3 questions for Erik Spiekermann. His topic: „Don’t work for arseholes. Don’t work with arseholes.“
Before we start I have to admit that I don’t even know how to pronounce the a-word. So Erik politely describes the subtle differences between the British “arse” and the US-American “ass”. Lovely introduction – to an awkward, nevertheless important issue.
Erik, why did you choose this topic now?
Because people, from an old guy like me, they don’t want to hear about projects any more. They want general advice, experience maybe. And this topic – well: it’s about attitude.
So what is worse: to work for arseholes or to work with arseholes?
With arseholes, of course, is much worse. Because then it is very difficult to avoid them. You spend all day with them. It’s in your atmosphere, you can feel it, it’s in your mood. They can be clients as well, of course. Sometimes you don’t know it at the beginning, and sometimes you do a job because you have to, and it can be very hard if a client turns out to be an asshole. It basically means people that don’t treat us properly.
Do you see it in the results of somebody’s work if they had to work for or with arseholes?
Of course you do.
It shows in the work if you didn’t like doing it. It always gets dull and … you know … (makes a noise of disgust, then laughs). I can only say this in German, aus einem traurigen Arsch kommt niemals ein fröhlicher Furz, by Martin Luther, how to say it, well: a sad arse will never utter a cheerful fart (laughs again). Or deal with it like Queen Victoria: lay back and think of England. Lay back and think of Edenspiekermann (with a shrug). Of course it’s hard sometimes. We designers want to make the world a little bit better, if only a little, little tiny bit.
Most people in the middle management need to survive. They have to be descreet, and they spend most of their time with politics. There is the famous saying by Luc(as) de Groot, you know it, about us designers having to “happify” our clients, die Auftraggeber verglücklichen. But in many cases it means: we have to make our clients look good.
So, as a designer and head of an agency, you have to be political as well?
Yes of course. It’s all politics. It begins with the team. Who is in the team? Normally you have at least someone who is good at it, someone who has to be in it, and somebody who cannot do anything else. And then you must look at the client’s side when choosing the people for your team. How it fits. If the client is a chauvinist, you probably would not make a woman the head of your team. I mean, you can, like I experienced with Pia once (Pia Betton, partner at Edenspiekermann and Design Thinking specialist): a client who wouldn’t accept her first, only to later admit how impressed he was by “that tough little lady”. In short, making the team is the first, and yes, a political step.
Do we have to take politics into account even more when working in growing agencies and working for bigger clients?
It’s all about politics. Yes.
It takes a lot of energy and it hurts.
It hurts when you have to make things fit into the corporate greyness. When you are needed to help to make everything beige, isn’t that even worse? Beige. The color of dullness.
So can we assume that you yourself had to work for arseholes?
Of course. Lots. Lots, lots! Otherwise I wouldn’t know. There are so many of them. (Sighs deeply.) Mostly they are people who don’t like what they do, and people who can’t make decisions. It’s always the “but” thing. They say yes, we can do this and that, but … and that’s very, very frustrating. For both sides. The non-decision makers. The Stille Post, as we call it in German. It always happens in big companies: people don’t want to make mistakes. They are afraid.
How do you recognise arseholes when working for or with them? Is it possible to teach or even to warn colleagues and students about them?
It’s just a gut feeling. Forty years of experience.
Unfortunately there are people who are really nice but totally useless in their jobs. I know some of them. I like to drink a beer with them and talk privately, and they are totally nice, really, but they don’t have the possibility or the guts to decide in their jobs. Which is a pity of course.
It’s a luxury if you have a personal relationship with somebody you work with. And you can’t have a relationship with anybody you don’t trust. Everything else is post-rationalising. Sometimes you try to like somebody or you think you like somebody because you want to, you try, you try your best because you think you have to, and have to work with them. But it doesn’t function in the end.
Everybody can learn shit but you don’t learn attitude. You can’t learn character. You have it or you have it not. I prefer beginners who are nice to people who are arseholes with skills. You can learn skills. An arsehole will always be an arsehole.
Now we do have some indications. To sum it up: What is the main characteristic – or maybe there are two or three characteristics – of a non-arsehole?
(Erik smiles. A very warm, silent smile.)
Somebody who respects you as an equal.
Like we put it in our manifesto: a client that respects us, and a client we respect. I mean, when I visit the doctor, I would discuss about my body, of course, about my health, because we share the concern about my health. But I would not discuss about the medicine he or she recommends. They are the experts and I respect that. So yes, respect, from a craft perspective. Concerning our Handwerk.
And then, people have to be honest. About their reasons, what they are trying to achieve when hiring us. We need to be open, and they need to be open. Then we create mutual trust. We have done our best work for clients with whom we have a relationship over time, and that means trust. I would even accept a Friday afternoon call and a presentation on Monday if it’s for a client whom I trust, and therefore I know, it’s really urgent and they need help. But not if I have the feeling that they don’t care, and don’t even think about how they treat you.
Those are arseholes, again.
They are not partners.
That’s it, respect and trust.
And it goes both ways equally.
That’s called communication.
Thank you, Erik!
This interview took place in Berlin on September 3rd, 2014.
It was done for Design Friends on the occasion of Erik Spiekermann’s lecture in Luxembourg on September 24th, 2014. See their catalogue with a nice printed version of the interview. Photo series also taken by Sonja Knecht.
Background: Erik Spiekermann is a famous designer, typographer, type designer and author. He founded MetaDesign, SpiekermannPartners and (in 2009) Edenspiekermann in Berlin. As Edenspiekermann’s Director Text and Corporate Blogger, I was happily sitting next to Erik for two years at their former office at Friedrichstraße. Happy, because he is one of the very few people I am delighted to learn from, concerning text (and much more). I will always be thankful for that.
„Goldjunge“ Erik Spiekermann received lifetime awards as early as 2011. Please find a beautiful interview with him here and a profound video interview with Erik Spiekermann done by my friend Ole Wagner for Gestalten TV here. To dive deeper into Erik’s live and work you should get his extensive monography „Hello, I am Erik“ (auch auf Deutsch: Werkschau „Hallo, ich bin Erik“). I was lucky to participate in the book by translating the English statements of his Weggefährten (which seems to say it way better than “companions”).