Interview by Armin Vit. Published in 2002.
Speak Up: The first thing I would like to address is the love/hate relationship that most people, and admittedly me, have with Emigre. One year it’s “Emigre is great, they are on the leading edge of Graphic Design” and the next year it’s “Emigre is so five minutes ago and so overrated?” Is it hard to please all the people all the time? Do you even feel the need to please everybody? Since you are selling a product it must be hard to do things (be that magazines, fonts or music) that are different and unexpected with the possibility of losing customers because of that.
Rudy Vanderlans: Since people’s preferences vary so much it’s impossible to try and please everybody. If you would try that you’d end up somewhere in the middle and you would please everybody only minimally, or not at all. So we try to follow our own instincts, and go with what excites us. But that doesn’t mean we’re not interested in what people have to say about our work. I’m a design junkie. I read all the magazines and visit the on-line forums. Plus people send us letters, e-mail us, or call us up. So I think I have a pretty good sense of what people think of Emigre, which hasn’t change much over the years. Some people hate us, some people love us, and most people don’t give a damn. Charles Bukowski provided me with that little nugget of wisdom. So we don’t worry too much about losing customers. If people don’t like what we do, so be it. I won’t change my preferences and convictions simply to please others. We’re not politicians. We’re not running for public office.
SU: Do you think that what made you successful back in 1984 was the innovation that you were able to provide with the advent of the Macintosh? And that now it’s harder to impress or appeal to the new generation of Designers who were basically brought up and educated with a Macintosh?
RvdL: I hope our work appeals on a level that goes beyond how we master the computer. But you’re right. We made a name for ourselves because we became involved in using the Mac before most other graphic designers did. And in those days, before PostScript was invented, the Macintosh provided its own unique visual bitmapped language. Everything you did on the Mac looked like it was done on a computer, which set it apart from all other graphic design work at that time. And since there were very few people using computers in design in those days, there was no visual precedents, no examples to copy, except for your grandmother’s needle point. Today, I find the computer far less interesting. Everybody has one. It is definitely not any more the tool that will set your work apart. On the contrary, the computer now assures a certain level of homogeneity.
SU: This is a silly question, but one that needs to be asked nonetheless, how come a lot of your typeface names end in “x"? Elektrix, Fairplex, Lunatix, Matrix, Solex, Triplex and Variex. I told you it was a silly question.
RvdL: If there ever was a reason, I can’t remember it.
SU: This weekend I was watching Murder by Numbers (the latest Sandra Bullock movie) and the opening credits are set in Template Gothic, designed by Barry Deck for Emigre back in 1990. A typeface better known for being responsible of starting the boom in experimental typography. Twelve years later this typeface, which is considered a disgrace in typography by a lot of purists (whatever) is still being used. What do you feel makes Template Gothic so influential? And to add to that question, what makes Emigre so influential after eighteen years of existence, even when you have had to reinvent yourself over and over?
RvdL: To set the record straight. Template Gothic was not designed for Emigre. It was designed by Barry Deck while he was a student at Cal Arts in the early 90s. Under the auspices of Ed Fella and Jeffery Keedy there was a lot of exciting type design experimentation going on at CalArts in those days. I remember that particular graduate class came to visit our studio in ‘92 or so. That’s when we first saw Template Gothic. We liked the font and asked Barry if he would let us release it commercially. We had no idea it would become so successful. Although we did promote it quite a bit. We featured an interview with Barry in Emigre #15, an issue which also featured the first interviews with Jeffery Keedy, Zuzana Licko, John Downer, Max Kisman, etc. Barry had an interesting story to tell about Template Gothic which helped create a little bit of an aura around the font. We’ve always tried to tell stories to show that these fonts don’t just appear spontaneously. We do this with all our fonts.
We also used Template Gothic prominently on the cover and inside of Emigre #19, which was a very popular issue. David Carson used Template Gothic quite a bit in the mid 90s, and that didn’t hurt. The movie Dazed & Confused used it in its posters and movie titles. And then Rick Poynor wrote an article about Template Gothic for Eye. The font received a lot of exposure within a short period of time. But it still doesn’t explain, to me at least, what the inherent qualities are that made it so desirable.
If I knew why Template Gothic became so popular, I could turn every font release into a success. But I don’t know how it works. Whenever we release a font we have no idea how it will be received. We give them all the same kind of exposure.
It’s perhaps also interesting to mention that Template Gothic didn’t sell nearly as well as many other Emigre Fonts. A font like Mrs Eaves has out sold Template Gothic many times over. I see Mrs Eaves everywhere. It is financially probably the most successful font that Emigre has released to date. Yet it doesn’t have that same aura as Template Gothic.
I’m equally stumped about Emigre’s influence, if there is such a thing. I’ve often heard people refer to an Emigre style, but no one has ever spelled out what that is, what it looks like. So if we have been influential, as you say, I’m not sure what and who we have influenced. I hope we have shown people that it is possible to follow your own compass, so to speak, and be successful in this very competitive type market.
SU: Which brings me to the next question. What goes through your mind when you have to reinvent your magazine from the ground up every three or four years? Is it frustrating that you have to be constantly changing your approach to satisfy the superficial curiosity of designers? I say “superficial” because half, if not more, of your subscribers don’t even read the magazine.
RvdL: Again, I don’t change Emigre magazine simply to satisfy the readers. There’s too many of them, and I don’t really know what their preferences are anyway. And I’m not sure if people don’t read Emigre. Emigre gets flooded with reader mail. Particularly when we publish design theory and criticism. That tells me that people do read it.
And perhaps it’s a myth that designers don’t read. Like Jeffery Keedy once said. Designers do read, they just don’t read design magazines. And who can blame them? In most design magazines the emphasis is clearly on the visuals, and the editorial is secondary, it’s just there to support the visuals. On the other hand, perusing the visuals is a kind of “reading” also. It requires a certain visual literacy to appreciate looking at reproductions of graphic design.
The reason we often change the magazine is because we can. We’re not a newsstand magazine, and we’re not a weekly or monthly, and we don’t rely on advertising. We’re not restricted in that sense, like other magazines. So there’s an opportunity to reinvent the magazine every time we publish it. And I think it makes complete sense for a graphic design magazine to explore different formats. We don’t just talk design, we practice it! We have gone from a two color, oversized sheet fed format, to the cookie cutter full color web offset trade magazine format, to a cardboard CD packaging format including actual CDs, and next we’re tackling the pocket book format. It’s a challenge. It keeps me intellectually and creatively busy, and hopefully the results engage our readers.
But when I’m working on Emigre magazine I rarely think about how it will be received. I try to be honest and truthful to my own convictions and ideas, and not make too big a fool of myself, which on rare occasions I succeed at. We are often criticized for being self-indulgent. And we probably are. Emigre magazine provides a view into what we like and what is important to us, and it’s often very subjective and opinionated. If you are looking for an objective view of graphic design you should not read Emigre magazine.
SU: Another question that seems to be in every designer’s mind is when are you going to redesign your web site? I noticed the improvement in the Style Sheets from Times to Verdana, and it made such a huge difference. Are you looking to make a stronger use of the web for Emigre as a magazine? Perhaps pushing the boundaries of the web, like you did with editorial design. The functionality and accessibility of your site are really good, and it’s probably to employ it as an e-commerce site. Have you considered having a sister site dedicated to expanding on some of the design issues that a quarterly magazine can’t cover?
RvdL: I’m pleased that you like the functionality and accessibility of the site, because that’s what we’ve worked on for years. The site is fully integrated with our inventory and accounting. I think we’ve pushed enough boundaries in that department. We were one of the first foundries to sell fonts on line, and one of the first to have a type setter. But the web is developing at such a rapid pace, it’s impossible to keep up if you also publish a magazine, design fonts, and do your own distribution. Emigre is a very small company. Currently it’s Tim, Ella, Zuzana and me. We have to constantly make decisions on how to allocate our time. Right now, our web site does exactly what we want it do, and we’re still more interested in exploring print and designing fonts than web site design.
Plus, the e-commerce capabilities of the web, and the power of the internet to make available nearly any kind of information, really impresses me. It seems anything we do to enhance it visually, pales in comparison or diminishes that power. So we leave off the bells and whistles and let it do what we think it’s best at.
SU: In the last paragraph of Emigre #63’s Introduction you say: “Our next issue will focus on design writing once again.” Does it seem like you went full circle to come back to the original vision of the magazine? What can we expect from Emigre in the near future?
RvdL: Actually, in terms of content, the original vision for Emigre magazine had very little to do with graphic design. But that’s a long and boring story, although it would explain that funky name of ours. But as far as our future plans go, we are returning to making Emigre magazine far more exclusive again by dramatically reducing our circulation. In that sense we are coming full circle. At one point, with Emigre #42, we were giving the magazine away to nearly 40,000 Emigre customers.
With Emigre #64 there will be three major changes. First, Princeton Architectural Press will become the publisher of Emigre. Second, we will discontinue our free subscriptions. And third, as I mentioned before, the new format will be a pocket book.
The first issue in this new format will consist of a series of “rants” by a number of past and present Emigre collaborators about the state of Graphic Design in 2002. I’ve noticed a lack of critical investigation of today’s graphic design scene, and very few if any new voices are writing passionately about graphic design. There’s all these new design styles circulating, but they all seem to exist independent of ideology or any kind of conviction, and it has generated very little in depth analysis or opposition. With Emigre #64 we hope to correct that.