Summer 1992

Reputations: Rudy VanderLans

‘The thing we have never done at Emigre is to second guess what the audience would like or be able to comprehend’

Rudy VanderLans was born in The Hague, Holland in 1955 and studied graphic design at the Royal College of Fine Arts. In 1981 he moved to the US and studied photography at UC Berkeley, where he met the Czechoslovakian-born designer Zuzana Licko. They married in 1983. In 1984 VanderLans launched the magazine Émigré, which became famous for its pioneering use of the Apple Macintosh. Part of its innovation lay in its use of typefaces such as Oakland and Emperor, designed by Licko to complement the low-resolution output of the early Macintosh. In the mid-1980s the company started to make these typefaces available to other designers; it now publishes some 70 faces designed by Licko and other typographers. In 1990 VanderLans set up the Emigre record label.

Julia Thrift: Why did you decide to move to the US?

Rudy VanderLans: I was about 25 years old and I wanted to see more of the world. I had been working as a designer for about three years and was a bit disappointed with graphic design. I felt that perhaps I should go back to school to do graduate studies, and I thought, why not go back to school in the US?

It was a liberating experience, in the sense that most of America has very little tradition – that is, tradition as we know it in Europe, tradition as I was introduced to it in art school in Holland. There, it was as if this big, black shadow that was the Dutch or Swiss tradition of design was always looming over you – and I think it always is watching over everybody who designs in Holland. In California there is no such thing, although I would imagine there are people in California who would say that that’s nonsense.

JT: The fact that you called your magazine Emigre suggests that you feel in some way separate from American culture. But after spending so long in the US, do you now feel separate from European culture too?

RV: At this point, yes. I still feel something of an outsider in California, yet on my rare trips back to Holland I have started to feel like an outsider in my own country, too. But the name for the magazine came about differently: it had more to do with the fact that when we started, the magazine was put together by myself and two Dutch friends who I met here in California. We were all frustrated at not getting our work published or into galleries, so we thought a magazine would be a perfect vehicle to show it. In the first issues, we covered everything from poetry to short stories to architectural projects and photography. In fact, anything but graphic design.

JT: So how did it develop into a somewhat theoretical design magazine?

RV: That happened little by little. The Macintosh was introduced in 1984-85, and we were very excited about it – as opposed to a lot of graphic designers who thought it was a hideous tool. And then we noticed – though this may be hindsight – that the whole industry, not just design but also printing and typesetting, was slowly being turned upside down because of this computer. So we thought it was an opportune time to start focusing on design again.

Also we were never able to sell Emigre to a particular audience because it dealt with such a broad range of topics. We learned the hard way that that’s not how to do a magazine – the stores didn’t know where to place it on stands.

JT: As well as publishing Emigre, you and Zuzana Licko also have a type foundry, and you now run a record label. Can you tell me about the Emigre organisation – who works for you, and how you divide between the different projects?

RV: There are four people here. There is Zuzana, who is mostly in charge of the technical aspects of the font manufacturing, and of course she has designed the bulk of the fonts. She is also in charge of much of the entire operation as a business, meaning administration and planning. I work almost solely on the magazine, meaning that I conduct most of the interviews, do part of the writing, most of the transcriptions and editing of the interviews, and I design the magazine. And then we have two other people, one working on sales and distribution, and one on technical support, questions relating to the software.

JT: When did you first work on a Macintosh?

RV: When the Macintosh came out there was a magazine started called MacWorld, and the editor was frantically looking for people who would be interested in doing illustration work on this new computer. They invited a whole bunch of illustrators from the San Francisco area to come and look at this machine, including Zuzana and myself. You have to understand that it was an incredible, ugly, primitive little machine that could do almost nothing but render very coarse, low resolution stuff. But we thought it was the most amazing thing. The people at MacWorld offered to lend it to us for the weekend and we were sold. We went out and bought one.

JT: What was it that grabbed you about it?

RV: It was incredibly visually oriented. And I enjoyed it. But the most important reason was that we found out that you could design your own typefaces with it.

When the Macintosh was launched, Macintosh user groups started up all over the country. Zuzana became a member of the UC Berkeley group, and we went to a few meetings, basically computer nerds who had a lot of the early public domain software. And just through happenstance they introduced us to FontEditor.

JT: Had you and Zuzana been interested in typeface design before?

RV: Not really. We were interested mostly because we had published two issues of Emigre, and as there was never a typesetting budget, we always had to rely on a typewriter to do our typesetting. So when the Macintosh came out, all of a sudden we could render our own fonts and have a choice of typeface. It was really just a step up from the typewriter, though it allowed us to play around more, to experiment more. We would run headlines off on the Imagewriter very large, and then stat them down to make the type look a little smoother, and then just paste them down on the layouts. We had great fun.

JT: How did the type foundry start?

RV: Emigre at this point was bought mostly by graphic designers, even though it wasn’t about graphic design, because tey were intrigued by its very visual approach. They saw the typefaces we were using, and some of them would call us to ask if they were available. Almost no graphic designers used Macintoshes at that point, so we thought maybe we could typeset the stuff for them. And then as designers started to get Macintoshes, they started to ask us for the fonts on disc, and it clicked – we can make copies of this fonts without limit.

JT: The design of Emigre seems to pay no attention to the traditional distinction between display and text typefaces. There are often quite long texts in faces such as Totally Gothic, which many typographers would see as suitable only for headlines. Do you think the traditional distinction is at all useful?

RV: In Emigre no. 15 there is an entire page, maybe 12 or 13 lines of type, in Totally Gothic. The size is about 24 point, which according to many people’s definition is headline type. It’s just a very long headline.

The point I am trying to make is that those decisions don’t depend on what people have traditionally thought about the distinction between headline and text. I just use common sense, or at least I try to. Most of the stuff I put down I write myself, and if people would not read what I have to say because my design stands in the way, then I fail miserably. Whenever I lay out a page I try to make certain that people will be able to read it, though how they read it, and how fast, I don’t know. But I don’t think I have to design those 12 lines in such a way that people can read them in a split second, as they may have to do with a sign on the highway. Because at the same time what I am trying to accomplish when I design is to catch people’s attention and to make the piece memorable.

JT: A lot of advertising agencies now create ads for specific audiences. Do you think design is getting like that? You presumably only care if the sort of people who want to read Emigre can read it and perhaps it doesn’t matter if other people find it off-putting.

RV: Since our audience is primarily graphic designers, they will always look at type before they read it. Most of them are typeface junkies. They are conscious of type, it often hinders them when trying to read, no matter if it’s the best-cut version of Helvetica, or Totally Gothic. It’s an intriguing problem.

The thing we have never done with anything we have produced at Emigre, whether it’s the magazine, the typefaces, or the music, is to second guess what the audience would like or be able to comprehend. We know what we like ourselves, and at least we are going to please ourselves with whatever we do. But I also think we are not entirely alien. We are a product of everything around us, and so no matter how “crazy” what we do may look, there will always be a link to other people. We release those fonts that we admire ourselves, that we enjoy using ourselves, and that we feel are drawn incredibly well. Often they are fonts that we know Bitstream or Adobe would never release.

JT: In issue 15 of Emigre, Zuzana Licko says that whether or not a typeface is easy to read depends a lot on how much we have to read it before. She sums it up by saying: “We read best what we read most.” Do you agree?

RV: Absolutely. I think she brings up the idea of blackletter type, which is what people communicated in during the fourteenth and fifteenth century. If we look at that now, the letterforms are so unusual to us, it’s as if they used to write entire manuscripts in headline type. But that’s what people were used to seeing and reading. When Baskerville or Helvetica first came out, people were shocked – they couldn’t believe how hideous and difficult to read they were. And now these are considered the most neutral typefaces imaginable.

JT: Do you think some letterforms are in an objective way more legible than others, or is it all to do with what we are used to?

RV: When people talk about legibility, they’re talking about ultimate legibility. But not everyone is designing highway signage systems or open-heart surgery manuals, and there are many areas in which experimentation could be appropriate. Gerard Unger pointed out that there are basic shapes that as a type designer you cannot change – for example, the basic shape of an “A”, be it lowercase or uppercase. But around this – the skeleton of the basic shape – you can do a lot. In 1967, Wim Crouwel designed a typeface for the computer age (see page 84). It was a very strange alphabet, very rectangular, and it destroyed some of the basic shapes of the Roman alphabet. At first it seems like gibberish, but eventually it becomes repetitive. It’s a code, and once you decipher the code you can read it.

JT: In a recent issue of Print magazine, Massimo Vignelli made a vitriolic attack on Emigre. He described it as “that disgraceful thing called Emigre magazine”, “a national calamity”, and an “aberration of culture”. In an editorial in a subsequent issue of Emigre, you said that you didn’t think it was worth replying to. However, Vignelli is not the only person to have attacked your work and that of other experimental typographers. As one of the most articulate of the designers under attack, surely you should make some defence of what you are doing?

RV: When I was going through design school in Holland, Vignelli’s signage system for the New York subway was a milestone design. Vignelli has been a tremendous hero of mine, so for him then to say that what we produce is garbage hurts. But I have thought a great deal about it since, and what I felt mostly, and what I feel from a lot of other designers such as Wolfgang Weingart, is that they are incredibly threatened by what we do. It seems they feel their own work is in danger, which is not the case. Their work is so good it will always be there, and will probably always be sitting on a pedestal in front of design classes. But I do think there is room for other solutions. The thing that is most difficult, and that’s what Vignelli is trying to get at, is whether it’s good or bad.

JT: You must think that your design is good in some way or you wouldn’t be doing it.

RV: But in a larger sense, I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It all depends on who you are talking to. Clients have a very different idea of what good design is – like whatever gives them the best return in sales.

JT: But we are talking about one designer attacking the work of another, so presumably you have some of the same criteria for looking at design. Yet he obviously cannot see what you see in your design – and in the design of other people, especially those innovating on the Macintosh.

RV: Personally I don’t think it has anything to do with the Macintosh. I am still a graphic designer. In the end, what we’re judging is stuff that’s printed on paper.

I think Vignelli is very uninformed about our work. We have done much more than he has ever seen. I think we became a bit of a punchball for what he referred to as people who create trash, people who stretch type, squeeze type, use that ugly, digitised, low resolution crap. I think he just sees us as the initiators of all this “ugly stuff” we see around.

JT: Designing on the Macintosh has changed extraordinarily rapidly as the technology has improved and designers have got used to it. Is that era of rapid discovery and excitement now over?

RV: Yes, to a degree. I think it was quite liberating, those first two years. Liberating, or challenging, mostly because the Macintosh at the beginning was so limiting and the parameters within which you had to work so narrow that you had to be incredibly creative to do something decent. What was also exhilarating was that no one had worked in that medium, so you had to create your own vocabulary.

I have designed the last 10 issues of Emigre with a program called ReadySetGo! and I think I am the only designer in the world who uses it. I am using a very old version, 4.5, that doesn’t even let you rotate type. I do that because I feel more comfortable working within strict parameters.

One of the biggest problems with the Macintosh as it grew up has been that I have found myself tinkering with software for too long, without any real creative thoughts going through my mind any more. So in the end, I thought perhaps sometimes it is better not to have the option of changing your headline into the shape of a fish.

JT: How do you choose what subjects you are going to cover in the magazine? For instance, issue 22 was entirely devoted to Nick Bell, a young London-based designer whose work is relatively unknown, even in the UK. Your decision to give him a whole issue must have surprised a lot of people.

RV: It all happens by accident. The subjects just come bubbling up to the surface, over time. Another example is issue 9, devoted to 4AD records. We talked about the work of Vaughan Oliver, who had had hardly any press in the UK at that point. Obviously one of the things we try to do is to expose people when their work is still developing. I find that very exciting.

JT: As well as being a designer and a design critic, you run a music label. Why this development?

RV: When you put out a magazine that goes to a certain type of people, like-minded people come to you. We’ve had designers, writers, and a fair share of people who send us their music. Over time we realised that we were quite successful at distributing some very eclectic typefaces and a very esoteric magazine. And I guess we got courageous – maybe overly courageous – and thought perhaps we could also make available some of the music people were sending us.

JT: The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art recently acquired a complete set of Emigre, a landmark in the magazine’s history. How do you see the magazine, and the organisation, developing from now on?

RV: We don’t really. It’s a day-to-day operation. People might get tired of us tomorrow and the whole thing would collapse, or we might grow tired of it ourselves, though right now it is still incredibility exciting. What I am very proud of and hope always to maintain is our independence. I think at one point we were very interesting to a group of people because we were underground. Now, when you see our typefaces everywhere from the last Emmy awards to the new Batman movie, or the Superbowl commercial, all of a sudden we are not cool any more. But that’s really too bad. We haven’t sold our soul to anybody.

First published in Eye no. 7 vol. 2, 1992

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.