In 1984 husband-and-wife Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko launched a type company named Emigre, making it the first contemporary type foundry to sell original fonts made on and created for the computer. In addition to designing and licensing over 300 typefaces by a wide range of designers, Emigre also published a magazine for 21 years that published criticism and essays on graphic design while providing a beautiful showcase for Emigre’s fonts. This month, Emigre began another exploration in type and publication with Historia, a 62-page type specimen featuring VanderLans’s photos and stories about visiting thirteen California battlefields from the U.S.-Mexican War. I talked to VanderLans about creating original type-focused content, the renaissance of font-awareness, and what he can do about our ugly American currency.
Fast Company: Before I even got hooked on the subject matter of Historia, I realized that I loved that this catalog itself was useful. Why don’t more type companies do this?
Rudy VanderLans: I can’t speak for the other foundries, but producing these printed type specimens is a serious investment of time and money. The Historia catalog took two years to complete, including the research, the photography, the writing, and the design. And that’s after we spent a life time working on producing the typefaces. It’s all extremely work intensive.
But Emigre has always enjoyed experimenting with marketing and selling its typefaces. Besides the fact that we were one of the first type foundries to sell type on line, for 20 years we published Emigre magazine which took on a variety of formats - from a tabloid sized fanzine, to pocket books filled with design criticism, to a series of cardboard folders featuring music CDs. And no matter what the content, the Emigre fonts were always prominently used and showcased throughout.
FC: You say in the introduction that you had originally thought of this project as a coffee table book. You created a new genre of design publishing with Emigre - could this kind of specimen be a new model for publishing? Maybe you can find excellent unpublished projects and give them a home?
RvdL: That’s the idea. We want to make type specimens and catalogs that offer more than a sales pitch. We want to make them so appealing that people would want to keep them around and collect them. And I think we’ve been successful at that because much of our work is in the permanent design collections of both the SFMoMA and Museum of Modern Art in New York among others.
FC: What was the process to pair the different typefaces with each battle? Could you start to see them in your mind when you visited the physical places? Or did they come to you much later, based on how you knew the different fonts worked together?
RvdL: It’s not so much a matter of matching a font to a city or location. That would be nearly impossible. Any of the Emigre typefaces could have been used to pair with any place or event. But you have to do it with conviction. Your choice of typeface and how you use it has to be such that it looks like there was no other way it could be done. And when you do that, by purposefully picking a particular font to identify a city, place, or event, you can create a strong dynamic. That’s what fonts can do. They can lend a particular character to a place or an institution or an object.
FC: How do you actually go about developing a new typeface? What comes first, looking at a physical, historic or aesthetic inspiration, or looking at fulfilling a use - say, knowing you want to create a font with improved readability for a certain role?
RvdL: All of the above. And currently we are busy redesigning, perfecting and retooling typefaces that we designed many years ago. The design of a typeface is really never finished. Over time you come across applications of certain typefaces where you may see a certain shortcoming in the font which may lead to an idea to improve or change it. Since they’re not chiseled in stone, the fonts can always be improved upon.
FC: Type feels like it’s entering a renaissance in one sense due to the fact that consumers are definitely more type-aware. (Example: The widespread outrage about the Cavaliers’ owner recently penning a letter to Lebron James in Comic Sans.) What is the state of type from the designer’s perspective?
RvdL: Yes, consumers are more aware of typefaces, and there are ever more fonts available. And this has been great for the type industry. It resulted in an explosion of new type designs during the past 15 years and an expansion of typeface buyers. Currently, the new developments in type are more directed towards technical issues, such as conversions to OpenType and the pending promises of web fonts.
FC: The typefaces in the Emigre catalog look and feel familiar, even though they’re totally new. Do you consider what you do to be vintage-inspired? Or is it something else completely?
RvdL: If they look somewhat familiar it’s because all typefaces have to abide by very specific rules that have evolved over the ages. Our profession is rooted in a long tradition of what people are used to reading. So familiarity is almost a prerequisite if you want to make the typefaces useful. You can only move away from the norm so far. And within those parameters, it’s our creative and technological abilities and limitations that set our fonts apart from others.
FC: As we get farther away from the era when all type needed to be rendered by hand do you lament the fact that designers are losing this part of the craft? Or is there a new, exciting future for type that exclusively originates from - and can be exclusively generated for and read and used on - the computer?
RvdL: Well, you lose one craft, but you gain another. Zuzana Licko, who is responsible for many of the beautiful and most popular typefaces in the Emigre library never draws type by hand. It’s all done on the computer, from start to finish. To traditionalists that’s a no-no. To them type design has its basis in calligraphy, and one should first learn to master that. But Zuzana is left handed. It’s nearly impossible to do calligraphy when you’re left handed. So for her, the computer liberated her from this handicap.
FC: The rich, ornamental design of these Historia spreads often reminded me of money. Can you please redesign American currency so we can have the most beautiful money in the world?
RvdL: Thank you, that’s a very nice compliment. And this may sound surprising, but I actually like the design of the American currency. It has a very classic, indigenous feel to it, which I like. I studied it closely when I was working on my Historia specimen.