The People’s Graphic Design Archive is Standing Guard for Overlooked Design History

Posted inDesign Resources

Featured Image: Zody’s Discount Department store (sign), Designer: Deborah Sussman, 1971

The expansiveness of graphic design is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the vastness of the graphic design world is indicative of the rich and beautiful works that have been created in media across the globe for centuries. But on the other, how in the hell do we preserve, document, and share it all?

This was the central question graphic designer and design educator Louise Sandhaus began asking eight years ago, propelling her to start plotting what would one day become the People’s Graphic Design Archive. Working with co-directors Briar Levit, Brockett Horne, Morgan Searcy, and support from Stephen Coles and Kate Long from The Letterform Archive, Sandhaus was able to turn what she calls a “crazy idea” into a critical, first-of-its-kind tool for preserving graphic design history.

The result is a crowd-sourced virtual archive of inclusive graphic design history, and a community-driven open access collection of anything that can be considered graphic design. The platform can be searched through key words and tags, with results organizable by “Contribution Date,” “Item Date,” “Most Discussed,” or “Most Viewed.” Anyone can create a PGDA account to submit works to the archive— in fact, Sandhaus implores you to do so.

To celebrate the PGDA’s official launch earlier this month, I spoke to Sandhaus about her journey with the project, the future of the platform, and how the public can continue to support its mission.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

How did you come up with the concept for the People’s Graphic Design Archive? 

The original concept came out of my books, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design and A Colorful Life: Gere Kavanaugh, Designer. I saw what was being preserved in archives, and realized there was so much incredible material that I came across in my research but there was no place for this material to go. I was frustrated. I could see inklings of other things that should be researched, but there’s not enough time, and not enough researchers. And even if you cover all this material, most of the time, there’s no place where it’s going to be preserved where people are going to know about it.

I remember sitting in a meeting at LACMA in 2014 (they had this community of curators and design historians I was a part of), and I realized, Oh my god, there’s so much more they could collect! But how would they even know about it? What am I going to do? That’s when the idea dawned on me for a crowd-sourced virtual collection.

What was the development process like for the project?

I spent years trying to conceptualize it, prototyping it with students, seeing how we might digitize an archive, seeing if there was public interest. We did this graphic design roadshow in 2017, where we invited the public to bring in examples of graphic design that they thought were part of canonized graphic design history, and should be preserved and shared— kind of like Antiques Roadshow.

I also got together with a former student of mine, and the founder of BIPOC Design History, Silas Munro. We both had these big ideas for design history, but we needed support; we needed people to talk to. So we formed something called “Design History Fridays,” and invited people that we knew were also working in this realm of design history who might want to have a conversation and support each other. It was through that group that Brian and Brockett came forward.

Taking on a project of this magnitude can be incredibly daunting. How were you able to plow ahead for eight long years to bring your vision for the PGDA to life? 

There’s this tenaciousness that takes over you. You keep the blinders on, you see the possibility but you can’t get paralyzed by what it’s going to take. It’s also about not being afraid to fail. If it didn’t work, it didn’t work!

When I saw the platform Fonts in Use I realized, Oh, it can be done! It’s a crowd-sourced, virtual collection. That’s when we approached them about whether they could build a custom platform for us, and that’s when it became possible.

I know down the line, we’re going to hit all kinds of craziness in terms of the extent of endless space for all of the data. We’re realizing the practicalities, but none of them are out of reach. The thing that we have to do is get the word out so that people know, Oh, this exists, and I can decide what should be part of graphic design history. Graphic design history is not this complete story. There are endless stories.

What are some of the main features of the PGDA people should know about? 

On the site right now, under “Resources,” there are various tutorials and how-to guides so that we can facilitate people who are interested in adding to the archive, or uncovering the history in their community, or documenting someone that they know, and they think there should be a record of their work. We have “how to do an oral history fast and easy,” “how to document work fast and easy,” and more. 

One of the things that I panicked about originally was the idea of preserving the work of someone like Gere Kavanaugh; she’s now in her late 90’s. I have recordings from her, but those need to be shared! How are those accessed by other people? How is her story about her career and work preserved? I realized that there were tons of other people who have made incredible things, and we need to encourage people to actually document that work and the story. But if it seems daunting, if somebody is looking at 10 boxes of work, and they’re like, “Oh my god, I don’t even know where to begin; I don’t have enough time,” we can provide resources that say, this is easy. Here’s what you need to do; 1-2-3, that’s it!

One of the main things that we’re doing to show people that it’s easy, and that they can dip their toe in anywhere, are more of these roadshows. People bring a treasure, or a few treasures that they think should be shared. We’re not interested in it being worth something in terms of monetary value— we’re interested in what it’s worth to the history of graphic design. 

We have people at the roadshows from the community that might know about this material, so they can help fill in the information. Then we show people how to add it to the archive, so in this festive way, they learn that the archive even exists! They can bring in material, and add to that history, and hopefully they continue to add more and share it with others. We just had one at the Torn Apart exhibition at the Pacific Design Center in LA. People brought incredible stuff!  

We’ve also had so much outreach from different communities who want representation on the PGDA, so we have what we call Add-A-Thons. We ask ourselves what’s missing, and notice gaps like Latinx design, for example, so now we’re working with Ramon Tejadas to figure out how to do a Latinx Add-A-Thon. Maybe someone who is working on Southeast Asian graphic design history will want to do an Add-A-Thon, or maybe they want to do a roadshow! So we’re coming up with these different kinds of instruments to encourage people to make it festive, and to concentrate on areas of design that a community wants to see more representation of in the archive.

Do you have a review process in place to check submissions to the archive? 

We have somebody in a moderation role, but as long as a submission is graphic design, we just push the button to upload it. Let’s say somebody submitted a picture of a chair, and we’re not seeing it as graphic design— we still want to make sure we’re not overlooking something, so we would write to that person and say, “Can you help us understand how you see this as graphic design?” 

If there’s something that we want to have a record of, but we know that some people may find it offensive, we try to do two things. First, we window shade it to identify it, and then we also suggest that the photo used is low resolution, so that there’s a record of the work, but it can’t be used to celebrate it. 

We also ask people to use their real names. If someone uses an alias, it feels less like they’re participating together with us in this community. But we do understand occasionally somebody does need to use an alias— let’s say if they’re in a certain country, like North Korea or Iran, they might need to add anonymously. We understand that there might be those situations.

What are your goals for the PGDA? 

This is supposed to be a community archive— it’s “The People’s”— so hopefully, we will one day have the structure in place for the people to also be moderating it. Right now, we don’t mean to seem like we own the archive, but I know it appears that way. We welcome anybody who wants to jump in here and work with us, and eventually figure out how the community is actually able to run this.

What are the best ways for people to support the PGDA? 

Sign up for our newsletter! Create an account! Or throw a few dollars our way, or even more than a few dollars; we welcome that! The other thing that we have that we’re hoping people contribute to is our blog. Anybody can write for our blog! 

For those submitting work to the archive, one thing that is vital— and the only way that this becomes a rich resource— is through tagging. How the work may be seen as meaningful depends on the tag, as well as how the work comes up in a search. It takes a lot of imagination. The richer the tagging, the more useful the archive becomes. Our hearts fall when people submit things— which we’re so happy about— but then they didn’t tag it. We’ll have to figure out how to encourage people to do it as we go along.

Why is a platform like the PGDA so vital? 

People want to see themselves in design. They want their own stories and their own lineage that shaped design in their minds to be part of this. There are people like Corita Kent and Emory Douglas whose work was overlooked for so long, but was meaningful to so many, and yet so many people didn’t know about their contribution. So how many more people who have created work of significance aren’t recognized, or aren’t known about?

We hope that people use it as a resource to tell stories. To curate items in a way that creates new ways of thinking about the relevancy of this history. It becomes the ingredients that generate other creative work.