‘QSL?’ Offers a Portal Into the World of Amateur Radio Hobbyists

Posted inDesign Books

When designer Roger Bova’s eyes landed on a collection of cryptic cards during an antiquing trip, he was immediately drawn in by the embarrassment of typographic riches he had found. He was suddenly holding a visual history of 150 amateur (or “ham”) radio transmission cards, known as “QSL cards.”

QSL cards were custom-designed postcards created by a specific transmitting station that a receiver would send back as confirmation of receipt. Informationally, they display its unique call sign (station code name) and feature a gridded space to hand record more technical contact details, such as the band frequency, type of code contact (voice or Morse), and other nitty-gritty dispatch details. Graphically, each card contains the specific touch of the station operator’s personality. 

While Bova initially saw these cards as pure graphic gold, he also realized “they were souvenirs of a time between the world of letters and the Internet age.”

Sometime later, Bova had a post-work hang and special QSL card viewing with designer and Order and Standards Manual co-founder Jesse Reed, who instantly got a “gut-good-queasy feeling” from the cards. “When we were shown this collection of QSL cards, less than 30-seconds passed before knowing we needed to archive them for a book,” the Standards Manual team said. “Ham radio was a familiar topic to us as a hobby, but [we] had never seen this side of the practice.” Thus began their collaboration to broadcast this rare visual collection of a mostly unknown pastime to the world at large.

The result is QSL? (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?), Standards Manual’s tenth title. (You may remember their other published bangers like NASA Graphics Standards Manual, or New York City Transit Authority: Objects.) The rhythm of QSL? is displayed chronologically, from c. 1977-1989. Each card has been scanned (front and back) at 1:1 scale without any modifications to its original design. What’s better? Throughout the book, they made the decision to enlarge certain details within specific cards at 500–600% scale.

For instance, on the QSL card for Budapest’s Radio Club of Orion, there is a small station logo about a quarter of an inch tall, but when blown up, it contains the graphic strength of classic logo design. The boldness of the Orion logo can be traced back to Peter Saville’s 1978 visual identity for Manchester’s Factory Records, and even further back to the thick and blocky work of the reclusive German designer Wilhelm Deffke. According to design critic Steven Heller, Deffke’s pioneering and prolific logo work stacked up to more than 10,000 corporate symbols by the early 1930s.

The nature of the collection in QSL? contains abundant evidence of both hand- and machine-made design from across the globe. Chunky, mid-modern arrows loop on the former Czechoslovakia’s ham station, Tesla. A cartoon racoon holds a daisy bloom on Berlin’s Greika station. A block-printed landscape advertises EA7QB out of Granada, Spain. A more common motif is pictorial illustrations of a station’s equipment setup, or an illustration of a handshake emerging between radio equipment and a globe. 

In this myriad of visual communication, Bova notes in the book’s forward, “After the left-brain excitement of engineering and constructing their stations, these operators had to tap their right brain to create something—anything—visual. Each 4”x 6”-ish front side could feature a stoic government placard or a crazy sketchbook doodle, or anything in between.” What’s unanimously demonstrated is the graphic potential of each operator’s care, freedom, and authenticity.

Other visual tropes emerge as well, like the shape of a country or location, the station’s channel code featured as the most prominent type detail, and various symbols of the National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL). While there are consistencies from card to card, they are formatted in different ways and represent each individual operator in an undeniably unique way. 

Ham operators were mostly discussing and asking questions about radio technology, clarity of signals, equipment, and other heady topics that relate to the hobby itself. As Reed puts it, “It was a real community. Just how designers want to talk about typefaces and color, they’re talking about what equipment is best, or what signals they have found.”

Bova and Reed also discovered a recurring signal while archiving this collection. It almost slipped by, but one call sign appeared on each and every QSL card: W2RP. The research that ensued led to a lucky discovery: W2RP was the call-sign of the late Charles Hellman of Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. As reported by the ARRL, Hellman “may have not only been the oldest surviving radio amateur in The United States but, at 92 years, also may have been the longest licensed.” Charles passed away in 2017 at the age of 106, but his collection lives on in this book, providing a visual portal into the international community that he and thousands of other hams held dear.

In addition to providing a graphic bounty, QSL? bears an academic slant that invites the audience more directly into the fold of this community. One section includes definitions for all of the Q codes (as defined by The National Association for Amateur Radio), while another uses the anatomy of a QSL card to meticulously dissect what the codes mean. Anthropologist Marc Da Costa helped lend this scholarly approach to the book, as well as writing its well-researched forward.  Overall, it’s a thorough investigation wrapped in a slick, yet unfussy book with a heavy focus on pre-computer visuals, representing a group of hobbyists who wanted nothing more than to make contact with anyone in the world. So even if ham operators weren’t saying much outside of nerdy hobby chat, Bova notes, “the true communication that people were transmitting back and forth were the visual cards.” 

Sound familiar? As Reed observes, “This is what Twitter has become. You can reach out to anyone in the world and find their handle and they are part of your feed and your community. And you talk about whatever bubble you are in.” The same is true for Instagram, TikTok, Chatroulette, and any other internet applications that host billions of people. QSL cards were the precursor to the kind of customization you’d see on a MySpace or Livejournal page in the 2000s. 

Da Costa condenses this correlation best in the book’s forward: “[At] its core, much of the culture of ham radio was about people just chatting with each other. Long before the social networks of the Internet age brought strangers together, radio provided an exciting opportunity to reach beyond the confines of one’s house or hometown.”

While initial excitement about typefaces, colors, logos, and illustrations inspired Bova and Reed to transmit this archived collection to the world, they also uncovered more personal reasons for undertaking this new book project.

Reed’s first venture was a skateboarding company in which he used an early Yahoo! GeoCities website for mailing the brand’s stickers to anyone who sent him a S.A.S.E. (self addressed stamped envelope). He got requests from places all over the world, like Afghanistan and China, so he has always had a soft spot for communication like this.

Bova, on the other hand, explains his personal link to the collection: “My great grandfather came to Cincinnati and he had a stand in Findlay Market. I went down in the 1980s for a bit. On all the fruits and vegetables, he would put a sign with a Sharpie; and he developed his own handstyle, basically like graffiti. It’s so personal when you’re doing it by hand.” 

It’s next to impossible to capture the magic of an object without holding and looking at it yourself, but somehow, the folks at Standards Manual have done it. For instance, Reed explains how the mechanically-designed 1974 logo for South Yorkshire County Council reveals “the little print imperfections and the craft of printing and making reproducible pieces of graphic design. I was excited to go into these cards and find so many jewels of symbology.” 

QSL? drills down the visual authenticity of this subculture with a remarkable, complete collection of one of the longest running ham operators, respectfully archived in a deep-dive, unabridged manner. In the publisher’s own words: “There was no ‘this one’s cool, this one’s not.’ Which is cool.”

This book may be a QSL card in its own right. In essence, it’s an alternative written record tied to our need to connect. Maybe it will even find readers who have other parts of Hellman’s collection, and inspire them to share their piece of this vast visual history with the world. Perhaps Hellman’s family will be delighted to discover that their old possessions now have a newfound purpose, thanks to a couple of designers. Who knows? We’ll have to stay tuned.


(*“73” is radio code for “best regards.”)

QSL? (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?) is available on the Standards Manual site for pre-order. Copies will be shipped in November.