By Rudy VanderLans
This article was first published in 1995 in
The other day, I was reading an article about the
BauHaus by Dietmar Winkler. In it Winkler suggests that the BauHaus legend
is largely based upon myth that has obscured many truths about the BauHaus.
For instance, many of the BauHaus ideologies, he says, originated at other
schools or movements, such as the Constructivists, Futurists and De Stijl.
He also points out the enormous gap that existed between the BauHaus
ideologies and the public, resulting in the design of products equally
remote from the public's needs and uses. Summing it all up, Winkler
writes that "When Hannes Meyer replaced Gropius as a director of the
school, his critical assessment was that its reputation outstripped
manifold the quality of the work produced. He attributed this to the
unparalleled public relations effort."
I don't know whether this is a correct assessment
or not, but what struck me about this article was how much Winkler's
observations regarding the BauHaus myth could, to an extent, be said of
Emigre as well.
First of all, on more than one occasion, Emigre has
received credit (or blame) for what were essentially the ideas of others
whose work we published in our magazine. Secondly, like the BauHaus, we are
also ferocious promoters of our work. Whether it overshadows the quality of
the work we produce is arguable, but what I do know is that without a
focused public relations effort, Emigre would simply not exist. And perhaps
the BauHaus might not have existed either. Promoting our work, making our
work public, in any way we can, is simply an inevitable necessity when
publishing a magazine and selling typefaces for a living.
I've always been intrigued by the commercial
aspects of publishing. I remember ten years ago when we started Emigre magazine, the one
publication I was looking at a lot was RAW magazine. Although I was drawn to the work of Gary Panther,
Charles Burns, Sue Coe, Joost Swarte and a host of others, and was moved by
the subversive content of the work, I was even more curious to find out how
RAW was made
possible. I once visited Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, the
publishers, in their studio in New York, and I remember looking at all this
sociopolitically critical work, yet I couldn't help but be fascinated
with how they managed to get it published. How do you finance this? How do
you find an audience? How do you distribute it? It's one thing to
have so many illustrators creating important work, but if you can't
share it with an audience, that's a missed opportunity.
This entrepreneurial element, which is crucial to the
existence of any subculture, avant garde or underground work, is largely
overlooked when assessing the work, because to most people, whenever the
commercial aspects become prominent, it somehow taints the work and renders
it less pure or authentic. Yet it's difficult to imagine how any
movement can operate without a concentrated effort to make money.
For instance, it's difficult to see how the Sex
Pistols would have been formed if it weren't for art-school
student/entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren, who provided them with a place to
practice and a monthly allowance. There was a reason he did this. To
McLaren the Sex Pistols were initially a means to promote his clothing
shop, called "Sex." Although Punk was bound to happen because
it was symptomatic of what was going on within British culture, without the
Sex Pistols, it would not have been the same.
Grunge, a more recent subcultural movement of
alternative music, didn't coalesce until 1986, when Bruce Pavitt
(with money borrowed from his dad) released SubPop
100, an LP featuring a number of Seattle-based
bands. Out of the success of this release grew SubPop records, the label
that eventually would put out the first Nirvana album, making SubPop one of
the most celebrated independent record labels in the United States and
subsequently launching the careers of a number of musical innovators.
Hip-hop and Rap, too, were given a great boost and
credibility when Rick Rubin, a Jewish kid from suburban Long Island who
studied film at NYU, together with Russell Simmons, a shrewd entrepreneur,
started the record company Def Jam. Although the musical inventiveness of
Hip-hop came straight from the streets, the explosion of Hip-hop culture
probably would not have happened without a company like Def Jam providing
the means to make the music available to a wide audience.
What attracts me most about these above-mentioned
entrepreneurs is how they accommodate the production and distribution of
authentic creative work by individuals and how they create alternative
options for these individuals to learn and share skills, earn a living and
express themselves within society. The added bonus is often that in the
process, they also help expand and sometimes even change what society as a
whole considers important.
It was during this time in the early eighties, against
this background of post Punk, Hip-hop and Grunge do-it-yourself
entrepreneurship that we launched Emigre. Just as the recording and
production of music had become entirely demystified and democratized in the
eighties with the availability of cheap and easy to use recording
equipment, in 1984, graphic design, too, was handed a tool that would make
it possible for individual designers to become self-sufficient. In
Emigre's case, instead of peddling our services, it became clear that
with the help of the computer, we could focus our attention on producing
our own products: a magazine and a series of digital typefaces (the result
of early experiments with low resolution output devices).
It was an extremely exciting and opportune time
centered around this new emerging technology. Emigre magazine quickly became a kind of magnet for many
like-minded individuals who were going through the same process of
discovery and assimilation of using a computer with which to design.
It was during this time, also, that I started noticing
the work coming out of Cranbrook and later CalArts. I never felt an
affinity for the theoretical underpinnings that informed some of the work
coming out of Cranbrook. What I did recognize, though, was a common
interest in the Macintosh, a curiosity to question typographic traditions
and, more importantly, the need to create work that allowed room for the
designer's voice. Instead of buying into the fabricated singular
narrative of modernism that would lead us all to an imagined better world,
these designers were dealing with the world as it really was; fragmented,
ironic, chaotic, humorous, ambiguous, and with room for many individual
voices to be heard.
Just as the music of Punk was a direct response to the
corporate glitter and glam rock of musicians such as David Bowie and Brian
Ferry, I saw the work created at Cranbrook and CalArts as a response to the
slick, wasteful, corporate and somewhat elitist design methods of the 70s.
In an interview with Cranbrook graduate (and now
Calarts faculty member) Ed Fella, conducted in 1991, Fella describes some
of the experiments they were then involved in: "It comes from a
realization that things are just getting smarter and smarter and I feel
that there's a particular conceit in that. In order to open things up
again, you can't endlessly design one more legible typeface, one even
more legible than the rest. So at some point you have to take that conceit
away. Especially in graphic design, we're surrounded by really slick
design. It's an extremely neat-handed profession. In order to break
out of that, you either have to become the most facile professional of them
all or chip away at it somehow. Chip away at the conceit of the slick
profession that gets ever and ever tighter."
In the same interview, however, Fella also stated his
frustration about how difficult it had been for him to have this
experimental work be accepted in a commercial market, explaining that the
work was only accepted by art organizations. He thought that although the
experiments were worthwhile, he seemed doubtful whether they would ever be
There was just as much skepticism about the usefulness
of the new typefaces that came out of these experiments. When we first
asked Jeffery Keedy in 1990 whether he would let us release his typeface
Keedy Sans commercially, his reaction was "I never thought of that as
a possibility. Who would want to use something this strange
The easy way to find out was by implementation. By
showing these experiments in Emigre magazine we were able to see how these ideas and
typefaces would be received by other graphic designers. However, the work
involved in releasing typefaces commercially, and maintaining a magazine
that functioned as a testing ground for such typefaces was labor-intensive
and costly. Therefore it was crucial that the results were eventually going
to be accepted by more than a few adventurous art directors.
This effort of selling independently produced typefaces
and the acceptance of typographic experimentation by a wider audience
received a tremendous push when in 1992 Ray Gun magazine was launched. Founded by Marvin Jarrett (Creem, Bikini, Huh),
Ray Gun was published
to fill a particular niche in the music magazine market. "Ever since
Nirvana brought alternative music to the masses," Jarrett said in an
interview in Emigre 24,
"I believe there has been a need for a magazine to cover this
As Ray Gun set out to bring alternative music to the masses, it did so in a
visual form that would turn many heads within graphic design. The approach
was a mixture of typographic experimentation, production mistakes,
bootlegged typefaces, and prominently positioned illustration and
photography work. Ray Gun also thumbed its nose at conventional editorial makeup by
collapsing the hierarchy of texts, headlines, subheads, decks, pullquotes
and captions into a seemingly indecipherable melee. And the intended
audience loved it.
The process of reading a magazine like Ray Gun is like deciphering a
puzzle. When you decipher it, it's like being let in on a secret, and
you feel like you belong to the club. You either get it or you don't;
you're either cool or you're not. Here the simple idea of
legibility is thrown out the door in favor of an experience - a
heightened level of communication. And the notions of legibility as we know
it from traditional book typography that are used to criticize this kind of
work are useless, since the work has no intention of being legible in the
If "The reproduction and distribution of text is
part of the life-blood of social-critical dialogue," as the critic
Robin Kinross says, then Ray Gun must be considered quite successful. Besides the fact that Ray Gun has helped set off a
heated debate on legibility and typefaces within the profession of design,
you have to take only one look at the letters section of Ray Gun to find out how this magazine is
also completely dissected by its readers. Every typographic gesture, every
placement of a picture, intentional or by mistake, every article, legible
or not, is discussed by the readers. I believe it is the spontaneous,
nonauthoritative, anti-design feel of Ray Gun that must account for the fact that so many of its
readers feel quite uninhibited to write in and respond to everything from
the writing to the use of the typefaces.
Ray Gun once and for all
showed that the use of non-traditional typefaces and extreme typographic
variations are possible within mainstream magazine publishing. Under the
very gutsy art direction of David Carson, who invited various CalArts and
Cranbrook graduates (including Fella) to contribute to Ray Gun, anti-design had finally gone
Big Time. And although there are many people who like to hate Ray Gun and quickly dismiss
it as just another stylistic fad, I think it has greatly helped to expand
the notion of legibility and magazine layout. All it took for some of the
experiments to become accepted was the appropriate time, the right audience
and an entrepreneur like Jarrett who could pull it all together.
Ch, Ch, Ch, Changes
Punk and Hip-hop were initially not accepted as
credible musical forms, so distribution systems were created from the
ground up. By doing so, these innovative musical styles forever changed the
music industry in every aspect. They challenged not only how music sounded
but also how it was created, produced and performed, and they also
significantly changed how music was distributed and sold, creating many
alternative economic environments.
This closely resembles the exciting changes that have
taken place within typeface design and manufacture in the past five to ten
years. The Macintosh computer has completely democratized the design and
manufacture of fonts. Before, this had been the private domain of only a
handful of large type foundries who owned the proprietary systems needed to
turn a typeface design into a working product. In addition, with the recent
possibility of selling typefaces electronically by modem, the Macintosh can
now also provide the means of distribution, one of the most difficult
hurdles to clear when you self-publish.
The acceptance of magazines like Ray Gun by both the design
establishment and mainstream audiences, coupled to the ease with which one
can technically produce fonts, has sparked a tremendous activity in
typeface production, and graphic designers and magazines alike have
recognized that designing and selling fonts can be a viable means of
The resulting availability of thousands of typefaces,
with dozens added each month, is proof of a completely democratized field
and shows us that graphic designers have use for more than the tried and
the true. Although it would be easy to find a good deal wrong with the
results, I would like to focus on the positives. No longer are graphic
designers dependent upon the work of an elite of traditional typeface
designers who produce fonts primarily for use in text. Today, graphic
designers have access to nearly as many typefaces as there are Pantone
colors, greatly increasing and enhancing the variety of work being created.
Besides the fact that this small revolution has
questioned the very foundations of graphic design and type design, of what
is good and what is bad, of what is legible and illegible, personally I
also find it amusing to see established companies like Agfa putting out
type brochures that echo the experimental qualities of Ray Gun, and a company like Adobe
releasing a series of typefaces called "Wild Type."
But type designer Matthew Carter sums it up best in an
interview in Eye.
"For most of my life type design has been seen as a brave but arcane
business that requires a lifetime's dedication to produce a single
typeface. I'm happy that notion has gone, that type design has been
demystified. You can look at some of the stuff and suck your teeth and
shake your head, but the fact is that I can't think of any other
period in the history of typography when I would rather have been at
The design critic and historian Robin Kinross,
who's a little less optimistic, referred to these formal exercises as
a "sad, restless search for whatever might look new" and wrote
that "formal innovation has meaning only when connected to a context
of human need and use." Kinross, for instance, is partial to
Tschichold's typeface "Neue Schrift" designed in 1929,
because it addresses previously unexplored issues of phonetics.
However, it wasn't until 1994 that Jan
Tschichold's typeface "Neue Schrift" has finally been made
available, together with a host of other experimental fonts from the 20s
and 30s. So although a lot can be found wrong with today's commercial
type market, at least there now exists a climate in which the most
ideological designs can be realized. But there has to be a healthy
commercial style-driven industry to make it all possible. You simply
can't have one without the other.
At Emigre, Zuzana Licko started her career as a type
designer working mostly on experimental fonts that directly addressed the
limitations of low resolution computer screens and dot matrix printers.
From the very start, these designs were undertaken to expand, improve or
add something of use, but commercially, because of their limited
applicability, these typefaces were failures. It required the release of
fonts such as Modula and Matrix, which were derived from those first
experiments but had greater appeal because they looked more familiar, to
provide an income. Remedy, too, which was philosophically the exact
opposite of Licko's early font designs, and offered no value other
than a stylistic one, became a huge commercial success.
As these experiments in typography and type design,
which were once considered somewhat innocent, seem to be taking hold,
serious questions are now being raised about the new design of the past ten
years. As the work has started appearing in the mainstream, it is often
discounted for showing up in diluted form and in inappropriate places.
When I first saw Henry Rollins in Fortune magazine advertising the
Apple's PowerBook, my first reaction was to think, Henry,
you're selling out! Henry Rollins probably epitomizes American Punk
music, or at least he used to. What's he doing advertising
PowerBooks? But then I thought, why not? The PowerBook is not a bad product
and the money he's earning probably goes right back into his
independent book publishing company. So why not? Henry's paid his
dues. For over 15 years, he's traveled around the world, sleeping in
vans and dirtbag motels, getting beer thrown at him and spit on by his
fans. I think he did the right thing. What else is Henry to do, wait for
the NEA to provide him with funds to finance his publishing? I think not.
Although the eventual commodification of these
ideological subcultural movements is usually seen as negative, they were,
of course, from the very beginning, a commodity to someone. The Sex Pistols
were initially an extension by which McLaren and his partner, the fashion
designer Vivienne Westwood, were able to package and show off their
So, too, Ray Gun. Although much is made of the current commodification of the
style," one could argue that Ray Gun was already the commodification of the formal experiments
done in typography at Cranbrook, CalArts and other places. Although Ray Gun positions itself as an
anti-establishment magazine with a street attitude, from the very beginning
it was financially backed and distributed first by Ingram and currently by
Time Warner, two of the largest magazine distributors in the U.S. And its
"attitude" can hardly be explained as having risen from the
streets. Carson, a college graduate and sociology teacher with many years
of design experience at mainstream lifestyle magazines, often collaborates
on Ray Gun with
graduate design students from Cranbrook, CalArts and Yale. Not exactly the
staff of Scratch and Sniff magazine. When it comes right down to it, no matter how
alternative or anti-design it might look, Ray
Gun is a corporate tool to help sell records,
and lots of 'em. So when this "anti-design" or "Ray Gun style" eventually
shows up in Pepsi Cola or Nike ads or the Time Warner Annual Report, which
it inevitably does, I don't see how that is any more or less
appropriate. Pepsi Cola and Nike, like Ray Gun, all sell products and all go to roughly the same kind of
audience. Does that particular design approach belong any more to Ray Gun than it does to Pepsi
or Nike? Or did it really only belong to the arts organizations Ed Fella
When Martin Fox, the publisher of Print magazine, wonders why America
doesn't have much of an avant garde, and goes on to ponder that
perhaps "it's because the avant garde is forever being coopted
by the mainstream culture," one could argue that the avant garde is
perhaps alive and well; it just happens to be selling merchandise worth
millions of dollars. Instead of always looking at it from the point of view
that mass consumption is a bad thing, and anything assisting it is guilty
by association, perhaps a bit of credit is due to the mainstream for taking
some risks, and to the avant garde for infiltrating mainstream culture.
What, otherwise, is the purpose of an avant garde, and what is expected of
mainstream culture if both are continually expected to play out their
stereotypical roles of fringe innovators and greedy but clueless copycats?
I'm not saying here that the avant garde exists simply to supply the
commercial world with the means to sell more products, but I do think it
can be beneficial for both to occasionally share ideologies.
That's why I get a great kick out of seeing Barry
Deck's typeface Template Gothic used in the Times Warner Annual
Report or Sue Laporte's typeface in a Nike ad, or Jeffery
Keedy's typeface in a Fox television commercial. Who's using
who. anyway? I'd like to believe that Def Jam's president Davis
Harleston is right when he says: "Why we feel lucky is because over
the last five or six years, the entry of Rap into more mainstream America,
or the crossing over of our kind of Hip-hop into the pop world, has really
been more about the pop world coming to us, and less about us going to
Barry Deck's typefaces were created autonomously,
the result of authentic human discovery and exercise, not as the extension
of some kind of marketing research. Ask Barry Deck why he designed these
fonts and he'll tell you that it was cheaper for him to draw his own
typefaces than to go out and buy them. Actually, you could say that here
human need and use was the motive, although the CalArts curriculum, which
greatly encouraged type design, should receive some credit as well. To say
that the work loses its original experimental or subversive qualities when
coopted by mainstream campaigns is perhaps infusing it with a bit too much
specific meaning in the first place. And to say that it is used everywhere
simply because it's currently the cool font is discounting the fact
that perhaps it has certain universal qualities that foster its widespread
use, which is usually seen as a great asset for a typeface.
Who Needs Another Typeface
When Emigre commits to releasing a font like Template
Gothic, we tend to not ask whether there's a need for it because,
obviously, in the world of type design, we have long ago moved from the
idea of addressing human needs to that of satisfying desires. There's
as little need for another revival of Bodoni as there is for a design like
However, we do feel a responsibility to produce a good
product, one that functions perfectly, that isn't wasteful, that
makes good use of resources and is reasonably priced. In regard to a
typeface, this means that it should have foreign accents resulting in over
250 characters. It should be constructed such that the fewest Bezier curve
segments are used, that there are no consecutive collinear straight line
segments, and that its endpoints are always placed at most horizontal or
vertical extremes. To discuss its form, however, is like discussing the
color of a brick. It gets rather subjective. What concerns us is that when
people use these bricks, they will work and won't crumble.
Although I've talked a great deal about how the
Macintosh has accommodated the independent manufacture and distribution of
typefaces, there are many products that can now be realized by
entrepreneurial individuals. For instance, Robin Kinross, by creating his
books on a Macintosh computer, was able to bypass traditional book
publishers. According to Kinross, most publishers felt his books
wouldn't appeal to a large enough audience, lacking the hundreds of
reproductions needed to turn these books into big sellers. Both Modern Typography and Fellow Readers are well-designed
books and a great read. But what makes them unique is that they were
self-published by Kinross. They stand as another great example of how
individuals become empowered when using the Macintosh computer and taking
matters in their own hands. One can pose the question, "What human
need and use is there for yet another book on design history or
criticism?" but that's not important. What is important is that
these books were published undiluted and untouched by the influence of a
major book publisher. Whether there's a need for them will be decided
in the marketplace. I hope someday to do an interview with Kinross for Emigre. I can't wait to find
out whether he's finding an audience for these books, and whether
he's making a profit. If not, I suggest that he invest a bit more
time and money in his public relations efforts.
A Selection of Essays from Emigre Magazine
By Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 11.
By Anne Burdick. Published in Emigre 24.
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Steven Heller
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with David Shields
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Edward Fella
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
An Interview with Mr. Keedy
By Michael Dooley. Published in Emigre 30.
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures
By Andrew Blauvelt. Published in Emigre 32.
Discovery by Design
By Zuzana Licko. Published in Emigre 32.
In and Around: Cultures of Design and the Design of Cultures
By Andrew Blauvelt. Published in Emigre 33.
An Interview with Rick Poynor
By Mr. Keedy. Published in Emigre 33.
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 34.
Copping an Attitude
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 38.
Graphic Design and the Next Big Thing
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 39.
That was then, and this is now: but what is next?
By Lorraine Wild. Published in Emigre 39.
Graphic Design in the Postmodern Era
By Mr. Keedy. Published in Emigre 47.
Skilling Saws and Absorbent Catalogues
By Kenneth FitzGerald. Published in Emigre 48.
First Things First Revisited
By Rick Poynor. Published in Emigre 51.
First Things First Manifesto 2000
Various authors. Published in Emigre 51.
By Jelly Helm. Published in Emigre 53.
The Emigre Legacy
By Rudy VanderLans. Published in Emigre 56.
By Chris Riley. Published in Emigre 59.