Interview by Jenny Wohlfarth. Published in 2003.
Ever wondered what it takes to self-publish a magazine? Several firms and type foundries featured in the February 2003 issue of HOW Magazine have done exactly that: launched original, creative publications that have taken on a life of their own, helping promote design ideology and firm/foundry name recognition. Among the most successful of these publications is Emigre, a quarterly magazine whose 19-year legacy is indisputable in professional design circles. HOW writer Jenny Wohlfarth interviewed Emigre founder Rudy VanderLans to get the inside story on the magazine’s creation, mission and formula for success.
HOW: In your opinion, what publication(s) really launched the trend of design firms/font houses publishing their own magazines? What indie-press (or mainstream) publications served as examples for you when you launched Emigre in 1984?
Rudy VanderLans: I’m not sure who started the trend, or if there ever was a trend, but ITC’s U&lc, when Herb Lubalin designed it, was perhaps the first magazine published by a foundry that I was aware of, and that I really liked. Plus Hard Werken, the magazine published by the Dutch design group of the same name, was a great inspiration. The fact that the early issues of Emigre were roughly the same size as both Hard Werken and U&lc was no coincidence.
HOW: Why did you decide to start publishing this magazine? What’s the inspiration behind the name Emigre?
RvdL: Together with a few artist friends we figured, naively, that publishing a magazine was an easy way to showcase our own work and the work of people we admired. We knew nothing about the pitfalls of magazine publishing and distribution. So we went full-steam ahead. We called the magazine Emigre because the people involved in the magazine were all literally émigrés (emigrants). And the idea for the magazine was to feature the work of artists, designers, writers, etc. who had the experience of living and working in different countries. We believed this exposure to other cultures infused their work with a unique flavor.
HOW: As I understand it, once Emigre started attracting attention, readers began asking about the fonts used in the magazine, which were custom-designed for the publication by your wife, Zuzana Licko. In a way, the magazine seems to be the proverbial goose that laid the golden egg for you and Zuzana’s careers/business. If it started as a labor of love, did you ever think it would lead to a business that could financially stand on its own?
RvdL: Not at first. Graphic designers were very slow to become involved with the Macintosh. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s or early ‘90s that designers started working on Macintosh computers on a large scale. That’s when our font sales started to take off, and that’s when we decided to stop working for outside clients and started concentrating all our efforts on designing, licensing and marketing our fonts. That’s when, in a sense, Emigre became a font foundry. And the magazine became the testing ground for the use of these fonts, and it also allowed us to discuss graphic design and type design issues in a way that we felt other magazines were not. But never in our wildest dreams did we think we’d end up running a type foundry selling digital typefaces. Zuzana started off studying architecture at U.C.-Berkeley, and I went to art school because I wanted to become an illustrator.
HOW: Today, do you consider Emigre to be a labor-of-love endeavor or a viable business endeavor? Or is it a mix of both?
RvdL: Emigre magazine is one part of a larger business model puzzle that even we have difficulty understanding, let alone explaining. I wish I could say that Emigre magazine pays for itself through subscriptions, back issue sales and advertising. But it doesn’t. Not even close. But it’s not just a labor of love or vanity publication, either. Emigre magazine allows us to promote and showcase our fonts, provide a context for their use, and it has helped establish the name and brand of Emigre fonts. It’s the Emigre font sales that subsidize Emigre magazine. They’re joined at the hip, so to speak.
HOW: Emigre has long defined itself as a “magazine that ignores boundaries” and has lived up to that self-proclamation by being highly experimental and artistically entrepreneurial. But it has evolved and changed (i.e., in the past, the editorial has shifted from very visual content to more theoretical/text-driven in the ‘90s, and, more recently, back to a more visual-driven approach with the smaller format). How do you describe/characterize the personality of this magazine today? How has its mission evolved since 1984?
RvdL: Its central mission, the underlying motivation to publish Emigre, has remained the same. We simply want to challenge ourselves creatively and intellectually and in the process hope to engage our readers. It’s taken on a variety of forms and expressions, including formal experiments, critical writing about graphic design, interviews with designers, social commentary, and the inclusion of music CDs. I would describe the magazine’s personality as benignly schizophrenic.
HOW: What would you identify as some of the key moments/highlights of the magazine’s evolution over the years? (i.e., the Designers Republic issue, the publication of the First Things First manifesto, the launch of the Emigre music label in 1990).
RvdL: Every single issue is a major undertaking. Since it’s a quarterly, I spend three months working on each issue. It’s a great deal of effort: from buying the paper directly from the paper manufacturer to dealing with the advertiser who can’t figure out how to submit their ad as an Illustrator EPS file to editing and designing. Some of the issues come out really great, others really bad. But to me they all present key moments, because so much work goes into every single issue. They’re all monumental accomplishments, for me.
HOW: What are some of the more memorable issues – or your favorites, if you have any? Or what past issues/features/topics do you consider to be exemplary of Emigre’s mission/goal?
RvdL: The issues I’m most happy with are the ones that have a very strong theme in terms of content and design, such as Emigre #34, #39, #54 and #56. Formally, my two favorite issues are #32 and #39. They are the complete opposite in terms of their design concept, but they both perfectly visualize, strengthen and underline the theme of the respective issues.
Issue #39 featured a series of articles dealing with the notion of “Graphic Design and The Next Big Thing.” Since nobody really ever knows what the next big thing will be, I decided to design a rather “neutral” layout using one sans-serif typeface, set flush left and ragged right, printed in black and red, without a single image or reproduction of any kind. This may not sound like much, but we published this in the heydays of typographic experimentation, when legibility was being tested to the utmost, often within the pages of Emigre. I was very proud of the restraint in this issue. And looking at design trends today, perhaps I wasn’t far off the mark regarding the next big thing, either.
I’m also quite proud of the some more recent issues: Emigre #60, which presented music CDs, and a DVD in issue #62, as their main content. It was a new way of looking at what the content of a magazine can be. It was also quite a challenge to figure out which manufacturers to use, what materials to use, how to assemble – all on a very limited budget. These were definitely memorable issues, and they are perhaps exemplary of Emigre’s goal to challenge ourselves on every level, and to always try and reinvent what we do.
HOW: How is the magazine distributed? Is it still available on newsstands or is it entirely subscription-based now? What’s the average print run per issue? What’s the total paid and unpaid circulation?
RvdL: For the past 20 issues or so, our circulation has hovered between 25,000 and 40,000 copies depending on how many “active” customers we have in our mailing list. Most of these copies are mailed directly to our qualified U.S. customers for free. Emigre distributes about 2,000 copies to stores around the world, and we have about 700 foreign subscribers who pay for the magazine.
HOW: I recall reading that your first issue had no typesetting budget, so the text was basically typewriter type resized on a photocopier. How, initially, did you afford to publish Emigre? What production tricks did you have up your sleeve for keeping the publication’s costs manageable in the earlier years?
RvdL: We paid for it simply by emptying our bank accounts. The few ads we sold barely covered the cost of sending out the promo kits to get advertisers. The first issues were published before the Macintosh was out, so typesetting was done as you describe it, and I spent a lot of time at the local Xerox copy place either enlarging or reducing typewriter copy. For Emigre #3, in order to save money, Zuzana and I rolled up our sleeves and saddle-stitched 3,000 copies by hand. For issue #4, I did all the prepress work myself; shooting halftones on a stat camera, stripping, burning offset plates, etc. We have also relied heavily, and still do, on the kindness and goodness of the many people who have contributed their time and talents to Emigre for no or little pay. It was never easy or glamorous. It was a lot of really hard work, and it was worth it.
HOW: What percentage of your business’s annual revenue does the magazine account for?
RvdL: Emigre magazine accounts for roughly one-tenth of our business’s total annual revenue, derived from back-issue sales, advertising and foreign subscriptions.
HOW: The magazine has garnered its own colorful reputation over the years, but how did you originally market it and get the word out about it?
RvdL: It was a matter of building a mailing list, little by little, and sending out small postcards, flyers and posters. Also, in those early days I used to lecture a lot at universities and local AIGA chapters around the country, and did workshops. This was a great way to get exposure for our work, plus I was able to make a lot of contacts with people who ended up contributing to Emigre magazine.
HOW: What are the greatest challenges involved in creating/self-publishing this magazine? On the flipside, what are some of the perks (such as being able to set your own agenda in the magazine’s pages)?
RvdL: The challenge is to keep what we do exciting for ourselves. This is made easier when graphic design as a whole provides some kind of excitement. The early ‘90s, for instance, was a very exciting time for graphic design, and for us. Design became computerized, technologies changed, and many established notions about graphic design were being challenged and questioned by a new garde of young designers who were very vocal. We found ourselves right in the middle of this, and were able to use Emigre as a platform for debate and experimentation.
HOW: How do you find time to publish a high-quality, intellectually and visually stimulating quarterly magazine in addition to running a type foundry? It appears that you still shoulder the bulk of the editorial and art direction/design functions of the magazine yourself. How many “full-time” people work on Emigre? What nuclear-strength caffeine are you consuming on a daily basis?
RvdL: My main function at Emigre is to publish Emigre magazine. Zuzana runs the type foundry. And Tim Starback is our general office manager; he’s in charge of sales and distribution. There is no editorial or design or production staff at Emigre. I am the entire magazine staff. Zuzana takes care of all the type-related issues, including design and production. Emigre is currently a four-person company. And I drink decaf.
HOW: You’ve said before in interviews that people tend to overlook the business side of Emigre. How much of your time is spent on the business (vs. the creative) side of making Emigre happen?
RvdL: Perhaps too much at times. We find pleasure in having complete control over the entire process of creating products – from conceptualization to design to manufacture to marketing to distribution. It places you in a unique relationship with the products that you create. You can make informed and quick decisions every step along the way. We’re also involved in licensing issues, contract writing, etc. But it does, at times, become a precarious juggling act in terms of time. Zuzana and I went to art school. We knew nothing about running a business, so we learned everything the hard way.
HOW: How do you recruit your contributors, and are they typically paid for writing/guest editing/designing?
RvdL: We were lucky enough to be around in the early ‘90s when schools like Cranbrook and CalArts and Yale were encouraging students to write about design as an extension of the practice of design. Most of our regular writers and guest editors came from these design schools. And Emigre magazine owes a great deal of its reputation to these contributors. And yes, we have always tried to pay our contributors, but this may take on various forms, from actual money to all kinds of trades and bartering, depending on a variety of circumstances.
HOW: The magazine received much criticism in the late 1980s/early ‘90s from outspoken design traditionalists/modernists. How did that motivate you to push the magazine’s boundaries even farther? How did those difficult years – or do you even consider them to have been “difficult” ? – contribute to or influence the magazine’s long-term growth and success?
RvdL: I was surprised that people had paid such close attention to what we were doing. In those days our circulation was around 3,000 copies. Right then I realized that the ideas we were presenting through Emigre were quite good. Why else would these “design traditionalists” make such a fuss? But these were not “difficult” years. It was exciting! The old garde was very passionate about their work, and so were we. And it created some wonderful debates about graphic design, which played out over a number of years in various magazines, such as the AIGA Journal, Eye and Emigre.
HOW: In your opinion, why do people read Emigre? What draws them to it?
RvdL: I think they’re somewhat intrigued by the spectacle. There’s a lot of absurdity, but they know that if they dig around, they’ll find the occasional nugget.
HOW: Does Emigre reflect design culture, influence it, define it or challenge it (or all or none of the above)?
RvdL: Emigre has often been described as a culture or subculture magazine, suggesting, perhaps, that we reflect or define culture. But this sounds uncomfortable to me. I’m not sure if we fulfill that role. What we do comes very much from within ourselves. The books we publish, the topics we cover in Emigre, the fonts we release, Zuzana’s ceramics. These are all things we are personally interested in. What we do is not in any way meant to reflect a cultural or subcultural or underground movement. Maybe that was the function of Emigre in the very early days, when the Macintosh had just been introduced, and there was what you could call a subcultural movement of a few people who were interested in exploring this strange new design tool. But currently we do not try to belong to, or feel specific affinity with, any specific group or approach. So there’s no pressure to publish any specific issues dealing with particular subcultural and/or current topics. We simply follow our own personal interests and tastes.
HOW: In the 1980s/’90s, Emigre was the “wild child” of the design-publication industry. What will the Emigre of the 21st century be? What would you like to see it do in the future? What are your plans for the publication in the next 5 to 10 years?
RvdL: We have never made any long-term goals. Currently, our biggest plans are that Princeton Architectural Press will become the co-publisher of Emigre magazine. Princeton, like Emigre, is a small independent company that has carved out its own niche over the years and publishes wonderful books about architecture and design. And they’re very supportive of design writing and criticism, which is an area we’ll return to with our next issue. The biggest change people will notice is that Emigre magazine will no longer be free, except to some of our very best customers. We’re very excited and proud about this collaboration with Princeton. It’s a new venture, and we have no idea where it will lead us. But whatever comes of it, I’m sure it will be worth the ride.