How the People’s Graphic Design Archive is democratizing design history

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The crowdsourcing project, which launched in 2020, is democratizing how we think about graphic design and its history.

6 min read

A cover of the 'Gay Sunshine' Newspaper no. 15. Oct.-Nov. 1972. Image courtesy The People's Graphic Design Archive.

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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.

A screenshot of a webpage showing a selection of works in the People's Graphic Design Archive.
A selection of works in the People's Graphic Design Archive. Image courtesy People's Graphic Design Archive.

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 ar