Radical Commodities

Rudy VanderLans

This article was first published in 1995 in Emigre 34

The other day, I was reading an article about the BauHaus by Dietmar Winkler. In it Winkler suggests that the BauHaus legend is largely based upon myth that has obscured many truths about the BauHaus. For instance, many of the BauHaus ideologies, he says, originated at other schools or movements, such as the Constructivists, Futurists and De Stijl. He also points out the enormous gap that existed between the BauHaus ideologies and the public, resulting in the design of products equally remote from the public’s needs and uses. Summing it all up, Winkler writes that “When Hannes Meyer replaced Gropius as a director of the school, his critical assessment was that its reputation outstripped manifold the quality of the work produced. He attributed this to the unparalleled public relations effort.”

I don’t know whether this is a correct assessment or not, but what struck me about this article was how much Winkler’s observations regarding the BauHaus myth could, to an extent, be said of Emigre as well.

First of all, on more than one occasion, Emigre has received credit (or blame) for what were essentially the ideas of others whose work we published in our magazine. Secondly, like the BauHaus, we are also ferocious promoters of our work. Whether it overshadows the quality of the work we produce is arguable, but what I do know is that without a focused public relations effort, Emigre would simply not exist. And perhaps the BauHaus might not have existed either. Promoting our work, making our work public, in any way we can, is simply an inevitable necessity when publishing a magazine and selling typefaces for a living.

I’ve always been intrigued by the commercial aspects of publishing. I remember ten years ago when we started Emigre magazine, the one publication I was looking at a lot was RAW magazine. Although I was drawn to the work of Gary Panther, Charles Burns, Sue Coe, Joost Swarte and a host of others, and was moved by the subversive content of the work, I was even more curious to find out how RAW was made possible. I once visited Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, the publishers, in their studio in New York, and I remember looking at all this sociopolitically critical work, yet I couldn’t help but be fascinated with how they managed to get it published. How do you finance this? How do you find an audience? How do you distribute it? It’s one thing to have so many illustrators creating important work, but if you can’t share it with an audience, that’s a missed opportunity.

This entrepreneurial element, which is crucial to the existence of any subculture, avant garde or underground work, is largely overlooked when assessing the work, because to most people, whenever the commercial aspects become prominent, it somehow taints the work and renders it less pure or authentic. Yet it’s difficult to imagine how any movement can operate without a concentrated effort to make money.

For instance, it’s difficult to see how the Sex Pistols would have been formed if it weren’t for art-school student/entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, who provided them with a place to practice and a monthly allowance. There was a reason he did this. To McLaren the Sex Pistols were initially a means to promote his clothing shop, called “Sex.” Although Punk was bound to happen because it was symptomatic of what was going on within British culture, without the Sex Pistols, it would not have been the same.

Grunge, a more recent subcultural movement of alternative music, didn’t coalesce until 1986, when Bruce Pavitt (with money borrowed from his dad) released SubPop 100, an LP featuring a number of Seattle-based bands. Out of the success of this release grew SubPop records, the label that eventually would put out the first Nirvana album, making SubPop one of the most celebrated independent record labels in the United States and subsequently launching the careers of a number of musical innovators.

Hip-hop and Rap, too, were given a great boost and credibility when Rick Rubin, a Jewish kid from suburban Long Island who studied film at NYU, together with Russell Simmons, a shrewd entrepreneur, started the record company Def Jam. Although the musical inventiveness of Hip-hop came straight from the streets, the explosion of Hip-hop culture probably would not have happened without a company like Def Jam providing the means to make the music available to a wide audience.

What attracts me most about these above-mentioned entrepreneurs is how they accommodate the production and distribution of authentic creative work by individuals and how they create alternative options for these individuals to learn and share skills, earn a living and express themselves within society. The added bonus is often that in the process, they also help expand and sometimes even change what society as a whole considers important.

It was during this time in the early eighties, against this background of post Punk, Hip-hop and Grunge do-it-yourself entrepreneurship that we launched Emigre. Just as the recording and production of music had become entirely demystified and democratized in the eighties with the availability of cheap and easy to use recording equipment, in 1984, graphic design, too, was handed a tool that would make it possible for individual designers to become self-sufficient. In Emigre’s case, instead of peddling our services, it became clear that with the help of the computer, we could focus our attention on producing our own products: a magazine and a series of digital typefaces (the result of early experiments with low resolution output devices).

It was an extremely exciting and opportune time centered around this new emerging technology. Emigre magazine quickly became a kind of magnet for many like-minded individuals who were going through the same process of discovery and assimilation of using a computer with which to design.

It was during this time, also, that I started noticing the work coming out of Cranbrook and later CalArts. I never felt an affinity for the theoretical underpinnings that informed some of the work coming out of Cranbrook. What I did recognize, though, was a common interest in the Macintosh, a curiosity to question typographic traditions and, more importantly, the need to create work that allowed room for the designer’s voice. Instead of buying into the fabricated singular narrative of modernism that would lead us all to an imagined better world, these designers were dealing with the world as it really was; fragmented, ironic, chaotic, humorous, ambiguous, and with room for many individual voices to be heard.

Just as the music of Punk was a direct response to the corporate glitter and glam rock of musicians such as David Bowie and Brian Ferry, I saw the work created at Cranbrook and CalArts as a response to the slick, wasteful, corporate and somewhat elitist design methods of the 70s.

In an interview with Cranbrook graduate (and now Calarts faculty member) Ed Fella, conducted in 1991, Fella describes some of the experiments they were then involved in: “It comes from a realization that things are just getting smarter and smarter and I feel that there’s a particular conceit in that. In order to open things up again, you can’t endlessly design one more legible typeface, one even more legible than the rest. So at some point you have to take that conceit away. Especially in graphic design, we’re surrounded by really slick design. It’s an extremely neat-handed profession. In order to break out of that, you either have to become the most facile professional of them all or chip away at it somehow. Chip away at the conceit of the slick profession that gets ever and ever tighter.”

In the same interview, however, Fella also stated his frustration about how difficult it had been for him to have this experimental work be accepted in a commercial market, explaining that the work was only accepted by art organizations. He thought that although the experiments were worthwhile, he seemed doubtful whether they would ever be used.

There was just as much skepticism about the usefulness of the new typefaces that came out of these experiments. When we first asked Jeffery Keedy in 1990 whether he would let us release his typeface Keedy Sans commercially, his reaction was “I never thought of that as a possibility. Who would want to use something this strange anyway?"

The easy way to find out was by implementation. By showing these experiments in Emigre magazine we were able to see how these ideas and typefaces would be received by other graphic designers. However, the work involved in releasing typefaces commercially, and maintaining a magazine that functioned as a testing ground for such typefaces was labor-intensive and costly. Therefore it was crucial that the results were eventually going to be accepted by more than a few adventurous art directors.

This effort of selling independently produced typefaces and the acceptance of typographic experimentation by a wider audience received a tremendous push when in 1992 Ray Gun magazine was launched. Founded by Marvin Jarrett (Creem, Bikini , Huh), Ray Gun was published to fill a particular niche in the music magazine market. “Ever since Nirvana brought alternative music to the masses,” Jarrett said in an interview in Emigre 24, “I believe there has been a need for a magazine to cover this phenomenon.”

As Ray Gun set out to bring alternative music to the masses, it did so in a visual form that would turn many heads within graphic design. The approach was a mixture of typographic experimentation, production mistakes, bootlegged typefaces, and prominently positioned illustration and photography work. Ray Gun also thumbed its nose at conventional editorial makeup by collapsing the hierarchy of texts, headlines, subheads, decks, pullquotes and captions into a seemingly indecipherable melee. And the intended audience loved it.

The process of reading a magazine like Ray Gun is like deciphering a puzzle. When you decipher it, it’s like being let in on a secret, and you feel like you belong to the club. You either get it or you don’t; you’re either cool or you’re not. Here the simple idea of legibility is thrown out the door in favor of an experience - a heightened level of communication. And the notions of legibility as we know it from traditional book typography that are used to criticize this kind of work are useless, since the work has no intention of being legible in the first place.

If “The reproduction and distribution of text is part of the life-blood of social-critical dialogue,” as the critic Robin Kinross says, then Ray Gun must be considered quite successful. Besides the fact that Ray Gun has helped set off a heated debate on legibility and typefaces within the profession of design, you have to take only one look at the letters section of Ray Gun to find out how this magazine is also completely dissected by its readers. Every typographic gesture, every placement of a picture, intentional or by mistake, every article, legible or not, is discussed by the readers. I believe it is the spontaneous, nonauthoritative, anti-design feel of Ray Gun that must account for the fact that so many of its readers feel quite uninhibited to write in and respond to everything from the writing to the use of the typefaces.

Ray Gun once and for all showed that the use of non-traditional typefaces and extreme typographic variations are possible within mainstream magazine publishing. Under the very gutsy art direction of David Carson, who invited various CalArts and Cranbrook graduates (including Fella) to contribute to Ray Gun, anti-design had finally gone Big Time. And although there are many people who like to hate Ray Gun and quickly dismiss it as just another stylistic fad, I think it has greatly helped to expand the notion of legibility and magazine layout. All it took for some of the experiments to become accepted was the appropriate time, the right audience and an entrepreneur like Jarrett who could pull it all together.

Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes

Punk and Hip-hop were initially not accepted as credible musical forms, so distribution systems were created from the ground up. By doing so, these innovative musical styles forever changed the music industry in every aspect. They challenged not only how music sounded but also how it was created, produced and performed, and they also significantly changed how music was distributed and sold, creating many alternative economic environments.

This closely resembles the exciting changes that have taken place within typeface design and manufacture in the past five to ten years. The Macintosh computer has completely democratized the design and manufacture of fonts. Before, this had been the private domain of only a handful of large type foundries who owned the proprietary systems needed to turn a typeface design into a working product. In addition, with the recent possibility of selling typefaces electronically by modem, the Macintosh can now also provide the means of distribution, one of the most difficult hurdles to clear when you self-publish.

The acceptance of magazines like Ray Gun by both the design establishment and mainstream audiences, coupled to the ease with which one can technically produce fonts, has sparked a tremendous activity in typeface production, and graphic designers and magazines alike have recognized that designing and selling fonts can be a viable means of income.

The resulting availability of thousands of typefaces, with dozens added each month, is proof of a completely democratized field and shows us that graphic designers have use for more than the tried and the true. Although it would be easy to find a good deal wrong with the results, I would like to focus on the positives. No longer are graphic designers dependent upon the work of an elite of traditional typeface designers who produce fonts primarily for use in text. Today, graphic designers have access to nearly as many typefaces as there are Pantone colors, greatly increasing and enhancing the variety of work being created.

Besides the fact that this small revolution has questioned the very foundations of graphic design and type design, of what is good and what is bad, of what is legible and illegible, personally I also find it amusing to see established companies like Agfa putting out type brochures that echo the experimental qualities of Ray Gun, and a company like Adobe releasing a series of typefaces called “Wild Type.”

But type designer Matthew Carter sums it up best in an interview in Eye : “For most of my life type design has been seen as a brave but arcane business that requires a lifetime’s dedication to produce a single typeface. I’m happy that notion has gone, that type design has been demystified. You can look at some of the stuff and suck your teeth and shake your head, but the fact is that I can’t think of any other period in the history of typography when I would rather have been at work.”

The design critic and historian Robin Kinross, who’s a little less optimistic, referred to these formal exercises as a “sad, restless search for whatever might look new” and wrote that “formal innovation has meaning only when connected to a context of human need and use.” Kinross, for instance, is partial to Tschichold’s typeface “Neue Schrift” designed in 1929, because it addresses previously unexplored issues of phonetics.

However, it wasn’t until 1994 that Jan Tschichold’s typeface “Neue Schrift” has finally been made available, together with a host of other experimental fonts from the 20s and 30s. So although a lot can be found wrong with today’s commercial type market, at least there now exists a climate in which the most ideological designs can be realized. But there has to be a healthy commercial style-driven industry to make it all possible. You simply can’t have one without the other.

At Emigre, Zuzana Licko started her career as a type designer working mostly on experimental fonts that directly addressed the limitations of low resolution computer screens and dot matrix printers. From the very start, these designs were undertaken to expand, improve or add something of use, but commercially, because of their limited applicability, these typefaces were failures. It required the release of fonts such as Modula and Matrix, which were derived from those first experiments but had greater appeal because they looked more familiar, to provide an income. Remedy, too, which was philosophically the exact opposite of Licko’s early font designs, and offered no value other than a stylistic one, became a huge commercial success.

As these experiments in typography and type design, which were once considered somewhat innocent, seem to be taking hold, serious questions are now being raised about the new design of the past ten years. As the work has started appearing in the mainstream, it is often discounted for showing up in diluted form and in inappropriate places.

When I first saw Henry Rollins in Fortune magazine advertising the Apple’s PowerBook, my first reaction was to think, Henry, you’re selling out! Henry Rollins probably epitomizes American Punk music, or at least he used to. What’s he doing advertising PowerBooks? But then I thought, why not? The PowerBook is not a bad product and the money he’s earning probably goes right back into his independent book publishing company. So why not? Henry’s paid his dues. For over 15 years, he’s traveled around the world, sleeping in vans and dirtbag motels, getting beer thrown at him and spit on by his fans. I think he did the right thing. What else is Henry to do, wait for the NEA to provide him with funds to finance his publishing? I think not.

Selling Out

Although the eventual commodification of these ideological subcultural movements is usually seen as negative, they were, of course, from the very beginning, a commodity to someone. The Sex Pistols were initially an extension by which McLaren and his partner, the fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, were able to package and show off their clothing designs.

So, too, Ray Gun. Although much is made of the current commodification of the “Ray Gun style,” one could argue that Ray Gun was already the commodification of the formal experiments done in typography at Cranbrook, CalArts and other places. Although Ray Gun positions itself as an anti-establishment magazine with a street attitude, from the very beginning it was financially backed and distributed first by Ingram and currently by Time Warner, two of the largest magazine distributors in the U.S. And its “attitude” can hardly be explained as having risen from the streets. Carson, a college graduate and sociology teacher with many years of design experience at mainstream lifestyle magazines, often collaborates on Ray Gun with graduate design students from Cranbrook, CalArts and Yale. Not exactly the staff of Scratch and Sniff magazine. When it comes right down to it, no matter how alternative or anti-design it might look, Ray Gun is a corporate tool to help sell records, and lots of ‘em. So when this “anti-design” or “Ray Gun style” eventually shows up in Pepsi Cola or Nike ads or the Time Warner Annual Report, which it inevitably does, I don’t see how that is any more or less appropriate. Pepsi Cola and Nike, like Ray Gun , all sell products and all go to roughly the same kind of audience. Does that particular design approach belong any more to Ray Gun than it does to Pepsi or Nike? Or did it really only belong to the arts organizations Ed Fella worked for?

When Martin Fox, the publisher of Print magazine, wonders why America doesn’t have much of an avant garde, and goes on to ponder that perhaps “it’s because the avant garde is forever being coopted by the mainstream culture,” one could argue that the avant garde is perhaps alive and well; it just happens to be selling merchandise worth millions of dollars. Instead of always looking at it from the point of view that mass consumption is a bad thing, and anything assisting it is guilty by association, perhaps a bit of credit is due to the mainstream for taking some risks, and to the avant garde for infiltrating mainstream culture. What, otherwise, is the purpose of an avant garde, and what is expected of mainstream culture if both are continually expected to play out their stereotypical roles of fringe innovators and greedy but clueless copycats? I’m not saying here that the avant garde exists simply to supply the commercial world with the means to sell more products, but I do think it can be beneficial for both to occasionally share ideologies.

That’s why I get a great kick out of seeing Barry Deck’s typeface Template Gothic used in the Times Warner Annual Report or Sue Laporte’s typeface in a Nike ad, or Jeffery Keedy’s typeface Keedy Sans in a Fox television commercial. Who’s using who. anyway? I’d like to believe that Def Jam’s president Davis Harleston is right when he says: “Why we feel lucky is because over the last five or six years, the entry of Rap into more mainstream America, or the crossing over of our kind of Hip-hop into the pop world, has really been more about the pop world coming to us, and less about us going to them.”

Barry Deck’s typefaces were created autonomously, the result of authentic human discovery and exercise, not as the extension of some kind of marketing research. Ask Barry Deck why he designed these fonts and he’ll tell you that it was cheaper for him to draw his own typefaces than to go out and buy them. Actually, you could say that here human need and use was the motive, although the CalArts curriculum, which greatly encouraged type design, should receive some credit as well. To say that the work loses its original experimental or subversive qualities when coopted by mainstream campaigns is perhaps infusing it with a bit too much specific meaning in the first place. And to say that it is used everywhere simply because it’s currently the cool font is discounting the fact that perhaps it has certain universal qualities that foster its widespread use, which is usually seen as a great asset for a typeface.

Who Needs Another Typeface

When Emigre commits to releasing a font like Template Gothic, we tend to not ask whether there’s a need for it because, obviously, in the world of type design, we have long ago moved from the idea of addressing human needs to that of satisfying desires. There’s as little need for another revival of Bodoni as there is for a design like Template Gothic.

However, we do feel a responsibility to produce a good product, one that functions perfectly, that isn’t wasteful, that makes good use of resources and is reasonably priced. In regard to a typeface, this means that it should have foreign accents resulting in over 250 characters. It should be constructed such that the fewest Bezier curve segments are used, that there are no consecutive collinear straight line segments, and that its endpoints are always placed at most horizontal or vertical extremes. To discuss its form, however, is like discussing the color of a brick. It gets rather subjective. What concerns us is that when people use these bricks, they will work and won’t crumble.

Although I’ve talked a great deal about how the Macintosh has accommodated the independent manufacture and distribution of typefaces, there are many products that can now be realized by entrepreneurial individuals. For instance, Robin Kinross, by creating his books on a Macintosh computer, was able to bypass traditional book publishers. According to Kinross, most publishers felt his books wouldn’t appeal to a large enough audience, lacking the hundreds of reproductions needed to turn these books into big sellers. Both Modern Typography and Fellow Readers are well-designed books and a great read. But what makes them unique is that they were self-published by Kinross. They stand as another great example of how individuals become empowered when using the Macintosh computer and taking matters in their own hands. One can pose the question, “What human need and use is there for yet another book on design history or criticism?” but that’s not important. What is important is that these books were published undiluted and untouched by the influence of a major book publisher. Whether there’s a need for them will be decided in the marketplace. I hope someday to do an interview with Kinross for Emigre. I can’t wait to find out whether he’s finding an audience for these books, and whether he’s making a profit. If not, I suggest that he invest a bit more time and money in his public relations efforts.