Can the Rule-Breaking Font Designers of Three Decades Ago Still Break Rules?

Emigre Fonts, the cutting-edge type creators of the Macintosh revolution, have become elder statesmen in a now-crowded field.

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George Orwell's prophecies aside, 1984 wasn't such a bad year. It was when Apple released—with the help of an Orwellian TV commercial—the Macintosh computer, and also the year when Emigre Graphics, destined to become Emigre Fonts, launched. The Macintosh would come to rule designers' lives, and Emigre, through its pioneering digital typefaces and iconoclastic magazine Émigré, would come to rule the conversation those designers would have about the future of the medium.

"Most designers were telling us the Macintosh was a fad without any use for serious graphic design," co-founder Rudy Vanderlans says. "So at the time we felt very isolated within the design community. We weren't taken seriously at all. We enjoyed the challenge and opportunities this tool offered, but we had no idea how big it would become and that it would solidify our place within it."

Vanderlans admits he is still very impressed—"jealous even"—by the typefaces produced by young designers these days.

Twenty-eight years later, Vanderlans and Zuzana Licko, the husband and wife team that started Emigre and designed or promoted many of the emblematic digital fonts used on computers and in print then and now, continue refining old faces and conceiving new ones. But they have more competition than ever, and it's not always easy for a once-pathbreaking design firm to remain pathbreaking after nearly three decades.

Emigre magazine, each issue of which looked radically different from the last, introduced a fanatical new generation of designers to alternative ways of making typography using the Mac—which drove the older, rational-modernist generation nuts. But in 2005 the magazine ceased publishing, in large part because of the tremendous expense: It had been financed by type sales, which were heavily dependent on the state of the economy at any given time. But Vanderlans says there were other reasons to discontinue Emigre: "The world of graphic design was changing, the focus became the Internet and blogs, and I felt disconnected from much of it. It was too geeky for me."

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Although some of the articles and many of the letters to Emigre would later influence certain design blogs, Vanderlans felt "the design conversations online were all very instant and short, like snapshots. I like long, drawn-out essays. I like to think about things. I need time to reflect. So I lost my appetite for design discourse and started focusing entirely on our typefaces and the design of our type specimens."

Emigre Fonts once specialized in part in eccentric, novelty display types, but at a certain point in the mid-2000s, that changed. "When everybody seemed to have caught the type design bug, there was such a glut of novelty fonts being released, we realized we had to focus elsewhere," Vanderlans says. "It was also a part of growing up. We wanted to continue to challenge ourselves in our work. Designing text fonts [as opposed to headline or title fonts] requires a different set of skills. It also required a different type of specimen booklets to be designed, far more systematic and rational, and far less expressive."

The most popular Emigre font is Mrs Eaves (and Mr Eaves), a continually expanding family of faces, now including the recent release of Mr Eaves XL Sans and Modern Narrow. The marketplace seems to demand new faces, yet Vanderlans says the firm tries to resist being overly motivated by financial concerns. "We always like to think we're independent from the marketplace, it's the artist in us," he says. "But when our customers drop hints about what they would like to see, we listen. Mrs Eaves became very popular, and people started to ask for additional weights and variations. Zuzana was always interested in exploring the idea of creating a sans serif based on the structure of Mrs Eaves serif. So she spent the past three years drawing variations on Mrs Eaves resulting in a family of 96 related fonts, including 16 serif styles and 80 sans styles."

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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