Open Manifesto (Australia)

Interview by Kevin Finn. Published in 2009.

Kevin Finn: When you moved to America you decided to set up Emigre in California. In terms of graphic design, am I correct in believing this was partly in opposition to a commonly held perception that New York was the heart of American graphic design? If so, do you feel the hub of American design is still seen to be in New York, or have you, and others, succeeded in challenging this perception?

Rudy VanderLans: I moved to California in the early 80s because in my mind it was the most exciting place on earth - geographically, politically, artistically, technologically, you name it. I came out to study photography at the University of California at Berkeley. Graphic design was not much on my mind at the time, although there was plenty of exciting work being made. April Greiman was in Los Angeles, and the Michaels (Manwarring, Vanderbyl, Mabry) were in San Francisco, and it was all very loosey goosey. It was a great antidote to the staid “Swiss International Style” type of work that was being produced everywhere else.

The part about creating an opposition to New York didn’t start to occur until a few years later when we shifted the purpose of Emigre from being an arts magazine to a graphic design magazine. And then the Macintosh was introduced, and all of a sudden it seemed all the progressive design work was being created on the West Coast. Or at least it wasn’t coming out of New York anymore.

Not only that, but some of the big name designers in New York were often criticizing what was going on in design on the West Coast, and in particular with regards to design created on the Macintosh. To them it represented everything that was bad in design. This created a bit of tension to the point where if you were a designer from New York, this automatically disqualified you from being published in Emigre. That’s actually an aspect of Emigre, and American graphic design in general during those days, which is rarely discussed. But it was definitely there, this East West division.

But all of this has passed, and I’m sure that New York once again considers itself the hub of American design. They probably think it was never relinquished in the first place. Due to the sheer number of designers who live there, and all the industries that support it, and the fact that it’s the home of the AIGA, etc., it’s safe to say New York is the hub of American graphic design. But I don’t necessarily think it is the heart of design any longer.

KF: One definition of an “émigré” is: One who has left a native country, especially for political reasons. Was this word chosen for the company name specifically to identify with any early political or cultural motivations you had, and how did leaving your native country affect your own national and cultural identity?

RvdL: The original French word, “émigré,” simply means someone who has left his or her native country - an emigrant - without the political implications. We picked that name for its romantic connotations. The idea of leaving home, to exile oneself, imposed or self-imposed, to search for a new beginning, to leave behind what’s familiar and who you know. It puts you in an outsider position looking from the outside in, which is similar to the position of the artist in society. The idea was to make a magazine about these experiences. But it was more romantically than politically inclined.

How has leaving my home country affected my identity? Just this year I received my U.S. citizenship. It took three years after applying to get it. I got stuck in the increased security apparatus of post 9/11 immigration reform. I’ve now lived in the U.S. for over 27 years, longer than I lived in Holland. But I still feel very Dutch and very proud, particularly when I see the Dutch national soccer team play.

But I felt American when Barack Obama was elected President. I felt proud for America and proud to be a part of it. It was the first year I was able to cast a vote, and it felt like I had crossed some kind of identity line. That said, you won’t see me driving around in my car flying an American flag any time soon, like some people do here on a daily basis. Just like I would never drive around Holland waving a Dutch flag, either. Not because I don’t feel American or Dutch, it’s just that I’ve never understood that kind of nationalism. I don’t identify that strongly with anything really, or at least not in such an overt way.

During the past eight years, it was often difficult to justify having picked the U.S. as my new home since America’s image was so badly tainted by its politics. People came to despise the U.S. and I often found myself defending America and I would do so by saying that a country that produces the likes of Ansel Adams, Busby Berkeley, The Coen Brothers, William Eggleston, Ry Cooder, Bob Dylan, Edward Ruscha, John Ford, Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Captain Beefheart, The National Parks Service, Jack Kerouac, Van Dyke Parks, Gershwin, Mark Twain, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Joan Didion, Tennessee Williams (I can go on for a long time) can’t be all bad. And that’s the part of America that I can easily identify with.

KF: We have clear associations with design produced from specific countries, for example Holland, Britain and Japan, to name a few. However, in your opinion, has globalization and global branding helped to reduce these distinct native design identities, or has it strengthened their resolve?

RvdL: Both. I think there has been a real homogenization in design. We used to get work sent to Emigre from places as diverse as Singapore, Paris, or Santiago. And, except for the language, you couldn’t tell where it came from. It all had the same look and feel.

It used to be that you could recognize the origins of a piece of design simply by which cut of Univers the designer was using. But since we all have access to the same typefaces and computer software, and since we all see each other’s work, there’s a tendency to mimic and borrow and to be inspired by work not just of our fellow countrymen but to be inspired by everything and everybody.

It is the same in architecture. For example, here in San Francisco all the new museums have been designed by Swiss, French, Italian and Japanese architects. And although I might like some of this work, it’s all interchangeable. It doesn’t matter where you plop it down or who designs it. You can go to Holland and you see the same kind of work there - but it’s designed by American architects. But when you build a museum in San Francisco, why can’t you retain some of what is truly Northern Californian architecture, such as Maybeck, Julia Morgan, Arts and Crafts, Spanish Colonial, or even Eichler and Wurster. Why ignore all that?

So there’s a loss of cultural identity. And perhaps as a result of this, I’ve come to enjoy any work that wears its local color on its sleeve. I was always annoyed how the French were so reluctant to speak English, but now I’m actually starting to appreciate how they are holding on and rigorously protecting what identifies them so strongly as French people, namely their language.

Seeing this lack of local color in the work of designers has led me to work on a number of self-initiated projects that delve deeply into Californian history. It uses distinct local design elements and influences and it’s about the history of where I live: my surrounding, my backyard. This may all sound a bit incongruous coming from me, an immigrant, but sometimes it takes an outsider to recognize what is truly local.

KF: On another note, in the mid 1990s Neville Brody reportedly claimed that David Carson’s work signaled the end of print. Mr. Carson followed this up by calling his 1995 book The end of print. Obviously these claims (tongue-in-cheek or otherwise) were premature. But we can be in no doubt that technological developments and social behaviors have altered the landscape, particularly through blogs and social networking. Do you think we are any closer to fulfilling these claims today, with regard to the end of print, or has there been a healthy development toward co-existence between online and print?

RvdL: Some forms of print are obviously in serious trouble. Look at newspapers for instance. Only five or six years ago I never imagined I’d read the news or any lengthy texts off my computer’s monitor. Now, it’s the Internet where I get most of my political, sports and other news.

But I don’t think we’re anywhere near the end of print. It’s mostly things such as telephone books, dictionaries, the news, etc. that are in decline as printed matter - all the information that gets quickly outdated. There’s no reason for this information to be printed on paper anymore. It’s simply too wasteful to do that and it’s not sustainable. At some time in the future we’ll probably look back at this and scratch our heads wondering what we were thinking.

On the other hand, by the look of the huge amounts of paper being recycled we’re obviously nowhere near the end of print.

KF: The “celebrity designer” is in stark opposition to the general anonymity usually attributed to the majority of graphic designers. Of course, this could be said of many industries/professions but it seems particularly significant for graphic designers in their subordinate role as the unseen messenger. Do you think the celebrity phenomenon helps or hinders our industry, which seems to feel misunderstood by the general public?

RvdL: I wouldn’t say the celebrity designer is in stark opposition to most anonymous designers. That would imply that celebrity designers are famous and that the general public knows who they are. There are very few, if any, graphic designers that reach the kind of celebrity status that some artists or writers or musicians enjoy. Would it be a good thing if we had real celebrity designers who could help the general public understand the value of what it is we do? I don’t see much of a downside.

And even though it’s sometimes hard to swallow, that as designers we remain anonymous, our work on the other hand is ubiquitous. It is seen by millions on a daily basis - in stores, on TV, on billboards, everywhere, and to a degree most other artists can only dream of this. Personally, I still prefer for my work to be more visible than me.

KF: The industry has intermittently queried its professional identity, particularly the use of the common label “Graphic Design.” The arguments for and against this label were revived recently in the New Views 2: Conversations and dialogue in Graphic Design conference (July 9 - 11, 2008) in the London College of Communications. In your opinion, how important is a professional identity and do you believe the Graphic Design label should be replaced by, for example, visual - or graphic - communication?

RvdL: As long as I have been in graphic design these discussions have been raging. There’s always been discontent with the label, and perhaps it’s no surprise, because within our profession people can do work that is quite different in nature. There are plenty of graphic designers that, when I talk to them about what they do, I have no clue what it is or what you should call it. That’s why graphic design is such an intriguing profession and that’s why it’s impossible to capture it all under one label. I’m perfectly happy and proud to call myself a graphic designer, even if most people still don’t even really know what that means.

KF: Do you have a definition for graphic design, one you might use to explain the profession to your clients?

RvdL: I prefer to keep my options open. So I make it up on the fly depending on who I’m talking to and what they want from me. If people ask me can you design a logo, I say yes. When they ask me can you design a book, I say yes, etc. When you try to come up with definitions, it quickly becomes abstract which is not helpful.

KF: The stereotypical view of graphic designers is: when it comes to graphic design they are more interested in looking rather than reading. However, there has been a remarkable increase in the production of graphic design related books and magazines, not to mention blogs. Even though many of these dedicate themselves to presenting visual material, do you think the “looking rather than reading” argument still holds true?

RvdL: There are always people who read more than others. I don’t think that’s necessarily specific to graphic designers. And you can’t blame graphic designers for leaning towards being visually inclined. That’s what they’re good at, that’s a particular sensibility they have developed. And looking is a form of reading as well. It takes a certain amount of visual sophistication to look through a design annual with 400 reproductions and take something away from it. It’s pattern recognition, and designers are very good at this.

KF: Another topic of heated debate has been a call for graphic designers to do more non-commercial, culturally focused and not-for-profit projects, as opposed to focusing on more commercial and consumer orientated work. Do you believe this view is possible, or even necessary, to achieve or is it simply a case of striking a balance?

RvdL: I really don’t know. These are very personal issues and everyone solves them in their own way. Graphic designers are people too, and as such we’re confronted with this issue of doing good not just in our professional lives but also in life in general.

Everything you do, every action, has an effect on others. It just so happens that the actions of designers can have significant effects on people due to the fact that our work often demands that people take action. It intends to influence them. It’s the nature of the beast. And in that sense I believe design is a political act. I know we’re intermediaries, that we don’t originate the messages, but we’re willing partners. So as designers we’re often conflicted (some more than others) about what it is we do.

KF: To some extent, the notion that design is a political act relies on the designer being politically aware in the first place, even on a basic level, before they can act or behave in an informed and responsible manner. Since designers are individuals with considerable power to influence others intentionally, doesn’t this present some serious concerns for an industry that generally doesn’t put all that much importance on the broader political news cycle?

RvdL: Actually, what I’m saying is that even if you’re not politically aware or politically active, your actions as a designer, because by their very nature they seek to determine and influence the actions of others, are political, or can be seen as political even if you don’t intend them to be.

Design is not a neutral activity. For some designers that is a major concern. It guides them when they decide who to work for and what kind of work they want to do. For other designers it is of no concern at all. They don’t care whom they work for as long as they get paid. And that’s fine. But either choice is political because both have an effect on others. Similarly, you can choose to vote during an election or choose not to vote. But both are political actions no matter how uninformed or uninterested you claim to be.

Also, “the industry” is not some kind of homogeneous entity. It’s made up of individuals, and from my encounters with graphic designers over the past 30 years I find them to be very well informed and well educated. How many professions are there that do this much navel gazing and are this conflicted about what they do?

KF: The original First Things First manifesto (1964) and the subsequent First Things First 2000 caused quite a stir within the industry. In some ways, it was a reminder for the profession to retain a conscience and to act with a socially responsible charter - relevant and appropriate to each individual. However, there have been criticisms leveled at this. For example, Vince Frost (a signatory of the FTF 2000) said of the manifesto: “We didn’t talk about it, we just signed this thing, which went around everywhere [laughs] and nothing has ever come of it. It’s disappointing really. But there was no discussion, no debate about it. It would be nice if all those people who signed that manifesto got together and just talked about it. I don’t know if people were lying when they signed it, whether someone has gone off and designed a cigarette package since, but I think the intentions were good to do things for worthwhile causes. It’s your conscience telling you to do that. You’ve got to make the right decision in your life. Do the right jobs. You have a choice.” Mr. Frost goes on to say: “I think the manifesto was really just a publicity stunt [laughs].” Can manifestos like this really affect change or are they, as Mr. Frost claims, publicity stunts aimed at a select few?

RvdL: Of course they are publicity stunts, that’s how you get ideas out into the world. And FTF wasn’t aimed at a select few. It was aimed at all graphic designers and advertising people, worldwide. And, by the way, I remember there was quite a bit of discussion, before and after. To this date I get questions from students around the world regarding FTF.

Did it affect change? Probably not. But I see nothing wrong for a profession to have this internal discussion. I found the replies to FTF very revealing. I, for one, was surprised at how powerless most designers feel and how they describe themselves as little cogs in the wheels of commerce, and what little influence their work has on society. This struck me as odd because at the same time, when they pitch their work to their clients, and when they share their insights with other designers, they often boast of the value of their work and that it will have great impact on the masses. So which one is it?

KF: Precisely. Isn’t there a potential temptation to use something like FTF when it suits (and usually outside of client boardrooms): to appear like Robin Hood, taking from the corporates and using the rewards to help fund cultural projects, which often have meager budgets? Although I agree discussions like this are important for the industry, one could argue these manifestos have the ability to create a self-perpetuating hypocrisy highlighting some profound contradictions, which as you point out reveals very conflicted individuals. Is the solution to simply try and keep these discussions current and mainstream, and what’s your view on publications like Adbusters, which do aim to keep these themes alive on a regular basis?

RvdL: I’m not sure if I fully understand your question. I don’t see anything wrong with taking from the corporations to fund cultural projects. Every little bit helps. FTF was not a zero sum proposition. Publishing FTF was like holding up a mirror to designers and asking: “Do you like what you see? Is this the best we can do?” A lot of people said yes to both questions. So be it. But to many others it was eye opening and it made them question core beliefs.

I haven’t read Adbusters for a very long time. But that’s mostly because they stopped sending it to me. I used to love it. I thought Kalle Lasn’s lectures were terrific, very inspirational. But I get the idea now. And there’s so much other material to read and so many new ideas popping up, so many other voices and opinions to take note of, and so few hours in a day to keep up with it all. Oh, and then I still have to do some work as well.

KF: I agree. There is nothing wrong with taking from the corporations to help fund cultural projects. Equally, there should be nothing wrong with simply working for corporations, period. The same applies to cultural institutions. The hypocrisy I mention is not particularly about supporting FTF and then working for a corporation. A balance can be achieved in this. However, the reality is that many of these avid FTF supporters most likely buy the goods they don’t want to design - dog biscuits, credit cards, sneakers, light beer, etc. Isn’t there a sense of hypocrisy here, since the act of buying these goods supports those very same organizations, which these designers choose not to work for (and no doubt they would also openly criticize the design of these goods, as well)?

RvdL: It’s easy to get cynical. But we should be careful not to focus on the negatives only. This is what Adbusters does and it becomes tiresome, and people start to dismiss that. I know people, and some of them are designers, and they’re as concerned about what they buy in the grocery store as they are about whom they work for. That’s the people who inspire me. That’s who I pay special attention to. That’s who I try to mimic. That’s stuff you can build on.

KF: As we have mentioned, designers have very little jurisdiction over the messages they promote and they can do little about how organizations choose to behave. Obviously, a designer can vote with their actions and choose not to work for a particular corporation, though this depends on whether the designer can afford to make this choice. As you put it, designers often describe themselves as “little cogs in the wheels of commerce, and [comment on] what little influence they have on society.” Yet, contradictory to this, they also boast about how their work will have “great impact on the masses.” This sounds almost like a perpetuated identity crisis. It’s one thing for our industry peers to lobby the wider professional community on how to behave, through statements like FTF, but doesn’t it miss the mark slightly? Shouldn’t the industry also be lobbying Government and the business community - the people who are actually in a position to promote change more effectively? For example, what’s your view on the recent U.S. National Design Policy Summit?

RvdL: I’m not sure if I trust “the industry” to lobby on behalf of the common good. As we discussed before, the industry is made up of such a variety of individuals with such diverse interests, creatively and commercially, it’s impossible to imagine what they could agree on, and what exactly they would be lobbying for.

I’ve heard about the U.S. National Design Policy Summit, but I haven’t delved into it. So I can’t comment on it. I certainly hope they can accomplish something in the area of improving the design of voting ballots in the U.S. What an embarrassment that is. That’s something where good design can make a huge difference. Actually, Marcia Lausen, a designer from Chicago, has made some inroads with a highly improved ballot design that is being implemented in a number of states. This is what the design community needs to promote and needs to lobby government for. Implementing her design nation wide would be tremendously beneficial for our democratic system and would show people the value of good design.

KF: Do you have a position on creating an industry accreditation system, which might officially define our professional identity and which might make the FTF issues more binding, or at least more useful, when approaching new or potential clients?

RvdL: No. That sounds completely fascistic to me.

KF: As evident through the pages of Emigre magazine, it was clear that, in the words of David Cabianca, “Emigre has always existed five minutes (at least!) into the future.” Obviously you have your finger on the pulse. What do you think are the burning issues for graphic design today and what do you predict for the profession’s future?

RvdL: This was perhaps true when I was still publishing Emigre magazine. Since then, however, my interests have veered off into other directions. The past year I have been mostly involved in keeping up with politics, the American presidential election to be precise. I don’t think I have ever spent so much time reading, viewing debates, watching TV, checking the blogs and listening to the radio. I became a political junkie the way I used to be a design junkie. There was simply not enough time in a day to read all there was to read. Obviously, America is at an historical moment, and I don’t want to miss any of it.

So my finger is no longer on the pulse of design. And even when I published Emigre, I was never so silly to try and predict the profession’s future. We may have been out on the edge, but we never had any idea what was coming down the pike (sorry to mix metaphors).

Similarly, I’m not sure what the burning issues for graphic design are today, although I doubt they’re much different from what they have always been. All I ask for is to be wowed from time to time by graphic design that is original and honest, and to see that the designer put in a serious effort to create something that stands out and makes me pay attention.