An ambitious crowdsourcing project is set to democratize how we think about graphic design and its history.
It’s called the People’s Graphic Design Archive, a digital platform aiming to preserve, expand, and diversify graphic design history. It doesn’t just feature digital images of finished artworks but also letters, oral histories, anecdotes, articles, essays, and additional supporting material such as documents, videos, and even links to other relevant archives.
What makes this archive stand out is that it has no gatekeeper and no curator. The project is a grassroots effort that relies on collaborators to upload content to be included: They are the ones deciding what’s important and belongs in the archive, thus determining what constitutes graphic design.
We sat down with the three co-directors to find out their thinking behind the crowdsourced virtual archive, that according to its home page, is “by everyone, about everyone, and for everyone”; what their hopes are for the future of the archive, and why the history of graphic design has been lacking in diversity until now.
Launching an alternative approach
When graphic designer Louise Sandhaus, a professor at the California Institute of the Arts, worked on her 2014 book, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires and Riots: California and Graphic Design 1936–1986, she found herself with an abundance of extra archival material she simply couldn't fit in. “I realized that I had barely scratched the surface,” Sandhaus explains. “I was feeling guilty about all the material that didn’t make it into the book and was probably even going to end up in a dumpster because there are just not enough archives for it to go to.”
Sandhaus became increasingly aware of the fact that large parts of graphic design history globally—particularly representing diverse perspectives—were unrecognized, overlooked or forgotten, and in danger of disappearing. She was looking into ways for them to be saved and documented before this rich history is lost, and came up with the idea to crowdsource an archive that everybody could contribute to and have a say in. The People’s Graphic Design Archive was born.
It took another few years of figuring out how to actually build a virtual archive before The People’s Graphic Design Archive launched to the public in summer 2020. Through Design History Friday, a support and feedback meetup focused on graphic design history research and education, the archive’s two additional co-directors came on board: Briar Levit, a graphic design professor at Portland State University and director of the documentary Graphic Means, and Brockett Horne, faculty in graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Fonts In Use, an independent archive of crowdsourced typography, joined the project to custom build the platform for the People’s Graphic Design Archive while also contributing support and advice. At their suggestion, the team created a living prototype on collaborative workspace Notion as a public beta of the archive to start accepting submissions.
Enabling new stories
So far, there have been around 4,000 uploads, and the focus is heavily on preservation: Anything that relates to graphic design can be submitted as long as it was produced at least 10 years ago (or – in the case of research, correspondence, and interviews – deals with work from that period).
The variety of the submissions is stunning, from finished projects like a Snoop Dogg album cover, to process work and unfinished items like emails and sketches. Horne has been especially surprised by the breadth of small press, created by radical small print shops, that have been uploaded, while there are also some early motion graphics and animations that are being presented in a pre-digital format. Other contributors are keen to preserve the works of designers who are nearing retirement, much of which wouldn’t go into museums or other collections.
“Every submission represents somebody’s passion,” Horne explains. “There’s somebody who absolutely loves Korean postage stamps and someone who loves typography on fashion items, which is really exciting. I love that there’s a place for that. Everyone has a little area or multiple areas that they’re really interested in, and they want to be empowered to share it with others.”
Images from left to right: Cover of Gay Sunshine, no.15. Newspaper cover. Designer unknown. Oct.-Nov. 1972; People's Computer Company. Newspaper cover. Designer unknown. 1976; People's Computer Company. Newspaper cover. Designer unknown. ca 1970s. All included in the book, "Power to the People," by Geoff Kaplan, University of Chicago Press, 2013. Images courtesy The People's Graphic Design Archive.
The three co-directors carried out a lot of research, collaborated with AIGA’s Design Educators Community and spoke with other archivists, curators, and historians to decide on what kind of information to collect besides imagery. In addition to asking contributors to populate standard form fields like title, creator(s), format, and description for each item, the archive will eventually allow commenting to inspire debates and discussions. This ability to have a discourse will set the People’s Graphic Design Archive apart from a traditional archive: participation, and not just consumption, is actively encouraged.
To put artifacts in context, contributors are invited to tag the resources they’re uploading. “The tagging system is one of the most powerful aspects of the archive,” Horne points out. “As you’re uploading content, you can tag it with keywords such as ‘Detroit,’ ‘Switzerland,’ ‘1960,’ or ‘LGBTQ+,’ which is a great way for folks to sift through the archive to determine how to interpret an object.”
The People’s Graphic Design Archive also has a list of values and community guidelines that contributors need to adhere to, in hope of ensuring productive discussions that challenge our thinking of graphic design history. This also means including some sensitive content that may be offensive to some visitors. Sandhaus stresses that such material will be clearly identified. “Nothing is off-limits but it’s important that the archive isn’t about the three of us. We’re a kind of advisory committee who’s trying to get this off the ground,” she says. “We do need community members to uphold and uplift the People’s Graphic Design Archive and feel a sense of ownership towards it.”
Building a community around the archive is no easy feat, and Horne adds that it’s crucial to get the balance right. “Working as a collaborative team has helped us explore other collecting models for graphic design and decide when we need to lean into convention and when we need to break it.”
Expanding the canon
The People’s Graphic Design Archive is one of a few novel approaches to rewriting design history in an attempt to correct omissions. “There are a lot of reasons why graphic design history hasn’t been as inclusive as it could have been,” Levit points out. “Primarily because there has been one group of people who have had the opportunities and ability to practice graphic design—generally white men. Until recently, women and people of color haven’t been able to access the education and the professional organizations that recognize their work and contribute to them entering the mainstream.”
Accordingly, the People’s Graphic Design Archive is specifically aiming to uncover and include the works and histories of Black, Latinx, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, women, and other historically marginalized designers and allied professionals, while also expanding the canon beyond institutions of design that are historically privileged and homogenizing.
By including and representing diverse cultures and a broad range of interests, the archive is already starting to have a major impact on current graphic design students. “I know from my own experience of teaching that it’s really important for our students to see themselves reflected in history,” Horne highlights. “I’m hoping that the diversity of the archive’s collection will be resounding and help folks connect with their field.”
Images from left to right: 20th Century Americans of Negro Lineage. Designer: Louise E. Jefferson. 1965. Archive contributor: Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton; British Radio G5JO Radio Postcard. Designer: QSL Club Members. 1960-1970s. Source: https://us4.campaign-archive.com/?u=ac77eed9f8bbd01b62106fea1&id=2276dcabbc
Archive contributor: Elizabeth Goodspeed; Smiley Circle. Designer unknown. 1990s. Source: Archive.org. Images courtesy The People's Graphic Design Archive.
Another goal of the People’s Graphic Design Archive is to question how we think about design history and what we consider to be great or important. Horne explains that it goes beyond the visual qualities of the work. “It’s really important to take into account how beloved the item was, how many times it sold or was reproduced and collected, who it was for and how it was made,” she says. “There are so many other compelling stories that you can spin from this archive, other than just an item’s aesthetic power or the genius of its origin.”
“What’s genius or aesthetically good is a subjective issue,” Levit adds. “There are a lot of questions about how history has been taught and discussed, and the People’s Graphic Design Archive opens this up, so that anyone can decide what deserves to be saved.
One of the biggest challenges has been to raise the necessary funds. The People’s Graphic Design Archive is now supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and several grants from California Institute of the Arts. The team recently also received substantial funding from Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin, the founders of online learning platform Lynda.com (now LinkedIn Learning).
In the meantime, a host of volunteers are dedicating their time to building the community. The goal is to establish the People’s Graphic Design Archive as an essential resource for educators, scholars and researchers and anyone looking for inspiration. “People already see the archive as a way forward in graphic design history,” Sandhaus points out. “You can have an army of people writing books and still barely capture anything. The People’s Graphic Design Archive brings together all these different ideas and perspectives of what should be part of graphic design. It helps rebuild and expand our collective history.”