November 8, 2002
by Armin Vit
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 its Emigre
is great, they are on the leading edge of Graphic Design and the next year
its 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 peoples
preferences vary so much its impossible to try and please everybody. If you
would try that youd 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 doesnt mean were not interested in what people
have to say about our work. Im 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
hasnt change much over the years. Some people hate us, some people love us,
and most people dont give a damn. Charles Bukowski provided me with that little
nugget of wisdom. So we dont worry too much about losing customers. If people
dont like what we do, so be it. I wont change my preferences and convictions
simply to please others. Were not politicians. Were not running for public
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 its harder to impress or appeal to the new generation of
Designers who were basically brought up and educated with a Macintosh?
RV: I hope our work appeals on a level that goes beyond how we master the
computer. But youre 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 grandmothers 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.
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.
RV: If there ever was a reason, I cant 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 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?
RV: 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. Thats 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. Weve always tried to tell
stories to show that these fonts dont 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 didnt 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 doesnt 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 dont 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
Its perhaps also interesting to mention that Template Gothic didnt 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 doesnt have that same aura as Template Gothic.
Im equally stumped about Emigres influence, if there is such a thing. Ive
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,
Im 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.
Emigre magazine provides a view into what we like and what is important to us, and its often very subjective and opinionated. If you are looking for an objective view of graphic design you should not read Emigre magazine.
SU: Which brings to me 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 dont even read
RV: Again, I dont change Emigre magazine simply to satisfy the readers. Theres
too many of them, and I dont really know what their preferences are anyway.
And Im not sure if people dont 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 its a myth that designers dont read. Like Jeffery Keedy once
said. Designers do read, they just dont read design magazines. And who can
blame them? In most design magazines the emphasis is clearly on the visuals,
and the editorial is secondary, its 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
The reason we often change the magazine is because we can. Were not a
newsstand magazine, and were not a weekly or monthly, and we dont rely on
advertising. Were not restricted in that sense, like other magazines. So
theres 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 dont 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 were tackling the pocket book format. Its a
challenge. It keeps me intellectually and creatively busy, and hopefully the
results engage our readers.
But when Im 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 its 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 designers 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 its
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 cant cover?
RV: Im pleased that you like the functionality and accessibility of the site,
because thats what weve worked on for years. The site is fully integrated
with our inventory and accounting. I think weve 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, its impossible to keep up if you also publish a
magazine, design fonts, and do your own distribution. Emigre is a very small
company. Currently its 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 were 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 its best at.
Ive noticed a lack of critical investigation of todays graphic design scene, and very few if any new voices are writing passionately about graphic design. Theres 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.
SU: In the last paragraph of Emigre No. 63s 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?
RV: Actually, in terms of content, the original vision for Emigre magazine had
very little to do with graphic design. But thats 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 thirdly, 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. Ive noticed a lack of critical investigation of todays
graphic design scene, and very few if any new voices are writing
passionately about graphic design. Theres 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.
This interview has been conducted exclusively for Speak Up.
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