Thursday, 4:13pm
28 June 2012

The magazine as laboratory bench

Emigre: Graphic Design into the Digital Realm

Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko with Mary E. Gray<br>Van Nostrand Reinhold

Whatever else you might think about Emigre, for regular readers the arrival of a new issue is rarely less than an event. Since it transformed itself into a design magazine with its tenth issue in 1988, it has staked out a role as a sketchbook, flight log, lonely hearts club and tools kit of typography’s international avant-garde. You don’t have to like everything in it (not even its editor/designer, Rudy VanderLans claims to do that) to find it quite simply the most stimulating publication of its kind.

For the doomsayers, of course, Emigre epitomises everything that is wrong with typography today. For those less set in their views, and willing at least to think about new approaches to graphic design, it is a vital source of ideas, information and encouragement. It has equal appeal for the typographic theorist, the practitioner and the theorist/practitioner. It will provide researchers of the future with an essential document - perhaps the essential document - of digital design of the 1980s and 1990s.

Any magazine must be judged as the sum of its parts, but Émigré’s pursuit of desktop integration goes much further than most. VanderLans and partner Zuzana Licko have a superb gift for merchandising and it is no wonder perhaps that they should now try their hands at an Emigre book. Whether they were the right hands for the job on this occasion I am not so sure.

Emigre is ten years old and the book pursues a chronological path from its tentative beginnings as a cultural tabloid with a debt to Rotterdam’s Hard Werken magazine to the present. A main text carries most of the narrative and well illustrated pages are interspersed with quotations from lectures and writing from VanderLans and Licko exploring such themes as ‘Aims’, ‘Inspiration’, ‘Conventions’ and ‘Criticism’. Given that the book was written by the designers (with unspecified help) one might have expected a straightforward first-person account, but VanderLans and Licko opt to present themselves in the third person as if the text were written by someone else. This is uncomfortable to say the least and leads you to expect a critical analysis that the writers as subjects can obviously not provide. It also denies us the personal voice, so different from most journalism on the subject, that is one of the joys of VanderLans’ occasional bursts of writing in Emigre.

Stranger still, the main text loses its enthusiasm and begins to peter out at the point where the story becomes most interesting. While the designers’ backgrounds, enthusiastic embrace of the Macintosh, the magazine’s early days, and offshoot publishing projects such as Shift and GlasHaus are covered in detail, only a few hundred words are devoted to Émigré’s development as a design magazine. Instead captions carry brief summaries of each issue’s contents that tells you nothing you won’t know if you already own them.

Such discussion of editorial policy as there is embedded in a handful of small-print quotations from VanderLans. Perhaps this is just modesty. If so, it is another reason for bringing a writer from outside to tell the story. Then again, it might be that Émigré’s policy really is as freewheeling and unexamined as VanderLans - who did not officially appoint himself as editor until issue 16 - makes it sound. Emigre sets out to show work overlooked by the ‘major design magazines and design competitions’ with the aim of providing a ‘more complete picture of the state of graphic design’. But surely he can’t really mean it when he says, ‘there is no rhyme or reason in our selection process.’

VanderLans gives his contributors a free rein and work is never rejected on aesthetic grounds. This makes the magazine exciting and unpredictable; it also makes it tremendously variable. There are excellent issues that open up territory for debate that other magazines have barely even noticed (I would name 15, 17 and 19, to name but three); and there are others that are disjointed, indulgent, or wildly overstate the case (a whole issue, for instance, given to a young British designer right at the start of his career). These issues might have been stronger if VanderLans did not take the limiting view that to edit is to some way interfere and compromise the material. What about the idea that editing - both textual and visual - is about helping to focus the material and ensuring that the parts mesh together coherently.

Regrettably, some of this uncertainty of purpose has found its way into the book. In the acknowledgments, the designers note how the publisher accepted practically everything they submitted without making any changes. ‘Had we known beforehand,’ they write, ‘this book would have looked quite different.’ This is passed off as a joke, but the suggestion of self-repression has the ring of truth since the design is not all what you would expect from a team which has challenged, rejected and constructively refashioned the conventions of magazine typography and page layout with every new step. In its typography and organisation the book is surprisingly conventional and static. The typographic specifications of the various text elements are constant, even down to placement on the page, and there are no attempts at visual interpretation, emphasis, or even plain whimsy. The pages are clear, accessible and easy to read - virtues all - but they lack the freedoms and restless, lets-try-something-new intelligence of the magazine, which at best gives us both.

But lets be realistic. Emanating from Emigre HQ, this was never going to be the book that set the phenomenon properly in context, or even began to explain its impact and importance for the world of design publishing and digital type. If it introduces new readers to a remarkable magazine and foundry, and reawakens the interest of those who mistakenly suppose that Emigre has nothing fresh to tell them, it will have served its purpose enough.

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3, 1994