Why Emigre mattered – and still matters

Massimo Vignelli once called it a “factory of garbage” but for 20 years Emigre magazine provided a vital forum for fierce debate about the future of graphic design. As the first UK exhibition about the title opens, Rick Poynor looks at its enduring influence

It was a sad day for readers when Emigre ceased publication in 2005. For 19 years the magazine edited and designed by Rudy VanderLans in California had been at the heart of discussion about graphic design. Anyone who didn’t bother to look at – and read – the large-format pages during the crucial years of the late 1980s to the mid-1990s had no idea what was really going on. When Massimo Vignelli, no less, made his famous attack on Emigre in 1991, calling it a “factory of garbage”, “an aberration of culture” and even a “national calamity”, it was confirmation that Emigre was making an unignorable impact on traditional conceptions of graphic design, whether classical or modernist. It was highly original, it was bursting with ideas and, for some, it was deeply unsettling.

Cover of Emigre 11, ‘Ambition/fear’, 1989

That was a long time ago, though, and there is a generation of designers who have never seen a copy of Emigre as it was in its heyday. The kind of expressive postmodern design that Emigre championed went out of fashion (as design styles always do) and time had to pass before Emigre could be seen again for what it was – a paragon of critically adventurous design publishing. An exhibition I have co-curated with Francisca Monteiro in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading, the first in Britain to be devoted to Emigre, provides an opportunity to view copies of the magazine and explore its highly influential contribution to graphic design.

Emigre was significant – and still matters – for a number of reasons. First, because it was an exceptionally successful example of self-publishing. In recent years, propelled by new models of digital promotion and distribution, self-publishing has enjoyed a resurgence, although it has always been a possibility. The activity is particularly attractive to artists and designers, who have the added advantage of fully understanding the mechanisms of design, production and publishing. Founded in 1984 by VanderLans, a Dutch émigré and two fellow countrymen, Emigre began its life as a cultural tabloid, publishing creative writing, art and photography. Its striking page design, using early digital typefaces designed by VanderLans’s partner Zuzana Licko (a Czech-born émigré herself), almost immediately brought it to the attention of graphic designers.

‘A conversation with Edward Fella and Mr Keedy’ in Emigre 17, ‘Wise guys’, 1991 Interview and page design by Jeffery Keedy.

By 1988, VanderLans was sole editor and Emigre began its focus on design with an issue about the 4AD record label in Wandsworth, where Vaughan Oliver was in-house designer – music has always been a central interest for VanderLans. At this stage, Emigre mainly published interviews and VanderLans rapidly emerged as one of the most penetrating investigators working in graphic design (anyone who wants to know how to conduct probing design interviews should study his Q&As with Jeffery Keedy, Barry Deck, Ian Anderson of The Designers Republic, and others). VanderLans took full advantage of the large-format pages to experiment with layout, often running texts in parallel in strikingly original ways. Contrary to what his critics said, these spreads were both exciting to read and, usually, perfectly readable.

The magazine became an unmissable manifesto for new approaches to design and there is no graphic design publication today operating with this kind of visual freedom, yet Emigre was never arbitrary or chaotic.

The debate about legibility was key for Emigre in those years. Emigre Graphics, VanderLans and Licko’s company, was both publisher and type foundry and the typefaces they released – Licko’s Matrix, Deck’s Template Gothic, Keedy’s Keedy Sans and Mason by Jonathan Barnbrook – came to define their era. Design magazines published by the trade press tend to follow the relatively sober conventions of journalistic editorial design, but Emigre was free to go in any design direction VanderLans and his contributors deemed necessary. Its pages were a hugely inventive and hyperactively changing demonstration of what it talked about, their form and content inseparable. The magazine became an unmissable manifesto for new approaches to design and there is no graphic design publication today operating with this kind of visual freedom, yet Emigre was never arbitrary or chaotic. Whether they succeeded or occasionally fell short, the experiments with quirky typefaces, intricate page structures and alternative reading paths were undertaken with a guiding sense of purpose.

Interviews with April Greiman and Glenn Suokko in Emigre 11, ‘Ambition/fear’, 1989. The early issues of Emigre coincided with the adoption of Macintosh computers by graphic designers. Emigre 11 is devoted to a series of interviews with designers about the new tool. The magazine’s pages often offered multiple reading paths.

With issue 33, in 1995, Emigre changed direction, reducing the pages to a more regular size. Initially, this seemed like a retrograde step (though the magazine had, in truth, thoroughly explored the oversized page). VanderLans’ purpose soon became clear. Emigre continued to publish interviews, but its focus shifted to critical essays by regular contributors such as Andrew Blauvelt and Keedy, whose Zombie Modernism broadside in issue 34 is a classic design polemic – try finding an essay half as cantankerous and incisively focused on a target today. Emigre followed this with two issues titled Mouthpiece, guest edited by Anne Burdick, which investigated the relationship of writing and design by pairing writers and designers, or in some cases encouraging writers to design their own pages. As our exhibition seeks to show, while VanderLans was a ‘graphic author’ who used design as a vehicle for personal inquiry, he was also a great enabler of other authorially minded graphic designers. Emigre became their chosen platform.

At the time it was easy to take Emigre’s presence for granted – by the end of the 1990s it had been appearing for 15 years. Graphic design had been through a period of rampant technological change. There was a great deal to talk about, so why wouldn’t there be a publication like Emigre to reflect this? Yet Emigre existed for so long primarily thanks to the curiosity, dedication and multiple talents of VanderLans. While Licko chose to stay in the background when it came to Emigre’s editorial direction, it would nevertheless have been an entirely different publication, and much less engrossing, without the closely intertwined relationship of the magazine and the Emigre type foundry she led.

Matrix by Zuzana Licko in Emigre type catalogue, 1989

That perfect confluence of factors made Emigre a very hard act to follow. The magazine came to an end at a time when design blogs such as Speak Up and Design Observer were on the rise. Ardent discussion about graphic design was still happening in 2005, but it was happening online. (Emigre’s copious printed pages of letters now look like a dry run for blog comments to come.) In its final issues, Emigre became a booklike journal, co-published with Princeton Architectural Press, and critical writing was now unambiguously its central concern. These were fine issues in their own right, but this phase couldn’t help feeling like a winding down to anyone who relished the earlier fusion of writing and experimental design. VanderLans seemed to have no appetite for finding a way to translate Emigre into a comparable online experience, though after two decades at the forefront of design publishing – an exceptional feat – why should he?

Since Emigre’s demise there have been periodic calls for more and better design writing. My impression now is that many designers feel they can get along fine without this kind of public critical thinking. After the highs of critical debate in the 1990s, that is quite a comedown. Today, designers who want to attract attention or fire off an opinion can use social media just like anyone else. This ‘no gatekeepers’ access to publicity might be more democratic, but it leaves would-be publishers operating in a much reduced and now, for many, superfluous space. When social media took hold, even the design blogs began to whither.

Emigre 15, ‘Do you read me?’, 1990. This issue, focused on new typefaces and legibility, features typeface designs and interviews with Peter Mertens, Zuzana Licko, John Downer, Jeffery Keedy and Barry Deck, among others.

The absence of a thriving design debate cannot fail to have an impact on how graphic design is conceived. Surely designers who are serious about their practice can appreciate the need for an independent critical discourse to set out ideas and test them? Anyone who cares about these issues, or wonders what a culture of impassioned design debate once looked like, or wants to start a publication, should make a beeline for Emigre. It still has plenty to teach us.

Rick Poynor is Professor of Design and Visual Culture at the University of Reading.

Emigre magazine: design, discourse and authorship runs until July 14, 2017 (weekdays only, except for Saturday, June 17) in the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading. Selected essays from Emigre can be found here

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