What do you feel is the biggest challenge for a typographer in 2017?
There is more copycatting than there has been. I can see two approaches. One is that you have a creative urge to design a typeface because you want to. You have an idea, and you don’t care whether it’s been done before. You want to express yourself in the writing system, so you design a typeface. If you’re very lucky, it’s unusual, it works, and it goes somewhere. These days, that happens now and again. Then the other school is that you have maybe a thousand foundries, and everybody has their version of the classics – Times, Helvetica, Futura, whatever – that they’ve done by going a little on either side of the classical direction. So that’s a thousand foundries, times 20, and now we have a few hundred thousand fonts. I’ve always designed typefaces for specific solutions. In other words, a problem. Everything has always been done for a specific purpose. As a designer, you work for somebody else. That’s not negative. I work for a client, and I solve their problems. I bring my artistic vision to it, my creativity, whatever you want to call it. But essentially, I’m being paid to blow somebody else’s trumpet.
When you look at what other people are making these days, who is inspiring to you?
I love some of the stuff that my ex-colleagues and friends are doing. One of my favorites is Commercial Type’s Christian Schwartz. In New York, I like Steven Heller, who writes a book a day, kind of. And Paula Scher and Louise Fili. Their work is so different from my work, and I thrive on that. Louise, who does mostly packaging and restaurants: I love that stuff, mainly because I can’t do it. And Paula’s rigorous approach to typography. I love that. And there’s always a bit of envy there, because I don’t have those clients. But more than envy, there’s appreciation. All these people have attitude. And I like people with attitude – that is probably the common denominator here.
As an eminence in the world of design and typography, does your reputation make it harder or easier to create?
It’s a bit of both. I mean, there’s a lot of disadvantages to being old. I hate being old.
I wouldn’t say you’re old.
Well, I’m 70, which is darn old. The advantage of being older is that you have no fear. You go into a new project and think, Look, I’ve done something like this before. I’ve cracked this one. We redesigned the visual identity for the Berlin Transport Authority after the Berlin Wall came down – chaos. We redesigned the Düsseldorf airport signage within four weeks after a fire. Every time you get a project, you think, “My god, how do I start?” The start is the most important part, and that’s where confidence comes in. When you’re older you have the confidence. And how do you start? You start by looking at the project and taking it apart, like boys and their toys. Then you put the parts back together. Sometimes you have a part left over, or you find parts that are redundant, or parts that need redoing. And then it will be new. The final thing about being older is that I won’t take bad behavior from clients. Like I said, no free pitches.