Google agreed on a settlement, which transformed the search service into a gigantic commercial library financed by subscriptions. But the settlement had to be approved by a court, and on March 22, 2011, the Southern Federal District Court of New York rejected it on the grounds that, among other things, it threatened to constitute a monopoly in restraint of trade. That decision put an end to Google’s project and cleared the way for the DPLA to offer digitized holdings—but nothing covered by copyright—to readers everywhere, free of charge.

Aside from its not-for-profit character, the DPLA differs from Google Book Search in a crucial respect: it is not a vertical organization erected on a database of its own. It is a distributed, horizontal system, which links digital collections already in the possession of the participating institutions, and it does so by means of a technological infrastructure that makes them instantly available to the user with one click on an electronic device. It is fundamentally horizontal, both in organization and in spirit.

Instead of working from the top down, the DPLA relies on “service hubs,” or small administrative centers, to promote local collections and aggregate them at the state level. “Content hubs” located in institutions with collections of at least 250,000 items—for example, the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institution, and the collective digital repository known as HathiTrust—provide the bulk of the DPLA’s holdings. There are now two dozen service and content hubs, and soon, if financing can be found, they will exist in every state of the union.

Such horizontality reinforces the democratizing impulse behind the DPLA. Although it is a small, nonprofit corporation with headquarters and a minimal staff in Boston, the DPLA functions as a network that covers the entire country. It relies heavily on volunteers. More than a thousand computer scientists collaborated free of charge in the design of its infrastructure, which aggregates metadata (catalog-type descriptions of documents) in a way that allows easy searching.

Therefore, for example, a ninth-grader in Dallas who is preparing a report on an episode of the American Revolution can download a manuscript from New York, a pamphlet from Chicago, and a map from San Francisco in order to study them side by side. Unfortunately, he or she will not be able to consult any recent books, because copyright laws keep virtually everything published after 1923 out of the public domain. But the courts, which are considering a flurry of cases about the “fair use” of copyright, may sustain a broad-enough interpretation for the DPLA to make a great deal of post-1923 material available for educational purposes.

A small army of volunteer “Community Reps,” mainly librarians with technical skills, is fanning out across the country to promote various outreach programs sponsored by the DPLA. They reinforce the work of the service hubs, which concentrate on public libraries as centers of collection-building. A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is financing a Public Library Partnerships Project to train local librarians in the latest digital technologies. Equipped with new skills, the librarians will invite people to bring in material of their own—family letters, high school yearbooks, postcard collections stored in trunks and attics—to be digitized, curated, preserved, and made accessible online by the DPLA. While developing local community consciousness about culture and history, this project will also help integrate local collections in the national network.


In these and other ways, the DPLA will go beyond its basic mission of making the cultural heritage of America available to all Americans. It will provide opportunities for them to interact with the material and to develop materials of their own. It will empower librarians and reinforce public libraries everywhere, not only in the United States. Its technological infrastructure has been designed to be interoperable with that of Europeana, a similar enterprise that is aggregating the holdings of libraries in the twenty-eight member states of the European Union. The DPLA’s collections include works in more than four hundred languages, and nearly 30 percent of its users come from outside the US. Ten years from now, the DPLA’s first year of activity may look like the beginning of an international library system.

It would be naive, however, to imagine a future free from the vested interests that have blocked the flow of information in the past. The lobbies at work in Washington also operate in Brussels, and a newly elected European Parliament will soon have to deal with the same issues that remain to be resolved in the US Congress. Commercialization and democratization operate on a global scale, and a great deal of access must be opened before the World Wide Web can accommodate a worldwide library.