Graphic design

The People’s Graphic Design Archive: documenting materials that would otherwise disappear

The People’s Graphic Design Archive is now online and available to everyone, with over 5,000 contributions from over 10,000 users worldwide. It features everything from finished design projects and processes to photographs, correspondence, oral histories and interviews, published and unpublished articles, and links to other archives.

But this is only the beginning. The platform hopes to grow significantly over the next 12 months, creating a vast source of inspiration for the design industry and documenting everything that has been produced. “The project stems the tide of incredible historical material heading to the dumpster, with no place to go, and lets everyone decide what should be part of our history,” Louise told Creative Boom.

The idea for the archive came about when Louise discovered such materials while researching her acclaimed book, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936–1986. She realized that there was virtually nothing online that preserved the history of graphic design and so decided to provide a virtual repository that anyone could submit and store cultural treasures – from n anywhere in the world – that would otherwise be lost forever.

But it took time to find the right approach. First tested and modeled with Sandhaus students at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), the breakthrough came in 2020. Advised by those behind another crowdsourced virtual collection, Fonts in Use , Louise and her team then launched a living prototype in Notion – an off-the-shelf wiki software.

After receiving generous financial support from Lynda Weinman and Bruce Heavin (founders of, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, and CalArts, they were able to hire developer Rob Meek and visual designer Abby Chen. to carry out the project. With the first site now retired, the new custom platform allows users to quickly and easily add items and offers many ways to view, search and navigate.

We spoke with Louise and her co-directors of the archives, including Brockett Horne, Morgan Searcy and Briar Levit, to find out how everything is going.

What did you personally learn from creating this archive?

Louisa: I learned to let go of my perfectionism. This lesson became the motto of The People’s Graphic Design Archive: “Preservation, not perfection”. I had to learn that the site would not be perfect and that the material from the Archives would not be perfectly preserved. Finally, I had to learn that it would be a messy process.

Brockett: I am convinced that collaboration is the way to go. Messy, inefficient, compromising and surprising, but I did my best with this inspiring team of thinkers. The project is a testament to things that I could never do or envision on my own, but materialize through collaboration.

The PGDA home page

What do you hope people will get from this resource?

Brockett: We hope this will lead to a new scholarship. We already have new definitions of what a scholar looks like and can be – a wide range of people who gain expertise by collecting, creating, writing, speaking and sharing. We are interested in new forms of scholarship such as abridged writing, digital preservation, presentations or even social media campaigns that elevate new voices.

Morgan: I hope that as the Archive continues to grow and broaden the definition of the field, more people will be invited into the design industry.

Louisa: When I think of the history of graphic design, it’s often the story of these works that have innovated. But what did it break? I hope people will see better in what context the evolution of graphic design took place. But what is considered scalable also depends on what is valued and who is valued.

See more information about a coin on the PGDA

See more information about a coin on the PGDA

Have you seen emerging models that have stood out? Different trends? Periods?

Louisa: In many ways, we’re just getting started, so we don’t have a clear idea yet.

Brockett: Through digital and participatory archives, we can collect quickly and quickly, creating a range of items that meet the needs of our time. Unlike physical archives that require more complicated acquisition and fundraising plans, the PGDA can add important material through a simple upload process. We can also observe the relationships between social media and the collection – what people like, download and interact with.

Morgan: This is a great question for our site moderator, Briar Levit, as she sees all the new stuff added to the archive. We designed the archive homepage to randomly refresh a few times a day to give the impression of a non-hierarchical platform. I hope (especially at first) that the PGDA will continue to collect a random assortment of design elements to help diversify and create a more inclusive and holistic collection of design history.

Heather: It largely depends on the amount submitted by a user. We have a few people who have submitted a lot of stuff. All three have submitted a lot of underground press from here in the United States. A user has downloaded many community newspapers from the UK, especially from Scotland. Over time, this could easily change. Still, it’s no surprise that these often do-it-yourself publications have a few particular people, whether college-educated or former activists/designers.

Brockett: My favorite thing is when someone uploads excerpts from a research project like a book or an exhibition. These downloads establish links between publishing and collecting.

Louisa: Double-ditto, Brockett! I worried about where all the research I had done for my books would go. It would hopefully be valuable to other researchers, and the addition to the PGDA meant it could be shared.

Designers and educators are very excited by the idea of ​​helping to preserve the histories of graphic design. There’s something to be said for helping people see what you think is essential, interesting, or beautiful.

What are the most significant differences in archival graphic design, from older to more modern materials?

Brockett: The decade represented with the most items is the 60s. One trend is that we have more 21st century items than are represented in most design canons.

One of the challenges is the restriction to only upload items ten years or older. This is a fairly common assumption in the interpretation of history and applies to many collecting organisms. But for us, that means omitting some important conceptions: Black Lives Matter, Land Back, the #metoo movements and others have all taken place in the last ten years. However, we know that much of this work is important and continues with the story. Many of us have “future history” files of materials we hope to share.

Morgan: As Brockett mentioned, working with older materials has benefits and challenges. Collecting older work helps make the PGDA less responsive to trends than other popular platforms. When creating the permanent platform for PGDA, we tried to make a conscious effort to keep the Archive accessible and accessible while avoiding becoming a ‘Pinterest design’ page or Tumblr history.

We live in a digital world of reactions. Every year more and more platforms are asking people to share what they think is important right now. The PGDA is different because the Archive asks, “Why was it important that this flyer/button/signal be saved?” not just ‘Why is this piece of design important?’. Limiting work in the archive to ten years and older allows users to take a step back from the work they upload.

What has been the reaction so far?

Louisa: We were overwhelmed by the positive response.

Morgan: Through relational organizing and peer-to-peer conversations, we spread The Archive’s mission to global creative communities. We were fortunate to have had a live prototype for about two years before our permanent platform launched in September. Having the site prototype allowed us to build an active online community around the idea of ​​building a more inclusive design story. It’s been great to see early contributors create accounts and check out the work they’ve uploaded over the past year. Currently, the best way for people to continue supporting the Archive is to create an account and upload an item!

Heather: Designers and educators are very excited by the idea of ​​helping to preserve the histories of graphic design. There’s something to be said for helping people see what you think is essential, interesting, or beautiful – especially when that thing has been marginalized or ignored as a design object.

Choose a topic on the PGDA

Choose a topic on the PGDA

What can we all learn by documenting design history like this?

Heather: Documenting our own graphic design stories as a collective group will help us reflect on ourselves – all of us – and not just the few who have been selected under conditions of privilege (race, gender, class, ability) or use of dominant, accepted, forms and styles. Graphic design can be a visually exciting everyday work of art. But it is often the important “recipes” of our cultures and our histories that deserve to be preserved and understood in a graphic design context just as much as the most beautiful poster.

Brockett: We look to history to better understand ourselves, especially now that we count on the number of important stories that have gone unnoticed. History is in continuity with our daily experience. The Archive visualizes these experiences along a continuum.