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Emigre magazine has been publishing
for 20 years. In dog years that makes it a cornerstone of the design
establishment. In this interview we asked Rudy VanderLans to comment on
the state of the magazine and the art of design and design criticism.
Heller: Rudy, I truly admire your keen ability to reinvent Emigre.
Perhaps “reinvent” is an overused word, but the magazine has gone
through at least six “incarnations,” from its founding as a general
culture tab to its golden age as the clarion of new typography, to its
middle age—and smaller magazine size—as an eclectic compilation of
criticism and esoteric peregrinations, to a music CD, and now with
numbers #64, 65, and 66 a journal of critical commentary. You’ve managed
to retain your unique personality while publishing your stalwart
contributors and adding new voices along the way. Emigre may
not be as experimental as it was in its early years, but it is a solid
and respected venue for design discourse. Yet there was a point a few
years ago (in its standard magazine format) when Emigre seemed to have somewhat lost focus and was leaning towards being a promotional vehicle for Emigre
fonts and products. Your content was inconsistent and seemed random at
times. Frankly, I presumed you were losing steam, and about to fold the
magazine—and then, voila reinvention. Why have you so persistently clung
to this imprint instead of moving elsewhere?
VanderLans: Where would I go? This has to be the best design
gig in the world! But like every spoiled brat, I’ve come close to
throwing in the towel a number of times. It’s all the peripheral stuff,
the distribution, production, subscription sales, ad sales, promotions,
that usually makes me want to give it all up. Some of this was recently
taken over by Princeton Architectural Press who now co-publishes Emigre. So I have more time to concentrate on the magazine itself, which helped me realize the latest “reinvention.”
Heller: In the 1993 Cult of the Ugly I predicted Emigre would be a “blip in the continuum.” While the phrase had a nice ring, it was nonetheless shortsighted. Emigre
is an historical milestone and you have more than survived the style or
legibility wars, you’ve triumphed. Yet looking back at the large
format, experimental issues little remains today of that typographic
audacity today. Perhaps Emigre’s shift-changing began with
Number 39 “Graphic Design: The Next Big Thing,” wherein you address “the
hype surrounding electronic publishing and its facilitator the
Internet,” but also introduced a surprisingly minimalist typographic
design that belied (indeed challenged) your origins. Everything must
change, but, given Emigre’s current incarnation, I wonder whether you actually have succumbed to your former critics finger wagging?
VanderLans: Perhaps we’ve survived because we’ve learned from
our mistakes. I actually succumb to finger wagging more often than you
think, and my “origins” are probably closer to the work I do now than
the work I created during those so called “legibility wars.”
But the subversion is still there, it just plays itself out on a much more subtle level. Emigre
#66 was set in John Downer’s Vendetta typeface, and that’s not exactly
your garden variety Venetian. Ask any traditional type designer. And
talk about shortsighted phrases. I don’t know who coined the phrase “The
Legibility Wars,” but whoever did was either unaware or meant to
obscure the fact that those particular issues of Emigre were
about much more than just legibility. Besides the experimental nature of
the work that we showed, I was always drawn to featuring designers who
chose to work for small clients, non profits, and cultural institutions,
or designers who decided to teach or write, or those who made their own
products and started small companies to disperse their own design
products. I was very impressed that these designers were often
forfeiting the high profile, big money jobs. They had certain social and
political convictions and a need to associate with clients and
collaborators they felt an affinity with. This way they were able to
address small, likeminded audiences, as opposed to large faceless
segments of the population. And that’s why they afforded themselves such
liberties in their designs. They understood their audiences and they
communicated to them on a visually engaging level, and they had a high
regard for the intelligence of their intended public. Of course, since
the work looked rather unusual, it was quickly dismissed as being
self-indulgent and breaking with tradition in a way that would hinder
communication. In my opinion, it was the exact opposite. These designers
had a heightened sense of who their audiences were and addressed them
with the appropriate respect.
Heller: One of the criticisms centered on its viability in a marketplace that was indeed fairly conservative. The work that Emigre
featured went against prevailing convention, and critics like myself
could not see how it could be integrated into the proverbial mainstream.
VanderLans: Except for one or two latecomers to the scene, I
don’t think anybody ever considered that this kind of work was meant to
be consumed by mass audiences. But the response to this work was always
about how alien the work looked compared to common graphic design of the
time, the kind that tried to appeal to universal values, and lowest
common denominators. So the critics were usually comparing apples with
pears. They would point out the flaws of this new work, but they ignored
the context. They always seemed to be reasoning from the perspective of
book typography, while the ideas and methodologies that upset them so
much were rarely applied to the kind of readerly books that were always
used as exemplary graphic design and typography.
Anyway, when people reduce this period down to “The Legibility Wars”
they really miss the point. It was as much about designers finding
alternative spaces to work in, as it was about alternative typography.
Heller: I have a “mullet theory.” When long hair was a sign of
rebellion, wearers were actually in real danger of reactionary violence
(see Easy Rider and Alice’s Restaurant). Yet soon
everyone started wearing their hair long (and coiffed), which gave way
to the mullet—a stylized, commercialized, and aesthetically dumbed-down
version of the original hippy look. Does this theory apply to Emigre—or Rudy VanderLans? When the methods and ideas Emigre
spawned and chronicled became mainstream—thanks to its acceptance in
design competitions and adoption by style mongers—did you feel, well, it
was time to move on? In the beginning Emigre lead the pack, but at a certain point did you see that leadership eroding? Did you want to distance yourself from the mullet?
VanderLans: Most of all, I wanted to distance myself from some
of my own failures, and perhaps the mullets amplified what those
failures were. Looking back at the work that was produced during those
years, there were a lot of misses. But that’s what experimentation is
all about. By the early 80s my work had become completely stifled. It
was probably functional, but it looked dead. Then there was this
explosion of experimentation which loosened everything up. It allowed me
to broaden my palette, and widen my horizon, and now I can approach
design without a preconceived idea of what it should look like. And
while the work may no longer resemble the extreme experiments of those
formative years, it still retains many of its lessons.
Heller: I’ve long had the sense that you kept a cautious
distance from totally promoting strict theoretical approaches, while at
the same time accepting its value as part of the new design language.
In the current Emigre, you state (and I’m paraphrasing) that
some of this methodology, as applied to design writing, is
cutting-and-pasting quotes of others’ into dense discourse. In your role
as editor of a publication known as a friend of “big T” Theory, how do
you address this in contemporary design writing? Or stated another way,
what critical models do you embrace for effective design criticism
VanderLans: The “critical model” that I embrace is me,
and I’m not at all sure if it’s effective. At times I feel like a fake. I
read Robin Kinross’s writing and in comparison I’m embarrassed about
pretty much everything I’ve ever written or edited. I have no background
in any of this. Effective design criticism? I have no idea what that
is. But I love graphic design. And I love discussing it, and I love to
understand it better, and in order to do so I ask a lot of pesky
questions. That’s the model I use. I’m not the one inspiring Kenneth
FitzGerald or Jeffery Keedy or Lorainne Wild to write the essays that Emigre
publishes. They usually propose the essays, and I’m more than happy to
publish their writing because usually their writing makes me see things
in new ways. They inspire me. I learn from them. My role in all this is
to make sure that I understand what it is they are trying to say, which
sometimes requires a lot of going back and forth, and then managing to
make the work public by actually publishing it, which I think is my real
Heller: In the current series of Emigres, one key
design element is noticeably absent. Images. These books are designed
functionally, even elegantly, but words (and perhaps word pictures) have
all but replaced reproductions (with the notable exception of your
memorial to Frank Heine section). Emigre was not only once rich
in imagery, the image was the message—you practiced what you preached.
I’m happy to read the essays without illustration (in fact, most of
these essays do not really require illustrations), but I also feel that
something is skewed here. The words are placed in something of a vacuum.
There is lot’s of good talk about design as cultural engine (or not as
the case may be), but little demonstration of it. What is your rationale
for minimizing the image? Is this a response to the pervasive criticism
of eye-candy or something more diabolical?
VanderLans: I understand that it’s tempting to see these constant changes of Emigre
magazine as reactions to what came before, and perhaps there’s some
truth in that, but there’s much more at play. I’m in a position with Emigre
to do as I please, so I try to exploit that as best I can. I think it’s
entirely valid for a design magazine to change its format to suit and
amplify its content. Since our content has changed dramatically over
time, I’ve played around with a number of formats. With our recent move
towards more design writing, the paperback format seemed an obvious one
to explore. I wanted to make a cheap trade paperback, and images simply
didn’t belong in that format.
Plus, right now, I find more interest in design discussions than design
itself. There’s a new group of young designers/writers such as Rob
Giampietro, Dmitri Siegel, David Cabianca and Joshua Ray Stephens whose
writing and ideas I really enjoy. I’m looking forward to seeing how and
what they will contribute to design discourse. God knows we can use some
new voices. Unfortunately, within the design press there’s very little
support for their kind of writing. There aren’t enough magazines, and
none pay enough to make it worthwhile for them to put in the time to
sharpen their skills.
Heller: We’ve had a few conversations about the pros and cons
of design blogs. You seem to be an avid observer who occasionally jumps
into the fray. In Emigre #66 you address design blogs in your
editorial and in an interview with SpeakUp founder Armin Vit, but I feel
to some extent you are playing catch-up. I’m reminded of all the mail Emigre
has published in the past, much of it concerning debates and
commentaries that in retrospect read like blog postings. Do you in
anyway feel that the blogs are making Emigre obsolete?
VanderLans: I think blogs are making a lot of design magazines obsolete. And everything must come to an end, I guess. But then I figure, Emigre never really fulfilled a huge need in the first place, so what’s the harm in continuing?
Heller: It is interesting that you have not created an interactive site as an extension of Emigre. Are there plans?
VanderLans: Years ago, our webmaster at Emigre was
keen on starting a blog, saying it would bring people to our website.
This was during the days of bulletin boards. But I was never attracted
to this format of discussion. I’m not a very quick thinker. Some people
can rattle off ideas right off the top of their heads, and those are the
people who enjoy blogs. I enjoy sitting down and reflecting for hours,
days, and often still find I have nothing new to add. So don’t hold your
breath for an Emigre blog.
Heller: Despite increased blog discourse, I feel the same way
Mr. Keedy does in #66. There is currently a surfeit of reheated
discussions about style versus content, context versus lack-there-of,
personal voice verses client aims, etc. He provides a witty yet accurate
list of what “dumb questions” to avoid. Rudy, you have been through and
mediated much of this discourse. Is design the same “cultural force,”
you once described it when Emigre was young or are we in a kind of reinvention of the wheel-holding pattern?
VanderLans: I think design will always be a cultural force
regardless of being in a holding pattern or not. Design is so all
encompassing and ubiquitous, how is it ever not a cultural force?
But first of all I have to point out that it’s an overstatement to say
that I “mediated” the discourse. I may have helped facilitate the
discourse, but that’s as far as I’d like to go. I came to this whole
postmodern/decontructivist era as a complete novice. In the early 80s I
found myself making the same graphic gestures and felt the same kind of
need to widen my graphic vocabulary—away from the simple choices of
flush left or centered typography—as the people at Cranbrook. I saw
Kathy McCoy give a lecture in Oakland in the late 80s and I felt an
immediate kinship to the work. I noticed the similarities between their
work and mine. But at Cranbrook they had arrived at this kind of work by
reading Venturi, and Roland Barthes, etc. of whom I had never heard. My
influence to break away from the mainstream ideas of what design should
be came from Hard Werken, and Piet Schreuders. I eventually read
Venturi and liked it, and tried reading Barthes and Derrida, etc., and
gave up because I got nothing out of it. And I had no idea how to relate
their writing to design. When visiting Cranbrook for a three-day
workshop I was relieved when Scott Makela mentioned they had moved on to
reading authors like Charles Bukowski, one of my favorite writers. I
had no idea how to relate Bukowski to design either, but at least I
could enjoy his writing. Actually Bukowski taught me how to look at LA
as a photographer, but that’s another story.
Heller: There are times when I think graphic design writers
(myself included) are grasping at straws to find relevance for what we
do as a broader “cultural force.” We talk about involving “outsiders” in
our universe by making what we do more than just trade talk. Actually,
many of our writers understand and speak in other tongues. Yet the new
series of Emigres is firmly focused on amplifying design
-speak; do you believe there really is a viable way to break out of the
insular into a broader cultural discussion?
VanderLans:I never aspired to make anything but a magazine
solely for graphic designers. And I know it gets esoteric at times, but
I’d rather not give up on that, because this is the level at which I
enjoy investigating graphic design.
I’ve followed the discussions on DesignObserver about making graphic
design more accessible to outsiders and raising people’s awareness of
graphic design, but that requires much more than changing the language
in our design press. Actually I think a magazine like Print is
fairly accessible to non-designers, yet I’m sure it’s read almost
primarily by designers. I believe that in order to raise the public’s
awareness and interest in graphic design we need to actively go out and
address a larger audience. For that you need another two dozen writers
or so like Rick Poynor, or you—writers who understand design and whose
writing is accessible—to constantly pitch ideas for articles on graphic
design to the editors of daily newspapers and weekly culture magazines.
As it stands, every time I come across an article about graphic design
in a mainstream, non-design publication (which rarely happens), I am
usually so disappointed, that in my mind it brings into question
everything else I read in those publications.
Heller: I have yet to see a new Emigre fill the “what’s next?” vacuum. I think Dot Dot Dot is making an interesting niche for itself, but is not doing what Emigre
did. Much of the chatter on the blogs is basically perpetuating the
status quo (or repeating what has been said years ago). You have been a
magnet for important developments in type and design, if not always as a
creator then as a presenter, or as you say “a facilitator.” You are
currently taking a certain stand with Emigre, can you see down
the road? Is SpeakUp the next big thing? Is there an approach to
design-speak or design practice that can engender the excitement and
argument? Or is this one of those periods of transition—a quiet before
VanderLans: Looking across the spectrum of design, the one
thing that stands out for me is that currently there is no big “hero”
designer or movement that shines brightly. One of the most ubiquitous
people in design right now is not a designer, it’s Rick Poynor, a design
critic. He judges shows, publishes books, writes articles, gives
lectures and keynote addresses, co-runs a blog, and is widely quoted.
He’s everywhere, and he raises a lot of interesting questions. In
addition there are all these design blogs that are almost completely
text based—lots of chatter and no pictures. I don’t know what the
significance of this is, but it looks to me like design is taking a back
seat to all this. Or perhaps it’s just minding its own business, doing
what it’s always done. Which reminds me; I always tell myself that the
concerns such as you raise in your questions regarding design and design
discourse and whether design is a “cultural force” or not, etc., and
much of the stuff we publish in Emigre, is of interest to only a
handful of design professionals. Most designers are far more concerned
about design as a “commercial force.” And in today’s economic climate
who can blame them? Although, I’m not convinced if focusing on the
commercial will necessarily bring you riches. I know at Emigre we’ve always focused on the cultural, the subversive, the untried, and the financial rewards came nevertheless.
But to answer your question, today there are more books being published
on graphic design than ever before. Besides the established book
publishers there are now a number of publishers around the world who
specialize in publishing graphic design books. And now there’s all these
blogs. I don’t know what it all means. It’s not exactly quiet, and I
don’t see any storms coming. It’s more like we’ve reached this level of
white noise that may be with us for a long time to come.
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