Born in Holland, VanderLans attended the Royal Academy of Fine Art from 1974 to 1979. Initially deciding to become an illustrator, he enrolled in the graphic design department. After an apprenticeship at Crouwel's Total Design studio, he did corporate identity work at Vorm Vijf and Tel Design. He moved to California in 1981 when his application to the UC Berkeley graduate program was accepted, where he met Zuzana Licko. They were married in 1983 and neither set out to transform the face of modern design.
In 1984, VanderLans founded Emigre Magazine, a journal for experimental graphic design. The magazine was originally intended as a cultural journal to showcase artists, photographers, poets, and architects. Since there was no budget for typesetting, the text was primarily typewriter type that had been resized on a photocopier. Working with the newly invented Macintosh computer and a bitmap font tool, Licko began creating fonts for the magazine.
His work is bold, dynamic and modern, incorporating new fonts, designs and patterns applying it into new introductions of magazine layout Emigre magazine was published between 1984 and 2005. A total of 69 issues were produced, sometimes on a quarterly basis, but more often irregularly. Issues number one through to sixty-three were published and distributed by Emigre, Inc and Issues number sixty-four through sixty-nine were co-published and distributed by Princeton Architectural Press, New York.
In designing Emigré, VanderLans rejected standardized formats in favor of organic grid structures that reflected his enthusiasm toward the contents. Computerized page composition gave him the flexibility to reinvent the look of the magazine with every issue. Sometimes several articles would run through the pages concurrently, each text differentiated by font, size, leading, and column width, creating an impression of eavesdropping on several simultaneous conversations.