IDEA magazine (Japan)

Interview by Toshiaki Koga. Published in 2005.

IDEA: Emigre has been published for over 21 years and the latest issue, Emigre #69, will be its final issue. Since its start, Emigre has always focused on topics concerning local difference, individuality and pluralism. This stands in stark contrast to the homogenization of culture and design in today’s era of globalization. May I start by asking you about your birthplace and native country, and if there is any scene or social climate that influenced your personality or present work?

RvdL: I was born and raised in The Hague, Holland, and received a Bachelors degree in Graphic Design from the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. My parents were both blue-collar workers. Holland was a social democracy, with a left-of-center labor party at the helm during the time I lived in Holland. My design education was largely Bauhausian, consisting almost entirely of studio classes, and no theory to speak of. Design’s function was to make this world a better place. Design was used to inform, not to persuade. And advertising was very much looked down upon. That’s the environment, in a nutshell, that I grew up in.

IDEA: The large-size of the early issues of Emigre are almost the same size as the Dutch magazine Hard Werken and U&Lc, which was published by the ITC type foundry. Are there any current magazines and publications that inspire you?

RvdL: There used to be many magazines that I devoured and that inspired me, both in terms of content and design, like the ones you mention in your question. But there are very few magazines now that I really look forward to seeing and reading, particularly when it comes to the design. I rarely get swept off my feet anymore. I’m not sure if this is because I’m getting older and jaded, or whether magazines are just not where the action is these days. Perhaps the magazine format as we know it has run its course. The only magazine I read religiously now is Harper’s magazine, a political magazine. But I read it purely for its content.

IDEA: Since 1984, with the popularization of the Macintosh computer and desktop publishing, the democratization of design processes emerged. Emigre showed us the potential of publishing by the individual which became possible by such a factors. Compared to large-scale publications, what is the potential of personal and independent publishing?

RvdL: The potential of personal publications lies with individuals who have something unique to say and are willing to go out on a limb and make themselves heard through this medium. Beyond that, I’m not sure what the potential of independent publications is. Perhaps the people who in the past would have started magazines, are now launching blogs and on line discussion forums.

IDEA: From the latter half of 80’s and into the 90’s, Emigre often collaborated with schools such as Cranbrook and CalArts. But you seem to have always kept a distance from their philosophical backgrounds. Is it beneficial to apply theoretical concepts to typography and graphic design?

RvdL: I think that the work at Cranbrook and CalArts is often inaccurately described as having its basis in theory. Yes, some students were reading Barthes and Derrida at Cranbrook in the early 80s, but there were a lot of other influences at work. Everything from Punk music to vernacular architecture to the golden section. It was all in the mix. Although I was never involved in the French linguistic theory that some students at Cranbrook read, I also didn’t see any problem with graphic designers taking an interest in these kinds of ideas. All the other arts at the time were taking an interest in these ideas and were influenced by it. It was a very exciting time. People were questioning a lot of perceived ideas about art, literature, architecture and eventually graphic design caught the bug as well. It was made even more exciting when the technologies used to produce design were changing with the introduction of the Macintosh.

IDEA: How did the so-called “Legibility Wars” start? And what is at the core of this argument?

RvdL: There existed, at the time, and perhaps still today, a very strong feeling that for texts and information to be easily readable it had to be presented “neutrally.” We argued that there was no such thing as neutrality or transparency in design, that all graphic gestures are loaded with meaning. Also, we weren’t interested in addressing the needs of multi-national corporations and lowest common denominator audiences. We were looking to work for smaller cultural institutions and audiences who would enjoy reading visually sophisticated messages. But these intentions were always overlooked by the critics. The work was always dismissed as inferior design. It was always compared to the objectivity and transparency of Swiss design without regard to the context in which it existed.

IDEA: You introduced us to many designers and typefaces both from the past and the present. What do you think about the relationship between tradition and the contemporary subject?

RvdL: Obviously, everything we do is largely dependent on what has come before us. It’s impossible to make something that is entirely new. People would not be able to relate to it. They would dismiss it as unintelligible. So, yes, tradition is something we pay very close attention to. There has to be a healthy balance between the two.

IDEA: Emigre always experimented with various typographic approaches to represent its contents. Yet Mr. Keedy’s title for the intro of Emigre: The Book, stated: “Graphic designers probably won’t read this...” Do you think designers actually don’t read the text in your magazine, do they just look at it? What kind of response do you get from your readers regarding this?

RvdL: Some people read the magazine from cover to cover, while others just looked at it. But that’s a kind of “reading” as well. It’s a visual reading. And with Emigre we hoped to satisfy both kinds of readers. We just think that those readers who read the magazine on both levels got the most out of it.

IDEA: Are there any particular writers on graphic design and typography that you have a special regard for? What kind of writing style do you prefer? Even if unrelated to design, are there any books you personally recommend? Is there a writer or a poet you willingly read?

RvdL: I continue to be impressed by Rick Poynor’s passion and the deep and sincere interest he has in the subject of graphic design. He cares more for design than many designers do. Similarly, Robin Kinross’s writing, particularly his book Modern Typography, is some of the best in the field. But the writing styles of both these writers remains too “nice.” It’s technically and factually spotless. It’s smart and observant. But it lacks a kind of edge. It’s safe. It’s all very serious. It’s all about the idea. But not enough effort is paid to the presentation. It’s like the Swiss International Style version of writing. Personally, I enjoy writers who use humor, irony, even sarcasm, and who dare to go out on a limb with their ideas, like Kenneth FitzGerald and Jeffery Keedy and David Barringer, to name but a few.

Outside of design, the writer/poet I love to read is Charles Bukowski. I wish I could write about design in the same manner that he writes about his life. It’s very straightforward, but it’s full of depth and vividness and passion and honesty and great colorful descriptions of people and places.

IDEA: You have always focused on the work of designers who are non commercial and who are engaged with social/cultural work and education. Why do you sympathize with them? What do you think about the ethical and moralistic role of the designer in society?

RvdL: When people work for causes and clients who they believe in and have an affinity with, it infuses the work they make with a kind of honesty and passion that I find very appealing.

The ethical and moralistic role of the designer is no different than that of a citizen’s role. Everything you do as a person - whether you’re a designer, accountant, or basketball player - has an effect upon others. Since designers often make claims that their work has an impact on others, they carry a huge ethical and moralistic responsibility.

IDEA: It is still difficult to maintain economic independence when publishing and distributing design related books and magazines. From #42 to #63, your magazine was available for free, and the advertisements increased. What effect did this increase of circulation have on the number of readers and the number of users of Emigre’s fonts. And did it influence the content of the magazine?

RvdL: After publishing some 41 issues with a circulation of roughly 6,000 copies, we wondered what the true potential was of Emigre magazine. Our single issue and subscription rates were always a bit on the high side, which may have kept a lot of people from buying it, especially students. We also had very limited distribution since we only sold to stores that paid us money up front, a very unusual arrangement that kept us out of many newsstands and bookstores. So with issue #42 we decided to expand our audience by making the magazine free to anybody on our mailing list and who requested it. Within months we had a circulation of around 40,000. It was a huge risk, because the cost of printing that many copies and then mailing them out to that many people was very high. But we never really changed our content to please the masses, no matter how much people complained about our appetite for theory. And it all worked out surprisingly well, as our typeface sales went through the roof, which allowed us to sustain the publishing of the magazine!

IDEA: Aural media was always a part of Emigre. There was the Emigre Music label since about 1990, and then the inclusion of the CDs and DVDs in issues #60 through #63. Moreover, your trilogy of photo books uses music as a motif. What is the charm of music for you?

RvdL: I always wished I could make my own music. And I’ve tried, but it doesn’t come naturally to me, so it’s best left to others. But I figured that if I can’t make music myself, the second best thing would be to release it. This gave me an opportunity to work with musicians, and to find ways to work music into the design projects I work on. Graphic design is somewhat limited in terms of the emotions it can generate. When you add music, that’s a whole new experiential dimension. So I often look to incorporate music into my design projects.

IDEA: After becoming a paperback size with Emigre #64, you tried to resurrect the field of design criticism by challenging the younger generation to become more involved in critical writing. Do you think that it is possible to have an autonomous field of graphic design criticism?

RvdL: Sure it’s possible. All you need is enough people interested in design criticism and theory to sustain it. But so far this has remained elusive. You would think that graphic design, as ubiquitous as it is, would be a rather interesting field for cultural critics to be involved in. Designers mediate just about any message that the public consumes. And it’s not exactly a benign action. Through our designs we often help determine and influence people’s actions. In that respect design is a political act. But for whatever reason, cultural critics don’t see it that way, or don’t see it at all, and I’m as puzzled by this as anybody.

IDEA: Though the magazine is ending, Emigre the company will continue. The magazine was often used as a testing ground for new Emigre typefaces. By ending the magazine you will lose this valuable place to experiment. How will this affect the development of Emigre typefaces?

RvdL: Emigre magazine was only one of many ways we use to test drive and market our fonts. We also produce books, catalogs, type specimens, posters, etc, which we will continue to do. We actually feel there’s a real opportunity now to set ourselves apart from a lot of other type foundries. Very few foundries today make type specimen booklets. It’s becoming a lost art. For most foundries, the making of a printed type specimen or catalog is not cost effective. We, on the other hand, think it’s still the best and most effective way to show off our fonts. We hope to put much effort in this in the coming years.

IDEA: I’m guessing the reason you decided to make Emigre #69 the final issue has many factors. What was the main reason?

RvdL: All things must come to an end.

IDEA: Where would you and Emigre like to go in the future?

RvdL: For the past 21 years, we’ve never looked very far into the future. There are always four or five projects in the works, which range from typeface designs, to small book projects, to the redesign of our web site, to whatever comes down the pike that we like to get involved in. We try not to force anything to happen. We like to go with the flow. That approach has served us well up to now.