Rudy VanderLans, editor of Emigre

3 349 words17 min read

Some people say that thanks to the digital era, and mostly to cultural globalization, now we have a universal design language: universal codes of colors, icons, and so on. How does it fit with the original concept of Emigre, a magazine that shows how diverse the works from emigrants may be?
Obviously, the original concept for Emigre has gone through quite a few changes. When Emigre started it was meant to be a magazine for emigrant artists and their experiences. It wasn’t a design magazine but a general arts magazine. The idea was to show the work of people who had the experiences of living and traveling in foreign countries, and the effect these experiences had on their creative work. It was about global culture, but it was about the differences. We showed a variety of work, from photography to short stories to architecture to poetry. But after about 7 or 8 issues, we changed the focus to graphic design, because it was impossible to properly market a magazine that was so diverse. It was very difficult to sell advertising, and it was difficult for magazine stores to decide where to put the magazine on the newsstand. So we changed it to graphic design. It was easier to find an audience and to sell it this way. So the magazine was no longer about the idea of being and emigrant, but we kept the name, because it was by then somewhat established. Now, when we talk about globalization, we talk about making everything the same. This I find very uninteresting, because what is usually lost is any sense of indigenousness. People often submit work to be published in our magazine. We receive design work from all over the world, Singapore, New York, Hamburg, and it all looks really good, very professional. But it has started looking more and more the same. I like the idiosyncratic, and I like design that is infused with indigenous characteristics. So now I’m more interested in people who stay in one place, who do something specific that relates directly to their immediate environment, so you can see where it comes from. To me, globalization, particularly as a political idea, as it exists today, is a negative development. Because in many ways globalization means the ability for large corporations to exploit the cheap labor available in poor nations, as well as the homogenization of culture; in other words a Starbucks and MacDonald’s on every corner in every city in every country. That to me is not a good idea.

Same question, but about typography. Are we having the same problem with typography? Does typography look alike everywhere, or can you tell the country from the style?
Maybe I should slightly qualify my previous answer. There is a plurality of stylistic approaches and expressions that people are using today. This applies to both typography and type design, but it has become more and more difficult to tell where these styles originate or where they belong. There was a time when we spoke of Swiss design, for instance. And everybody instantly knew what you were talking about. It was a type of design that was easily distinguishable and it made sense that it came from Switzerland because it was clean and somewhat neutral looking. Just the type of design that you expect to come from Switzerland. This is a bit of an oversimplification, particularly since many of the designers who created ‘Swiss’ design came from Germany. But there were distinct styles and methodologies that originated in certain countries, and when these styles were adopted by designers in other countries they always came out looking differently, because they added their personal touches. I don’t see this happening in design anymore, and I can’t figure out why this is. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we all use the same tools. To design typefaces, everybody uses Fontographer, which is just about the only font creation software available. So we see a fair amount of designs that are a direct result of particular defaults and tricks that are easily generated by the software. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we spend a great deal of time looking at each others work. We did this in the past, but today we have such easy access to seeing the work of others. Compared to 10 years ago, there are many more books on design published, there are more design conferences, more design magazines, plus designers have websites where they show their work. Everybody can see what everybody is doing, and subsequently there’s a lot of cross pollination going on, a blurring of boundaries. But there are still instances where I can recognize specific styles and attitudes. Much of the type design work that comes out of Holland, for instance, has a distinct feel to it. There is a strong type design tradition in Holland, and many of today’s Dutch type designers have passed through this one program, in The Hague, where Gerrit Noordzij and his son taught. It is very traditional, very classic. The work is based on the knowledge and practice of calligraphy and a solid understanding of what has come before. And it has a robust, no nonsense feel to it, that is unmistakably Dutch.

Talking about Dutch designers, there are people like Letterror who argue that designers should program, that they should make their own tools. Here in the States, John Maeda argues from a similar point of view, talking about the ‘;autocracy of Postscript’. What’s your view on this? Do you agree with them? Should designers be programmers?
Well, it is easier said than done, isn’t it? I understand what they say. It makes sense. The more you know your tools, the better you can use them. But it doesn’t necessarily make you a better designer. Because design is much more than the ability to use your tools properly. Computers, obviously, can perform certain tasks very well. And John Maeda shows us that. I’m not a programmer. I actually very much have come to dislike technology. When the Mac was first introduced, I recognized this was a computer made for non-computer people like myself. It was very easy to use, and it allowed you to do things that were never possible before, or were very work intensive before, such as designing your own typeface. It opened up a lot of new
possibilities. And because of its crudeness it had its own visual eccentricities that you could not get with any other tool. Today, fifteen years later, computers have become very sophisticated, they can do whatever you want, but they have also become much more cumbersome to use, and they have become much more expensive. Slowly things are starting to close up again. Now you have to specialize in certain areas to do something well and to really utilize the technology. Actually, I think we’re reaching a level of computer capability that goes way beyond what I really need in order to do the kind of work I’d like to do. I actually enjoy working with restrictions. I use Quark XPress. I probably use only ten percent of the capabilities offered by Quark XPress, and I’m very happy with it. I do not feel like I’m in any way handicapped by that. For me, design is still about ideas, not technology.

Sixteen years ago we had this big debate about legibility issues in type design and typography. Which are the main lessons we’ve learned from this?
Very nice question. (laughs). Ultimately, Zuzana Licko got it right when she said that you read best what you read most. Legibility depends for a large part on what people have been exposed to the most. One of the reasons bitmap typefaces are so popular today is because we now have a whole generation of young people who grew up playing video games and surfing the net. They grew up reading text on low resolution computer and TV screens. To them bitmap fonts are easy to read. But when you compare a bitmap font to, let’s say, a printed version of Baskerville, you would say bitmaps are highly illegible. It’s all a matter of what you’re used to. And it’s also a matter of context. Peter Baines said it so well: ‘you should not confuse legibility with communication.’ You can make something legible, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that it will communicate. These are two separate things. Context is important. Good design goes far beyond just making a text legible. Graphic design sometimes also needs to draw attention, make things noticeable, create interest, make it engaging. It is a form of mediation that often goes far beyond simple notions of legibility. If legibility is our only concern, it is very easy. We figured out how to make things legible years ago. It’s the communication part that continues to be reinvented and challenged. During the heyday of Modernism and the International Style, reductivism was important. How to reduce messages to their most simplest, strongest and most universally understood essence, was important. Then, when postmodernism or deconstructivism, or whatever you want to call it, came around, there was a need to make messages more specific, attuned to the needs of very specific, usually small audiences. Modernism strived for messages to be understood universally. And that is an interesting idea. But the risk is that you’ll communicate to a lot of people, but on a slightly superficial level, and not on a deep level. With postmodernism it was the opposite. Messages were customized for specific audiences, with the intention to appeal to their specific tastes. Theoretically, both approaches make a lot of sense. It’s just a matter of knowing when to apply them. That’s the main lesson that I’ve learned from all those years of debate.

Emigre is both a magazine and a type design lab. What is the relationship among these two entities. Which one plays the main role?
Well, type design is our main business. That’s how we earn our living. We develop, produce, license and distribute typefaces. And then, to challenge ourselves creatively and intellectually, and to find ways to test and apply our fonts, we do many other things. We publish a magazine, we release music, we distribute design and artists books. We’ve even produced pajamas and ceramics. We have many interests. And many of these extracurricular activities allow us to experiment with our fonts, to apply them to real products and see how they behave. So our magazine allows us to introduce and test drive new fonts rigorously. But it also allows us to discuss the larger context in which fonts are used, and tackle associated issues such as legibility, history, copyrights, etc.

What is the situation of licensing typefaces in the US? In Spain font piracy is very common. How is the situation in the US?
I don’t know how terrible the situation is in Spain. But I’m sure it’s no worse, or no better than here in the U.S. It certainly is a big problem. We are the only distributors of our typefaces in the U.S., so when we see our typefaces used we can usually find out whether the person has bought a proper license. Half the time they have not. Half the time they use pirated fonts. And these are often professional graphic designers who are usually very concerned about professional ethics, or so they say. So it is a major problem. And it’s very sad, because these are our colleagues, our fellow designers, our peers, who take away our way of living, and who take away the royalties that we pay our type designers who are also trying to make a living. Currently, software companies such as Microsoft, but also large type foundries like Adobe and Linotype, have become very aggressive and assertive in going after the illegal use of their fonts and other software. They feel they are losing control of their software. So what they are doing is, they will allow people to come forward and pay for any software they may have in their possession illegally. No questions asked. It’s like an amnesty program. If users don’t clean up their act, and they get caught, they will be sued. I believe the software companies are in their full right to do this. However, at Emigre we’ve taken a slightly different approach. We try to appeal to people’s sense of decency and honor. But I’m afraid our approach will hardly be effective, and ultimately, in order to keep control of our software, we may have to become as litigious as the big companies.

In your last number you published the ‘everybody is a designer’ manifesto. Now the concept of a social function of design is very popular. How do you view this trend? Is it something to last or just a passing fashion?
I hope it will last. I hope it’s not just a trend. Personally I always felt very strongly, that everything you do in the world, as a person and a designer, has an effect on other people and on the environment. Like that gardener with that loud leafblower out there, which drives other people crazy... Laughs. You can make the claim that everything you do as a human being is a political act. Where you buy your groceries, what kind of groceries you buy, what newspaper you read, etc. All these acts have a particular effect upon others and the world around you, which can be both positive or negative. The same holds true for the work you do, and who you work for. If, for instance, as a designer, you choose not to work for a tobacco company, because you think smoking is bad for you, that’s a political act. But if you do want to work for that tobacco company, because you think people can choose not to smoke, and because you need to support your family and pay the rent, that’s a political act as well. There’s a social function to whatever it is you do. And graphic design, as a mediating activity, can have a major impact on people’s lives in many different ways. All the way from the use or misuse of tangible materials and resources, to the way design interprets and mixes messages. Designers can contribute, in a very direct way, to doing harm and/or doing good. I’d like to think it’s an easy choice, and I’d like to think that it’s not something we should think of as a trend or a passing fashion.

We could say that Emigre is a ‘cult magazine’ for designers. How does it feel to be in that position? Do you feel a special pressure or responsibility to publish certain issues?
Well, yes and no. It is always the goal to keep what we do exciting for both ourselves and the audience. So there’s creative pressure, but that’s a pretty healthy pressure. I wouldn’t want it any other way. But there’s also certain responsibilities. We have to be serious about what we do. It is our way of living. Our employees depend on us to do well. I depend on us to do well. We have to run a sound business. There’s a bottom line. We have no outside investors, there’s no trust fund, there’s no government grants, and we do not have a super client for whom we do design work to fund our typeface design and magazine. Everything we do at Emigre is directly supported by the sales of our fonts and our other products, such as our books, music, posters and magazine. Also, the idea of being a cult magazine sounds uncomfortable to me. I’m not sure if we fulfill that role. What we do comes very much from within ourselves. The books we publish, the topics we cover in Emigre, the fonts we release, Zuzana’s ceramics... These are all things we are personally interested in. What we do is not in any way meant to reflect a sub culture or underground movement. Maybe that was the function of Emigre in the very early days, when the Macintosh had just been introduced, and there was, what you could call, a subcultural movement of a few people who were interested in exploring this strange new design tool. But currently we do not try to belong to, or feel affinity with, any specific group or approach. So there’s no pressure to publish any specific issues dealing with particular subcultural and/or current topics. We simply follow our own personal interests and tastes. Our most recent issue of Emigre magazine featured a CD by the band Honey Barbara. I chose this to be the main editorial content for Emigre #61. I really like what Honey Barbara does and what they stand for musically, particularly their honesty and originality. And I also like how their music and lyrics are filled with references to their immediate environment, the place they live, which is Texas. But I also know their music does not easily fit any current musical style or fad, nor does it aspire to be the next big thing. It simply is what it is and I really like it. And how that fits into the larger culture or sub culture is not for me to say.

What about typography in the digital realm, so to speak? Some people think that we don’t have properly designed typefaces for use in websites, CD-ROMs, and so on. Would you say that people in the Internet business lack a general typographic knowledge?
Yes. But it’s like with all innovation. Whenever professional graphic design has an opportunity to play a big role within a new technological realm, it always shows up just a little too late. Whenever new technologies are introduced, the designer’s first reaction is to say, ‘it’s too crude, I won’t touch it. I’ll wait until it does what I’m used to doing.’ This is what happened when the Macintosh was introduced. Meanwhile, culture as a whole embraces new technology and is not going to wait for graphic designers to get their act together. It happened with the World Wide Web. By the time designers became interested, the visual language and interfacing of the web was largely established, and it was created by non-designers. There’s a guy, I think his name is Jakob Nielsen. He writes books on how to design websites, and he lectures on this topic all over the world. His books are best sellers. They sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies. Corporations pay him thousands of dollars simply to have their sites analyzed by him. And as far as I can tell, the guy knows nothing about graphic design, which becomes clear when you check out his own website. Why is it that this guy becomes so successful doing what we as professional graphic designers should be doing? It is guys such as Nielsen who establish the general tone of what a website should look like and how it should function, and it’s very difficult for professional designers to come in and proof otherwise.

Maybe we could talk a little about current trends in typography, but in the print media. Have you spotted any new tendencies?
The only trend I’m seeing today is the complete absence of a dominating style or design ideology that one can follow or rebel against. Instead there’s a plurality of styles prevalent in the world that seem to exist independent from local color and ideology and is largely concerned with how things look. But perhaps that’s what design is all about. Much of what is expected of graphic designers is that they apply certain graphic styles and expressions to the printed products of their clients. That’s what we do best. We’re style merchants.

Last question: Is everybody a designer?
I guess it all depends on what your definition of design is, which seems to grow broader and broader continually.