Can you be a part of design’s history and its future as well? Yes.
In the early days of the Macintosh computer and DTP software, Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans were young designers using and playing with the limitations of these then-new tools. They created Emigre, a design company, magazine and digital foundry in 1984, and they have been making thought-provoking contributions to the fields of visual communication and graphic culture ever since. They have released many emblematic typefaces, such as the Lo-Res family (Licko, 1985, 2001), Variex (Licko & VanderLans, 1988), Mrs Eaves(Licko, 1996) and Matrix (Licko, 1986), all promoted through countless print and online specimens. Though the magazine ceased publication in 2005 after seventy issues, the foundry continues to develop new projects and to cultivate its wide-ranging catalog. Emigre’s recent arrival at Fontstand was a rare opportunity to question VanderLans at length about the company’s legacy and future: after more than three decades of activity, how does he see Emigre in 2016? And how does he feel about the aging of its body of work?
“It’s a timely question because I’m currently going through the entire Emigre library, making new specimen images of each font family for our new resellers. So I get to play around with each font once again and try to show off their best features. They all have unique idiosyncrasies. Some require a little more care than others to make them shine. But I’m proud of our library. There’s not a font I would remove. They’re all like snapshots. Some of the Emigre fonts are tied to the period in which they were designed, like our low-resolution fonts. Some actually came to define their era like Template Gothic [designed by Barry Deck, released in 1990], and possibly will always be associated with that time. But that’s what I love about them. That’s part of their character. Each of our fonts exudes a certain quality that is either tied to the technology of the time, the level of craftsmanship of the designer, or the prevailing esthetic preferences when they were released. It was never our intention to create neutral, timeless typefaces, if that’s even possible. We’ll leave that to others.”
“Today, we’re focused mostly on marketing and promoting our current library, finding more outlets to reach new markets, and trying out new licensing models, such as the rental service that Fontstand offers. We have a few new designs in production, but we’re in no rush to keep expanding our library, definitely not at the pace we used to. With all the new typefaces being designed today, it’s become more and more difficult to recoup the investment of releasing a new typeface. So we’ve turned our attention to promoting and exhibiting our existing fonts by creating different contexts and showing our fonts in a new light. It’s a great typographic challenge to use fonts with a history in new, unexpected ways. You can see how we’ve done this in our recent printed type specimens such as the ‘Historia’, ‘The Collection’ and ‘Sampler’ booklets.”
“Also, we’re no longer seeking out the fonts of outside designers. When we started, we were one of the few outlets for new digital type designs, and we were deluged with submissions from designers around the world. We were also one of the first foundries to offer online type sales, and we aggressively promoted our typefaces through Emigre magazine and our type posters and specimens. So designers were eager to release their fonts through Emigre. But now, it’s much easier to either launch your own website to sell your type directly, or use one of the many type distribution channels available.”
“In terms of new typeface designs, we believe we’ve reached a point that we refer to as ‘Infill-ism’, where designers are simply filling in the few remaining options left. Which begs the question, how many more Helvetica or Futura inspired designs do we really need? We’re less interested in those pursuits.”
“We coined this term ‘Infill-ism’ because it’s something that we’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s easy to imagine that with each addition, there are fewer type design options left to explore, since type design is restricted by the structure of the alphabetic characters. And, although the options are technically infinite, it becomes increasingly difficult to see the differences between designs. We’re left with filling in the gaps, and the gaps are getting smaller and smaller. We’re starting to question the point of adding one more variation. We think it’s a healthy thing to constantly ask yourself whether what you do has value, not just commercially, but also culturally, technically and artistically. It’s just a conversation we’re having with ourselves. It gets us out of a rut to explore other venues. For instance, Zuzana’s interests are steadily moving towards creating textures and patterns, and we’re not even sure if we’ll release these commercially as fonts. Currently, she’s using font software to create sketches for her ceramic sculptures, which are made from modular elements. Each sculpture has a variety of shapes that can be combined to make different sculptures. The font software helps her go through all the possible variations. She’s also been working on a pattern font tentatively called Tangly, that she envisions using for textile prints. But the idea is to sell the textiles, not the fonts. My friend Jeffery Keedy, who designed Keedy Sans, has been working for years on a series of fonts that he uses in his own design projects. It gives his typographic output a very unique look that you’ll never see anywhere else because the fonts are not available commercially. He’s always talking about setting up a website and selling his fonts. I always tell him not to do it. Keep the fonts for yourself. It’s a wonderful way to set your work apart from the masses.”
Type designers will be type designers, no matter which the right way to share and sell their fonts (or not) might be, always inspired by the work of precursors and peers, challenged by the limits of technology, stimulated by the social context of their times, eager to be original. The typefaces of Emigre are still relevant in many aspects today, as references and as tools for a new generation.