Rick Poynor | Essays

Emigre: An Ending

Early issues of Emigre. Source: designishistory.com

So it's over. One of the great — as in all-time great — design publications has come to a close. Issue 69 of Emigre will be the last. Emigre the type foundry will live on, but founder, editor and designer Rudy VanderLans has commissioned his last article, conducted and transcribed his last interview, and composed his final message to his readers.

And what a treat this message is. VanderLans offers us 69 "short stories", one for each issue, tracing the development of the magazine from its early days as a "culturetab" through to the final twice-yearly, book-sized issues co-published with Princeton Architectural Press. For admirers of VanderLans' underrated writing, it is hard to imagine a better send-off. There is a mine of information here that will be an essential first stop for anyone exploring the history of Emigre in future. As a writer, VanderLans has always managed to sound both unassuming and wise. He has exceptionally fine judgement and his prose is highly engaging without being ingratiating or trying to sound like a stand-up guy. He has an ability to ask exactly the right questions that many a full-time journalist might envy.

For me, like many others galvanised by graphic design during Emigre's heyday, the magazine was the most consistently interesting design publication produced anywhere by anyone. By 1990, it was one of those magazines you simply had to get hold of and read straight away — back then, in London, that meant a visit to Virgin Records in Oxford Street, of all the unlikely places. VanderLans made no claim to be a journalist, but his ability to focus, like a heat-seeking news missile, on the most significant work, people and ideas was almost uncanny. (Think of all the self-initiated zines and visual culture mags out there and how wide of the mark most of them are, how inessential.) VanderLans would breezily disregard any notion of editorial balance and devote great chunks of an issue, whole issues even, to people barely out of design school, if he believed in the work. By focusing on these subjects, he made them seem important. He brought tremendous confidence and certainty in his own instincts and tastes to everything he did. VanderLans and his rule-bending, postmodernism-embracing, design establishment-snubbing readers would never have used the term, but Emigre radiated authority.

The large-format issues were like no design publication ever seen before. VanderLans conducted long interviews in which he grilled some of the most inventive designers of the day — Vaughan Oliver, Jeffery Keedy, Edward Fella, P. Scott Makela, Designers Republic, David Carson — about every facet of their work. He usually did it first and he often did it best. His page designs were exemplary demonstrations of the new digital design aesthetic, though the inner classicist was never far below the surface, and he lab-tested controversial digital typefaces by his partner Zuzana Licko and other designers championed by Emigre Graphics. As printed objects, these issues are collectors' items now. As documents, they are essential viewing and reading for anyone who wants to understand how we got to where we are today in graphic design. Buy them while you can. Too bad that some design school libraries failed to subscribe to Emigre while they had the chance, depriving later generations of students of a vital resource.

The same goes for the smaller-format issues introduced in 1995. The writing that VanderLans published over the next few years by designers and design educators such as Jeffery Keedy, Andrew Blauvelt, Lorraine Wild and Kenneth FitzGerald did much to set the intellectual pace in design criticism and anyone concerned with such matters should consult back issues from this period. Sometimes the essays became hopelessly self-indulgent and you wanted to shake the writer and yell "get a grip", but you had to admire VanderLans' willingness to take a chance on people and it paid off with pieces that could never have appeared anywhere else. Keedy stands out as the quintessential Emigre insider: knowledgeable, dedicated and waspish; part sensitive type scholar, part hatchet man; a postmodern proselytiser who was always ready to turn a jet of withering scorn on modernist backsliders. (He suspected I was one of them, but Mr K, I was a swing-several-ways pluralist all along.) The feeling that something was actually at stake made it compelling and the feuds were part of the fun. Vignelli calls Emigre a factory of garbage! Heller laments the sheer ugliness of it all in Eye! Emigre retaliates with a series of interviews with Heller and the offended parties! Blauvelt gives Heller a good kicking to make sure the job is well and truly done! Kinross fires off a 32-page pamphlet setting everyone straight! Keedy names and shames the zombie modernists (again)!

It has been obvious since the short-lived switch in 2001 to CDs in wallets that Emigre was running out of steam. VanderLans appeared to have lost his earlier zest for design discussion. The paperbacks were a return to something resembling the old form, though minus the visual thrill, but as he notes with his customary frankness in the last issue, sales fell. A lot of the writing seemed to repeat what had already been said, or to sound a note of dismay for the supposed demise of discourse. In the background, too, as VanderLans makes clear, was the rise of the blogs. Emigre used to receive a remarkable quantity of impassioned mail and he could sometimes fill half an issue with it. But when it comes to feedback, nothing can match the speed and ease of the comment box and the chance to interact.

Design blogs generate a lot of noise and they sure do love their own hype, but nothing produced in this area has so far equalled the concentrated documentary achievement and design culture transforming impact of Emigre and if you doubt this, just go and look at the magazine. Emigre had a clearly defined purpose. It involved contributions by many talented people, but the conduit for all this fervour and brain power was provided by one unusually astute editor. Emigre emerged at a time when technology was changing design forever and the magazine sizzled with this energy and excitement. Nothing so momentous or contentious is happening in graphic design today. Blogs, on the other hand, lack the focus of an overriding design mission. They are places for chatter. They are about anything, everything and often about nothing of any great consequence. No one, so far, has used the medium to stake out an urgent critical position comparable to Keedy's or Blauvelt's in the pages of Emigre in the 1990s. Nor have blogs proved to be the medium for exploring new design aesthetics. In Emigre, form itself became a means of debate. What the magazine said was inseparable from how it looked.

Emigre is somewhat neglected now. It has fallen out of fashion as it was bound to and it is too close to view it with total clarity. In time, the magazine and the fertile, idea-packed design culture it represented will be studied with the kind of attention given to 1920s modernism and it will be seen for what it was — one of the watershed contributions to 20th-century typography and graphic design.

When this essay was first posted, a note at the end announced that I was leaving Design Observer, hence some of the comments below. I later resumed writing for the site and removed this note.

Posted in: Media, Technology, Theory + Criticism

Comments [29]

Rick, thanks for all of your insightful writing on Design Observer. I have no doubt your contributions will be missed.
Drew Davies

It's sad that i never knew what Emigre was to really appreciate the fact that it was there. But i think i've caught on a little since then. I'm still realitively new to design. While my ideas are still developing, my tastes in editorial writing never waiver. I'll have to pick up a few issues to see what all the fuss is about! Nice blogging. Though wouldn't you agree that DO, since it's Launch, has done a respetable job at introducing thousands of people to new ways of thinking as far as Graphic Design is concerned? I mean, you may not be inventing the techniques, but you're all certainly using the power of blogging about them to your advantage and i think you ought to give yourself my credit.

yes, thanks rick, the first time i really became aware of you was a few years ago while in a tomato workshop at risd. we had read some comments of yours regarding graduate design programs, I retailiated fiercly, {a bit too fiercly!} and I have been a fan ever since.
susie nielsen

It's sad to see you go, we'll miss your wonderful and insightful writing. Do you plan on still having your writing showcased elsewhere? Thanks for everything.

RIP Emigre. Rick, thank you for your insightful posts. As DC asks, can we find your writing elsewhere now?
Jon Hill

Does anyone know who designed the cover of issue 69?

Recently, I had the chance to have lunch with Mr. VanderLans when he visited Old Dominion University. He was happy with the way things are "ending". As he spoke of Emigre Magazine, he seemed content with what it had accomplished and said it was time to end it. The time was right.

I had only known of Emigre for about a year, but I couldn't get enough of it. It was so different and actually practiced what it preached. I could write for hours, but I'll stop now.

So I say "Thank you Rudy." Even though you may not remember me. You have inspired myself and others to push and question design.

As for Mr. Poyner, there are some people that write about design, and then there are people that write about design well. Everyone of your writings has always been insightful enough to educate, but down-to-earth enough to be understood and processed. Thank you very much. I look forward to your next writing.
Derek Munn

Rick, you are right to praise Rudy VanderLans' writing on design. His perceptive and original views, infused with the sensibility of the outsider, make him an important, if undervalued voice in design writing. It's also worth drawing attention to his non-design writing. The three books he wrote on a trio of maverick musicians (Captain Beefheart, Gram Parsons and Van Dyke Parks), and their relationship to the Southern California landscape that VanderLans loves so much, are wonderfully elegiac accounts of journeys into a visionary terrain.

VanderLans is as good a photographer as he is writer and designer. The Beehfheart book Cucamonga, is especially good in this respect, and for the cunning literary sleight of hand that VanderLans pulls on the reader. It caught me out when I reviewed it in a British music paper.

Also, am I alone in thinking we haven't heard the last of Emigre as a journal of visual culture? I have a feeling that VanderLans' editorial/curatorial instincts run too deep to let Emigre vanish forever.
Adrian Shaughnessy

The end of Emigré actually makes me feel old... at the age of 30. As a young, semi-aspiring, semi-design student, it was the first real exposure I had to design. Before I even knew what "design" was- as a major, or as a profession- something about those issues captivated me and kept me always checking for more. I've recently gone back over my collection and replaced via Ebay the few issues I didn't save, partly as a nod to my own beginnings as a designer, but also because even now the design and content is inspiring and relevant. At least I can start telling "back in my day..." stories, sooner than I expected.

Rudy, thanks for your unquestionable contributions to the arts and especially the design industry. I was introduced to Emigre by Liz Charman while attending Herron School of Art in 1993. From that point on design possibilities became real to me. Until this day I look at your type and visual compositions. When you mentioned to me, a few months ago, that Emigre was on its last issue I was saddened. I was also looking forward to the collaboration, I talk to you about, before Emigre's final vow.

Much success and enjoy a lengthy vacation. You have earned it!
Samuel E. Vazquez/S Eri Danois

One of the saddest but greatest part of life is moving on, especially in the field of Graphic Design. I've enjoyed and learned a lot in reading your insightful writings. I wish you to continue your writing rick, even though not here.

Rudy's one of my g.design heroes.

Actually, no, Poynor, in two years you seem to have learned nothing whatsoever about Weblogs, going so far as to include, in your swan song published in a specifically focused Weblog, a claim that blogs are "about anything, everything and often about nothing of any great consequence." If we can get past the contradiction for a moment, have you forgotten, in your writing here, that you were one of the writers here? I guess that makes it your fault.

Really, I think you just don't like anything electronic. Design "criticism" isn't worth its weight unless it actually has a weight, i.e., is published in print (preferably in Print).

I wonder who will miss you.
Joe Clark

I will miss Rick Poynor

I miss Art Chantry.

Whether Rick has properly serviced your graphic design appetite is certainly post-worthy. What is not, however, is Eye magazine, perhaps the best forum for intellectual debate in our profession. Why cut him down? Cut the guy some slacks! What have you done for us lately?
felix sockwell

Rick: How much of your criticism of design blogs includes DO itself?

I have some issues with what you've said, but it's important to know what you're saying it about. As example: Not even going to far as to ask for exploration of new aesthetics, in the past I questioned the canned layout used for DO, and consider the response just barely short a cop out, particularly(in my view) from designers who seem to work primarily in print.

It is also now almost a year since that hint at considering a redesign, so maybe an update on that front is in order? At the very least a consideration of changing the text size people keep crabbing about?

I like the bland design. It's like comfort food in a world where everyone else is trying to be a gourmet (and not succeeding). I like progressively pushing that big capital A on my toolbar as the evening wears on and my eyes tire. I like the grey background, the sparing use of color in the logo - its subtle use in the text on the left. I appreciate the contrast of the images against the grey, the yellow highlighted text on the right side of the page, the easy navigation, and the fact that the contributers are vetted and the commentators are "below the line". I like DO. I liked Mr. Poyner's contributions even when I did not always agree with them precisely because they were considered, based in fact and observation, steeped in context, and coherent. Perhaps Poyner's point is that much of the chat on blogs is "about anything, everything and often about nothing of any great consequence." I get this point and agree. Chat is exhausting and I appreciate that chat and the chatnation are not the point of DO.
Bernard Pez

At the risk of going back on topic, I further Rick and Adrian's emphasis on Rudy's writing, what should always be mentioned far ahead of the variable efforts of some of Emigre's contributors. And, though unfortunately rare—"Discovery by Design"—Zuzana Licko's writing deserves note also.

Coming from the other side, I want to put the Word in for Rudy's editing skill in shaping the articles. My opinions are my own but whatever measure of lucidity and engagement my essays had was due in great part to Rudy's insightful and patient comments on my drafts. (And, though we had no direct contact, I owe additional thanks to Alice Polesky.)

I never aspired (and still don't) to being a "design critic." It was just great to work with Rudy.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Emigre was great. But maybe print is now offically dead?
Kate Jobas

I've just reread that and tried to think of an answer.

Maybe blogs will ultimately replace Emigre, Eye, Campaign, Design Week etc etc?

I always read this one for what it's worth. http://noisydecentgraphics.typepad.com/
Kate Jobas

Rick. Sorry to see you go. I always checked the top to see if it was you who wrote it and read every word. Part of th eallure of the early Emigre - both large and smaller format - were their pull as collectable, and always boundary pushing graphics. At a certain point, the type catalog and the magazine were resembling each other too closely (an aside, wasn't there an issue that was a type catalog, or included it, much to the consternation of the readers... it must be this one...). Once it became glossy and text only, it wasn't as fun to read... I'll certainly miss it.

Without getting too nostalgic, the value of blog publishing reminds me of the era when I discovered emigre as a student. I photocopied every issue I could get from the school library as it was not available for purchase where I lived. It seemed at the time, every established graphic "arts" magazine was trying to reaffirm their position of importance with declarations of legibility and business sense while emigre went off with explorations that the other magazines had no idea about. Now as time has passed, those same magazines are the first to celebrate emigre's achievements. The same argument could almost be said about people questioning the value of blogs now. The only difference is that blog "editors" tend to fold soon as they get a chance to publish on paper as opposed to building on the foundation of others. That's more of a shame then emigre saying fini.
Michael Surtees

Thank you and thank you to Emigré and Rick respectively.

R.I.P. O.D.B
R.I.P. Emigre
R.I.P. Rick P (at least for D.O.)

Rick, thanks for the great work over the last years. I guess my only contact in the future will have to be from afar, or through your windows. Or, as my therapist might suggest: anxiously await a new book from you.
Andrew P

I concur with Felix. The only thing that keeps me from being despondent about the end of Emigre is the fact that EYE magazine is still being published. A finer magazine about graphic design you will find nowhere.

Thanks Rick, and thanks Rudy.
Brad Brooks

thank vanderlans' Emigre for exposing me to the works and writings of

allen hori
ed fella
jeff keedy
martin venezky
elliot earls
p scott makela
anne burdick
gail swanlund
barry deck
denise gonzales crisp
michael worthington
louise sandhaus
lorraine wild
david carson
stephen farrell
peter maybury


(and thank poynor's typography nows for introducing me to

why not associates
studio dumbar
jonathan barnbrook
phil baines

vanderlans (and poynor) help set the tone of what i consider the most interesting graphic design for the 90s if not the century.

now with Emigre gone, i guess it's the closing of the post modern age of graphic design. or at least the golden age of post modernism, back when there seemed to be a verve of enthusiastic energy all directed towards some focus.

thanks to Emigre's editorial and design vision, i felt like i had a gist of what was going on. an anchor to ground my design ideas. a lighthouse directing my ship towards a dock. now with dot-dot-dot-eye not so much. but i guess that makes sense. who knows what's going on today... complex simplicity... decorational... no more rules... ftf didn't stick, i need to come up with my own manifesto... i guess we are moving on... naw, i can stick to layered legibility defying type gymnastics like vignelli can stick to bodoni & helvetica on a grid... onto the silver age of post modernism i go...

i will miss Emigre for that concentrated taste of design energy it gave me.
i look forward to future vanderlans (and poynor) projects.

Goodbye, Emigre magazine! You'll be missed. Thanks for introducing me to some great typographic work and design writing over the years.

Rick, sorry to see you leave the pages of Design Observer. I'll keep looking forward to your writings elsewhere. Best of luck!
Ricardo Cordoba

Missing emigré already
André Thijssen

You can check out my own paean to Emigre Magazine here » Long Live Emigre! The Magazine "Emigre" Is Dead!
Matt // Le Blog Exuberance

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