Tind magazine (France)

Interview by Jean-Baptiste Chouvenc. Published in 2015.

Jean-Baptiste Chouvenc: The first issue of Emigre magazine was published in 1984, the year which saw the birth of the first Apple Macintosh computer. Did this coincidence have an influence on the direction of the magazine (at first showing works of artists influenced by travel or working abroad) and the emigre collective took?

Rudy VanderLans: Yes, it did have an influence on the direction of the magazine. The mid 80s was an exciting time for graphic design. Postmodernism was being explored, the vernacular was being incorporated, Punk and Hip-Hop and DIY culture were flourishing, and there was a lot of questioning of the accepted norms going on. So it was already a heady mix, and then the Mac was thrown into this stew, and design just exploded. We started off as a general arts magazine, but we simply couldn’t miss this opportunity, and started focussing on graphic design.

JBC: In the 1970’s, using a computer (and buying one) was challenging. What were your first experiences of the computer machine?

RvdL: The most difficult thing, initially, was the separation of the hand from the surface on which you were drawing. It is second nature now for people who grow up with the computer. But we were both trained in design during the era before the computer. We remember how awkward it felt to be drawing with a mouse on a mousepad and seeing the lines appear on a screen. The hand-eye coordination was something to get used to.

Zuzana Licko: But what we enjoyed most about those early bitmap days of the computer was the fact that there was no established visual language, except perhaps needlepoint, that you could look to for inspiration. It was such a big break with how design was made before, that it felt like we were inventing an entirely new way of communicating. We had to work around many restrictions. The technology was very crude, and we tried to make it work somehow. But not by recreating what already existed. We had to leave all our preconceived notions about design behind, and start thinking outside the box. It was an exhilarating time.

JBC: In the 1980’s, what were the first difficulties you encountered in the process of creating typefaces, at a time when you had to think digital? How, and which tools did you use to draw your fonts? And could you talk a little, as a type designer, of working on a computer?

ZL: I’ve never designed type any other way, so my style of type design developed out of using the digital medium. And I suspect that if it wasn’t for the digital medium, I might not be designing typefaces for a living. Without the computer, I wouldn’t have been able to produce my own fonts and build an independent type foundry. If I’d lived in the pre-digital type era, I may still have come to design typefaces by hand, but I doubt that many of them would have been licensed by the existing font manufacturers. It’s hard to imagine, but true, that before personal computer technology, fonts required proprietary equipment and the economies of producing and promoting fonts had to work on a larger scale.

As for the process, I do virtually all of my design and production directly in the computer. Usually, the only hand drawing I do is on laser printouts, to mark areas that need adjustment, or to sketch alternate forms. Then I eye-ball the corrections on screen. As a result, my typefaces do not contain traces of calligraphy or other media. Instead, all of the forms come right out of how I construct the letter forms in the digital drawing plane.

JBC: Were you expecting the digital revolution to be long term? Or did you think it was a trend which wouldn’t have much of an impact on society? Did you imagine that computers were to evolve the way they did?

RvdL: It was pretty obvious to us, in 1984, that the computer was there to stay, but we were definitely in the minority thinking that. There were many designers at the time who thought it was a fad that would blow over, and many didn’t get involved in using computers seriously until the mid 90s. Of course we had no idea how ubiquitous and versatile computers would become, or had any idea about the internet. It used to be a machine that set you apart. Now it’s what makes you blend in.

JBC: The middle of the 1980’s was an exciting time for type design. Have we lost this excitement today?

RvdL: We can’t speak for others. I’m sure designers find their excitement wherever it is, whatever it is. We may not meet face to face as much anymore, but by being connected on line we see each others’ work to a degree that was unthinkable before. You can spend days looking at graphic design work from all around the world. Of course it’s usually unedited, decontextualized, and random. So now you are the editor, and perhaps people find that very exciting.

JBC: The fonts Emperor and Oakland are two of the most popular bitmap fonts. How did you conceive them?

ZL: Most of my inspiration comes from the particular medium that I’m involved with at the time. I search out a problem that needs to be addressed or a unique result that a production method can yield. My interest in making type was initiated by the need for legible and visually interesting bitmaps for the early Macintosh computer screen and dot matrix printer. The first years of Macintosh typography were limited to screen fonts and dot matrix output at 72 dpi, so my first type designs were low resolution bitmaps. Over the years, I developed more bitmap styles, and in 2001 the Emperor and Oakland fonts were incorporated into the Lo-Res font family.

As a student of graphic design, I had marveled at typefaces. I was blown away when I realized the power that typeface designs have on a typographic piece of design. Without touching the layout, change the typeface design, and voila, you have a completely different design. Take a logo for example, often times the design of a few alphabetic characters will constitute the entire logo design.

But the process of designing typefaces remained a mystery to me until I got my hands on a Macintosh computer in 1984. Back then it was, of course, very primitive, so it was easy to understand. And, as it turns out, bitmap fonts were the perfect place for me to start learning about type design because I love the building block approach. I enjoyed experimenting with bitmaps, as purely geometric forms. From then on, my experience and skill with ever more sophisticated typeface designs evolved along with the Macintosh’s ability to produce more complex fonts programs.

JBC: How could we explain that these two fonts are still being used today? We could think of them as outdated, considering the sophisticated high resolution digital fonts at our disposal today? What is their value, their validity, today?

ZL: It’s curious, because those bitmap fonts existed in their true pure bitmap form for only a very short time. They were adapted to outline early on, right after Postscript was introduced. So they are no longer a pure expression of the technology. Now their value is mostly stylistic. But isn’t that true for all typefaces, that they evoke a certain period, or style, or mannerism?

JBC: Today it’s pixels. What about the future?

RvdL: The future will take care of itself. No need to predict. But over the past years we have seen an enormous resurgence in hand drawn fonts, hand lettering, calligraphy, letterpress, etc. Unfortunately a large portion of it seems to be very nostalgic, it just wallows in the past, which doesn’t bode well for the future.

JBC: In the 1990’s, the debate between expressiveness and readability was a hot topic among graphic designers. Do you think it is still a valid debate in 2015?

RvdL: In the end those debates were all about how to communicate effectively. We think that topic is still very valid. How can it not be? Isn’t that what design is all about? Yet we don’t see much of a debate anymore. And I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps all the questions were answered?

JBC: In 1995, Zuzana stated: “People read best what we read most.” How should we understand this statement in the digital age?

ZL: That statement is kind of self-explanatory and applies to any medium that involves reading.

Actually, when I coined that phrase, in Emigre #15, I was pointing out that what makes certain typefaces easier to read than others is our familiarity with them, more so than their intrinsic legibility. I arrived at this idea from the simple observation that our most common letterforms have changed dramatically over time. In the 15th century most texts were set in hand written blackletter, and by the beginning of the 21st century we easily read mostly fuzzy representations of what are basically typefaces for print on computer screens.

RvdL: And Zuzana’s statement was not a critique of the classics, as some people deduced. On the contrary, it was an argument against creating new typefaces, and sticking with what we have. If we believe in the benefit of universal typographic standards and a typographic world without affectations or cultural specificities (the goal of the type purists), then there is really no need to reinvent the wheel. If we are convinced that easy accessibility and readability of texts is of the utmost importance then we should simply use typefaces that have long established track records of usage, such as Times Roman, Baskerville, Helvetica, and Verdana.

But new text typefaces are being created continuously, at a pace that has significantly increased as of late. However, there’s very little evidence that this increase in text type satisfies any special needs. No matter how professionally produced, rarely do the makers offer scientific proof that these new fonts will function any better than the models they are often based on. In the end, all they offer to prove their case is personal bias.

JBC: Why are there so few women involved in type design? Is it just a lack of visibility, or is the problem more deeply rooted?

ZL: The history of type design is rooted in the use of heavy machinery, and industrial materials such as lead founding, which have traditionally not been considered women’s work. Today, of course, the discipline of type design is rooted in digital technology, so it has become available to any visual artist who embraces computer technology. But here again, type design is one of the more technical specialties within visual design. Specifically, a type designer does at times benefit from some understanding of computer programming; perhaps it’s no coincidence that this is another field that women traditionally seldom enter.

Also, maybe women are taught to be less pushy than men, and are therefore not as adapt at self promotion. Maybe it’s not as important for them to always be in the spotlight. And maybe women’s careers get compromised when they take time off to make families. But we’re just guessing. And you can ask yourself, whose fault is it that you know of so few female type designers?

At the very least, at Emigre, we have shown that it is entirely possible for a woman to be a successful type designer.