Handen vrij – Sonja Knecht, tekstmaker (1)

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Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, we introduced a series about crafts. In ‘Handen vrij’ (a proper translation is challenging) I interviewed a cartoonist, a letter cutter and a woodworker.
In 2017, I read about Sonja Knecht’s craft, her love and knowledge of ‘Text’ and handwriting. After attending a summer course led by her and Christoph Rauscher at UdK in 2020, I’ve invited her to be part of the series. Sonja happily accepted and we subsequently planned a video call to interview her. Since the interview was conducted in English and professionally translating it to Dutch would take too long, this is our first post in English. We hope this doesn’t discourage our readers, the questions remain the same as in the previous interviews. And, to make it easier on the eyes, we offer the interview in two parts.
I’d like to end with thanking Sonja for the opportunity, we hope you enjoy the story!

Interview date: March 12, 2021. Reading time approx. 12 min. per episode.

Sonja Knecht (photo: Norman Posselt)

Sonja Knecht was born in Indonesia, grew up in Venezuela, and is deep-rooted in Deutsch. She studied languages and humanities; explorations as a graphic artist led her to what she loves most: typography and text – text as language, designed.
She supports companies and cultural institutions as a brand strategist and communication expert. Formerly she was Edenspiekermann’s Director Text; for TYPO International Design Talks she built up a 30-people editorial team and served as their moderator. Since 2016, Sonja is a lecturer at Berlin University of the Arts’ Visual Communication program, a guest lecturer at several design schools, and sets up customized workshops for her clients. Today, more than ever, Sonja concentrates on public developments in language and reflects them in her art.

So Sonja, what does a typical working day look like for you?

It depends on what I’m working on, and it changes through the year. Of course, now with pandemics we all are under restrictions; at the same time it leaves us with some kind of non-scheduled freedom. I tried to implement some regularities. I start – well, if I have appointments, I try to set them at eleven in the morning or at three in the afternoon; so, I start accordingly at around ten. With the possibility to go into evenings. I don’t have a super regular dinner time, unfortunately; I try to set it at seven. My teaching at UdK Berlin always starts at ten. So, these are the fixed things and I have mostly a late breakfast and then lunch at half past one. This is when I go downstairs to the office and meet my husband, to eat with him. Then I grab a coffee and return upstairs.

Here upstairs, in the roof, where we live, I have my only own room with no access of other people. Which I love. So it became my studio. Downstairs it’s LucasFonts, currently a team of five. I used to work in that big studio as well but with all the online calls now and my online teaching it’s not possible to work at the same time. I love the big studio on quiet weekends, especially in summer, when it’s too hot in the penthouse.

As it is the place where you spend most of your time, could you describe your workplace?

I have a big screen and a small MacBook on a square white desk here in my room. It was supposed to be a non-computer, non-digital room with books, pencils, and paper only. Our living room is huge but not suitable for concentrated calls; also Lucas is a night worker and would get up late and walk the kitchen in the background. It’s hard to distinguish between private and professional life for us. The last year we spent adapting to the situation and coordinate our working and teaching, with his university in Potsdam and my Berlin university, who soon decided to do online teaching only. They literally closed their buildings.

Teaching Editorial Design at Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design, Halle (photo: Arne Winter)

It’s really a pity, my UdK Berlin teaching location is in short walking distance and they have large rooms. Most of all: reading and writing exercises and interaction and group feedback works much better face to face. I’d rather see my students.

My workplace studio also has a day bed, which is covered with books and artwork. This room is filled with books. There’s another shelf here to my left and there’s another big desk to my right. I’m sitting at the earlier mentioned smaller desk with a wide-screen computer, and I have job folders all around me, on little side desks and on the floor. I have three wooden side desks with beautiful carvings which look totally non-office, they stem from Indonesia where I was born, my parents got them back then. Now those three Indonesian desks helped me build my workplace here. What else… I do printouts, and I collect and work with them. They are added with handwritten notes. I try to use paper carefully. But I need manuscripts in the true sense of the word… I have lots of notebooks for different thoughts and different work. They also are on that big, non-digital desk, to my right-hand side, which is white. That one is the classical Eiermann-Tisch, very functional, used by many artists and designers in Germany.

There is a shuttered window on my right and there’s also a window in my front, behind the screen, with closed curtains (curtains in a light stone or sand colour); otherwise, it would be too bright. It has doors which I can open, but no real balcony. When I look out of that window, I see big trees and the back of a beautiful old red-brick school building; and I hear the kids in their breaks (if they are here, we have home schooling now). Behind the large window to my right I have green vines through which I see the white street-front building (we are in the backyard). Big balconies. Sometimes people.

‘I like to work with what I find.’

The bookshelf you see on the wall behind me is from my grandmother, it’s old and the wood is slightly broken. My grandmother lived in the north of Germany. She was a war refugee in 1945 with two small children and came from former Prussia (now Poland). My lovely grandmother only had a few books and some decorations on this shelf in her very small living room, compared to nowadays. I like this shelf a lot. It’s elegant and delicate and practically narrow. And then that other white typically cubic shelf is from this Swedish manufacturer, and I have the same on the other side; not that nice, but practical, the big books and folders would fit. The other wooden shelf next to the door was built by Lucas, he brought it from his former apartment. It is open on the sides and fits perfectly behind that door. I like to use what I have and work with what I find. Happy incidents.

All my personal books are here. I still have all the dictionaries downstairs – which I never use because I use online dictionaries, to be save they are always up to date. I love dictionaries. Also my archive and working material and art books are downstairs (see photo below), completed works and collected things with which I like to do something at some point. They’ll have their time.

Workspace at LucasFonts (photo: Luc(as) de Groot)

So here we are now in this very luxurious home-office-garden-workshop situation. Lucas and I are super lucky. We have a lot of space. Still, it was stressful to adopt and sometimes it still is, if you consider, does it ever change again? Currently I notice that it’s getting harder to keep up my mood, my discipline, and my energy level.

Let’s go to what are you working on now. I think you’ve mentioned it more or less already. But the thing is I was thinking before the interview, of course you have your professional work and like you said, your art. So you can either focus on both of them or just on the artwork.

I can give you a quick overview on that, on the official work and assignments first, to give you an idea of my profession.

Last year I had one big assignment, it stretched over three months. It was about developing a name and naming strategies for a product to be implemented in the market this year. It is under non-disclosure for obvious reasons, but I can say that the client is Festool, a classic German company founded almost 100 years ago.

Festool’s brand manager contacted me because she saw some of my public talks. I’m super proud about working with them. And very impressed. Now, with my second assignment and as I get to know the team closer, it becomes even more interesting. Currently we plan that I’d support Festool in their internal workshops for brand and product communication. They work in German originally, obviously, and then roll out in 22 languages to cover global audiences. Festool has more than 2.600 people worldwide and they operate from their headquarters in a tiny village in Southern Germany, the area my father’s side of the family actually comes from and where my cousins still live. Looking forward to visiting them when the situation changes. Same for clients as for students: to meet in person, at least once, makes things much easier going, more productive, and much more fun.

The other very recent assignment is with a design agency here in Berlin. It’s my first assignment with them. We met because one of their founders is also a professor at UdK Berlin. This is a classic, strategic corporate wording assignment for a public housing company. A great thing: they did employee interviews as groundwork to develop a communication strategy. Excellent way of learning about their language. This is my first step when working for an institution that is new to me: a lot of research in the company and in the respective industry.

And then I do my teaching, as mentioned before. Currently I’m preparing a seminar and a one-week summer workshop at Berlin University of the Arts. Plus smaller, shorter lectures for text topics such as naming, structure, and gender, with institutions that offer talks and workshops for professionals working in branding, communication and graphic design.

This is my straightforward professional work. The corporate work and the teaching. Before we come to the artistic work – it’s so hard for me to differentiate between my ‘job’ and my art. There isn’t something in between. Or rather, there is something that bridges both: in essence, of course, it is all about words, about language. Sprache ist mein Werkstoff.

I watch and I listen, and I observe and collect all the time. Things I find in the streets. I take notes, and I take a lot of pictures. Pictures of words. I did not realize how intensely and intentionally I do this until a student of mine asked me to do a project with my pictures. How she sorts my photos in a new way fascinates me. She gave me the feeling that these pictures, my pictures of words, are interesting artistically. We spoke about their context or non-context and how they function when rearranged.

I also collect words and verbal impressions by listening to people. Especially when I travel in public transport in Berlin. I don’t know why, but Berlin bus drivers – they are a specific bunch of people. Probably because they are so exposed, in direct contact with their passengers. They must be really quick and smart in dialogues. They are so witty!

‘Take the bus!’

There is a certain route I took to the agency where I noticed so many different verbal identities – referring to my profession here, again: language is always about identity, of course, not just corporate or brand identities. Same with people. Young people, elderly people, tourists, shy people, or the typical Berliners, who are not shy at all. They shout about their private stuff in public, and then those bus drivers might react so charming even in their special ways, sometimes flirtatious. I tweeted a lot about that. At some point people asked me, are you on an assignment for BVG (Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe), for their campaign or something? I said no, I’m just a total fan. I love public transport. I love the drivers, I love the bus as a vehicle, and the tram, the Straßenbahn we have in the former eastern part of Berlin. I very much recommend it. If you are in a city or if you are lucky to have public transport of any kind. use it and listen to people. Take the bus!

It’s very hard to translate the specific Berlin attitude. It’s always a bit harsh. We say hart, aber herzlich in German, like: really rough, but warm-hearted. It’s a very human and humorous attitude. Very direct. For example, one of my favourite quotes was about this dangerously driving cyclist, riding very, very close to the bus. The bus driver very calmly said: ‘Well, I hope he wears his organ donor’s certificate visibly on him…’. I could go on like this for hours. Obviously, it’s the bus drivers I miss mostly, these days. So yes, I study their language. I study public language if you will. And I condense my thoughts on that, sometimes I quote from that. I collect those quotes and some of them appear on Twitter, some of them appear in other contexts, in my talks, in my teaching.

Yes, in social media – the so-called ‘social’ media – it’s Twitter for me, as it is the only text medium. Twitter is like a public notebook. Paper notebooks are first though, and most useful. I always have three or four notebooks on my desk, and I carry them with me. I take down quick notes and quotes with pencils on paper. It is much easier than with any digital tool. But don’t use any ballpoint pens, Kugelschreiber; they spoil your handwriting! Please don’t. Use Bleistift. Pencils are best and they are the fastest. I always have half a dozen of them on my desk. Sharpened.

Thinking about public language: There are two issues that disturb me in recent years. One disturbs me very much and one is difficult and fun. The severely worrying one is the rise of fascist language, since 2016, when the former U.S. president climbed the stage. It got me into a phase of depression. After that I made one of my most important talks, at TYPO Berlin in 2018, where I kind of condensed these worries in my Text, Sex, Scheiẞe lecture. Scheiße is German for shit.

Speaking at TYPO Berlin, 2018 in Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt (photo © Norman Posselt / Monotype)

This is the thing I continue to observe with a lot of sorrow: the thing that’s going on in language, the rising of fascist developments, not only in the U.S. but also in Germany and Europe. Worldwide actually. You can notice those developments at a very, very early stage in language. The words people use tell it all. Their tone, their ways of saying things… This is the one very big topic. It was not my decision to observe it, but I observed it. This means I cannot not observe it and I cannot not be worried. And I try to attract attention to it. I try to deal with it personally and in my job. I tell people in my private life and in my professional life – again, there is no distinction. You cannot just note or possibly agree to or even use this vocabulary, extremist, fascist vocabulary. Please be aware of people who do. Note that tone.

If you consider this an activist position, I am a language activist. It’s natural to me. Being a language activist is just making very conscious use of language and tell people to please be aware of the words they use. You help them by saying: ‘if you say this, I get the notion that you have this attitude, which I question’. Even if it’s your own father or close friend, or even more so a politician that is becoming popular: it’s essentially important to take note of their language. And to speak up. Language influences everything. Inevitably, I treat this in my artistic work as it jumps at me anyway. I just stress these things I notice. Same in my teaching. Most important!

The second topic, more fun and very complex, is the ‘gender star’ issue we have in Germany. It is tricky, but way less dramatic than it is being discussed. It’s interesting though how for some people, mainly men, it is becoming increasingly threatening, that we would address women (and possibly other diverse, non-male genders) distinctively in German. Right-wing party members even try and make a polarising issue out of it.

‘Held*in’ (photo: Sonja Knecht)

I try to make it less dramatic. I bring together the typographic and the linguistic aspects of gender-sensitive language and to relax everyone. There are so many possibilities, language is flexible! The fact that it can be fun, and it can be cool to try and adapt to sociological developments, which we have to find new words for, new ways of expressing ourselves, is something that alleviates people. Yes, with gender-sensitive, and in general: with inclusive language it’s hard for many to adopt. It is becoming the number one topic. Yes, it might appear complicated, but you can just as well be straightforward and creative here and find well-suited solutions for your team, your company, your personal way of speaking.

‘There are so many possibilities, language is flexible!’

Yes, it’s an effort to deal with your influences and education, to reflect on that and to maybe change your habits. Linguistic habits here. Linguistic habits are highly personal. Language is very close to us.

I consult my clients about that; I help them evolve their personal and corporate wording. I pay attention to their heritage and context. I consult people about a useful, sensitive language, a language that suits them and does make sense. Regarding what they want to express and with regard to their audiences, their target groups, if you will. I support my clients in making decisions, clear and conscious decisions, about their use of language.

I find this highly interesting. And challenging. I totally enjoy speaking with people about how they speak. How we address and how we understand each other. How to make words work for us.

To be continued …

Part 2 of the interview continues here

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