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Nuove Capitali Della Tipografia (Italy)

Interview by students of Mauro Panzeri’s Editorial Graphic Design class at the Politecnico di Milano. Published in 2011.

The publication in which this interview was published was created by graphic design students: Marco Agosta, Diego Enrico Barbolini, Andrea Castoldi, and Lorenzo Fantetti.

Students: 1984, the birth year of Emigre, is not a random date, it coincides with the advent of the first Macintosh personal computer. How crucial was this coincidence to your success?

Rudy VanderLans: It was an important event in our professional lives. The reason people noticed our work early on is because we got involved with the Macintosh when it first came out. Nobody liked this computer then. Everybody thought it was a fad and that it was useless for doing serious design. We were in the right place at the right time, and our acceptance of this new computer, early on, when everybody else rejected it, launched our careers.

S: Compared to its early days, how has your opinion regarding this tool changed?

RvdL: It’s gotten better and better, and I still have the same hate/love relationship with my computer. I love it because it can do just about everything, and I hate it because it can do just about everything. Like everybody else, I now listen to my music, read my mail, get my news, and do my work all on the same machine. It’s convenient, but it’s also replacing certain media featuring inherently interesting qualities that I miss. I recently bought a turntable, and I’m playing my vinyl records again. The whole ritual of taking a vinyl record out of its sleeve and lowering the needle onto the black shiny plastic is so tactile and beautiful. All that goes missing when you listen to iTunes. But this tool, the computer, is an indispensable part of my life. I wouldn’t know what to do without it.

S: The spread of personal computers has caused a great homogeneity of styles in graphic design. Do you agree?

RvdL: It’s difficult to talk in such general terms. Yes, the computer has caused a certain homogeneity, but doesn’t every technology? And is that really the fault of the computer, or the people using it? The computer has also caused magnificent design work. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t pay that much attention to whatever is the latest style or trend or designer to watch. When I was publishing Emigre, I knew everything that was going on in graphic design. I read every design book and every graphic design magazine that was being published. Since I stopped publishing Emigre magazine in 2005, I also stopped paying attention to what is going on in design. After 25 years of indulging myself in the wide world of graphic design, I am now completely focussed on my own work. I rarely go out to conferences, I don’t lecture, and I rarely read design books anymore. I don’t suggest this as standard practice for others, but I’m enjoying this moment of self indulgence without much concern for what goes on in design.

But to go back to your question, the homogeneity of styles in graphic design is unfortunate mostly in terms of local and national styles. It used to be that you could see a design and you had a good chance at guessing from which country it came. That is no longer the case. Indigenous styles are quickly disappearing, and that is perhaps due to the fact that everybody works on the same computer. And, just as importantly, due to the internet, everybody is familiar with everybody else’s work and ultimately influenced by it.

S: Do you think that this standardization has altered the idea of authorship in graphic design by removing and replacing the great names with great trends?

RvdL: I’m not sure if I see a link between standardization, trends, and authorship. These are all separate phenomena. Or perhaps I don’t understand your question.

S: What is the role of the contemporary graphic designer? Can we create something new or are we just trend followers?

RvdL: The role of the graphic designer is the same as it has always been: to communicate effectively.

S: What prompted you to change the principles and rules of classical typography and page layout? Which value do these experiments have nowadays?

RvdL: We didn’t change any rules or principles, we added to them. We expanded our design palette. It seems useless to limit yourself in your approach to design.

S: Speaking in particular of readability, what is the legacy of the radical experiments of the 90s?

RvdL: Twenty years after we first published our thoughts on legibility in Emigre magazine, the rest of the world is finally catching up. We raised a lot of eyebrows in those days. Our less than neutral layouts and jarring typeface designs were criticized and dismissed as self indulgent and were deemed to interfere with the readers’ ability to read texts and comprehend messages. The opposition to our experiments was so vehement that the ensuing battle was referred to by many as “The Legibility Wars.”

Well, it turns out that researchers have found what we suspected all along: that slowing the reader down actually helps them concentrate harder and retain more information. “Disfluency,” as the researchers call it, improves retention. Or as The New York Times put it: “…people retain significantly more material when they study it in a font that is not only unfamiliar but also hard to read.”

Of course we’re not absolutists on this issue, and we’re highly skeptical of findings by researchers who have little knowledge of the complexities of type and design. But it was always obvious to us that there’s more to effective typography than simply making things legible. I’m not sure if you can call that a legacy, but it’s something that occupied us very much, and still makes complete sense.

S: We have noticed that your approach to graphic design during the Emigre experience has changed over time, from a radical experiment, to a more classical approach. How do you explain this change?

RvdL: I guess I’m not very rigid. I don’t believe there’s an ultimate answer to how to design. Some designers have a set list of rules, and it helps them to get started. I don’t have that.

On the other hand, if you look at my work now, it doesn’t look that much different from the work I made 20 years ago. If you look at the covers of Emigre #1 and our final issue Emigre #69, I don’t see that big a difference.

The radical label that our work received had a lot to do with the fact that we tried to incorporate a new design tool. The early computer technology forced us to think differently. It made no sense to try and produce classical layouts when all you could use were low resolution typefaces. We saw this as an opportunity to create wholly different designs, that used the available technology to its advantage. That’s not radical, that’s being a Modernist.

It was a liberating time creatively, because nobody had really worked in this new environment. We couldn’t open up a design book to look for examples to copy. We created our own design language, which was characterized by bitmaps. It was an exhilarating time. We had to work around many restrictions. The technology was very crude, and we tried to make it work somehow. But not by recreating what we knew. We had to leave all our preconceived notions about design behind, and start thinking outside the box. Currently, the computer no longer has any restrictions. It has become so sophisticated, it can do anything you can dream off. Anything is possible. So this offers a entirely different set of parameters to create design work.

S: Do you notice a change in the perception of your work today?

RvdL: It’s difficult to gauge how others perceive your work. Most design students today weren’t even born when we started Emigre, and I’m sure they perceive our work very differently then our contemporaries, if they’re aware of it at all. We no longer publish a magazine, and we have discontinued our record label, in order to focus primarily on type design. And since we currently concentrate more on designing large text families, which are very work intensive, our output is much more sporadic. So we have a much lower profile. Also, Zuzana is spending a lot of her time redrawing her older typefaces, perfecting them, and applying the things she has learned over the years to her earlier fonts. This makes it seem like we produce less work, but in actuality we are just as busy and productive as ever. It’s just less noticeable. And due to this renewed focus on our fonts, the Emigre type foundry is doing better than ever.

S: Our final question is a funny question: if you were a font, what would it be?

RvdL: I would love to be Helvetica, because I would be everywhere.