Rudy VanderLans was born in the Hauge, The Netherlands in 1955 and studied graphic design at the Royal College of Fine Arts. He moved to California from the in 1981 and studied photography at UC Berkeley, where he met the Czech-born designer Zuzana Licko. They married in 1983. In 1984 VandeLans launched Emigre magazine. VanderLans and Licko were some of the first designers to adopt the Macintosh computer as a tool. In addition to their quarterly magazine, Emigre creates and sells hundreds of digital typefaces. Nearly 20 years and 64 issues later, Emigre continues to fuel imaginations and inspire designers the world over
Can you please describe the process of beginning Emigre?
We were unhappy with our regular jobs, we saw an opportunity to start our own company, and ran with it. It was a tediously slow process that would make for some very boring reading when retold in detail. Let’s just say we were very naive, and we worked very long days. And ultimately it was all propelled to a higher level by our early adoption of the Macintosh computer as a design tool when it was first introduced. We were in the right place at the right time.
Why a magazine?
The magazine format offers everything a designer can wish for. A chance to mix text, image, headlines, and deal with sequencing of pages. And every time you’re done with one issue, you start afresh with the next one. Plus there’s an infrastructure in place to distribute it—magazine distributors, newsstands, special U.S. postal mailing rates—to print it, and to sell advertising. These infrastructures can also be very constricting, which is why most magazines look alike.
When Emigre started, there were only bitmapped fonts, FedEx didn’t exist, very few people had cell phones and even fewer had heard of the Internet. Talk about your evolving relationship to technology and reasons for continuing to publish.
That makes me feel old. But it’s true. When I started Emigre I was still pasting down text galleys with rubber cement. I had never used a computer in my life. Through happenstance we got involved and bought a 128k Mac when it was introduced. It came with something like a 16 page manual, of which you only needed to read eight pages in order to understand and use the machine. For a long time we were known as “computer designers.” “The New Primitives” we called ourselves. It was a great creative challenge to try and figure out how we could use this machine with all its shortcomings. There was such a resistance to the Macintosh when it first came out. Designers laughed at us for using it to do graphic design. Together with a small group of fellow believers, we were consistently one of the first to try out new things. We hooked up a video camera to our Mac to capture low resolution black and white still images, we made movies with the first Director software. We even sold fonts on line before the advent of the world wide web. We used a bulletin board software we called “Now Serving.” It allowed people to place an order for a font and then have it emailed it to their computer. At the time this was very revolutionary. But when you’re out on the edge like that, it’s a constant struggle to get things to work, and there are very few people who can tell you how to do it properly. So you run the risk of becoming too focused on technology, and design and ideas start to take a backseat. I remember shortly after PostScript was introduced, we found this guy who was able to hook up his Macintosh to a photo setter, allowing us for the first time ever to output high resolution fonts onto photographic paper. We’d have to drive over to San Francisco with our files, on floppy disks, and sit there for hours downloading this stuff, never knowing if it would work.
Today, I don’t have much patience for the technology. It’s become impenetrable and expensive. In my own work the computer has definitely taken a back seat. I am no longer chasing the latest gadgets and software.
In what other ways has Emigre changed over the course if its history?
I think I’m too close to answer that question properly. When you’re involved in something like this on a day to day basis you don’t notice change. But if I compare Emigre in 1985 with Emigre in 2003, the changes that stand out are: Our income is much higher than 18 years ago, but so are our expenses; we have over 300 fonts in our library, when we started there were only five; and initially, our fonts were considered “garbage” and marginalized, now they’re being bought, copied, pirated and used daily. They have completely saturated the mainstream.
Talk about the dynamic of working with your spouse.
We get along very well. We work at home, so our daily routine is a healthy mix of work, leisure, and domestic chores that all fuse together seamlessly without a set schedule. We may find ourselves talking about Bezier curves, employment taxes, and what to pick up at the supermarket all within one conversation.
How does the creation of type and editorial design intersect during your creative process?
Zuzana concentrates primarily on type design and production, and I do all the magazine, catalog, ad design, and production. We both write about our respective disciplines, but we never sit around a table and brainstorm. For the most part we work separately. As much as we enjoy the process of designing, it’s never easy, and it still requires a lot of hard work and concentration. So we sit in front of our respective computers, for hours, just fiddling endlessly, perhaps forcing the issue at times. And not until there’s something really concrete to show, do we comment on each other’s work. But that moment when you actually create something out of nothing, that always happens in complete seclusion. So there’s not much intersecting going on. We do cook dinner together.
The catalog has evolved dramatically over the years; beyond the magazine and fonts to become a vehicle for the distribution of artist projects, books, music, and many other things. Do you see Emigre in a curatorial role?
I don’t think about it in those terms. Sometimes we come across projects that appeal to us, that we feel are created with a certain level of integrity and originality and intelligence and that we think may add something positive to this world, so we get involved either as a distributor, or publisher, or both.
Do you see a direct relationship of fostering creative development of others by inclusion and involvement in the magazine?
Yes, but it’s a two way street. We help them, they help us. By publishing the work of others we add dimensions to our output that we wish we were capable of ourselves. By collaborating with others, we hope to add depth to our output. Without those contributions, we would not be where we are now.
Did you consider a career in design?
Yes, and I started very young. When I was about 17 I knew I wanted to be an illustrator. But it wasn’t offered as a course at the local art school, so I picked graphic design, and instantly liked it. I had some great teachers; the famous Dutch type designer Gerrit Noordzij, and book designer Jacques Jansen, to name two, opened up a world for me I didn’t know existed. Teachers can make all the difference in that respect. Since then I’ve done just about anything within the field of graphic design; I’ve worked at a number of corporate identity studios, a major newspaper, a company specializing in trade book design, I’ve worked for ad agencies, freelanced as an illustrator, photographer, graphic designer. You name it, and I’ve done it.
What is influential to you these days in terms of your continuing education?
Since school I have expanded into many other disciplines. After design school I studied photography for two years at UC Berkeley. Then I became involved with the computer, which was quite a learning experience. I became involved with editing a magazine, which lead me to conducting interviews and then later to writing about design—although I don’t consider myself to be a writer by any means, I enjoy doing it. Growing a business was quite a learning experience, which often influences my creative work. Trying out new avenues, new disciplines, is my continuing education.
What are your strategies for staying creatively inspired?
Strategies is a big word. I must have been genetically predisposed to become a visual artist of some sort. I’ve always enjoyed doing creative work. So to be creatively inspired is not a strategy, it’s simply what I enjoy doing the most. It’s a life style. It comes easily to me. If you have to force creativity, or strategize, you’re probably in the wrong line of work. On the other hand, graphic design, or photography, or any creative activity, is like anything; the more you do it, the better you get at it. So I just work and work and work at it.
How important is giving back to your community? Do you do projects for local/national/international nonprofits? What are your responsibilities as a owner of a media outlet?
It’s very important to give back to your community, but doing projects for nonprofits is not the only way to do this. You can be of great service to society at large if you simply consider the impact that your daily actions have on society and the environment, and act accordingly. For instance, as a graphic designer you can align yourself with clients that contribute in a positive way. And those are not exclusively nonprofits. If it wasn’t for the fact that there are so many exploitative, wasteful, and obscenely unscrupulous businesses, there would hardly be a need for nonprofits since they usually exist to right the many wrongs created by the aforementioned businesses.
Also, Emigre is not a service oriented business. We create our own products. So one of our responsibilities lie in the area of how we use resources. I am proud of the fact that our catalogs and magazines are often printed on paper with very high recycled content and are often processed chlorine free, which is much more expensive than non-recycled paper. Instead of giving money to, let’s say, Earth First!, or doing pro bono work for them, this is a more direct way to support their causes.
We also feel a certain responsibility towards the design community that we are a part of. We take our work seriously. We write about design, about the process, about its effect on our culture, and we critique it. With Emigre magazine we have tried to provide a platform for people to discuss graphic design in the widest sense of the word. I think it is healthy for graphic design to have this constant probe going on. To look at what motivates designers. To question the work. We can all learn from each other. And we’re proud of contributing to that in a small way.
Originally published in the book 100 Habits.