I was working at my first grownup-girl art director job when Northern California type foundry Emigre started selling fonts, and it was truly a big deal to pluck the latest issue of their beautifully printed catalog from my IRL inbox, order a floppy disk, install both the screen and the printer fonts, and get to work. Using Emigre fonts in a layout was the typographic equivalent of sitting with the cool kids. The fonts became so popular that for a stretch of the ’90s it was practically impossible to open a magazine without finding the intricate repeating patterns of Emigre’s Whirligig characters.
Fast forward 30 years: no more floppy disks, or the need for screen and printer fonts, and for the most part no more printed type specimen books either (thanks downloadable PDF specimens!), a fact noted with some sorrow by Dutch graphic designer and Emigre co-founder Rudy Vanderlans in his introduction to Emigre Fonts: Type Specimens 1986-2016 (Gingko Press), a small but substantial 752-page volume that helps us remember why we loved spec books. Emigre Fonts goes several steps beyond the basics of an ordinary font catalog, giving readers a delicious variety of complete typeface families and sample text blocks, in-depth background essays, illustrations, and exuberant layouts within its brightly colored pages.
For the uninitiated, Vanderlans and his wife Zuzana Licko founded Emigre in 1984, soon after they began publishing Emigre magazine, a journal for experimental graphic design. The foundry was one of the first to explore the possibilities of digital type, and became a critical part of the revolution called desktop publishing that permanently changed the way graphic designers work.
Emigre Fonts gathers together some of the most memorable of these type specimens from the last 30 years, along with examples of their applications across a spectrum of printed media. Especially illuminating are the design notes and construction drawings throughout. For instance, we learn that the 45-degree angles on the first iteration of Matrix’s triangular serifs use the fewest possible number of data points and so require little printer memory, enabling rapid page output at the start of the digital era when printers were fairly primitive. The book explains how Matrix’s letterforms could easily be scaled, stretched, or obliqued due to their reliance on an underlying digital grid.
Later, Licko adapted and upgraded the font with the advent of OpenType features. Matrix was featured in a wide variety of commercial environments: on a billboard for 1992 movie Batman Returns, in ad campaigns for Cadillac, McDonald’s, and UPS, and throughout the February 1993 issue of Esquire magazine. The typeface clearly tapped into something universally appealing in the zeitgeist, and so did Emigre. This book beautifully documents Emigre’s starring role in the ongoing digital revolution.