Wisdom from The End of Emigre Magazine

The EndThough I’d been less interested in Emigré since it changed formats and turned into what I might consider a “design theory book”(mostly a bunch of high-falootin’ words — not pictures! — about visual forms), I decided it might be worth my while to order the final issue of the magazine. After all, it’d always been somewhat inspirational and aloof in the design space. And as a font geek, I really appreciated their many contributions to the typographic world.

So I’m reading through the final issue, which is essentially made up of 69 short stories (not love songs) by the editor, Rudy VanderLans, about the story of Emigre, and I come upon a couple really interesting passages from 1990:

I’m sitting across the table from Piet Schreduders in his home studio in Amsterdam, and I’m struck by how quiet and shy he seems. This is the man who published a small book in 1977 entitled Lay In, Lay Out, in which he accused the graphic design profession of being a criminal enterprise and that it should really not be allowed to exist. According to Schreuders, designers are vain and self-important charlatans, while their theories are no more than bubbles to be popped. Despite (or because of) Piet’s position as an outsider, a self-taught designer no less, the statement infuritated professional graphic designers. Their heated reactions revealed more about graphic designers and their motivations than anything they might have said in the absense of such provocation. I wonder if I could bring such outrageous statements to the table when interviewing designers for Emigre.

…and 1991, about Henk Elenga:

I’ve often wondered what attracted me to designers like Henk. They had no agenda to clean up the world, to streamline communication, to create crystal goblets, to attain perfect clarity. Yet the work they produced functioned beautifully in the world. It looked as if it were pulled up from within, as opposed to applied from without. It seemed alive and vibrant and fit perfectly within Dutch society. Could it be possible that through their own humanity, through their use of everyday materials, and through the pride and pleasure they took in their craft, their work made a connection with their audience in spite of its individualism and expressiveness? Could it be that their work attained a kind of universal appeal simply because it was so vibrant, so human? Was Piet Schreuders right about designers and their charlatan theories?

So this get me thinking back to my days at school. Man, I tell ya, I’m a real hack designer. And I know I’m as hard as anyone on myself, but this stuff really gets me back to where my original motivations come from: i.e. to simplify things, to make them easier, less abrasive; to strip things down to their root essences so that simpletans like myself can actually understand them and make use of them.

Bah, it sounds so amateurish (though there’s nothing wrong with that). Shouldn’t I be spinning tall tales and theoretical justifications for the decisions and designs going into Flock and elsewhere? Shouldn’t I be relying on science to substantiate my ideas?  And gah, user testing, user testing.

Well, perhaps. But this stuff from Emigre suggests that there is something to be gained from original vision — and from staying true to original intentions. Something, I’m not sure what. I mean, I’d feel more certain if I were welding the interfaces in Flock… Or maybe if I were molding the buttons in clay. How about chiseling the topbar out of granite? Yeah, that might really transport me back to original, hands-on design.

But damn, there’s something disingenious about that.

Why the hell can’t interface design be as original, as innate, as natural if it comes out of Photoshop as it would if I were doing this all with pen and paper? The medium is not defining my message, I am. Yet there’s something impossibly new and forbidden about this kind of design that I can’t quite put my finger on. How does one achieve innateness, naturalness, humanity! when one’s tools are necessarily digital, remote, cold? There’s the crux: how do I, the lowly designer, infuse that same human vibrancy into the machine, confront its limitations, force this thing to breathe god dammit , god dammit and give it the wings that Elenga and Scheuder did in their work back in the 70s when computers, geekery, digits … gah, these boxes! … lived large in city-block sized rooms? There’s a soul in here, not in the machine — it’s elsewhere — ahh, but to tap into it, bring it in. Something, hrmph, it’s in here somewhere. Finding, finding. Just. Finding.

technorati tags: ,

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

2 thoughts on “Wisdom from The End of Emigre Magazine”

  1. I keep suggesting that you to a.) read Norman Potter and/or b.) read some of my past blog entries. The answers to the questions you’re asking aren’t just going to come fall into your lap. You have to go and seek them out and come to terms with them for youself.

    When I do interface design, it does come out as original, innate and natural regardless of the tool I use. I don’t in any way feel that its not anything less because its not on traditional media. If you feel that way about your work, its not the tools or their professional standing that you should be looking at.

    Design principles are universal and no designer with any set of standards is going to toss their nose in the air because of the medium something was created on. True design, this human, vibrant, honest design that you speak of, shines through all of those barriers. Focusing on the tools, viewing them as cold and inhuman, using them as your barometer – thats where part of the problem lies.

    For most people, you are what you eat. For us, you are what you design. That’s where our nourishment and growth come from.

  2. Personally, I believe that user testing has major limitations and doesn’t always bring more humanity into a project or design. Sure it can, but personal hijacking happens all of the time. Then you get into controlled environments…yech…don’t even get me started.

    Humanity can and has happened with terrible design and clunky UI. There are loads of examples. Humanity has also happened with fantastic design and simple UI. You hit the nail on the head, though, with vision. Vision is essential, but I’ll bet if you asked any one of the ‘visionaries’ who kicked off the current movement whether they truly predicted where we are today, they would admit that they didn’t predict the outcome.

    Humanity happens with humans. Humans are terribly unpredictable and frustratingly… um… human. We can’t predict where the heart will take us.

    Just keep believing in what you believe in and keep your mind & heart open source (as well as the technology)…and really, the fact you are so reflexive on this point will take you far. You ain’t a hack. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: