Page magazine (Germany)

Interview by Antje Dohman. Published in 2010.

PAGE: What do you want to achieve with your book Emigre No.70 ?

Rudy VanderLans: I wanted to make a book that would highlight the best work we have published in the past 25 years, a distillation that would sum up what Emigre magazine was all about. The most difficult part was editing out all the work that deserves reprinting but simply wouldn’t fit. It was the opposite of doing the magazine where I often had to stretch content to fill it. But in the end, with all due apologies to those whose work I left out, I’m happy that the book gives a pretty good idea of what Emigre and graphic design were all about during the years that we published.

P: For our generation, Emigre No.70 is a kind of history book, we wallow in its memories. But what about the people who are now in their mid-twenties, can they do anything with the book?

RvdL: If you’re interested in graphic design, I imagine that you would also be interested in its history, and this book covers a rather significant part of graphic design history. The time period that Emigre was a part of, was perhaps one of the most transformative periods in the profession’s history. And Emigre was not an academic, sterile, after-the-fact reflection created by outsiders. With Emigre, you were getting a behind the scenes look, a first-hand report from the designers who were responsible for the changes that were taking place within the profession. We were writing our own history so to speak. That’s what made Emigre magazine unique. That’s what made it different from most other design magazines of its time.

And I hope its more than just a book of memories. Some very interesting ideas regarding graphic design were developed during those years, many of which hold up pretty well. Graphic design at the time when we started publishing Emigre in the early 80s, had just completely calcified and become very predictable, and it needed some serious life kicked back into it. There was a lot of rule breaking and a lot of questioning going on. There was a generational split, and an ideological and geographic shift happening all at the same time. And on top of all that, the production tools of how design was made changed. It was a heady mix.

P: Can you give me an example of some of those ideas that were being developed during those years?

RvdL: One idea that comes to mind is expressed perfectly in a thesis project by Phil Baines that we published in Emigre #18 in 1991, where he stated that “the Bauhaus mistook legibility for communication.” We had come to this point in graphic design where it was thought that if you just cleaned up everything, that the message would come shining through, regardless of the context. In other words, if you would just abide by the established rules of typography, everything would be fine, and the world would be better for it. That was the prevailing wisdom at the time. And Emigre spent a considerable number of pages and entire issues trying to debunk that notion.

Today you often hear that there are no prevailing movements or styles in graphic design, that anything is possible. That wasn’t always the case. And I think with Emigre, by showing work that went against the grain, by discussing the issues, and by experimenting, we gave license to designers to explore alternative possibilities, and to make work that resonated with their intended audiences, as opposed to making work to appease the lowest common denominator. This idea of plurality is something that we now take for granted. But it wasn’t so easy to break out of the chokehold of the Swiss International Style.

P: How did the idea for Emigre No.70 evolve?

RvdL: After we stopped publishing, we noticed there was still a lot of interest in Emigre back issues. Even after we started raising their cover price and they turned into collectors issues, back issues kept selling and demand remained high. Today, Emigre back issues are actively bought and sold on Ebay for instance. And as we were getting closer to literally selling out all back issues and we continued to receive inquiries for their availability, we thought it would be a good idea to reprint some of the work, and make a kind of “Biggest Hits” book. Like a band doing it’s greatest hits album.

Also, a lot of the design work, interviews and essays that we published, particularly in the early issues, were seen and read only by a fairly small group of hardcore fans, because our circulation was very small, sometimes no more than 1,000 or 2,000 copies or so. With this book we hope to give more people the opportunity to take a peek at what the hubbub was all about.

P: Which were the biggest difficulties you had to manage concerning technique and content?

RvdL: The biggest problem was that I could no longer open a lot of the old digital files. One of the first page make-up programs I often used was ReadySetGo! and I could simply not open those files anymore. So I ended up recreating a lot of the older layouts which took a lot of time.

P: Why have you bothered to reconstruct the old pages? Wouldn’t it have been easier to scan the old magazines?

RvdL: Yes, scanning would have been much easier. But no matter how high the quality of the scans, it will always look like a reproduction. Instead, I wanted the readers to see this work in its original form, or as close to its original form as possible. I wanted the experience of reading the book to be very similar to reading the original magazine.

With Emigre, the writing and the use of typefaces and the layouts that we employed, were all equally important. The details were important. Scanning would have obscured some of those details, because after you scan a page spread from a magazine or book, everything will be translated into halftone dots. That process, no matter how high the quality of the scan, changes the crispness of what you’re representing. It also changes the colors of the original. I didn’t want that effect. I wanted the type to look as crisp as the original and the colors to be as truthful as possible. The only way to do that was by printing straight from the digital source material.

Having said that, we do have some scans in the book because some of the issues we simply could not recreate.

P: What selection criteria did you use in picking the pages from Emigre magazine for the book?

RvdL: I picked work that seemed to perfectly encapsulate what excited us at the moment, work that was revelatory at the time, where ideas were put forward that expanded our notion of what graphic design could be. Some of the essays I picked simply because they caused heated response from our readers. While others I picked because, upon rereading them now, they still seem entirely relevant.

Jeffery Keedy’s essay “Zombie Modernism,” and Jelly Helms’ essay “Saving Advertising” come to mind. As does the “First Things First” manifesto and all the essays around it. Some very powerful ideas about the social role of graphic design and advertising and how they can be put to better use were discussed in those issues. These topics were rarely addressed in design magazines at the time. Almost ten years later we’re still discussing these very same issues.

But also, for instance, in rereading our interview with Ian Anderson of The Designers Republic in Emigre #29, I realized what a great story that is. And while The Designers Republic is no more, that interview is a terrific behind the scenes look and gives great insight into a tremendously popular design studio and its philosophy.

Another criteria used in the selection process was to consciously pick spreads and designs that featured Emigre fonts. We’ve never been shy about using Emigre magazine as a means of promoting our typefaces. Often, it was Emigre magazine where our fonts were first road tested and shown to the public. This synergy became a hallmark of Emigre and set us apart from many other magazines. Consequently, those issues that were produced by guest editors and used non-Emigre fonts are represented less prominently.

P: Which Emigre issue was your favorite and why?

RvdL: People often ask me this question, and I’m afraid I come up with a different favorite issue each time. But as I was going through all the issues while working on the book, I realized how much I still like some of the very early issues, the ones where we first started to employ our low resolution typefaces, like Emigre #3, or Emigre #4. We spent so much time making our own fonts and trying to get them to print properly, and then pasting down the galleys. It was all tremendously work intensive. And I look at it now and it’s obvious when this work was created. It’s tied to a very narrow time period – just after the introduction of the Macintosh and just before Postscript – when everything was bitmap because that’s the only thing you could do on a Mac. It was a very brief period when almost our entire magazine was made with bitmapped fonts. It turned a lot of heads and raised a lot of eyebrows, and our reputation was largely built on that. None of those issues are available anymore. We printed them in very small quantities of 500 or 1000 copies. Seeing them again I realized they’re some of my favorite issues. I recreated some of those layouts for the book.

P: How would you characterize the 21 years in which Emigre magazine appeared?

RvdL: They were the most exciting years in graphic design that I’ve experienced. A lot of new ideas were being tested, there was a lot of discussion and heated debate, and it just seemed like the issues that were being debated really mattered to people. Graphic design really mattered to the people involved. And I think that attitude, that excitement, became very infectious, and it resulted in a huge boom within graphic design. Design schools were bursting at the seams, design books were being published like never before, and for the first time graphic design became this very cool profession that a lot people wanted to be a part of.

P: Emigre Magazine was a stage for presenting the Emigre fonts, too. Did the sales of fonts go down since the magazine was discontinued?

RvdL: There’s no doubt that without the magazine, a significant part of our promotional effort to sell type has disappeared. But we’ve tried to replace that with producing more type specimens, which we believe is still the most effective way to show and promote typefaces. And of course, with the internet, it is now much easier and cheaper to promote and sell type. It’s difficult to imagine, but most issues of Emigre magazine were produced before the internet became the sophisticated tool that it is today. So to have the magazine during those pre-internet days was invaluable.

P: How has your own work changed since you only sell fonts without making an accompanying magazine?

RvdL: My focus at Emigre, since we discontinued the magazine, has gone towards designing more promotional materials for the Emigre typefaces. I design all the type specimens, catalogs, advertisements, web images, and anything else that needs to be designed. I also do all the writing for the catalogs and website. Then, the past couple of years, I’ve worked on the Emigre book, which has taken up a lot of my time. And then I also give a lot of feedback on Zuzana’s type design work. Emigre consists of just Zuzana and myself. We don’t have any assistants or interns. So even though we no longer publish the magazine, I am still very busy. I still turn on my computer every morning at around 7:30 and start working. Same for Zuzana. And we both love our job!

P: Have the 21 years in which Emigre magazine appeared, with this heady mix of new designers, new possibilities, and new techniques, had an impact on Graphic Design today. And, subsequently, what can young designers get out of this book for their daily work?

RvdL: It would be presumptuous for me to say how or if Emigre has impacted graphic design. I’ll leave that for others to determine. But I do hope that with the story of Emigre we can inspire young designers to be critical thinkers, that design is not just about making cool looking work for cool clients, but that design also offers tremendous potential: that it is a tool for reinvention, for questioning, for independence, for social good, and that you don’t always need a client to make work that matters.