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In Conversation with Emigre

Questions: Sarah Dougher and Joshua Berger
Answers: Rudy Vanderlans

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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.

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