The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

So Meta

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Adrian Shaughnessy talks to Erik Spiekermann about his typeface FF Meta, the corporate font of Herman Miller, for the company magazine WHY:

FF Meta was not designed with Herman Miller in mind, however. It was designed for the German Post Office (Deutsche Bundespost), which hired Spiekermann to rethink the entire graphic design system for the organization—everything from order forms to the once ubiquitous telephone directories. Deutsche Bundespost’s previous font? Like Herman Miller, it was Helvetica. With typical forthrightness, the then 38-year-old Spiekermann urged them to drop it, announcing that it was “unfit for purpose” and “overused.”

Spiekermann recognized that it was the Bundespost’s phone books that offered the greatest potential to benefit from a new typeface: “With just a change of typeface you could save a million trees and be a hero,” he recalls. And so he set about designing FF Meta (then called PT55), a process that involved meticulous research into the proportions of classic letterforms and analysis of developments in printing technology. “We have a great German word, ‘Kopfgeburt’—it means something that springs from your brain. The design of Meta wasn’t like that at all. The process was very theoretical. It wasn’t emotional. This was because at that time I had no experience and couldn’t rely on talent or practice. Everything had to be deducted.”

So thorough was Spiekermann’s process that he arranged to have his new letterforms tested for legibility by perception scientists at Braunschweig University of Technology. “There was a guy there who looked at it, and in his view, there was a little too much ‘noise,’ which you can see in my early drawings. So, I toned down the contrast. There were a couple of numerals that he said were a little too in love with themselves—mannered, in other words.”

 

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