Character References: On Emigre type specimens


Earlier this year, Gingko Press published Emigre Fonts: Type Specimens 1986-2016, a comprehensive collection of Emigre’s distinctive print samplers. A couple years previous, I went through my personal collection of their specimens dating back to the early 1990s and wrote this appreciation for a project that wasn’t realized. However, on the (late) occasion of Emigre’s book, here’s the essay.

When Rudy VanderLans announced that issue 69 would be the final publication of Emigre magazine, he emphasized—via a “reminder” from partner Zuzana Licko—that it wasn’t the end of the company. Considering the magazine’s primary role in determining Emigre’s identity, and that the journal was its namesake, the notice was necessitous. The foundry that had become the core business would continue developing and vending type.

In addition and importantly, the specimens that promoted their typographic works would continue to be produced. VanderLans had separately declared a commitment to continue these print pieces. The pledge placed Emigre in a distinct minority. We’re in a time that has seen a marked decrease—if not total abandonment—of foundries issuing physical type catalogs. Whether it was a decision based in pragmatic marketing or a nostalgic nod to the unended print, VanderLans’ avowal was welcome among aficionados of everything Emigre. The magazine was an acceptable but tough loss. Having to also bid farewell to the catalogs could have been devastating.

While Emigre magazine was a fundament in its firmament of products, it was always only one aspect of a constellation of printed works that grew up around it and the foundry. By VanderLans’ estimate, the company has generated close to 200 printed artifacts, comprising catalogs, specimens, posters, brochures, postcards, pamphlets, and other printed ephemera published since 1984. All converged in the magazine and spun off from it.

Foremost amongst those ancillary works were the specimens that introduced individual or a selection of faces, and the annual inventory of the Emigre library. In the magazine’s heyday, the boundaries between it and the specimens blurred. For many designers and some critics, Emigre magazine was little more than a glorified type catalog. Curiously, and revealingly, the distinctive critical content is downplayed, if not dismissed. The pioneering type design and marketing originalities are highlighted. Zuzana Licko’s typographic innovations have been evidently easier for the design field to assimilate than the ideas set in her landmark faces.

The appraisal of Emigre magazine as elaborate sales brochure denigrates both the journal and the full-fledged specimens. Emigre absolutely made, and continues to make, glorified type catalogs—but they are the catalogs.

Emigre’s type specimens are the intersection of its two signal accomplishments, the magazine and type design. They are also the most representative artifacts of the partnership of Licko and VanderLans. The reputations of their other products understandably overshadow the catalogs. While the magazine and type have received considerable attention and documentation—most recently in the Emigre no. 70 anthology—the specimens go largely unnoted.

Both for their connection to and fusion of Emigre’s more celebrated work, and as artifacts in their own right, the type specimens are worthy of separate attention. All the aspects of Emigre’s contributions to contemporary design are present in form and content. If, as Rudy VanderLans regarded them, issues of the magazine are considered graphic “albums,” the specimens are the “EP’s” and “singles.”

Emigre’s specimens are notable for the negotiation of practical considerations and creative idealism—the essence of all graphic design. They demonstrate an adept dovetailing of these concerns, crafting a format that stimulates desire then provides an efficient vehicle for satisfying it. A balance is struck between providing an enthusing context for the type while not overwhelming it. Though far from “neutral,” the framework is evocative and clear.

This framework has become more involved than embellishing the traditional catalog display. A rethinking of purpose and presentation is evident across the history of the pieces. Emigre’s specimens advance upon earlier examples of the form that utilized it to advance a wider conceptual agenda on how typography is defined and practiced.

A precursor is William Addison Dwiggins’ specimens for his new type designs. His were more realized, progressive publications centered on type display. A simple necessity was embraced as opportunities to explicitly express his typographic philosophy.


Dwiggins’ “Emblems and Elektra” specimen eschewed the rote alphabetic exercise to put forth a manifesto. “How is one to evaluate and assess a type face in terms of esthetic design? Why do the pace-makers in the art of printing rave over a specific face of type? What do they see in it? Why is it so superlatively pleasant in their eyes? Good design is always practical design. And what we see in a good type design is, partly, its excellent practical fitness to perform its work.”

Of course, that final statement is purely subjective. But as is often the case, the distinction of the type design supplies affirmation for his rhetorical position. Plus, you get a measured dose of Dwiggins’ delightfully idiosyncratic abstract illustrations.

Along with spurring a surge in digital type design, Emigre’s catalogs sparked a spate of inventive promos from a variety of short-lived and established foundries. Simply having the specimens was a practical necessity that isn’t attributable to Emigre. But the venturesome contexts adopted by many of the other foundries owe a debt to Emigre’s examples.


Often, the specimens were the most—sometimes only—interesting aspect of these other type designers’ efforts. As abstract works, separated from their sales imperative, they were engaging artifacts, parading wild, unfettered graphic novelties riffing off the theme of character sets. As proffers of usable type, they were far less viable. Simply put, I’d rarely imagine ever using faces from these specimens. But as elements in an “artist’s book” of Roman characters, they were engaging marks.


That the faces were disposable didn’t lessen the charm of the specimens, which could get baroque in concept and hyperactive in the number and variations on a theme. Another intriguing exponent of the surge in specimens was that they provided scarce examples of graphic design by individuals known foremost as type designers. Jonathan Hoefler’s Muse publication lasted the one issue but was succeeded by a few catalogs that shared the same delightful classicist sensibility. Much as I admire his typefaces, I’d put money down for more Hoefler print objects.

The earliest Emigre specimen I own, “Signs of Type,” is similarly unique for its rare “Design: Zuzana Licko” credit. Absent the notice, the piece might easily be attributed to her partner in its presentation of her low-rez faces illustrated with bit-mapped scans. With all respect to Rudy’s work, I’d fantasize at times that on a lark, Zuzana might take on the layout of one my articles and afford me a singular design triumph.

The overall design sensibility of Emigre specimens naturally moved in parallel with the flagship magazine. Roughly, specimen history can be divided into the pre- and post-4-color eras. Pre-color, the specimens proffer VanderLans’ distinct formal sensibility but are straightforward in text and concept. The phrases set in the faces are descriptive of the type’s features and formal rationales. Or, as with Dwiggins, propound terse typographic manifestos: e.g. “Typefaces are not intrinsically legible; rather it is the reader’s familiarity with typefaces that accounts for their legibility. Studies have shown that readers read best what they read most.”

With the advent of full color publication—the time leading up to and after the end of Emigre magazine—the specimens bloom as deeper, broader artifacts in their own right. A preservation principle seems at work. The energy of the magazine couldn’t be destroyed, only channeled and adapted into another form. One of these alternate outlets was VanderLans’ book projects— Supermarket, the Palm Desert/Cucamonga/Joshua Tree music trilogy. And the specimens also received an additional infusion of vitality.

Specimens became small journals in their own right, offering broader speculations and investigations of type design. Short accounts of a face’s origins and the designer’s intentions regularly appear and expand. Experts such as John Downer provide extended essays on topics related to typographic revivals.

The text examples become extended haikus or proffer full-on stories. Writer David Barringer was commissioned to bring his fluent prose to the two volume “Little Book of Love Letters.” Other republished texts feature early-20th century writers on subjects like the geography of the U.S. southwest (a VanderLans obsession).

Other specimens give the type designers the opportunity to frame their creations in artist-book quality promotions. The late Frank Heine crafted two amazing booklets for his Tribute and Dalliance faces. Mark Andresen wrote and illustrated a VouDou tale for his NotCaslon booklet. Mr. Keedy generates a visual/textual polemic for Keedy. Elliott Earls does Elliott Earls. VanderLans himself imagines eccentric and elaborate historical markers for the Historia specimen.

The ultimate and ongoing charm of the pieces transcends their status as product catalogs. However attractively designed any specimen may be, it is as disposable as any graphic design artifact, if not more so. That the specimens’ primary type product is essentially unchanging presents a significant design challenge. Change is mostly through accretion: the addition of new faces to the library.

In broader terms, a common charge against graphic design as a discipline is the unapologetic disposability of its product. The overwhelming majority of graphically designed artifacts are properly characterized as ephemera. What then the products for a graphic design audience? Is the factor doubled? VanderLans’ fancy flights confront these realities and serve a very pragmatic purpose: how to make the same collection of forms fresh.

The particular genius of these works is their beautiful functionality: an equal balance of abstract aesthetic qualities and clarity of use. The feature in the specimens that best expresses this balance was the now discontinued order form. Their layouts were also divided across the introduction of process color. Within these diversities, they’ve remained fairly consistent: an incidence of an inability to improve upon perfection.

The forms are the most succinct expression of VanderLans’ design approach (his “inner classicist” in Rick Poynor’s description)—an articulate and resonantly apparent structure. As formal compositions, the order forms residing somewhere between El Lissitzky’s “prouns” and Sol LeWitt. Pre-process, the layouts were all right-angular, sectioned by thick rules that strategically extended beyond the form’s basic framework. With the introduction of color, circles came into play, accenting in hues and shapes. Actually writing on the forms didn’t ruin the effect. Rather, it became a lively, improvised vernacular accentuation.

Often, the underlying structure of VanderLans’ layouts are visible and made decorative graphic elements in its own right. (See Emigre #40, The Info Perplex issue for his most elaborate expression). This strategy has tangential relation to designs that display a visible grid, as can be seen in a number of classic Josef Müller-Brockmann posters. VanderLans’ structures, however, are more flexible and colorful. Their agile geometries are efficient to their task of segmenting and structuring space.

If enthusing over an order form as a counterpart to signature works by renowned artists isn’t grandiose enough, I’ll take a step further. As previously mentioned, many of the booklets stand among the finest artist books of any era. The Hypnopædia specimen, for one, is a marvel of pattern and color that rivals many painters’ output—not to mention its status as a triggering expression in the “rational/decriminalized ornamentation” movement now in full flower.

More than this, these specimens provide one of the best examples of graphic design demonstrating content in its own right. It’s a near universal tenet that graphic design is an applied activity, possessing no substance upon its own. But when considering these catalogs, they can be “read” the same way that abstract painting are. A color field painting by Mark Rothko is “about” color, physically about paint. These specimens are about character forms, physically about type. The specimens transcend the mundanity of words to express ideas of the representation of language. We can contemplate the letter as we might upon the hue of blue.

It is a charge, a challenge, I regularly place upon my students, and ultimately upon all graphic designers. Is this discipline of graphic design worthy of contemplation on its own terms? Might you pick up any graphic design artifact and enjoy it for the pure joy of its unique status that straddles and fuses form and function? Can you pick up and delight in a type specimen as you would a painter’s (or sculptor, or photographer, or what have you) monograph? Not seeking professional “inspiration” but sensual indulgence?

Graphic design artifacts are like nothing that came before them. Their motives and intentions are unlike any creative form now or since. And this stature is best represented in forms like type specimens. They speak volumes of potential, in the works they will conjure into being, and what they suggest for how we regard our past and current print culture.

A thorough documentation of the Emigre’s specimens is a valuable undertaking. Like the entire Emigre enterprise, the boundary was sometimes crossed to encompass booklets for its nascent music label, and some non-paginated pieces (though excluding posters). I’ve focused on the type aspect of these pieces, though most may be rightly considered catalogs for the entire Emigre product line. Whatever you want to call them, enjoy.

Conjure Man: The Evocations of Mark Andresen

Note: In 2008, Eye magazine published my profile of Mark Andresen, titled “Pesky Illustrator.” It was actually the second version I produced, after editor John Walters requested a different slant to the article. While I was content with the directive and the result, I remain fond of the original piece, which is reproduced below.) 


The VouDou practice of conjuring is an evocative metaphor for illustration. A conjurer employs common, native materials to “evoke Spirits for practical ends.” An illustrator crafts an image to summon awareness toward a worldly result. There’s also the magical, unpredictable, and somewhat spooky aura that surrounds conjuring—it’s otherworldly. And the most profound imagery is ultimately ineffable—affective beyond its constituent colors, forms, and materials.

This comparison is apt when applied to illustrator/graphic and type designer Mark Andresen, long-time New Orleans documenter, and now, exile. He fled an hour or two ahead of Hurricane Katrina, accompanied by his wife Paula and their cats. Among their few belongings were some notebooks Paula insisted on taking, and the computer hard-drive he grabbed. Nearly everything they left behind, including the bulk of his life’s work, was ruined. The hard-drive contained images of most of his work. But of the physical pieces, little more than a tenth was eventually saved from the subsequent storm damage and looting.

Now situated in Atlanta, Georgia, he simultaneously downplays his personal account while doing all he can to invoke the memory his former, adopted home. He’s determined not be defined solely by his personal tragedy, yet is resolute in keeping its spirit animate. Like a psychic medium, he’s conflicted: charged with giving voice while uncomfortable being the focus of attention. At the same time, Andresen’s voice is distinctive on its own.

That voice is a rough mix of channeled personalities. Andresen describes himself as a blend of Marcel Duchamp, the reincarnated White Russian spy Sidney Reilly (who’s still grudged about his Bolshevik murderers), and Klattu—the Michael Rennie character from the sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still: “I’m a bit alien to what passes for normal and I think my karmic task is to wake up planet Earth to change.”

Andresen has strong opinions about art, design and politics—especially what he considers the corrupt and callous practices of the U.S’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)—and is unreserved when expressing them. During its heyday, few discussions on the Speak Up design blog lacked a demonstrative post from “Pesky Illustrator.” He’s keeping at it, rambling, determined, selfless, and sardonic.

The ideal of making something enduring and preserving the past was impressed upon Andresen early. He grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, where his parents were artists, but his father gave up art to work on the 1960s U.S. space program. His mother was an amateur Egyptologist, capable of writing hieroglyphics. On a trip to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, one image captivated him: “I saw the hand of some ancient Egyptian artist in the moment of putting quill to papyrus . . . it struck me what immortality is.”

He studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York from 1967–1969, but dropped out before graduating, and hitchhiked across the country. Back in New York he began work at an ad agency, “drawing things.” In the mid-80s, moved to Atlanta, to work as a designer on Atlanta magazine. Andresen enjoyed the work, and was successful at it, though he seldom lasted long in a job.

He moved to New Orleans in 1987 when he was offered a position redesigning New Orleans magazine. Andresen found the city to be an endless, vivid source of imagery-the people, the culture, the architecture — a “place of carefree joy and mysterious pleasure.” What isn’t outwardly flamboyant can contain wonders: “the front door is nothing to speak of but it’s lush on the inside.”

His fascination with VouDou led him to be initiated into the religion. VouDou isn’t a practice you can observe: you must be a “participant or nothing” to witness its activity. VouDou brought Andresen a new perspective on his creative activity. Illustration and VouDou are joined in “pulling out the hidden meanings of things.” The true essence of VouDou is service to others, as image making is also a revelatory act for its audience.

Andresen’s New Orleans job ended in a year, after a falling out with the editor, so he moved into freelance illustration, primarily for ad agencies. But Andresen’s mercurial nature extends to his illustration and complicates matters. He found illustration representatives befuddled by his responsive, chameleon changes of media in his work. One-trick ponies are easier to place (and show). But Andresen’s expressions go beyond pragmatically marketing himself. Ultimately, the demands of the project determine the illustration method.

When he was called on to create an image of the seventeen Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, Andresen turned for the first time to realism. He wanted a recognizable, group portrait. Four hundred hours of study of gouache technique resulted in the final work, reproduced in a now rare poster.

Illustrators are proficient in a variety of methods, and Andresen, like a good conjurer, is adept with what’s on hand. He presses letterforms (in the form of rub-downs) into image service.

Andresen moves between illustration and design, sometimes combining the tasks on jobs, and regards himself as more the latter than the former. To any given project, his awareness of the entirety of the process brings ideas beyond the typical illustrator. He strives for literate graphics, responsive to the design situation and possessed of a depth of knowledge of the subject

Some jobs have paid long-term dividends, such as his on-going relationship with McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce. Andresen has crafted thousands of illustrations for the family-owned business over just a few years, from the de rigueur leprechauns for St. Patrick’s Day ads to dancing Cajuns adorning Tokyo subway cars. Andresen’s commissions from McIlhenny are now on hold, as the company recovers from being hit hard by both hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

In 2003, Andresen was contacted Monique McCall of the New Orleans mayor’s office to remake his city’s symbol. McCall, who handled graphics for the city, had begun restyling the iconic fleur-de-lis. Andresen investigated other symbols but was directed to return to McCall’s original drawing. By hand, he redrew the symbol, providing a symmetry that was missing from previous incarnations. Andresen considers himself a “co-creator” with McCall of the resultant mark, as she established the “essence” of what emerged.

Still in use, the logo was used broadly, from stationery to chocolates. This widespread treatment became another bittersweet aspect of Katrina. Normally, a designer would thrill to behold his logo on every city vehicle. However, not if those vehicles ended up on the TV screen—awash in floodwaters.

Merely observing has never satisfied Andresen: he remains an informal, often mordant commentator on design blogs. He’s likely to weigh in on anything: sexism in the field (“Must seem irritating to competent women designers to always be excluded or patronized, except for the anointed few. If it’s changed up in the star-celebrity designer Pentagramworld Pantheon someone tell me differently.”), the vulgarity of popular culture (“There will never be another Guernica because that requires a consensus of decency and outrage. I think the absence of both is a sign of a death culture in progress.”), and his choice to employ a pseudonym when posting comments (“I’m for anonymity whoever wants it. The reassurance of non-traceable identity in a world were real privacy issues are eroding seems like a subject worth studying. As Hakim Bey, author of The Temporary Autonomous Zone writes, in the future being anonymous will be a privilege.”)

His visual punditry went public in the early 1990s when he sent Emigre editor Rudy VanderLans “funny faxes” — some of which ended up in its pages — that commented wryly on the magazine’s obsessions. Such as Andresen’s conceptual “My New Typeface.” “The typeface consisted of only two characters,” VanderLans recalled, “one had all vowels placed on top of each other with the instruction ‘use for vowels.’” Consonants received a similar treatment. “This was during the days when we published a lot of experimental typefaces in Emigre. Mark has a way of bringing people down to earth. His tongue-in-cheek type submission made good fun of the absurdity of some of the so-called experimentation of the time.”


One of these whimsical submissions became an actual typeface. For the text on a early 80s music club poster, Andresen used fragments of Caslon swash italic press type. He repeated the process to expand on the few original letters. Zuzana Licko then tweaked Andresen’s creation, establishing a baseline, while Andresen expanded it to a full character set. Emigre released the font, appropriately dubbed “Not Caslon,” in 1995.

In the midst of a decade littered with extremist type fabrications, Not Caslon was a conspicuously sly creation. It transcended the timely and disposable faces that proliferated, being contemporary in conception and historic in reference. Not Caslon remains an eccentric and refreshingly unaffected typeface in name and form. Applications have ranged from Madonna and Lou Reed CD packages, to scarves, wine bottle labels, and Cirque du Soleil.

Andresen showcases the entirety of his talents in a 2001 specimen booklet for the typeface. He wrote, designed and illustrated an episode when his VouDou godmother, Reverend Lorita Honeycutt Gamble (“a decent lady working spiritually”) dispels a troublesome ghost, the former occupant of a coffin discovered buried in Andresen’s front yard. Through the Reverend’s ministrations (which include cigars, beans, rum and a rooster), the 200-year-old spirit is induced to return to his casket.


The sampler is just a taste of the visual flavors cataloged in Andresen’s 2006 book, New Orleans As It Was. It’s an elegy to the city that’s comprised of work scavenged from saved notebooks and what survived in the storm. Andresen’s original intent was to create a limited edition as a gift to people who had helped him after Katrina. Rudy VanderLans offered to help with the design, and suggested contacting Gingko Press for wider distribution. At his wife’s urging, Andresen proposed the book. Gingko agreed and put the project on a fast track to release.

The publisher took the book as submitted. For Andresen, the process of organizing the images was wrenching but therapeutic. To do the project helped him from “unraveling” in the year following the disaster. Portrayals of the after-Katrina destruction were set aside. The lone image related to the aftermath is on the book final page: a man, chest high in floodwater (his T-shirt sporting the fleur-de-lis symbol), balancing a box containing a child on his head. The sketch is made on a Red Cross info sheet for evacuees.

Images of New Orleans’ “fleeting moments” — musicians, preachers, chiefs, monuments, ‘absurdly comedic’ structures, the ‘walking, talking Surrealism of Mardi Gras — are interspaced with brief texts and captions by Andresen. While he apologetically terms his words “purple prose,” they are sentimental but never maudlin. “The population of this city always knew they shared the land with ghosts of the past. You can count among those spirits the pirate Jean Lafitte, Buddy Bolden and Louie Armstrong; the fancy ladies of Storyville; the countless drifters and adventurers who came down the Mississippi River looking for work or trouble; and the elegant Creole families who carved civilization out of the swampland; the French, Arcadians, Spanish, English, Germans, and later the Irish and Sicilians. And, of course, the slaves and Free People of Color who brought their own Afro-Caribbean secrets to this wild place.” When his relatives wonder why he didn’t draw “nice things” instead of “hookers, old buildings and winos”, Andresen dryly replies that “They stood still for me.”

VanderLans designed an all type cover for the book that resembles a placard, or historic marker. It also suggests those New Orleans houses with plain doors Andresen cherished. VanderLans’ own photographic explorations of Western landscapes make the book the product of two artists intimately engaged with place.

Katrina was a diving point for Andresen and the city, and ending that stretches on. He lives and works now in his wife’s hometown of Atlanta, still a struggling “working stiff,” who gives little thought to career building. Practically all the work he scrapes together comes, ironically, from New Orleans. Andresen remains a “sucker for pro bono.” He teaches occasionally, stays connected to the designers’ network. “Designers cluster,” he says. Illustrators are lone wolves, who, more than designers, regard their peers as competition.

Andresen’s house in Metairie section of New Orleans has since been repaired and sold. Work still comes from New Orleans but not enough to make a move back feasible. He doesn’t foresee returning—physically—anytime soon. New Orleans is a “cubist city now,” he says, “all angular and broken.” For the 2007 design annual issue of Print magazine, Andresen wrote a short piece on illustrators from New Orleans, that typically directed attention away from himself, and contained far less of the story he could write.

“I’m still feeling dislocated. I am now a man caught between two cities: one I remember and one that survived.” He’s adamant that Katrina will not dominate his life but sometimes he’s breached by the anger and sorrow of the loss. The sorrow is for the city, and a way of life. Andresen isn’t sentimental or despairing of the work that he had to dispose of after Katrina. “I can always draw again,” he says. He knows too many people who suffered greater losses.

Atlanta yields some subjects for his sketchbooks—“water and trees,” “outcroppings of weeds”—but nothing like New Orleans. There will be no more jubilant images of that city from Andresen. But there will be others. “I need more. I don’t think of myself as only an illustrator but some broader, designer sense . . . a conceptualist. A conjurer if you want…”

It is this broader sense that’s Andresen’s strength, and a rare example of his full potential and ability. As skilled and inventive as he is as an illustrator, it’s almost a disappointment that he represents other people’s words, and writes in blog posts. Andresen is a natural storyteller, possessed with a unique voice and the ability to wholly give the tale form, from the shape of the words’ characters, to the accompanying images. In this way, the Not Caslon type sampler stands as his most through and effecting work. An Andresen account of Katrina could be that tragedy’s In the Shadow of No Towers (presented with this proposal, Andresen demurs; he evacuated and didn’t experience the full calamity.).

However, though he’ll always, by choice, be associated with New Orleans, his stories could be about anything. The stories would likely be lush, discomforting and very real.