Letterform Archive

Interview by Letterform Archive’s “Survey of Type History” students in the MFA program at California College of Arts in San Francisco. Published in 2020.

This interview was for a class called “Post Modernism, Grunge Typography, and the Digital Age” with instructor Kate Long. The questions were supplied by the students.

Students: Looking back over your body of work, is there one project that holds personal significance for you?

Rudy VanderLans: This is a returning question, and I may be answering it differently each time. Each of the projects we’ve worked on, and that’s certainly true for the magazines and the various typefaces, took so much effort and time to design and produce and distribute, they each have significant memories attached to them. And they all presented their own challenges, whether it was the technology that we were trying to utilize at the time, or some curious mailing restriction imposed by the Postal Service that effected the placement of the Emigre logo on the cover of our magazine.

But if we have to pick one, Zuzana and I still really enjoy our bitmap fonts, and the layouts we created using them. There was this very short period of about a year, between the introduction of the Macintosh (1984) and the release of Postscript (1985), when everything you made on the Mac was bitmapped at 72 dpi. And what you saw on the screen was exactly what you saw when you printed it out on an ImageWriter. One of the earliest uses of that approach can be seen on the contents page of Emigre #2. While it looks kind of unassuming and funky, it was an incredible breakthrough in terms of production techniques. Because for the first time we were able to create our own typefaces (made with FontEditor) and use them in a program that allowed you to move type around (MacPaint). Up to that point, people had always been able to create their own type, but in order to use type and access it through a keyboard, you relied on very expensive proprietary typesetting equipment run by professionally trained typesetters. So you had to work through somebody else to get your layout started. So, much of the work we created during that short period in the mid 80s still resonates with us.

Students: With technology changing so rapidly and with designers being expected to take on an increasingly wide variety of tasks, it can sometimes feel intimidating as a new designer trying to build a professional practice that is both creatively fulfilling and culturally or commercially relevant. I admire the way that your work and individual/combined practices have evolved with changing technologies and interests. Have you actively tried to incorporate new tech and ideas into your work, or has it happened organically as you follow your curiosity? Do you have thoughts on how to balance developing mastery and specialization with being open to new developments in the design field?

RvdL: This is not a recipe for success, but it’s what we did, and it worked out for us. Early in our careers, we found ourselves in a position where we realized that working for clients was not for us, and that the fonts and magazine we were producing could actually sustain us if we just concentrated all our efforts on doing that. So we created a space for ourselves where we could be creatively fulfilled and be independent. And yes we were early adopters of all the new technologies that came down the pike. We were one of the first small digital foundries, we were first to sell fonts online. The technology, crude as it was, lead us to all kinds of creative solutions. It allowed us to do things that were never possible before and it inspired us creatively and helped us run our business. And most of it was fairly simple to figure out. It also set us apart from the crowd, because early on there was a lot of resistance to the computer within design.

Today, the technology is super sophisticated. It allows you to do just about anything you can dream of. But it’s an investment to learn how to use it and stay up to date. And I’m not sure if there’s a formula for how to balance the mastery of the tools, some of which have a steep learning curve, and continuing to develop your design chops. In my own work, and again, I don’t work for clients so my situation is a bit different from most designers, I primarily design type catalogs and make photo books. I use InDesign and Photoshop, and I’ve become really good at using certain parts of each program to a point where it’s second nature. That’s worked for me. Today, I tend to focus on a very narrow slice of the technology and get really good at it to cover my needs. For all the other stuff, I collaborate with others or hire experts, because it’s impossible to know every program and be good at everything.

Students: Emigre was my introduction to critical discourse about design and, as I am sure you hear often, one of the driving forces behind me choosing to study design. Last year, Rick Poynor spoke at CCA and commented on the fact that the field of design criticism is not as vibrant as it was several decades ago, in part because there is currently a dearth of prominent spaces for that type of discourse. I am wondering if you also find this to be true currently; why or why not? Are there emerging designers or writers that you feel are driving this aspect of design forward?

RvdL: I’m particularly impressed by Ian Lynam and Jon Sueda. They both initiate their own projects, and set up platforms to write about design, and then find ways to distribute and share with others. And they’re doing it by publishing books and catalogs and organizing exhibitions, which are difficult and expensive ways to get your ideas out into the world.

These are just two people that I’m aware of. And I don’t know how they fit into the larger picture of graphic design. I don’t know who’s aware of their work and what their status is within design writing and criticism, and if there’s any critique of their work. Perhaps I’m the wrong person to ask. I can no longer be sure of what there is to know. Within design it used to be that if you read Print, Eye, and The AIGA Journal, and you went to the AIGA convention once a year, you had a pretty good idea of what was going on in design and what the major dialogues within design were. That’s no longer the case.

Also, as much as I agree with Rick Poynor about today’s lack of design criticism, it was never a widely accepted field to begin with. We gave it our best shot with Emigre, and we could never get beyond 2,000 - 2,500 subscribers willing to pay for what in the end was mostly design writing (Emigre #64 - 69). That’s not nearly enough to sustain a stable of good writers.

So even in the heydays that Rick mentioned, there wasn’t much of an audience for design writing and criticism. It was a very small group of people that we relied on for writing any kind of critical pieces. It never really grew into anything significant. And the audience for this kind of writing never reached the level you see with art, architecture, literature, movies, where you have general interest newspapers and magazines and websites talk about these cultural phenomena.

And yet, graphic design is everywhere around us. It’s ubiquitous, and it affects us all on a daily basis. Kenneth FitzGerald stated that design is the public art, that it’s pure culture. I’ve always found it baffling that design writing never graduated to the big leagues.

I suggest you read Kenneth FitzGerald’s article “Buzz Kill” in Emigre #67. It’s a great rant on why he thinks design criticism never took off.

Students: When using a new typeface, or especially when designing a new specimen, how do you go about acquainting yourself with the typeface? Do you just figure it out organically, or are there strategies for discovering the intricacies of a typeface that you want to highlight or utilize?

RvdL: It’s probably closer to an organic approach than anything strategic. I was fortunate to see most of the Emigre fonts come to fruition. I was often using the fonts while they were being developed, so I could comment on what was lacking or needed adjusting. And that way you really get to know a font and hopefully find out how it works best. Then, it’s just a matter of experimenting and applying the font to all kinds of different situations and contexts.

And I usually use real text in our type specimens, as opposed to “Greeking” or a sentence like “The Quick Fox Jumped Over The Lazy Dog.” You can make any font look pretty decent when you pick and choose the words and letter combinations. Using it in the layout of a poem or recipe or a couple of paragraphs of justified text from an actual book will show you what a particular font can handle.

Students: One of the most valuable aspects of Emigre was the way it facilitated dialog between designers in an age when internet communication was absent or uncommon. How would you compare that kind of letter-to-the-editor discourse with online fora?

RvdL: One of the biggest differences between our letters-to-the-editor and online fora (hey, I just learned a new word) that I really miss, is the materiality of the letters people sent us. They contained so much tactile information that has completely disappeared with online communication. And you can ask Kate what a huge loss that is for archivists. I have letters from Massimo Vignelli and Wolfgang Weingart in my archive (sorry Kate, I’m still holding on to those for now) that are perfect examples of how their communications were extensions of their aesthetic. The letterhead designs, the paper, the typewriter fonts they used, their signatures, sometimes even the smell of the paper, those are all such wonderful attributes. That’s an enormous wealth of information and experience that is entirely absent in online communication. Stylistically and physically, if you can even talk about a physical presence online, all our messages now look pretty much the same.

Also, our readers often sent us essay-length letters. They didn’t feel restricted by 280 characters. They would really flesh out their ideas. The magazine came out only four times a year, so people had time to reply and to think about issues, to ponder and reflect. Now, on most online fora, people respond instantly in real time. I’m not saying it’s better or worse, it’s just very different.

Students: This question is for Zuzana. Over the years, which program for creating fonts did you most enjoy using? Which one do you use now?

Zuzana Licko: When I started creating bitmap fonts in the 80s, I enjoyed working with Fontastic, the bitmap font editor from Altsys. (Not to be confused with today’s Fontastic Processing library which I just now discovered when doing a web search for Fontastic.)

Fontastic was literally a two bit editor. You could edit nonaliased bitmaps of two bits: black and white, each click of the mouse was a toggle. You can see a short simulation on my instagram feed.

Shortly thereafter, I was able to create PostScript-based outline fonts with Fontographer, also from Altsys. Fontographer 3 was stable for almost two decades (which seems like an eternity for software these days), so the drawing interface became very familiar to me. I also enjoyed the Robo version of Fontographer, called “RoboFog,” which added Python scripting for automating repetitive tasks. (Today, most font editing programs include Python scripting.) Unfortunately, as of about eight years ago, I developed vision problems that prevent me from seeing enough detail for letterform design. So, I haven’t learned to use any new font program for designing type.

Today I’m exploring pattern fonts, where each letter contains a pattern element, which can be combined in various configurations. I have always been fascinated with patterns, and I can still enjoy working on them with poor vision because much of the decision making is based on rationale rather than on detailed visual feedback. For this work, I still have RoboFog running on an old OS9 machine.

Students: Lots of special collections and museums have copies of Emigre. Historians and critics have often written about the influence of your magazine on postmodern and digital design. For you, what was the spirit of Emigre? What do you hope readers came away with?

RvdL: Emigre was born out of a DIY spirit. In the early days of our careers, we worked for a variety of clients, which gave us a look behind the scenes of how small businesses were run. And we quickly realized there wasn’t any magic to running your own business and creating products from scratch. It just meant a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and money. At a certain point we realized that instead of being a cog in the machinery, we could be the machinery. Instead of coming in at the end of a project as a hired hand to put on a shine, we thought we could invent the product.

So we learned how to become producers. Make our own products, all the way from conception to getting it out into peoples hands. And if you read through the issues of Emigre magazine, you’ll see quite a few interviews with designer/entrepreneurs like Elliott Earls, Hard Werken, Piet Schreuders, Bruce Licher and others. I think designers are particularly well equipped for becoming producers/entrepreneurs, because they know how to analyze, and conceptualize, and they know how to use the tools to create something from nothing. We hope people picked up on that spirit.

Students: What were the biggest challenges of coordinating submissions from international contributors in the days before the internet?

RvdL: It meant traveling a lot, and making very expensive long distance phone calls to do interviews. Work samples and mechanicals had to be send by overseas mail and could take weeks to arrive. So everything just took much longer. But it also meant that everything was a lot more precious. If somebody sent you a package of work samples (before PDFs), they took extra care to include all kinds of goodies, and it was exiting when such a long-awaited package would finally arrive in the mail.

Students: If you were to suddenly publish a new issue today, what topic would you cover?

RvdL: As more and more design magazines are going out of business, the idea to suddenly publish a new issue comes up from time to time. But in the end I always decide against it. When I published Emigre, I was living and breathing graphic design. I read everything there was to read, I attended conferences, I visited studios and schools, did workshops and lectured. I found it all so fascinating, there was so much to discover. And we were experiencing significant changes within our profession. I had a million questions which weren’t answered in the traditional design press. And we started writing about what we were experiencing at the time. With Emigre we pretty much wrote our own history.

I no longer have that same deep connection to our profession. I wouldn’t know what questions to ask. So I’ll leave it to others to take on the challenge to take the pulse of design, and tell me what’s going on.