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Digressions and Transgressions:
Emigre (The Texts)

By Andrew Blauvelt

This essay was originally written in 1995 as an introduction to the book Emigre (The Texts), a collection of interviews from Emigre magazine. The book was never published.


Emigre as Text

This publication represents the belief that Emigre considers its interviews to be of equal importance to its well-established reputation for art direction and typeface designs. In his essay for Emigre (The Book), “Graphic designers probably won’t read this...but,” Mr. Keedy discusses the phenomenon of the look-but-don’t-read audience for Emigre (the magazine). Keedy describes two excuses often given by consumers of Emigre for not actually reading the magazine: “I haven’t had time to get to it yet,” or “It’s too hard to read.” These are offered as excuses for not reading the articles rather than explanations of what exactly they may be doing with it. (Is this the irony of the title for Emigre #15, “Do You Read Me?” Instructions can be found on page 3 as a parenthetical remark: “all texts in this issue were meant to be both seen and read!")

Of course, Emigre will be seen (i.e., looked at, examined, dissected - admired), as a sort of large scale serving suggestion for the proper use of its typefaces including clues about how a page should be arranged. This type of reading is quite different than textual decoding (what you are doing right now). These on-lookers of Emigre are “reading” it, but as one would a painting or a photograph - trying to get enough out of it to have it make sense to them.

The readers of Emigre are part of a system that produces meaning. In this view, meaning is not necessarily “out there” waiting to be discovered, only held within the text, but is incomplete until it is activated or used by a reader. This activation is more complete when the reader is engaging the meaning at both the level of textual understanding and visual perception.

Since Emigre’s readership is largely graphic designers who have been trained to look at the text as a series of visual forms - typography rather than words, text as texture - they have a conscious ability to oscillate back and forth between seeing forms and reading words that their lay counterparts do in a more simultaneous, less self-conscious manner. Nevertheless both modes are differently motivated but equally engaged as forms of consumption. Although they are both forms of reading, clearly there is a perception that one is more commonplace than the other.

Emigre has been both vilified and valorized in the design press for its typeface designs, its page layouts and its promotion of fellow sympathetic designers. These reactions have always reduced Emigre to the (“merely”) visual or to (“simply”) style, in a double-bind gesture of promotion and dismissal. While Emigre is lauded for its design and reproduced accordingly, (taking it out of its context and placing it in another, replacing the whole with a part - like a cover or a spread) it is simultaneously reduced and rejected on the very basis of how it has been promoted. This publication, I believe, attempts to address this situation. If Emigre (The Book): Graphic Design into the Digital Realm represents an effort to contextualize the design of Emigre on its own terms then this publication might rightly be called, Emigre (The Text).

The text is comprised of interviews, most conducted by Rudy VanderLans. These interviews are the mainstay of Emigre and represent one of the very few places designers can read the words of a peer - how they explain their work, philosophies about design and both the shared frustrations of practice and fascination [obsession?] for graphic design. Of course, this interview process is itself contrived. One is not getting the dialogue verbatim but rather filtered through the editorial process that corrects grammar and deletes stammers, including the opportunity to make adjustments to the transcript, sometimes to change answers but most often to expand on them. (Having been involved in this process, I can attest to the benefits of such opportunities.)

Of course, this opportunity to correct, verify or change responses on the part of interviewees tends to minimize the authoritative role usually established in interviews. (For example, in the popular media interviewees are not given questions ahead of time nor are they allowed to participate in the editing process.) Therefore, the designers interviewed by Emigre have unprecedented opportunities for being involved in how they are being represented (it should be noted that Rudy requests that interviewees not change their responses or overly edit them to preserve a sense of spontaneity - and believability - but rather suggests that they might expand or clarify a point). Before we cynically reject such procedures on the basis that they allow too much room for posturing on the part of interview subjects it is important to note the motivation is provided by Rudy’s keen interest in what his respondents have to say.

The fact that one can gain access to what designers have to say about their work (no matter how delusional, sincere, hyped or pretentious it seems) makes the interview format a vital contribution to understanding the intentions of designers. It should come as no surprise that graphic designers are not afforded the public status that certain other cultural producers have whether film makers, recording artists or even visual artists or architects.

Despite the designer decade of the 1980s, public perception of design did not include a better understanding of the graphic design process, particularly the recognition that graphic design doesn’t just happen mysteriously, spontaneously, transparently. What was gained was a better understanding of how design can be used to differentiate products (such as blue jeans, tea kettles, cars) that in turn can be tied to the establishment of new market niches.

Unlike profiles of graphic designers found in other design publications, the purpose of the interview for Emigre is much closer to revealing the complexities and contradictions of graphic design. While the designer profile is typically understood in the most obvious ways as the promotion of said designer and his or her “genius” or vision (of course, there are the same publicity benefits accorded to Emigre subjects, although its benefits might be somehow less in magnitude accounting for the discrepancies of circulation between Emigre and say Print or CA), the Emigre interview can be counted on for at least trying to get behind the facade of designer genius; of wanting to know how certain designs came into being and the rationale behind such decisions rather than present the designs as somehow given and therefore unexplainable, inexplicable.

I will be the first to admit that the de rigueur inability of many designers to articulate such rationales and explanations often impedes such efforts at understanding, even in Emigre. However, even the “poetic refusal” to reduce work to textual description (i.e., when language “robs” the work of significance) or pure mechanics (i.e., technique) tells me much about a designer’s intentions and philosophies: silence can speak volumes.

The designer profile typically offers its readers the fruits of design labor, a lavishly reproduced cornucopia (lush four color reproductions on a blanket of white space), where designer’s intentions merely confirm the visual results. Very rarely do these profiles portray the complex and contradictory nature of professional practice believing perhaps that such realities are already known and experienced by its majority readership who would rather indulge themselves in the dream worlds of the minority.

Additionally, the typical designer profile does not often venture outside the safe domain of the studio to either consider these designs in their social environment (whether that place is a museum, a corporation or a public street) or even their relationship to pertinent design debates, issues and discussions. The Emigre interview often incorporates the designer and his or her designs into a much larger discussion of design issues the work initiates or is framed by, particularly the debates around readability, legibility, and communication issues. (Recently Emigre has begun to address the social and cultural implications of graphic design work. This is usually done by the outsider critic but the role of the insider subject is still very important in formulating certain conclusions).


Digressions and Transgressions

The Emigre interview represents a textual journey moving through territory both familiar and unknown to its readership. Not bound to the space requirements of most publications (whether economically constrained to a fixed number of pages and stories or pragmatically constrained by the perceived limited attention spans of readers), the Emigre interview is more free to fill the space the story demands. As such the interviews are subject to digression - the meandering of both interviewer and subject.

Rather than evoking the conventional pejorative sense of digression as something to be avoided, I would embrace a more benevolent or at least a more benign meaning. Digression is manifested in the interview because the interview procedure is closer to conversation and importantly, dialogue. The traditional question and answer exchange is itself opened up, subject to the trajectories (whims?) of the conversation itself - ready to head off in another direction, entangling us in a web of other thoughts.

Digression is normally considered problematic in the sense that it threatens to wrestle control away from both the author (here the interviewer) and the natural flow of the story itself, side-tracking the reader from the path. Digression threatens narrative closure - the tidy summary, the heart of the matter, the bottom line. Emigre interviews have been criticized as too lengthy, all over the place, in a word, digressive. I would agree, but I see digression not as something to be curtailed or eliminated. Rather digression is the logical outcome of an interview where the descriptive details, elaborations, allusions, anecdotes and other appendages to the text provide a certain richness and a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability to the Q & A exchange.

An example of descriptive digression can be found in Emigre #19: “Starting From Zero.” During an interview with Kathy McCoy, Ed Fella, Scott Makela and Laurie Haycock Makela, Rudy cleverly interjects the sounds of dogs barking and babies crying, emphasizing his surprise with discovering the hodge-podge, chaotic environment in which Cranbrook graphic design is produced. A type of “intertextual” digression occurs in the series of interviews printed in Emigre #11: “Graphic Designers and the Macintosh Computer.” By intertextual I mean the connections made among the interviews, particularly as they are intermingled throughout the issue. Digression in this case expresses itself as an excess of overlapping, opposing and redundant viewpoints that serve to emphasize certain claims being made for the use of the personal computer in graphic design.

I would go as far as to claim that the digressive tendencies of the Emigre interview serve as an appropriate metaphor for the magazine so often accused of supporting the visual equivalency of digression: indeterminacy, ambiguity, illegibility, excess, overload. Of course, this is not say that Emigre does not care about the length of its interviews or the attention spans of its readers; there are always limits. (For example, inEmigre #11 Rudy interviews fifteen designers about their use of the Macintosh computer and interleaves pages amongst the interviews with the admonishment to “Keep on Reading.”) However, the interview must come to an end, and unlike a story it doesn’t necessarily strive for closure since you could simply run out of tape or batteries - even patience. For that matter, the interview does not have to have an ending as such, it can simply jump into the conversation and back out.

While digressions mark our journey through the interview, separating the significant from the insignificant, it is the movement across the content of the subject matter that brings me to discuss transgression. While Emigre is known for its visual transgressions (violations in the codes of communication, the embrace of the ugly and other stylistic revolts), little attention has been paid to the subject matter it covers, which licenses its visual appearance. The truly transgressive nature of Emigre lies more in its interviews than its page structure; its subjects more than its typefaces. (Visual transgression is normally preferred since it’s easier to buy typefaces than it is to buy changes in practice.)

By choosing to interview the designers it does, Emigre invariably promotes the kind of design these subjects produce. This sanctioning process gives the work and its designers legitimacy (or illegitimacy) in the eyes of other designers and publications. In this way, Emigre functions no differently than other publications, but this wrongly assumes that all subjects are equally available for promotion within all publications.

Emigre transgresses the normal criteria for an interview subject, choosing as it does those individuals operating on their own as entrepreneurs, the eclectic practices of fringe graphic designers, or those designers emerging from school and into professional practice. For example, in Emigre #16: “Sound Design,” the reader encounters an interview with Bruce Licher of Independent Project Records who is both an entrepreneur of music and designer; or in Emigre #15: “Do You Read Me?” an interview with Barry Deck then recently out of graduate school at CalArts.

As indicated in its title and earliest focus, Emigre (as the migration from one country to another) often transgresses the very boundaries of American design practice, locating sympathetic designers abroad. While Print magazine was one of the first to celebrate the decentralization of graphic design away from major centers, particularly New York, with its Print Regional Annual, Emigre saw not simply the geographic diversity of graphic design but the ideological diversity of an international practice. Two issues stand out in particular in this regard, Emigre #14: “Heritage” and Emigre #17: “Wise Guys.”

In “Heritage” Rudy reveals the complexity surrounding graphic design in Switzerland in interviews with both young designers and more established figures. The impression of a homogenous national design style with an equally monolithic tradition (“Swiss Design”) dissolves through these interviews. While “Heritage” examines the diversity and commonality of a nationally defined design tradition, “Wise Guys” brings together two eclectic designers, Ed Fella of Los Angeles and Piet Schreuders of Amsterdam, on the basis of their disposition to mainstream design practice and the inspiration they draw from their respective environments.

Not content on identifying the professional nature of graphic design beyond the East Coast or reducible to some (highly questionable) regional aesthetic, Emigre serves as an arena for what has been termed the new global tribalism (the electronically linked, professionally networked, and philosophically attuned designers who subscribe, if not literally than spiritually). While Emigre’s use of Macintosh technology has been widely discussed, focusing mostly on its typeface designs and page layouts, it is the discussion of technology and the recognition of its importance to changing professional practice that is transgressive.

The more profound transgressive quality of Emigre is its ability to focus the debate of recent years regarding the very nature of communication and the designer’s role within it. By promoting the notion that the designer is a visible, vocal participant in the articulation of messages, Emigre serves as both a forum for discussion and a lightning rod of abuse. Despite appearances to the contrary, the Emigre interview often challenges designers to defend or explain their rationale regarding the appropriateness of their private, personal symbolism, even the effectiveness of their communicative strategies.

For example in Emigre #20: “Expatriates,” Rudy attempts to get at the decision-making process that Allen Hori uses, hoping to understand why he responds to Hori’s work. While answers to such questions can be illusive and evasive, at least the discussion attempts to uncover their (un)intentional use in a way that confronts the maker of such work directly and cites specific examples. Contrast this with the critics of such personally motivated work, many of whom have neither seen the work or read the words of their adversaries. This should compel one to read - in all of its senses - Emigre and the voices it presents, not only for hints about how others may go about their practice but also for clues about how you define yours; to read both with and against the grain of the text.