Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

A conversation with Erik Spiekermann

Posted on 20 November 2012 31 comments

Just over a year ago, the folks at Ubelly asked director Johnny Daukes to shoot a conversation between me and Erik Spiekermann, in which I asked the German design legend (who is also 8 Faces’ ‘Resident Typomaniac’!) about modern type design practices in a quirky little theatre on Portobello Road. Quite how Erik managed to keep a straight face whilst talking to all that hair is beyond me.

Why am I only putting it up now, you ask? Well, no big reason — it’s just taken me a year to get round to implementing FitVids.js on my site. So there you go. Who doesn’t love a bit of old news?

If you haven’t seen it before, enjoy. We had a lot of fun shooting this.


  1. John O'Nolan

    John O'Nolan

    20 November 2012 @ 11:53AM #

    Sounds like a complete misunderstanding of what digital design is about to me. He refers repeatedly to web design and print design being no different in a couple of years, he refers to web designers “growing up” and discovering techniques used in design which have been around for centuries as if this is what web designers are aspiring to achieve. All of his arguments are operating under the incredibly flawed assumption that the only difference in the mediums of web vs print is what material they are displayed on.

    This is completely true, of course, if we are talking about just visual design. A poster displayed on paper and a poster displayed on a screen inherently contains the same set of design principles regardless of the the technology behind it. The same cannot be said, however, for anything anything else. Web designers are not visual designers, we are interactive designers. The clue is in the name, because while paper doesn’t talk back, websites do. Paper has never had moving images or elements which need to be clicked on, or elements which only appear if the user interacts with another element on the page.

    Print design relies on the user (or audience) viewing and understanding what has been placed in front of them. Digital design relies on the user viewing, understanding and interacting with what has been placed in front of them. This difference is so incredibly fundamental that the two disciplines are barely comparable, let alone converging.

    I have no doubt that Erik is an incredible graphic designer with more experience than I could hope to imagine – but his experience and understanding of digital design is rather clearly too limited.

    The statement “I’ve always maintained that the screen is just bad paper … I predict that in two years we won’t have a difference between web design and print design.” epitomises this completely.

  2. Andrew Lazarus

    Andrew Lazarus

    20 November 2012 @ 12:12PM #

    Wouldn’t it make more sense that paper is becoming more digital, it might not be the next-in-line technology, but if newspapers, magazines and other printed material (in the sense of typography and layout, not art) are creating digital versions of their ‘print’, and there are prototypes of flexible screens in a newspaper format in Japan being developed, isn’t it a matter of time before his statement becomes true? If you take this from the other side, maybe it’s not digital knowledge that he lacks, but it’s a lack of print knowledge that we have.

  3. erik spiekermann

    erik spiekermann

    20 November 2012 @ 07:36PM #


    your comment makes perfect sense if you only live in the world of interactive design – a word I never mention btw, and for good reason.

    But just as there are issues to designing on screen (interaction being just one of them, and not every screen needs to be interactive), there are many ways to design for print (not my choice of classification – where does that leave TV or signage?)).

    I have designed systems for passenger information in airports and in cities, forms for banks and for government, as well as magazines, newspapers and books. All these require different sets of tools and methods (and many of them have to account for interaction with the user or how would we know whether a timetable or a form function?), and they all need much more than considering how letters or images appear on paper (or other substrates). All I am saying is that the abilities of graphic designers to think laterally and to consider the message, the medium and the recipient qualifies them to work on screen as well. Of course you have to learn new tools like scripting, but the attitude and the applied intelligence is what makes a good designer, not the specific medium.

    I often sense a certain arrogance with interaction designers, like they are inventing a totally new way of designing. They are not, is what I am saying, because considering the specifics of these 3 components (message, medium, recipient) is what we have always done. I have been using grids to create structure since I started in the late sixties; I have been manipulating type and images to make them work under differing conditions like recipients on the move, messages on bad screens (airport signage and TV graphics), crap printing on crap paper, too many words on too little space, etc. Adding a few more criteria like interaction or moving images doesn’t frighten me, nor does it create a new type of designer: it simply adds a few more constraints. And constraints is what good designers have been striving on forever.

    Andrew totally understood me: if you knew more about “print” design, you would know what I am getting at.

  4. erik


    20 November 2012 @ 11:23PM #

    That should have been “thriving”, not “striving” in the final para, of course. Not my first language, after all.

  5. John O'Nolan

    John O'Nolan

    21 November 2012 @ 10:58AM #

    It’s funny, isn’t it? You see me as arrogant for talking about interaction design as if it’s something new. I see you (and many other print designers) as unbelievably arrogant for assuming that it isn’t.

    You don’t even use the correct terminology, Erik. You don’t need to know Java to design for the web, and you certainly don’t need to know “scripting”. If you haven’t taken the time to learn, use or understand the technologies behind web design, then it’s really quite unsurprising that you are throwing around unqualified opinions. For you to then go on to call interactive designers arrogant, however, is somewhat ironic.

    You continuously repeat the same things about grids and typography and images – and you’re right – those things are equally applicable to both print and web based design. What you fail to take into account at all, is everything else beyond visual design. Played Super Mario on a piece of paper lately? Have you rotated a piece of paper any time in the last few weeks and had its content rearrange itself to fit a new orientation? Have you used a printed map which draws directions, rotates based on your orientation, or changes based on your GPS coordinates?

    Interactive design (web design / digital design / whatever) isn’t just about how it looks. Forget grids and typography for 5 seconds. It’s actually far closer to product design. The most important part of the approach is understanding, predicting, and facilitating how people will use what you’ve created – and what they will want to accomplish with it. These things aren’t new concepts either, certainly, and yet print designers rarely understand or appreciate them.

    A poster is about as similar to a website as a bicycle is similar to a car.

    If you mean that print and digital are converging in the sense that paper is being replaced by digital, as Andrew implies, then I understand the root of your misguidance – but you’re still way off the mark. Magazines are certainly dying off in print form and moving to tablets (for example) – and yet they are hardly recogniseable beyond basic visual design when compared to their printed counterparts. “Adding a few more criteria, like interaction …” completely, completely changes how the information is structure, presented, and understood: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntyXvLnxyXk

    If you knew more about “interactive” design (hint: it has nothing remotely to do with Java), you would know what I’m getting at.

  6. João


    21 November 2012 @ 12:00PM #

    Great post.

    I know why you waited over a year to post this: to create momentum :)

  7. Paul Christian

    Paul Christian

    21 November 2012 @ 04:30PM #

    Loved the interview Elliot. If only it was longer… Erik is a man who could be interviewed for 1,5 hours and you wouldn’t be bored I think… Even if you didn’t agree with everything he said…he still takes a stand, speaks his mind… and makes you think. And specifically he makes you think about your own vision and position which is important. I could see the respect and reverence you have for him in your body language as well, which makes the interview cooler I think. Great work!

  8. Keith


    21 November 2012 @ 07:40PM #

    Elliot – this is great stuff. Thanks for posting.

    Eric – Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Really appreciate it.

    John – You should give the following a read and a good, long think: http://kruzeniski.com/2011/how-print-design-is-the-future-of-interaction/

  9. Chris Allwood

    Chris Allwood

    21 November 2012 @ 07:52PM #

    Fantastic post Elliot, really inspiring and insightful footage with Erik. Such a shame that John has managed to come across as as very naive and close minded in his understanding of the broader principals of design. He would do well to take closer note to what Erik is saying.

  10. Clément Faydi

    Clément Faydi

    21 November 2012 @ 07:59PM #

    @Elliot: Awesome interview – great hearing Erik’s thoughts.

    @John: How come you consider that graphic designers only have to deal with “how it looks like”? There’s as many interactions happening when reading a book or being guided through signage as browsing a website or using an app. Plus, you actually hold a real product in your hands so you feel something you can barely feel with IxD. Everything you’ve stated about why IxD is far different does apply to graphic design and probably also applies to every single discipline that involves design (architecture, fashion…). No need to agree with what Erik says, but it’s very sad to have such a narrow minded vision of design.

  11. Keith


    21 November 2012 @ 07:59PM #

    Erik – so sorry for the snafu on your name in my comment. Oops. :) Thanks again for taking the time.

  12. Bastian Allgeier

    Bastian Allgeier

    22 November 2012 @ 11:02AM #

    Great interview!

    I was a bit shocked when reading the first comment to be honest. Erik has always been an icon for me as a designer – for my digital design work, as well as for my print design work.

    When telling Erik Spiekermann that he has no idea about digital design you maybe shouldn’t use static images to display large amounts of text in your latest web project http://john.onolan.org/ghost/ in the first place.

  13. tdol


    22 November 2012 @ 11:28AM #

     @ John O’Nolan

    To put my response into context, — you and I reside in the same age bracket and a large portion of my work involves what you could describe as “interactive design” in UI, UX and front-end development. However, I also work on a range of print projects, involving identity, illustration, poster and book design.

    I found your arguments rather biased against, and unwilling to understand how design in print is not just visual decoration. You label designers who work in print as “print designers” and dismiss their ability to reason, design outside of print and do something other then visually decorate.

    You also appear to miss the point that all design disciplines (anything in print, web, UI, UX, typographic or product design, etc.) at their core share the same fundamental principles and approaches to solving problems.

    According to your arguments print is not an interactive medium.

    This could not be further from the truth. There are countless examples with counterpart functionality in the digital world, such flipping through pages, foldout sheets, see-through overlays, flip books, color-in books, choose your own adventure books, game boards, newspaper puzzles, designs that show different things depending on perspective, orientation, presence or absence of light and many, many more.

    And at the core, the most basic interaction is a user looking at the content on the paper and receiving feedback in form of information. The grid, typography, layout, images, contrast, – they all affect how this interaction unfolds at a basic psychological level. Designers are the architects of this, understanding the problem, analyzing constrains and facilitating how people will perceive and interact with their designs.

    Yet according to you, – “…The most important part of the approach is understanding, predicting, and facilitating how people will use what you’ve created – and what they will want to accomplish with it. These things aren’t new concepts either, certainly, and yet print designers rarely understand or appreciate them.”

    Its a great start to your quote, one we can agree on, yet the end takes all the credibility out of it.

    You go on to state, – “A poster is about as similar to a website as a bicycle is similar to a car.”

    This is a crucial quote, important to why you did not grasp the point Eric Spiekermann was making in the interview.

    A poster, a website, a bicycle and a car are identical. They all begin their life as an idea: considered, developed, researched, understood, predicted, prototyped and analyzed how/why people will use/interact with it. As they develop they grow and become different things, yet at the core they share the same design DNA.

    This DNA is an approach that is fundamental and similar across out industry, whichever design area you focus on.

    P.S. Using incorrect terminology does not make an argument wrong, furthermore it does not mean the person lacks knowledge or understanding about the subject. It is perfectly clear to what Erik Spiekermann meant by “Java” and “scripting”.

  14. Paul Grau

    Paul Grau

    22 November 2012 @ 12:11PM #

    Great interview!
    I love how Erik actually wears his “stereotype” colors. White shirt, dark trousers, red socks.

  15. erik spiekermann

    erik spiekermann

    22 November 2012 @ 02:59PM #

    @ John:

    Thank you for keeping the dialogue going, but you should read more carefully. I never accused you of being arrogant, I wrote “I often sense a certain arrogance with interaction designers”. And I never mentioned Java anywhere either. I used “scripting” but should have written “coding” instead.

I do believe that you have to know the tools used to take your ideas into whatever medium you design for. I learnt to specify typesetting, can run a printing press and photosetting equipment, develop negatives and make prints in the darkroom – not necessary skills I use today but skills that were needed at the time to make sure I was getting the best results from my typesetters, repro people and printers.

These days, I have to know enough about code to be taken seriously by the designers who work with me (there are 50 people in our Berlin studio and 70% of our work is online, you might check edenspiekermann.com). I wouldn’t touch anything beyond simple HTML and CSS myself, but I can take part in a conversation about Ruby on Rails and what other tools my colleagues suggest for a project. If you had bothered to check where I am coming from, you would not accuse me of not knowing what interactive design is

    And John (to summarize what TDOL put so very succinctly): you miss one major point. Design is first and foremost an intellectual activity which has nothing to do with what medium you work in. It is about looking at a problem, understanding it, translating it into visuals, actions, and messages. That is solving the problem, whatever medium the solution may end up in. The worst work is done by designers who have decided on a medium before they even know the problem that has to be solved. Just like a print designer (and I do not make that distinction myself) should not immediately think brochure or poster, an interaction designer should also be able to think about other media besides websites or apps. Otherwise you end up behaving like the infamous hammer: every problem looks like a nail.

  16. Jon Gold

    Jon Gold

    22 November 2012 @ 03:15PM #

    Erik — yes. My reason to encourage designers to write HTML/CSS/JS (at the very least — preferably with a basic understanding of Ruby/Python etc too) is not to be the best front-end developer in the world; nor to pry them away from their precious Illustrator; more so to facilitate communication amongst teams and to have a better appreciation for the strengths & limitations of the medium.

  17. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    22 November 2012 @ 03:31PM #

    Well said, Erik (and everyone else).

    @ John: It’s a shame you feel the need to be so snarky. You actually have a couple of valid points regarding the difference between the web and print, and I think you’d do yourself a big favour by framing those arguments in a less arrogant way.

  18. John O'Nolan

    John O'Nolan

    22 November 2012 @ 04:57PM #

    Yes Elliot, it’s rather easy to read an opinion which you don’t agree with as arrogant, and even easier to read an opinion which you do agree with as “eloquent”. It’s called [Confirmation Bias](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias), you should check it out. Fascinating stuff.

  19. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    22 November 2012 @ 05:04PM #

    @ John: If you re-read my comment, you’ll see that I said, ‘you actually have a couple of valid points,’ so it’s not that I disagree with you entirely; it’s your delivery of those opinions that are arrogant. But hey, you’ve just reinforced that with your condescending response, so well done. Really helping your cause there.

  20. John O'Nolan

    John O'Nolan

    22 November 2012 @ 05:23PM #

    And I was explaining your perception of aforementioned delivery, which you glossed right over in your efforts to type out a quick comeback.

    I don’t have a “cause” Elliot. That’s what’s great about me. I just call it like I see it. Some will agree, others won’t. Such is the way of the world.

  21. Alexander Rogahn

    Alexander Rogahn

    22 November 2012 @ 05:38PM #

    I thought the interview was great, some great insightful, thought provoking questions and answers.

    I respect Erik, John and Elliot equally, but I don’t understand the need for the above debate – one bit.

    Design has, and will, always follow the same basic principals, but it’s constantly evolving outwards. In layman’s terms: it’s solving a problem with aesthetics and marrying that with function and purpose – at least that’s my interpretation of what I’ve learned over the years. Ultimately, without first having steadfast visual design, your interactive design can only fail. Interactive Design is merely a branch off the bigger Design tree; the same that typography and grids are too.

    Erik’s point, as I believe it, was only talking about visual design specifically – so he is right – as a flat design, the screen is “bad paper”, and so this entire debate was – in my eyes – pointless.

    I really feel like people sometimes over-think design. There’s only ever three basic questions I ask myself, when designing. In order: Is it easy to ‘get’? Does it fit the purpose it was made for? Does it look appealing?

    Maybe it is me who is oversimplifying?

    As a footnote: Though I think John was undoubtedly rude and ill-informed, I’ve got to hand it to him: you’ve got to have some balls to challenge the opinion of one of, if not, the, most respected designers on the planet. For that – I commend him.

  22. Zeus


    22 November 2012 @ 09:09PM #

    Why is everyone forgetting the biggest different print and UX design?


    Traditional design methods do not propose or enforce the idea of ‘User Testing/Research’. That’s not to say that traditional designers don’t depend on research, they definitely do (see: color theory and the principles of typography, etc). However, the cycle of build → test → analyze → iterate → repeat (which is the core of most modern UX programs) is completey missing from traditional designer’s toolkit.

    User experience research and testing is something that traditional designers were simply never taught. (Don’t fool yourself into thinking it is as simple as throwing your product in front of a customer either, if you are interested in the complexities of UXD Research, see: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/user-research-methods.html for a start)

    To me, this is the critical difference between a traditional designer and a UXD:

    One makes decisions based on best practices and their personal intuition, while the other only starts with the best practices, and then conducts rigorous testing and relies on the data to verify their decisions.

    I could be wrong, but I’ve never seen a ‘print designer’ hang his poster on the street and take notes as people walked by.

    Note: There are are plenty of designers calling themselves UX designers that don’t fit my depiction of the data-driven beasts I make them out to be. Imho, these are not `true` UX designers.

  23. erik spiekermann

    erik spiekermann

    23 November 2012 @ 02:15AM #


    Very good point, except I wouldn’t put it down to research, but the main difference between what some “interactive“ designers call “print” design (which would have to include advertising in print and on TV, movie titles, TV graphics, wayfinding, periodicals, newspapers, information graphics etc) is that all these disciplines result in one artefact, however shortlived, like in a TV ad which may only appear once, but potentially in front of millions of people. A website, however, is never finished. Its visual appearance can be drastically changed with a few keystrokes (colours, fonts, images) and everything else is constantly under revision. That is why agile has become the process we use; designing, analyzing, critiquing, revising in a constant loop. A poster, a magazine, a print ad can only be dealt with after is has manifested itself in a more or less permanent form. You can pull an ad after one appearance and a lot of posters do not get printed more than once, but when these objects are out, they are what our work gets judged by. Nobody cares whether we should have had more budget, another week, a better photographer or a more risk-taking client. We are what we produce.

    Apps for tablets and smartphones are updated so frequently that we, the public, are the beta-testers, even when we have paid for them. And websites are always in beta anyway. Not all our clients understand this, but they will have to get it sooner or later.

    Yes, the working methods are different between the disciplines, not because of history, but by definition. That, however, doesn’t mean that us “old” designers (yes, I am 65) don’t understand interaction design. It doesn’t mean that I will be a brilliant interaction designer tomorrow and a competent coder the day after, but I can certainly use my experience to define the issue at hand and judge the result.

    What do we do: we take a problem apart and look at the pieces. Add some new ones, take some away, change their appearance and the way they interact (sic). Then we put the pieces together again. A communication problem may thus first become a poster, a poster turn into a brochure, a brochure into a website, a website into an app. Our skills are that we translate complex issues into artefacts that people can comprehend. In order to do so, we ourselves have to understand the problem at hand, just as an interpreter must understand not only the language he listens to, but also the content of what is said.

    And that is why I keep insisting that design is an intellectual discipline, regardless of the end result. Self-proclaimed specialists trying to divide us by claiming superior knowledge lead us back to where we were before Gutenberg invented movable type: knowledge should only belong to a small, privileged group of people. Those outside that group are heretics and not worthy. As a strong believer in reason, science and progress I will always insist that designers across all disciplines, cultures and generations work together, share knowledge and experiences. We have nothing to lose but our blinkers.

  24. Matthew Butterick

    Matthew Butterick

    26 November 2012 @ 02:14AM #

    Erik is correct, of course, that interactivity is not the sine qua non of the web, because “not every screen needs to be interactive.”

    But on the issue of what web designers can learn from print, we can go one better and notice that interaction design, broadly understood, is a consideration in a lot of print design. For instance, dictionaries. Phone books. Tax returns. Legal forms. Maps. Airport signage. Travel guides. Train schedules. The list goes on. (It’s also a consideration in many other kinds of design, including industrial design, architecture, and so on.)

    In these situations, the thoughtful designer is not just considering how the marks appear on the object, but also: Under what conditions will the reader experience this message? What will the reader want to know next (or do next)? How do we get the reader to the goal? This feedback loop between human and designed object is the essence of interaction design. Pointing and clicking with a mouse on a web page — that’s just one domain-specific manifestation of the general problem. Those who disagree should get out of the house more, because the evidence is all around.

    Research is also not the sine qua non of web design (or if you must, UX design). Let’s note that design research — any design research — will only happen when the difference in economic value between good and bad design is greater than the cost of the research. Therefore, for most print projects — and most web projects — research isn’t done. Not because the designers are ignorant, but because it would be economically pointless to do so.

    If you want to see research on print design, you have to look in places where a lot of money is riding on the printed document—most prominently, direct mail and advertising. Pick up any book by David Ogilvy to read how he imposed research methods on print design. Or go work a year or two at a company that does mail-order catalogs. The material is out there if you’re curious enough to find it.

    More broadly, this discussion exemplifies the rut that many web vs. print discussions have fallen into over the years. Yes, web designers of the world, there are print designers who are hostile toward the web. So what? Painting with too broad a brush is the traditional refuge of those who want to avoid learning new things.

    Nobody has a successful 40-year career in design, let alone a career like Erik’s, by bumping around in the dark for decades. Designers who have more experience than you are just that: designers with more experience. There are always lessons to be learned in that experience, if you’re willing to look closely enough. As Erik says, looking closely — losing the blinkers, sharing knowledge and experience — is an essential feature of design.

    And those who refuse to pay attention, see nothing.

  25. erik spiekermann

    erik spiekermann

    26 November 2012 @ 06:52PM #

    Thank you, Matthew. Very well put.

    While it seems obvious to most “ordinary/old/traditional/print/analogue” designers (pick whatever suits your prejudice) that we have the recipients’ reaction in mind when we work, some UX designers (or whatever they are called these days), do have more specific actions in mind. It is, for instance, quite difficult to anticipate a user’s reaction to a movie: will she skip it half-way through, pick up later, go back to a normal “page”, forward to another medium, move to another site, etc? Old style breadcrumb navigation doesn’t cut it anymore on smartphones or with sites that incorporate external links and other media.

    So, yes, these are things that designers have to learn to work with, but what I have been saying is that most of that is craft, and we keep having to learn new crafts and tools all the time anyway. A designer’s particular mindset is what makes us good at solving problems of any kind, be they visual or not. And solving the problem happens in your head well before a page is opened, a pen is put to paper or a mouse to pad.

    At the expense of upsetting even more of those UX designers who deem us “print” people a lower form of life, I would like to suggest that we have been doing responsive design forever. If I have to turn the contents of a brochure into a book, I never simply reduced the brochure pages, as some webdesigners do when they make a 960px browser page show up very small in Safari on the iPhone. I would not only rearrange the brochure copy on a book page, possibly in one instead of several columns. I would also redesign the structure, making longer paragraphs, put bigger images in different places, even rewrite headlines and copy; in other words: allow for a different reading mode and possibly a different audience.

    As Matthew writes, there’s a lot to learn, for everybody.

  26. Vincent


    30 November 2012 @ 05:06PM #

    Interesting Interview.

  27. Michael Dunbar

    Michael Dunbar

    06 December 2012 @ 03:37PM #

    Great interview and an even better discussion on here afterwards.

    It is excellent that as desginers, which we all are after all, we can debate like this but rather sad that we can’t do it without looking down our noses at one another.

    We can learn a lot from “new” and “traditional” forms of design and designers who specialise in creating solutions for various mediums if we stop constantly competing and just collaborate.

  28. Nicolai Olesen

    Nicolai Olesen

    06 December 2012 @ 02:16AM #


    “If you can design one thing, you can design everything” – Massimo Vignelli

    If you understand the fundamentale of design, you can design in every context. This is basically what Erik is conveying.

  29. James Smalley

    James Smalley

    10 December 2012 @ 05:31PM #

    Erik is a bit of god in the digital design world! For those that comment that he does not know how to design, maybe look in the mirror!!!!

  30. Joel Glovier

    Joel Glovier

    11 December 2012 @ 05:25PM #

    What a treat. Really. In a day and age when the most experienced and talented of my peers are younger than me or only slightly older, it is so refreshing to know that there are still some patron saints of design who have been designing longer than I have been alive, and have deep wisdom and experience to draw from. Elliot and Erik, thank you BOTH so much for sharing.

  31. Adam Wilson

    Adam Wilson

    13 December 2012 @ 09:10PM #

    I remember watching this the first time round, laughed so much. Just seemed like a really great days work, so happy we got to see into Erik’s head for a while.

    Couldn’t agree more about what he says about grids though. As someone (barely) under 30 I’ve based everything I’ve ever designed around grids. Odd and even structures, those old newspaper days really helped everything I’ve ever done.

    I find it such a shame when we have a young designer or student in the office and they can’t understand a simple 16 column grid and its divisibles. The building blocks of magazines thats for sure.

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