Interview by Steven Heller. Published in 2005.
Steven Heller: You are currently working on Emigre #69 [for publication August 2005], which you have decided is your final issue of the magazine. I was convinced you would continue forever since you have re-cast and reinvented the magazine in so many ways for so many years. In fact, I’ve truly admired how you seemed to be ahead of the curve with many of your editorial decisions. In its current incarnation as a quarterly paperback book, you are providing a vital forum for design criticism, which seems to have been receiving positive attention. So, why are you pulling the plug at this time?
Rudy VanderLans: There are just so many other things I enjoy doing. And while Emigre magazine has been able to accommodate most of my whims and interests, I think I’ve exhausted what Emigre magazine can be. I’m eager to challenge myself in other areas. Plus, we’ll continue all our other Emigre activities, particularly Emigre Fonts. We’re not closing our doors.
SH: Nonetheless, this marks the end of a graphic design institution that defined a particular time, and technology.
RvdL: Perhaps, but working strictly within the confines of graphic design for so long may give a person a false sense of accomplishment. So I need to broaden my horizon. Over the past few years I’ve been involved with photography, and it’s both humiliating and invigorating to start from scratch again, so to speak, and to have to earn people’s respect and attention all over again. I’m back at square one, and I receive a fair amount of standard rejection letters from galleries and art magazines, and that’s no fun, but it’s a healthy process for the creative mind. It also reminds me again how wonderful it is to receive a letter of encouragement. The other day Edward Ruscha sent me a very nice note about my photographs. His work inspires me to no end. So that note from him made my day. It reminds me again of my own responsibility as a person who receives a regular stream of submissions, and how much weight a simple response can have for the recipient.
SH: Your landscape photography does echo Ruscha, but I also found it was a kind of respite from the typographic side of Emigre (even though some of it was published in the magazine). But back to the magazine, your decision is partly pragmatic, you said you’ve said it all. Do you really feel that you’ve done all there is to do and do in this medium? Or are you simply passing on the baton to a younger generation of designers?
RvdL: Every period creates its own set of unique situations and opportunities. So there’s always something to talk about. But the areas in design that generate the most heated debates today, are moving into a direction that doesn’t interest me much. Branding seems to excite people to no end these days. How to promote a corporation, how to sell product, how to improve the UPS logo or the Burger King logo, how to sell to the masses, market research, focus groups...
I may be reading this incorrectly, but it’s curious that after all the commotion caused by the publishing of the First Things First manifesto 2000 and the previous AIGA conference about sustainability, and the high profile of Adbusters within graphic design for a while, I sense that graphic design as a whole has actually become more commercial and more beholden to advertising and big business than it ever was. I’m not saying that this is good or bad, I just have very little of value to add to that discourse.
SH: Not even as an oppositional voice?
RvdL: Sometimes deeds are more important than words.
SH: Emigre has launched a lot of “ships.” When you were the clarion of new typography the design world was introduced to talents whose work would not have been exposed in the mainstream design press. And after you transformed Emigre in to a journal of commentary you gave voice to many who would not have had an outlet in the professional press. Don’t you feel an obligation to these people to continue providing them (and others) with a soap box?
RvdL: My obligation to the writers and their work was to provide a professionally produced publication with proper distribution. And I will continue to do my best to sell the issues we have created.
So, yes, they may lose a soapbox, although it wasn’t exactly a well paying gig to be writing for Emigre. But I’m curious where some of these longer essays on design will end up. There are not too many, if any, publications that will publish 5,000 or 6,000 word essays on design. At the same time, there are not too many people willing to read such lengthy essays either.
SH: Will design blogs fill the vacuum?
RvdL: I don’t know. People are obviously drawn to this bite sized, interactive, no cover charge version of design discourse. It’s free and it’s easy to enjoy and to participate in. So perhaps blogs is where it’s at for now.
It’s curious, though. I’ve always hoped for more design discourse, but now that it’s here, in the form of blogs, I’m a bit disappointed. The one thing I really miss about design discourse on blogs is that there’s very little connection between the participants and their own work. Everybody is a critic talking endlessly about the work of others, but you get very little sense of what bloggers think about their own work. What motivates them? Why are they so concerned about the design of the Burger King logo? Why is that so important to them?
And then there’s the disconnect between what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. Look at Typophile, a blog about type and typography. They spill literally tens of thousand of words each month on the finer points of type, legibility and readability, and it’s all set in the most unimaginative layout using a barely legible low resolution typeface. That’s a bit of a contradiction, don’t you think? The way they present their thoughts on type almost always undermines their own convictions. When Emigre discussed similar issues, we put our ideas into action, on paper, and distributed the results. We talked the talk and walked the walk, so to speak. We experimented in public. Now you have all these bloggers going on and on about what’s right and what’s wrong without ever putting those ideas to work. That for me is the biggest disappointment with blogs. I’m all for theory, but at a certain point I want to see ideas put into practice.
Recently I received this wonderful booklet from Denise Gonzales Crisp. It’s a design research project introducing what she refers to as the “Decorational.” It’s a particular approach to design that she has certain ideas about. Form, content, motivation, research all come together in this well-written, wonderfully designed, beautifully printed booklet. It takes a lot of dedication, perseverance, talent, and resourcefulness to pull something like this off. I say, Long Live Print!
SH: Spoken like a real editor. So will you continue to be part of the current “design discourse?” And if so, what about this discourse continues to push your buttons?
RvdL: There’s plenty of discourse that continues to push my buttons. Not to overstate its importance, but the discussion on the value of design blogs I find very interesting. Some have suggested that design blogs function as a testing ground to try out new ideas and introduce new voices, but you have to wonder where these new ideas and voices will find the platforms to really flesh out their ideas and take it a step further, and perhaps make a living in the process. My concern is that blogs, because they are free, and because they offer a kind of chatty, easy-to-digest kind of writing, will simply become the norm. And what I’m afraid of is that design magazines, instead of distancing themselves from this kind of writing will simply try to mimic whatever it is that makes blogs so successful.
SH: At its height Emigre had a reasonable circulation (40,000) for an independent magazine. In its current paperback form the readership is fewer (5,000). In the early years you ran long, but very chatty interviews. Today you publish more substantive criticism. Do you believe that designers really want substantive journalism, definitive analysis, and deep history? Or is the short-blog-hand approach intellectually satisfactory enough?
RvdL: You would have to ask them. Whenever we focussed on design writing, and published the more lengthy and analytical essays, I knew we were usually talking to a very, very small group of people. But that never concerned me too much since the magazine always had this other, second function. If only a thousand people read the essays, the other 4000 would check out the line spacing on Vendetta Medium.
SH: You used to use the mantra “design is a cultural force.” I can honestly say that when I first read that in one of your promotion flyers I thought the word “force” was hyperbole. But you certainly have made convincing arguments in Emigre. So now that you are ending a twenty-year project, can you distill the two or three most important contributions you’ve made to this forceful culture?
RvdL: I thought I was simply stating the obvious when I said that design is a cultural force. But it raises a related question that has been a recurring discussion within design. If design is of cultural significance, does it belong in museums? Or better yet, is design art? And the more I think about this, the more I feel that design is better off in the streets. Art, for the most part, needs galleries and museums, and the walls of wealthy patrons. That’s where it lives. That’s where it wants to be. Art is very picky in that way. Design, on the other hand, is everywhere around us. It feels as good on the label of a bottle of pills as it does on the pages of a popular fashion magazine as it does on a billboard on the Sunset Strip where it’s observed by hundreds of thousands. I’m sure there’s plenty of artists who would love to see their work as widely accepted and integrated into society as is the norm for most works of graphic design. So instead of always hungering for a place among high art, designers should recognize that their work is doing just fine where it is. But having said all that, there’s nothing like seeing your poster beautifully framed and hanging on a museum wall.
Anyway, I’ll leave that second part of your question for others to answer.
SH: Throughout the publishing lifespan you never lost sight of your commercial work - i.e. Emigre Fonts. You and Zuzana have contributed significant typefaces that have addressed the new technologies and new aesthetics. Do you feel that Emigre was no longer a viable means to promote this aspect of your professional life?
RvdL: Emigre magazine has always been an effective way to road test and promote our typefaces, and it could have fulfilled that function for a long time to come. But the magazine is only one of many ways we use to promote the Emigre Font library, and we’ll be exploring some new avenues on how to do this in the coming years.
SH: Speaking of contributions (and museums), there is no greater testament to your value than the forthcoming exhibition at the Pompidou Center (D-Day) in which Emigre will represent graphic design. This speaks to the universal language that you have proffered, and to the viability and endurance of your work. What is the essence of your part of this show?
RvdL: After what I just told you about design and museums, I must sound rather schizophrenic. Anyway, I’m still trying to figure out why it is that our work was chosen to represent graphic design. And it is of course nonsensical to think that any one design studio could represent all of design. The curators at the museum kept mentioning that they admire how we facilitate “free debate” through our magazine, and they admire our early involvement with computers, music, and publishing. It’s interesting to me that they seem to focus not so much on the form, but on the message, the process, the product, all of which of course are shaped by our design, and are brought to life through the process of design, but are kind of intangible.
There are very few design companies that make their own typefaces, create their own content and messages, and publish and distribute their own products. In that respect we are certainly not representative of what graphic design is about, but we surely can show what designers are capable of beyond providing a service to others.
SH: What do you want viewers to learn from your part of the exhibition?
RvdL: Because of our involvement with so many different disciplines, and because the products are much more than magazine covers and typefaces, it’s difficult to think of a good way to show what we are all about. How do you go about exhibiting design discourse, or the process of learning to design typefaces on a computer, or releasing a music CD as part of the content of your magazine? You can really only show the physical manifestation, its final form. So if anything, we’ll probably confuse the viewers; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m sure if the viewers had any preconceived idea about what graphic design is, our small exhibit will hopefully change that.
SH: Do you know how your work will be presented in the context of other forms of design. Is there a logical interplay?
RvdL: It’s a very large exhibition, and they’re still in the process of putting it all together. I’m concentrating on my section which was developed with the help of their architect. So I’m sure they have a far better idea of the overall design of the exhibit than I do.
SH: It’s tempting to look at your participation in this exhibit coinciding with the ceasing of Emigre magazine as a capstone on a stage of your work. Would you say that this marks a natural and new beginning?
RvdL: I hope so. Like I said at the outset of this interview, I’m looking forward to doing many other things. But at the same time, it won’t differ much from what I’ve been doing for the past 20 or so years. I’ll still be writing, designing, photographing, editing, and doing all the other mundane chores required to run a tiny mom-and-pop store.
SH: Gee, you make it sound so romantic. But seriously, when you began everything was about experimentation. You are a forward thinking person. In fact, you once published an issue called “The Next Big Thing” (Emigre #39) Okay, I’ll bite. What do you see as next?
RvdL: Well, in 1984 we were given a new tool to design with, so that automatically resulted in a lot of pure experimentation. We were trying to make this thing work. Now I try to push myself with my photography. But it’s a different kind of experimentation. A while back a gallery returned my work saying they liked it but they wanted to know how my work sheds new light on the landscape genre. Well, that’s a pretty tall order, but it’s not a bad thought to keep in the back of your head when you’re working.
What do I see as next in graphic design? Believe it or not, but I’m not that curious about it.
SH: So much has changed since you founded Emigre, how have the changes in technology, commerce, and design consciousness influenced or effected your work?
RvdL: One of the biggest changes that I’ve encountered is how interviews are conducted. It used to be that I conducted interviews for Emigre by telephone, or by visiting designers, and tape recording them. After that I would spend hours transcribing, editing and asking follow-up questions. I’m sure that’s how everybody conducted interviews. Now, like this interview, it’s done by email. Besides the fact that this allows the interviewee to think at least as long about the answers as the interviewer spent thinking about the questions, it also saves editors a huge amount of work because they don’t have to transcribe the tapes any more. But the process generates a very different result. Email interviews are usually far more structured and much less candid. So design writing is becoming more informal because of blogs, while interviews are becoming more formal because of email. It’s a crazy world isn’t it?
SH: But how have these changes effected your design, and you as a designer?
RvdL: In the end I don’t think that all these changes have actually changed the look of my work all that much. And it still takes me forever to design anything. Just forever. You’d think that after all these years you can just sit down and make the stuff up. But I can’t. No matter what the technology, no matter how many bells and whistles the software, nothing ever comes easy.
SH: In recent years the two of you have become solidly entrenched in stretching your muscles. You with photography, Zuzana with more “timeless” type design. Have you found your respective niches? Or how do you plan to stay ahead of the curve, if that is your desire?
RvdL: And have you seen Zuzana’s ceramics? She’s been working on these beautiful pots that are all variations on the same theme. Each pot has its own unique qualities but clearly belongs to this larger family. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Regarding the curve thing. There are kids graduating from design school now who were barely born when we started Emigre. I doubt they’re looking to us to show the way. We are happy to have found a small niche and were able to create an environment to do work that keeps us creatively and intellectually stimulated. And in the process we’ve been able to help expose the work and ideas of a few likeminded colleagues who have done much to raise Emigre’s status far beyond what we could have accomplished by ourselves. What more can we wish for?
SH: What did Emigre teach you?
RvdL: Too much to list here.