Merz to Emigré and Beyond

Merz to Emigré and Beyond by Steven Heller, first published in 2003 and republished this summer, is a richly illustrated chronicle of the radical magazines, newspapers and journals published during the 20th century.

For Heller the test of a true avant-garde is a commitment to political as well as aesthetic change, the willingness to shun fashion and the possibility of commercial success in pursuit of the deeper objective of radical social reform. The radical publishers he studio sought to ridicule and undermine artistic, political and social establishments so as to clear a space for the advance of the new.

In Heller’s words:

A true avant-garde will not overtly appeal to mass taste, and indeed encourages bad taste as a means to replace the sanctified with the unholy. An avant-garde has to produce such unpleasant alternatives to the status quo that it will be unequivocally and avidly shunned by all but those few who adhere to it. An avant-garde must make noise.

They pioneered disruptive and outright offensive combinations of word and image to develop adequate channels for the communication of their incendiary manifestos:

Although words are the building blocks of meaning, visual ideas can be expressed much more persuasively through the medium of graphic design (the marriage of typography, layout and image); it is a code that telegraphs intent. One might argue that radical ideas must appear vanguard to be vanguard. Harsh words on a tame page cannot have the same impact as a boisterous layout. The impression portrayed through design must be unsettling, if only at first, in order to provoke the reaction of readers.

Heller attempts to impose some order on the century’s profusion of radical publications by organising them into several distinct, though overlapping, avant-gardes. Their aesthetic and political aims were very different, but each was characterised by a high seriousness of purpose, a desire to break with the past and move history forwards into wider horizons of artistic and political possibility.


Heller’s story starts with a cluster of German and Austrian magazines published around the turn of the century that replaced the visual clutter typical of 19th century publications with a new simplicity and directness of style. The German satiric weekly Simplicissimus, shunned the graphic conservatism typical of even the most politically radical journals at that time, and looked to radical new art movements for inspiration, developing an abstract, minimalist visual style influenced by Expressionism. In retrospect the stark illustration of a red bulldog that branded each edition can be considered a forerunner of the clean lined style of logo design essential to modern branding.

Another paper of the same time, Jugend, showcased the Jugendstil style of illustration, a German expression of the Art Nouveau style then popular throughout Europe. Jugend’s clearly articulated illustrations resembled those of traditional Japanese art, characterised by an elegant swirl of organic, curvilinear forms, drawn using smooth lines and a spartan geometry. This commitment to graphic simplicity was continued by Ver Sacrum, the house journal of the Vienna Secession. Ver Sacrum’s pages showcased Art Nouveau illustrations by leading artists such as Gustav Klimt that sought to invite the reader into a world of ideal beauty. But the magazine’s design retained discipline and harmony by presenting the illustrations within the unobtrusive frame of restrained typographic grids, often nothing more than simple two column layouts.


The book moves on to a detailed study of the prolific, interlocking avant-gardes that revolutionised print design just before, after and during the interwar years. It would be fair to say that this extraordinarily creative and turbulent period planted the seeds for all of the radical design movements that followed after the Second World War.

The Futurism, which emerged just before the First World War, sought a new art inspired by rapid technological change. They idealised the beauty of the machine, the perpetual spirit of invention driving forward industrial innovation. Their art and design developed a new visual language inspired by technology rather than nature. As the movement’s most prominent thinker, Filippo Marinetti, wrote in the First Futurist Manifesto:

We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath – a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.

The Futurist movement was a thoroughgoing avant-garde in the terms defined by Heller. They wanted to transform society in the image of their art. Unusually, their political radicalism was of the extreme right rather than the left. They welcomed the looming prospect of war: for Marinetti and his followers modern weaponry, planes and ships had a seductive, aesthetic quality, and the carnage to come promised to cleanse what they saw as the accumulated detritus of European culture, making way for a new militaristic society driven forwards by continual conflict and technological disruption.

They published their manifestos through a series of short-lived magazines that broke open the established rules of graphic design. In casting around for a suitably dynamic visual language for their ferocious proclamations, the Futurists shifted the parameters of graphic design away from its historic emphasis on classical central-axis composition and the conservative arrangement of text in ordered lines and columns.

One of the earliest Futurist publications, Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb, published in 1914, remains one of design’s most radical adventures in expressive typography. An account of Marinetti’s participation in the battle of Adrianopolis of 1912, the poem dispensed with traditional typographic rules to give free rein to its onomatopoeic word-play. Letters, words and phrases are dashed across the page in staccato fashion, conveying something of the effect of grenade blasts and machine gun fire.

There is a sense in which Zang Tumb Tumb and Futurism’s many other typographic speculations were following in a long literary tradition of arranging words in illustrative patterns. Medieval scribes often shaped words into decorative designs, and poets as far back as George Herbert had experimented with unusual line lengths to fit words into figures that underlined the meaning of a lyric. But the Futurists introduced a new violence to typographic expression, widening the bounds of possibility for succeeding generations of radical designers.

Futurism inspired several satellite movements across Europe. The most significant, perhaps, was Vorticism, a group of British artists and designers whose work flamed briefly just before and during the First World War. They published Blast, a short-lived but influential magazine that ridiculed conventional political and aesthetic sensibilities. The magazine’s editor, the Vorticist artist Wyndham Lewis, set its exclamatory text in sans-serif block capitals, which was juxtaposed with illustrations drawn in the disorientating, spiralling, vertiginous style that gave the movement its name.


Dada emerged in the wake of the devastation of the First World War, as artists, designers and writers sought to escape the imperialist cultures that had driven Europe to catastrophic conflict. The movement shared Futurism’s impatience with the past, but rejected militarism, and was ambivalent about the benefits of new technologies. Dada’s early followers, at least, were radical sceptics: the movement’s founders knew that European culture had taken a disastrous path, and had to find a new way forward, but didn’t know how to find it. The movement took its name from a nonsense word signifying an infant’s early experiments with language: inarticulate utterings in search of sense.

Dada’s restlessness found expression through a rapid succession of publications conceived of graphic design as a form of permanent revolution. Constant experimentation evolved ever changing design paradigms that were discarded one after the other. For Dada there could be no stability, as a matter of principle, in a shattered post-war world that made no sense.

Some of their publications, however, stand out for exceptional boldness. Heller highlights Dada Number 3, published in 1918, as one of the most significant publications in graphic design history, an edition unflinching in its determination to break all design rules. Much of its textual content was printed sideways, with ads for other magazines breaking at random into the flow of the editorial content. Skewed and angular lines of text used a jumble of serif, sans-serif and medieval typefaces. Heller’s writes:

What Dada did was attack the rectilinear conventions of the printed page and break apart the sequential order of typeset lines. This, in turn, undermined the classical order, balance and equilibrium of a rationally composed page. Italics were thrown in helter skelter, capitals and lower-case letters were seemingly applied at random – all for maximum disruptive jolt.

Dada Number 3 signalled the movement’s desire to take the concept of the avant-garde to its logical conclusion: change had no ultimate objective, just the pursuit of more change. Inevitably this early phase of Dada, which spread through major cities such as Berlin, Zurich, Paris and New York, collapsed under the pressure of its inherent instabilities, exhausted by continual acts of self-sabotage and warring factionalisms.

But some Dadaist groups developed a hard political edge that gave them time to make a more sustained impact. One of the most compelling section’s of Heller’s book traces the turbulent history of a network of Dada-influenced socialist papers published in Weimar Germany that became an important focus for opposition to the rise of the Nazis. The raw woodcuts and bold brush-and-line drawings in the Berlin publications Die Aktion and Der Sturm were more influenced by Expressionism than Dada, but they shared Dada’s satiric bite. A pair of more explicitly Dadaist magazines, Club Dada and Der Dada, published during the same period, made particularly striking use of the collage techniques pioneered by earlier Dada publications, combining newspaper cuttings and press photographs into cruel configurations that ridiculed their political opponents. The workers’ newspaper Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) took photomontage to new levels of sophistication, forming diverse graphic elements into grotesque satires that exposed the pretensions of Nazi leaders and their functionaries. The collage and montage techniques developed by these papers continue to set the standard for contemporary political satire.


Futurism and Dada existed in tension with the Modernist avant-garde, a cluster of movements developed the building blocks for the International Style that was to dominate graphic design after the Second World War.

The Modernists shared Futurism’s enthusiasm for technology, and, initially at least, Berlin Dada’s political radicalism. But the Modernist aesthetic was radically different, rejecting subjective experimentation in favour of logical designs constructed using rational grids, disciplined typography, geometric graphic components, and simple, informative photography. The Modernists developed the components of a robust visual grammar that could be applied across all communications media, from traditional forms such as print to the emerging fields of film and photography. As Heller notes, early Modernism had a political dimension:

Modernism was an ethical and aesthetic manifestation that viewed the world in black and white and sometimes in red: black and white because modernism was reductive – void of the past’s superfluities, adhering to maximal economy; red because modernism was utopian with socialist affinities leaning towards Communism and proffering social and political revolution.

But for all its emphasis on objective method, some of the movement’s earliest streams sprung from mystical speculation. The geometric perfection pursued by the Dutch artists Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian was inspired by theosophical speculation about the transcendental significance of the rectangle, which they believed provided a window to a deeper reality underlying the world’s surface appearance. Van Doesburg and Mondrian founded the De Stilj art movement, and a magazine of the same name, to showcase their work and design philosophy.

During the 1920s German and Swiss designers worked to systematise these early expressions of Modernism, developing the theory of the typographic grid, a rational method for constructing layouts using intersecting rows and columns as guides for the harmonious arrangement of text and photographs. This disciplined use of the grid afforded designers innumerable possibilities for experimentation with asymmetric layouts that nevertheless retained a sense of underlying order. Jan Tschichold’s famous design manual The New Typography, written in 1925, was the first to gather together and provide a detailed guide to emerging modernist design techniques. Herbert Bayer and Làsló Moholy-Nagy of the Bauhaus school produced new sans-serif typefaces and the introduced the concept of the typofoto: the organised combination of type and photograph.

For the Modernists, the designer was equal parts aesthetician and technician. This ideal found its purist expression in Russian Constructivism, an early Soviet design movement which collapsed any distinction between the visual arts and industry. For the Constructivists art and design were pragmatic fields that should serve society, not the subjectivity of the practitioner. Constructivist compositions, comprised of simple shapes, typefaces and photographic elements, had an austere, architectonic quality. Early Soviet publications such as Novyi Lef, produced by radical designers such as Alexsandr Rodchenko and El Lissitzky, propagated what might be called ‘Communist Futurism’, a utopian vision of a technologically advanced egalitarian society constructed according to the Constructivist aesthetic.

The Modernists believed the ordered use of design elements has an inherent aesthetic satisfaction: their fundamental insight was that visually striking design could be generated from a minimal set of graphical components, that maintained a strict sense of order. Heller puts it nicely:

The adherents of modernism promoted the idea that graphic tension and drama could co-exist with clarity and accessibility.

Following the Second World War modernism matured into the International Style, which became the dominant graphic language of the second half of the century. In doing so it lost its utopian political dimension, becoming an agent of mainstream commerce.


Surrealism, the fourth major interwar movement identified by Heller, developed an anarchic aesthetic that in some respects resembled that of Dada, but from a different philosophical perspective. Whereas Dada sought to reflect the turmoil of the outer world, the political and social chaos of interwar Europe, Surrealism provided a cathartic outlet for the chaos within, the unfettered subjectivity of the artist.

The movement’s first major publication, Littérature, founded by the movement’s guiding spirit André Breton, offered contributing artists and designers an opportunity to render the invisible visible, to bypass the filters of reason, aesthetic judgement or moral scruple, and give visual expression to the unmediated imagination. This was believed to have social as well as personal value, the seemingly endless capacity of the human imagination to reconfigure reality into new visual arrangements indicating the pliability of social conditions.

Breton’s next two publications, La Revolution Surréaliste, and Le Surréalisme au Service de la Révolution, supported the revolutionary social programme of the French Community Party (PCF). For Breton Surrealism could serve as the party’s artistic wing, inspiring hope for revolutionary change through the generation of endlessly new visions for alternative social arrangements. But that hope foundered on the PCF’s pragmatic need for unity: revolutionary struggle obliged party members to pull ranks, to subordinate their subjective visions for the future to an official line. The Surrealists were artists first, and ideologues second, and their insistence on complete freedom of expression caused their political estrangement.

Minotaure, a later Surrealist journal devoted purely to aesthetics, was much more successful. Relieved of the burden of attempting to reconcile the tension between pure artistic freedom and the demands of radical politics, and featuring contributions from some of Europe’s leading artists, including [Rene Magritte], Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, Minotaure gained a large international readership, till the outbreak of the Second World War forced its closure.

Situationism, the Sixties Underground and Punk

For Heller the avant-garde retreats following the war till re-emerging in the 1960s in the form of the myriad publications of The Situationist International and the Sixties Underground.

Situationism was a spiritual successor to Dada, resorting to the absurd to parody what it saw as the crass commercialism of mainstream culture. The movement’s definitive manifesto, Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, argued that ubiquitous advertising had turned citizens into docile consumers leading conformist lives from which they would only be awakened through shock tactics:

Debord believed that the confluence of Western capitalist strategies – the propagation of illusions of desire used to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of its citizenry – could only be defeated through counter-spectacles.

The movement’s flagship journal, The Situationist Times, set out to provide one such spectacle. Its
contributors ridiculed bourgeois sensibilities through vicious illustrations, cartoons and picture stories that were designed to offend, using the grotesque to highlight what they saw as the poverty of everyday capitalism.

The paper helped to open an imaginative space and create an audience for the proliferation of independent publications that became known as the Sixties Underground. The Underground was aligned with the political sentiments of the New Left, a shifting coalition of progressives that opposed US participation in the Vietnam war, and pursued a libertarian social agenda encompassing full recognition of and rights for minorities, the ending of the censorship of certain forms of music and art, and the decriminalisation of marijuana and LSD.

The slapdash, unorthodox design of prominent Underground magazines such as The East Village Other and The Oracle was to an extent an inevitable consequence of shoestring budgets: as Heller notes, The Oracle chanced upon its famous psychedelic colour gradations through experimentation with whatever cheap printing materials happened to be available:

The Oracle’s most defining trait was souped-up, kaleidoscopic colour. It was printed in multiple or split-fountain hues – in which two different-coloured inks were placed in the inkwells at either end of an offset press so that the colours merged when the rollers revolved at high speed, producing additional prismatic combinations.

The result was ‘a veritable acid trip in newsprint’, a jumble of dissonant graphic elements and rainbow colours. The Underground’s lo-fi aesthetic was also, however, a conscious subversion of mainstream expectations, signalling the movement’s advocacy of less commercialised, more creative, more open and greener counter-cultures.

Like most of the movements reviewed by Heller, the Underground’s political focus became blurred over time, its agenda narrowing to a preoccupation with reform of the drug laws, and hard-edged programmes for concrete social change dissolving into dreams for the dawning of an Age of Aquarius.

An angry new wave of DIY publications overtook the Underground in the mid–1970s, reflecting rock music’s turn from hippiedom to the primal energy of punk. Magazines such as Punk, Slash and Sniffin’ Glue sought to translate the force of a Sex Pistols guitar riff to the printed page. These and other publications inspired by punk’s impact across all forms of popular culture featured stark, simple, black and white designs that had a certain Futurist ambience. Punk’s political sympathies were anarchist rather than fascist, but it was driven by the same impatience with the past and orientation towards the future.

Digital design

The arrival of the age of popular computing in the 1980s revolutionised the design possibilities available to even the smallest independent publisher. The widespread availability of sophisticated digital design software and printing techniques opened the floodgates for unlimited design experimentation. Before digital print design was a time-consuming, expensive process, restricted by the inherent limitations of analogue design tools. The design techniques used by the punk and Underground publishers of the 1970s – cut and paste collage and scattergun lettering – were not unlike those employed by the Dadaists and Surrealists decades earlier during the interwar years. Design applications such as PageMaker, Quark and Fontographer running on affordable Apple Macintosh computers, facilitated the radical experimentation that ran through the 1980s and 90s.

The new design applications provided tools intended to facilitate the development of layouts that followed modernist principles: guides for grids and text leading, a choice of legible typefaces, and options for precise alignment of photos and illustrations. But as it turned out radical designers soon found ways of using those tools to subvert the modernist style. One of the earliest digitally produced publications, the typography journal Emigre, founded in 1984 by Zuzana Licko and Rudy VanderLans, set out to destabilise the rational Internationalist Style that had dominated mainstream postwar magazine design. Licko and Vanderlands developed a free-flowing visual style that bypassed the use of formal grids and relied on intuition to arrange text and elliptical graphic elements. They used type as a decorative graphic element, not just as a transparent vessel for the communication of information.

Emigre was dismissed by leading modernists – Massimo Vignelli considered the magazine’s typography as ‘garbage’ – but it had immense influence on the development of graphic design through the 1990s. Magazines such as Beach Culture and Ray Gun, designed by David Carson, pushed Emigre’s riotous visual experimentation to its (il)logical conclusion. Carson reduced words to textures, designing dense layouts that were closer to abstract expressionist canvases than pages in a magazine. Carson’s work can be seen as a contemporary form of Dada:

Carson also took the premise of typographic illegibility to the extreme by obliterating most headlines through overlapping, overprinting, smashing and covering letter forms in black, abstracting words and phrases until they appeared to be paint scrawls by Jackson Pollock.

For Carson and other designers using what became known as the ‘grunge’ style, text and image were abstract design elements that, when suitably configured, could communicate the essence of a page’s content without requiring the legibility of all, or even the greater part, of the text.

It is arguable whether any of the digital design movements surveyed by Heller qualify as proper avant-gardes. Their radicalism was formal rather than political, focused on the abstract interplay of word and image, in service of no particular political objective. Carson’s grunge style was soon appropriated by mainstream commerce, becoming the the house style of much of the international music press, and popular television channels such as MTV.

The end of the avant-garde press

The freewheeling explorations of the early years of the digital era have been followed by a turn back to classical modernism. Most of today’s printed publications prioritise legible typography, simple, direct photography, and restrained colour schemes. There is a sense in which this return to order is just the latest manifestation of the historic pattern charted by Heller, according to which radical publishers follow extroverted and introverted design styles in turn:

Every action fosters reaction, and each new methodology invites its opposite. The Bauhaus rejected archaic tradition just as Sixties Underground designers eschewed the rational New Typography.

But the lack of visual adventure characteristic of most contemporary printed magazines, and the dwindling number of expressly political journals, perhaps indicates that the age of the paper and ink avant-garde has run its course. Today’s radical movements have moved to a new communications medium, the web, which has reduced the costs of founding a magazine still further, and which offers the prospect of a window open to a global audience. Online newspapers, magazines, blogs, forums and social media channels provide a platform for every conceivable shade of radicalism, from the Occupy movement to the Tea Party, and, at the margins, extremist movements such as ISIS, which shock contemporary audiences in the same manner of the fascist avant-gardes of the interwar period.

But although the web has allowed radical movements to proliferate perhaps even more rapidly than they did during the 20th century, in moving from the printed page to the digital screen the classic avant-garde emphasis on the importance of the novel combination of word and image has been lost. Online communication doesn’t allow for the kind of explosive graphic styles that earlier radicals considered integral to their political and artistic statements. The web imposes a uniformity of style, bandwidth considerations ruling out overly complex layouts, and blogging and social media platforms imposing standardised page templates.

The visual limitations inherent to the web enforces disciplined use of simple typography, colours and imagery. So one might say that while the political debate amongst competing radical movements remains as varied and combative as ever, the aesthetic battle has been won, by the modernists.

Merz to Emigré and Beyond: Progressive Magazine Design of the Twentieth Century by Steven Heller is published by Phaidon. All images in this post are from the book.