Critical Conditions:
Zuzana Licko, Rudy VanderLans, and the Emigre Spirit

By Michael Dooley

This essay was first published in 1998 in the book Graphic Design USA 18.

For over a decade of typeface design and magazine publishing, Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans have withstood virulent attacks from an entrenched design establishment as well as from their contemporaries. Throughout it all, they continued to pursue their unique visions and, consequently, have been a prime force in revolutionizing the industry and cultivating a spirit of exploration.

Brian Eno’s quip about the Velvet Underground - that only a few thousand people bought their record but every one of them went on to form a band - could apply as well to Emigre. Although the print run of the first issue was 500 copies and its circulation peaked at 7,000 several years ago, its reverberations are still being felt around the world. The magazine that VanderLans published and art directed, and the fonts Licko developed for it, have stimulated designers to defy, and even overthrow, entrenched rules and to set new standards.

Neither Licko nor VanderLans set out to transform the face of modern design. They achieved their notoriety rather unconventionally. Bay Area designer Chuck Byrne, who has closely observed their career since its inception, explains: “In the last fifty years or so, making a reputation for yourself was basically a process of winning competitions, getting your work published, and going around pontificating to the world about how great you are. What drove the establishment crazy was that Rudy and Zuzana totally short-circuited this apprenticeship and became famous simply by designing for this international group of admirers.”

Licko was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, and moved to the United States at the age of seven. Her father, a biomathematician, provided her with access to computers and the opportunity to design her first typeface, a Greek alphabet, for his personal use. She entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1981 as an undergraduate. She had planned to study architecture, but changed her major to visual studies and pursued a graphic communications degree. Being left-handed, she hated her calligraphy class, where she was forced to write with her right hand.

VanderLans was born in the Hague, Holland, and attended the Royal Academy of Fine Art from 1974 to 1979. Initially aspiring to become an illustrator, he enrolled in the graphic design department. After an apprenticeship at Wim Crouwel’s Total Design studio, he did corporate identity work at Vorm Vijf and Tel Design. When his application to the UC Berkeley graduate program was accepted in 1981, he moved to California, where he met Licko. They were married in 1983.

Also in 1983, mistakenly thinking he was applying for a job at Chronicle Books, VanderLans found himself at the San Francisco Chronicle. He was hired by the editorial art director to do illustrations, cover designs, and graphs. His frustrations with the harsh demands of a daily newspaper motivated him to seek other creative outlets.

Emigre magazine was originally intended as a cultural journal to showcase artists, photographers, poets, and architects. The first issue was put together in 1984 in a 11.5” by 17” format by VanderLans and two other Dutch immigrants. Since there was no budget for typesetting, the text was primarily typewriter type that had been resized on a photocopier.

Working with the newly invented Macintosh computer and a bitmap font tool, Licko began creating fonts for the magazine. Emperor, Oakland, and Emigre were designed as coarse bitmapped faces to accommodate low-resolution printer output. They were used in Emigre #2, and, after several readers inquired about their availability, she began running ads for them in issue three.

By 1987, the other founders had left Emigre magazine. Working under the title Emigre Graphics, Licko edited screen fonts at Adobe Systems, Inc., while VanderLans, who had left the Chronicle, designed new magazines: GlasHaus for an organizer of party events and Shift for San Francisco’s Artspace gallery. He also continued to publish Emigre while Licko constructed more fonts with bold, simple geometry, such as Matrix and Modula. Their cold, rational appearance served as an anchor to VanderLans’s free-spirited layouts.

Emigre became a full-fledged graphic design journal in 1988 with issue ten, produced by students at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. VanderLans concentrated on work that was being neglected by other design publications, either because it didn’t adhere to traditional canons or it was still in its formative stages. The issues, each built around a theme, have featured Ed Fella, Rick Valicenti, and David Carson from the United States, Vaughan Oliver, Nick Bell, and Designers Republic from Britain, several Dutch designers, and many others who were exploring new territory. Several controversial articles and interviews have appeared over the years, provoking other design publications to become more opinionated.

In 1989, the fonts had become enough of a commercial success that Licko and VanderLans gave up freelancing and concentrated exclusively on their own business. Emigre, which had been published erratically, settled into a quarterly schedule.

In designing Emigre, VanderLans rejected standardized formats in favor of organic grid structures that reflected his enthusiasm toward the contents. Computerized page composition gave him the flexibility to reinvent the look of the magazine with every issue. Sometimes several articles would run through the pages concurrently, each text differentiated by font, size, leading, and column width, creating an impression of eavesdropping on several simultaneous conversations. Nuanced type variations within sentences created the mood and rhythm of spoken words. Even the logo has gone through several permutations.

When their work began to receive public attention, it was attacked for promulgating visual incoherence and viewed as a threat to Modernist ideals and an affront to universal notions of beauty. Massimo Vignelli was their most vociferous critic. Throughout the early ‘90s, he denounced the magazine and fonts as garbage, lacking depth, refinement, elegance, or a sense of history.

The text and typography were hardly indecipherable to its intended audience. In fact, Emigre was much more inviting and involving for its readers, who had a high degree of visual sophistication. “People read best what they read most” has become a credo for Licko and VanderLans and has been adopted as a rallying cry by designers eager to challenge preconceptions of type design and magazine layout.

At the same time Licko and VanderLans were being pilloried by traditionalists, designers who had once championed their work for its aggressiveness began to condemn it as too readily identifiable, and therefore unusable. Beach Culture magazine published an issue with a cover line that boasted “no Emigre fonts,” although the logo itself was set in Licko’s Senator.

Much of the initial opposition has abated, as the same designs and font styles once considered ugly have become assimilated throughout mainstream print and electronic media. The Emigre sensibility has achieved commercial acceptance by popularizers like David Carson. No longer viewed as radical or unique, the work of Licko and VanderLans regularly garners accolades from many notables in the field.

In 1995 Emigre reduced its page size to more conventional magazine proportions and adapted a relatively staid, conservative appearance. The contents also underwent a dramatic change. VanderLans explains, “Instead of focusing on the designers’ intentions and the designers’ work, we decided to turn the tables and look at how this work is impacting our culture.” CalArts instructor Jeffery Keedy, who has been affiliated with the magazine for nearly a decade and whose Keedy Sans typeface is distributed by Emigre Fonts, is now a frequent contributor, as are North Carolina State University professor Andrew Blauvelt and writer/designer Anne Burdick.

Some readers have become put off by the academic, often pedantic tone of what they consider diatribes and manifestoes rather than essays. VanderLans is intrigued by “the readers who categorically dismiss design writing and design criticism of any kind. Many designers simply do not see how it connects to them and their profession. How to make it relevant is a great challenge.”

Keedy sees the new emphasis on theory and analysis as a necessity. “Emigre couldn’t continue as this subcult anomaly, a fanzine for the avant-garde, because the avant-garde is over. Rudy and Zuzana were in the middle of a moment of change in the eighties and the next generation is still doing the same thing. There hasn’t been another paradigm shift, so there just isn’t enough hip, groovy new stuff to show.”

As the text has become foregrounded, many who purchased Emigre for visual rather than intellectual stimulus have lost interest. Chuck Byrne still sees much that is praiseworthy in the magazine’s layout. “The emphasis has gone from individual spreads to these astounding studies in form spread out over a large number of pages. Rudy’s fiddling with Modernist concepts the way an accomplished jazz musician might play with a theme. His work has always been a lot more formal than most people realize.”

Licko’s fonts are also evolving in reflection of the magazine’s changing contents. After a variety of releases, including a set of pinwheel dingbats and a French-tickler version of Modula, she is putting her own spin on classical serifs with Mrs Eaves and Filosofia, reinterpretations of Baskerville and Bodoni.

Respected typographers now publicly acknowledge the legitimacy of Licko’s font designs. Matthew Carter, a 1995 AIGA gold medalist, proclaimed, “Two ideas seem to me to stand behind the originality of Zuzana’s work: that the proper study of typography is type, not calligraphy or history, and that legibility is not an intrinsic quality of type but something acquired through use.”

Licko’s ascendance in a primarily male-dominated profession and her bypassing of traditional training have been an inspiration to a generation of font designers with access to computer technology. The market has been deluged with knockoffs of her style. She comments: “It’s funny: when I look back on my work over the last twelve years, I realize that at first I had trouble getting people to take my work seriously, while now I have trouble getting them to stop copying my work.”

To the surprise of those who recall Massimo Vignelli’s earlier excoriations against Emigre, he recently produced a direct-mail promotion for Filosofia, which led Licko to speculate on the possibility that “Massimo’s willingness to collaborate on our announcement reflects Emigre’s ability to bridge different approaches.”

Although quite flattered to be the first of a new generation of designers to be selected for the Gold Medal, the adversarial VanderLans is “not so deluded by the praise not to also realize that the award is part of the AIGA’s concerted effort to appeal to a younger generation in order to remain significant as an organization. And I can appreciate that kind of thinking. If you believe you have a valid idea, which the AIGA has, then it makes sense to try and sell that to as large an audience as possible.”

Licko and VanderLans have always claimed to eschew marketing strategy, maintaining that they produce their products primarily to please themselves. They have never denied accusations of self-indulgence. In fact, it is a point of pride. As a self-published, self-supporting venture, the self-proclaimed “magazine that ignores boundaries” has been free to engage in highly experimental research and development. The fact that they have parlayed their passions into a successful international enterprise is simply a fortuitous byproduct.

Emigre Fonts now offers around fifty type families designed by close to twenty designers. From an office in Sacramento, Emigre Graphics also sells posters, T-shirts, and other peripheral items through its catalog and Internet website. A music label that was launched in 1990 is presently “dormant,” as VanderLans puts it.

Licko and VanderLans invest as much time and effort in the business side as in the creative side. “Without our personal involvement in licensing contracts, distribution agreements, legal matters, accounting, etc., Emigre would simply not exist. Fact of the matter is, we consider ourselves as much businesspeople as we consider ourselves designers.” Byrne strongly agrees, pointing out, “Anyone who considers Rudy a wild primitive who doesn’t know anything about organizing information should look at any Emigre order form. They have always been the clearest, most concise designs for sending in money.”

Emigre, which has been famous for making the most of low-budget production values, has converted to full color with its 42nd issue, which was sent to the Emigre mailing list of 45,000 and is being offered free to anyone who fills out a reply card. The increased circulation is part of an attempt to attract advertisers.

Keedy sees this as a smart move, one that will expand their audience. “There’s not a huge demand for the magazine right now, but I think this strategy will, in fact, create that demand. I see Emigre ten years from now as a slick, glossy special interest magazine that has its own niche.

“Naturally, people are going to say Rudy and Zuzana are selling out and going mainstream. They’re in a weird phase right now, and the question is, can they make it? I think they will. They have always been ahead of the market, not behind it. They’re very much in their time and always on the move. That’s the critical factor in all they’ve done.”