Seeing and Reading:
A Viewer's Guide to Periodic Literature

By Kenneth FitzGerald

This is a slightly revised version of an essay that appeared in the catalog to Emigre in Norfolk, an exhibit at Old Dominion University, October 1 - November 6, 2005.

An unfortunate aspect of graphic design’s history is the field’s estrangement from writing. Whether it’s outright hostility to the word or simply a predilection for the visual, design regards literature warily. Literature readily returns the favor. The origin of this rift is the Modern promulgation of the idea of a discrete “visual language.” Unfortunately, this effort required demeaning that other, established language. What emerged was a contentious division as injurious as it’s artificial.

One result of the split has been the stunting of a distinct graphic design literature. Theories and histories of design’s activity are still scant, especially compared to the (other) liberal arts. But while the suspicion of text is ingrained in the field, it’s never been universal. The past two decades in graphic design can be seen as response to diverse attempts to realign and integrate the disciplines. The introduction of literary theory - via Cranbrook Academy in the early 1980s - into graphic design thinking was a major action along these lines.

At about the same time, a new forum for contentious graphic design work and thinking emerged: Emigre magazine. Apart from the specific opinions expressed in its pages, Emigre’s very existence worked to bridge the design/literature divide. The importance and necessity of writing in and on design was regularly championed and demonstrated. Design couldn’t stand apart from the word, nor can literature disdain design.

Design is where literature manifests physical form. An author takes the first and most essential step in making literature corporeal. But it’s not the last. Even if you believe - as many do - that to set words into type is (or should be) a straightforward exercise, we can discuss how standards of typesetting originated. And why many designers choose to diverge. Emigre magazine provides a distinctive opportunity to discuss literature’s physical nature and import.

If you look at an issue of Emigre magazine from the past three years (in its latest and final incarnation) you would assume - correctly - that it was a literary magazine. The majority of pages are dedicated to texts presented in a conventional, bookish format. A discerning eye would spot contemporary aspects enlivening a usually staid genre. Prominent amongst them is the occasional non-standard (and plainly irregular) text typeface. The design says this is a magazine for serious reading. Only a brief section at the end is given over to graphics.

This last variation of Emigre’s format, which progressed from assertively alternative toward an increasing convention, is both further departure - and a return. An all-text art publication isn’t unusual. Critical theory that stands apart from evaluating specific objects is long established in art. But in design, it’s virtually commercial suicide. It is, however, true to its principles, and the material published. Throughout its history, Emigre matched form and meaning.

Emigre began as a self-published, cultural tabloid. Wanting an outlet for their creative work, a small group of expatriates invented their own forum. The first issues have the requisite fare: stories, poetry, scripts, interviews, photography, and illustration. Emigre’s distinction was its founders’ status as immigrants to the U.S. (providing the direct interpretation for its slogan, “The Magazine that Ignores Boundaries.” ) And, of course, there was the design. The layouts are vibrant collages equally determined by a deliberate D.I.Y. aesthetic and a limited budget. The design here says: this magazine is different.

Every magazine - and every design artifact - takes a stance on how content should be represented. Though not expressed as such in its text, Emigre magazine immediately challenged the “serious” presentation of serious literature. It asserts that the physical nature of the characters can’t help but affect the reader’s expectations. Designers count on it. Critiquing the verities of design will be Emigre’s constant theme for the next twenty years.

Within the field, Emigre’s move to an emphasis on graphic design as subject matter (with issue 9) is taken as a transition. Emigre themselves state as much in their materials. This is good marketing for the publication within the profession. Unfortunately, it limits Emigre’s wider regard, relegating it to the status of trade publication. But culture continues to be Emigre’s true subject matter. Only now, culture is scrutinized tangentially - through an innovative study of design activity.

Emigre eschews the professional-orientation of design publications expressed in Print magazine. This restricts Emigre’s field of vision - and expands it. Graphic design is the subject of every article but the insights intend to reach beyond design. And they recognize that design is an active - often a defining - player within culture. Even if one wishes to make a commercial determination on the efficacy of a design strategy, you must confront this reality to gain a meaningful answer.

Design is another “text” that we read: sometimes incoherent but never neutral. Emigre’s art direction reflects this, doing more than packaging its contents alluringly. The magazine is taking on the world, and the whole history of representation. At the least, it’s honest advertising, advocating its ideas through its form.

Due to the variety of writers Emigre featured, those ideas are diverse. Their convergence is in a challenge to design orthodoxies. If not given entire credit for establishing a graphic design literature - one that, within its pages, is wildly variable in form and quality - Emigre can claim a sizeable chunk of it. It became a locus of design writing, a place where all paths converged.

Emigre harbors sympathy for many of its writers’ stances. However, the magazine’s core belief is of the necessity and value of an open dialog, and a design literature of substance. Designer/editor Rudy VanderLans openly admits to disagreement or dislike with some of the material he publishes. He also candidly muses (in issue 47) on how “[m]uch of my more expressive layouts in earlier issues were the result of being insecure about my writing and interviews. Such layouts were used to strengthen (or obscure?) the perhaps inadequate writing.”

This frankness is a regular feature of the magazine. While actively sponsoring new design writing, and questioning the received wisdoms of the field, Emigre remained self-critical. The typographic debates raging within its pages - and across to those of other journals - are impassioned but problematic. Debaters often talk past one another, speculating in abstract terms. Disagreement festers over a small percentage of design work - both as a category, and in actual pieces printed overall. From the essays, devastating illegibility and irrationality - or oppressive blandness and conformity - can result from minor shape variations in a letterform. Emigre’s editorial voice is frequently one that’s idealistic but practical.

Though some design arguments may be taken to absurd lengths, to dismiss them totally is myopic. The fact that literature is a material artifact is frequently overlooked. We’re long past the dominance of the oral tradition to sustain literature. Readings have made a comeback, but as part of the author’s book tour - just like the concert tour it emulates.

Literature is often regarded as non-corporeal; an essence that takes many forms. A wide variety of creative people are regularly included in the “literary” circle. Writers plus graphic novelists, musicians, DJs, and performance artists all can be celebrated for their literary pursuits. The implication is that literature is transcendent. It can occupy a diverse array of vessels. The physical manifestations of literature are, therefore, irrelevant.

The importance of the materiality of literature is not just the province of book collectors or designers. Prominent writers have devised or demanded specific design handling - typography - for their words. William Faulkner first requested that different colors of ink be used to differentiate the thoughts of the separate characters in The Sound and the Fury. As this wasn’t practically possible at the time, italics were employed instead.

James Joyce insisted that quotation marks never be used in his published texts to indicate when a character speaks. He opts for a European convention of placing an “em” dash at the beginning of the sentence containing the quote. This makes Joyce’s prose additionally challenging to read, as it becomes difficult to differentiate between characters when two or more are in dialog.

These writings are expressions of Modernism that can be found across the arts. The material characteristic is an integral part of the artwork. For instance, the painting declares that it’s paint on canvas. Design is the substance of literature. The formal arrangement carries meaning in addition to what’s expressed in the words.

Dismissing the typeset of the text, the cover design, or the paper stock as mere marketing concerns understates the situation. We live in a consumer culture where literature is product. The impact of the design doesn’t end when the book is purchased (nor does that mean that the design was successful). Ideally, literature would be evaluated on its own merit: the essential words shorn of materiality. But this is an impossible condition.

While the motivated reader may reach a state of pure appreciation (as in being unaffected by materiality) it can, ironically, trigger a devotion to the object. Enthusiasm for first, or particular editions, of books is common. And publishers lavish the most design attention to the classics.

Literature’s increasing movement towards engaging its physicality - its design - is represented by some of the most publicized writing of the past few years. Dave Eggars’ McSweeney’s is a fiction collection that changes format with every issue. In the worlds of design and artist’s books, Eggars’ productions are familiar and tame. But in mainstream publishing, they’re fashionably exotic - and PR friendly.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close also intrudes into the designed. Foer employs typographic tricks (including the colored ink that was denied Faulkner), pages intentionally left blank, and a photographic flipbook coda. Originating from the literary end of the arts spectrum, Eggars and Foer’s projects are given the high cultural credence denied to designer-involved literature. That they’re not designers make them acceptable. In the literary mainstream, it’s still possible to have too much a design awareness and imagination.

An example is VAS:An Opera in Flatland, a collaboration by writer Steve Tomasula and designer Stephen Farrell that was published in 2002. It’s one of the most effective demonstrations of the materiality of literature, and the potential of design as literature. The book’s design elements are integral to the experience, and symbiotic with the text. The book can be rightly considered a new literary genre. However, on the literary side, it has received limited attention.

Meanwhile, some of Tomasula and Farrell’s earlier collaborations were published in Emigre magazine. In addition to introducing a greater appreciation of design in (and as) literature, projects such as VAS might serve to make designers more appreciative of writing. Through its different incarnations, Emigre magazine furthered both causes.

In 1940, William Addison Dwiggins - book and type designer, illustrator, author, puppeteer, and coiner of the term “graphic design” - contributed an idiosyncratic article to the premier issue of Print magazine. “The Five Hundred Years: A Time-Problem and Its Solution,” was a fiction that took the form of a report claiming to have discovered a history of letterforms and printing from the year 2440. It was an imaginative and uniquely literary approach to contemplating graphic design.

Dwiggins was a prolific and versatile writer, critiquing graphic design in practical terms and as a cultural force. His writing created a potential - and a challenge - for the field. For decades, both went unappreciated within design.

Though unique in their achievement, Emigre can be seen as reclaiming and extending Dwiggins’ legacy. Design and literature are inseparable, each dependent upon and defined by the other. Though designers are notorious for prizing the image over the word, it’s no coincidence that often design’s foremost practitioners are - and have been - effective and dedicated writers.

The web may be the force to truly test the significance of literature’s materiality. Whatever happens in the short term, the physical word, rendered in type on paper or screen, will be with us for some time. Unless we return to an oral tradition - or develop a telepathic one - we’ll keep on looking and reading.

Thanks to John McVey for introducing me to “The Five Hundred Years.”

Kenneth FitzGerald is an Assistant Professor of Art at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.