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Graphic designers probably won’t read this . . . but,

By Mr. Keedy

This essay was first published in 1993 in the book Emigre: Graphic Design into the Digital Realm.


How do you write about a magazine that has had a tremendous impact on graphic design, but very few graphic designers have actually read it? When designers ask if you have seen the latest issue of Emigre, that’s exactly what they mean, have you seen it. When asked if they have read Emigre, the response is usually “I haven’t had time to get to it yet,” (how long does it take?), or “It’s too hard to read” - a curious excuse coming from someone who is presumably “visually literate.”

The illiterate graphic designer has become an unfortunate stereotype (like wearing all black and being overworked and under-valued [stop whining]). I don’t think it’s true that designers don’t read, it’s just that they don’t read about design. Most design essays stink (I hope this is an exception). Design essays are usually written by some hack who wrote about lawn care products last week, or designers who haven’t worked in so many years that they can’t remember where they put their waxers, press-type, and T-squares.

Emigre is written for, by, and about graphic designers, like a mirror that presents designers in their own words, “warts and all.” Unlike most design magazines with slick production values that frame designers in glamorous and uncritical fashion, Emigre has never had the luxury of beautifully printed, full-color reproductions and professional journalists and editors. What the magazine lacks in refinement, it makes up for in being relevant. This is due to Rudy VanderLans’s genuine passion for new and interesting developments in design.

Rudy’s point of view is not the only factor in the editorial and curatorial bias of the magazine. There are whole issues and many sections of the magazine that are determined by a guest editor/designer. This guarantees that the design and content fully embrace the subject. Rudy often functions as an editor/art director, carefully orchestrating the talents of many different designers (why don’t other design magazines try this?). Speaking as one of the many contributors to Emigre, I think it’s Rudy’s contagious enthusiasm for others that compels one to go beyond pure egoism and try to do something of relevance for your fellow Emigre readers, I mean lookers.

Past contributors have been from America, Great Britain, Holland, Switzerland, and Germany and have included design schools and educators (something American design magazines have little interest in). Most of the contributors are not “rebellious kids” right out of design school but are more typically mid-career professionals struggling to sustain an interesting practice. Critics and proponents of Emigre often cite the “wildness” or lack of restraint in the magazine, but Emigre only appears “wild” in the context of the mostly vapid design magazines that preceded it. The exaggerated claims of “wildness” marginalize its important role as an outlet for exciting new ideas. Ideas that are routinely ignored or completely misunderstood by the mainstream design press. The fact is, the most original ideas and intelligent work in graphic design today first appear in Emigre.

One thing that most clearly established Emigre as an “original” was its typefaces. New computer software like Fontographer made it possible for anyone (with a lot of time and patience) to create a typeface. Zuzana Licko, Rudy’s wife and partner, designed typefaces like Oakland, Modula and Matrix that put Emigre at the forefront of the new “independent” font companies. At a time when most type designers were put off by the limitations of the computer and its inability to exactly replicate existing technology, Zuzana was intrigued and inspired by the digital environment, working within limitations as if they were assets.

Because her early bitmapped fonts were of low resolution, and Zuzana likes to design within very strict parameters, her work could be misread as simplistic or crude. Zuzana’s typefaces are, on close inspection, anything but crude. Wether she is working within strict confines of technically inspired forms, like Modula, Citizen or Matrix, or within an equally restrictive conceptual framework like Totally Gothic or Journal, Zuzana’s mastery of a limited pallette is quite elegant. To consider Zuzana Licko’s type design as crude or illegible (non-functional), weird or radical, would be incredible shortsighted and historically ignorant. Her preference for reductivist strategies in form and her expressions of form that follows the functioning of the computer, put her in the category of “classic modernist,” not radical reactionary.

There have been so many different and conflicting opinions expressed in Emigre, that if you think the work is homogeneous you are not looking very closely or reading at all. There are some common concerns, characteristics and even weaknesses that some of the Emigre contributors share, but to lump them all into one “style” is overly simplistic and superficial.

Graphic designers are the “scouts” of visual culture, looking ahead of the rest of the pack. Eventually “scouting” can wear you out. That’s why some designers collapse into a “timeless” stasis or retreat back into nostalgia. In this state of exhaustion, we often oversimplify or overlook the obvious. In my varied career as a designer I have been labeled as working in the “New Wave, Cranbrook, Deconstructivist, Computer, Emigre, and CalArts,” styles. I don’t object to the labeling and categorizing; a vocabulary has to be established to have a meaningful dialogue. What I don’t like is the lack of a critical criteria or context for these “styles” to be discussed with any validity. What you get instead is an uninformed opinion - “I don’t know much about that kind of design (because I don’t bother to read or find out), but I know what I like, and I don’t like that.

It is significant that Emigre magazine is not located in New York city, which has always had a stranglehold on the design press in America. Much of the redundancy and provincialism in design magazines in America is due to the fact that they are all geographically and ideologically located in New York’s modernist dogma. Since the Émigrés from Europe first came to New York and started dictating their modernist ideology to America, New York has proclaimed itself the center of American design. The very idea of a “design capitol” is even more antiquated than an “art capitol” in these post industrial, post modern times. There have been several efforts on the part of “the powers that be,” or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “the powers that were,” to belittle the little magazine with big ideas. Time marches on; their time is past. Emigre’s time is now.

Located on the “other coast” Emigre looks outward and forward, a magazine that ignores boundaries, while other’s vainly try to claim territory. Founded in Berkeley, and later moved to Sacramento, Emigre is more an attitude than the product of a place and could have been located anywhere (except New York).

Although Rudy is by nature an “outsider” or Émigré himself (emigrating to the U.S. in 1981 from Holland), he has never been actively involved in any of the many design organizations (he even declined an opportunity to join Alliance Graphique International). However, through his magazine, he has established a sizable network of dedicated individuals with diverse ideologies.

Emigre is the only truly progressive and pluralistic graphic design magazine that is a locus for a decentralized discourse on design. It is an international meeting place for people interested in exploring and expanding the borders of design practice and theory. The only prerequisite is an interest in new design and an open mind. Intolerance for different ideas is the biggest obstacle in these proscribed and dogmatic times. With the mind-numbingly dull 1970s and 80s behind us, designers are waking up and starting the next millennium. Emigre is documenting where graphic design is going. And it’s going to be interesting.