Pica magazine (Canada)

Interview by Etienne Beaudoin-Vles

Etienne Beaudoin-Vles: In 1983, you traveled from the Netherlands to the United States and established yourself in northern California although New York City was at the time a central point in design. In what way did your establishment on the west coast influence the development of Emigre Graphics and Emigre magazine and on your creative process in general?

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, musically, technologically, you name it. I came out to study photography at the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. Graphic design was not much on my mind at the time, although there was plenty of exciting work being made. April Greiman and Hard Werken were 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. But it really started to get exciting when the macintosh was first introduced in 1984. That had a profound influence on what I was doing. It had a profound influence on everybody. And in terms of design it really focused everybody’s attention on California.

EBV: Emigre magazine was published twice to four times a year from 1984 to 2005. In that time and throughout the various issues, you approached many diverse topics such as Made in Holland, Press Time!, Heritage, Designers are People Too. Are there still any subjects, problematiques or issues you would still like to write about? Looking back, are there any topics or issues you wish you had tackled when the magazine was still being published?

RvdL: There are a couple of designers I wished I had interviewed that I never got around to. On hindsight I wish I had interviewed Stephan Sagmeister. Before he became the famous designer that he is now, he used to send us small items that he had designed and they were always very smart and memorable. And he fit the emigre profile perfectly: Austrian designer who had emigrated to the U.S.A. But for one reason or another, I never called him. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he was based in New York. I very much liked the idea that Emigre was a West Coast design magazine, and I loved to find designers who were not from New York. New York has always dominated the design world. Now that I think about it, that could have been an issue all by itself. The East vs. West issue. Perhaps I should have tackled that as a subject.

EBV: Acting as channels through which the design community can voice its opinion and participate in debates and discussions, online blogs and forums pertaining to design are quickly gaining in popularity. What is your view regarding the emergence of these new platforms? Would you say they are following Emigre’s work as platforms for discussions and reflexions about design, or are they missing the point?

RvdL: It all depends on what you think the point is. I think design blogs are great. I read them all the time. It’s a terrific way to publish ideas and opinions very inexpensively, and very quickly, and you can reach nearly everybody who may be interested in what you have to say without much cost. But Emigre magazine was very different. It functioned on so many levels besides being a platform for discussions and debates. First and foremost it was a promotional tool for our typefaces. It also took on a variety of physical formats. It was a design artifact as much as it was about design. In that respect, running a blog and publishing a magazine are two entirely different animals. You can’t really compare the two. I also was very much aware that there was a certain permanence to the things we published. Our ideas and conversations were printed on paper, to be referenced well into the future. And there was a physical limit to what we could publish, so you had to be very selective. These physical limitations do not necessarily exist in the digital world.

EBV: You have a great partner and collaborator (Zuzana Licko), how has she influenced your work and creative process? What other designers, writers, or artists haves inspired you in the making of the magazine?

RvdL: Not only is she a terrific type designer and has provided me with a never ending supply of never before used typefaces, she is also a terrific business person, which is the reason that Emigre is still in business after nearly 30 years.

Other designers that have influenced me are the Dutch design company Hard Werken and the magazine that they published in the late 70s, and ITC’s U&Lc. And Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s RAW I was very inspired by. I met them once in their studio in New York, and I was so impressed by their entrepreneurialism, and their gutsiness to self publish and distribute. But there’s a long list of people and work that have inspired me. Everybody we featured in Emigre magazine at one point or another really inspired me. In that respect, Emigre, was basically a fanzine.


EBV: As a publication still in its humble beginnings, we at Pica are always faced with unanticipated challenges to overcome. You could say we are in a permanent learning process. Looking back at the time of Emigre magazine’s foundation, are there any things you would have liked to have known before engaging in the process of creating and developing the magazine?

RvdL: It’s perhaps a cliche to say this, but if we had known about all the pitfalls of magazine publishing beforehand, we may never have started a magazine. We were completely naive. We knew nothing about magazine publishing and distribution, and the cost involved in printing a physical magazine. And we made a lot of mistakes, and learned the hard way. And publishing a magazine is extremely expensive. You’re printing a physical object that needs to be distributed which requires a lot of manpower. We spent a lot of money without ever knowing if it would pan out, or if we would come out ahead.

I do think, however, that we benefitted from publishing Emigre during a very opportune time within graphic design. And perhaps we may never see such a confluence of events again. The 90s were very exciting. The Macintosh computer, post-modernism, the vernacular, boredom with the dominant Swiss International Style, design theory, all these issues came together at the same time, and there was a lot of questioning of the old rules of typography and what it means to be a graphic designer. We were right there in the middle of that storm, not just as observers, but as eager participants as well. So we consider ourselves to be fortunate to have been around during that time. You can't manufacture that kind of an environment where everything seems to be changing. It was a perfect storm as they say.

EBV: What is the process of creating a font? Do you have a rigid guideline channeling your creative process or do you let your inspiration and the font itself guide your work?

RvdL: That question would be easier to answer if we worked on special assignments brought in by outside clients. For instance, if someone comes to you with a very specific need for a typeface design, let’s say for a magazine, you work with them and try to satisfy their wishes. In that case the design process is dictated by the parameters set by the client. But we don’t design for clients. So for us, designing a typeface is more like an exploration, a creative adventure that is dictated by our curiosity and our passion for the design process.

EBV: The debut of Emigre type foundry coincided quite nicely with the rise of the PostScript format in 1982 and the release of the first MacIntosh computer in 1984. At the time, how did the emergence of those new tools impact upon the process of designing a typeface?

RvdL: Actually, PostScript didn’t really become available for use until 1985 with the Apple LaserWriter. The story about the impact of the Macintosh on the design of typefaces has been told a million times. Up to that point, anybody could design a typeface, but it was nearly impossible to then use that typeface to set text. The equipment necessary to actually produce a working typeface to set text with was extremely complicated, expensive and usually proprietary. The Macintosh changed all that. It allowed you to both design a typeface and then freely use it. It was a tremendous liberation of a formerly proprietary and inaccessible process.