In this issue of Other Worlds, designer and design historian Michele Galluzzo speaks with Brockett Horne and Briar Levit, co-founders of the People’s Graphic Design Archive, about messy history, bottom-up participation, institutional support and the awe that archival material can spark.
Local sign painting in Dominican Republic, Mural, PGDA – Added by Louise Sandhaus. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/5399/local-sign-painting-in-dominican-republic.
In 1994, Martha Scotford introduced the adjective ‘messy’ to define a novel approach to the historical narrative of graphic design. With her seminal essay Messy History vs. Neat History, published in the U.S. journal “Visible Language”, the American historian proposed to shed light on the contribution of women to the evolution of visual communication. In order to have a more inclusive, anti-heroic and anti-canonical history – Scotford argued – it was necessary to adopt a ‘messy’ perspective on historical events, one capable of embracing a ‘bottom-up’ gaze, through the lens of social history or, in other words, people’s history.
Nearly thirty years after Scotford’s article, the desire to multiply historical narratives led to the creation of the People’s Graphic Design Archive (PGDA). Founded in 2020 by Brockett Horne, Briar Levit, Louise Sandhaus, and Morgan Searcy, the PGDA is an online archive focused on recognizing and preserving “graphic design’s and culture’s expansive and inclusive history” through “a virtual archive built by everyone, about everyone, for everyone.”
PGDA homepage, 13 October 2022. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/.
Increasingly, institutions, corporations, museums and well-known designers are investing in the creation of digital archives for the dissemination of historically valuable design artefacts. By opening their archives, these subjects inevitably promote their own point of view, which often corresponds to that of their clients, designers and promoters. Such a point of view is thus canonically positioned from ‘above’.
Unlike these examples, PGDA offers internet users the possibility of not only being observers but also contributors so as to self-determine the history told. The PGDA is a participatory archive with the aim of challenging the canonical narrative and shaping the history of graphic design from “below” in a plural, collective and intersectional way. An archive that starts from the bottom hopefully gives rise to histories from below.
John and James Whitney, Five Film Exercises (Film 1–4), Experimental Film, 1943-44, PGDA – Added by Louise Sandhaus. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/2749/five-film-exercises-film-1-4.
Looking at the PGDA, it seems that the adjective “messy”, suggested by Scotford in the mid-1990s, is still relevant, particularly in the motto adopted by the curators: “Preservation, not perfection!” Whereas Scotford contrasted “messy” with “neat”, the PGDA favours “preservation” over the clinical and scientific “perfection” of canonical archives. Emphasising preservation means encouraging the submission of the widest amount of artefacts. Here, priorities are inverted: the PGDA fosters the mass participation from below and a plural representation of the world of graphic design from its inception until more recent years. Welcoming a broad participation which includes minorities that have so far been underrepresented, the archive challenges the methods hitherto used by historical archiving. For example, the PGDA critically reflects upon the boundaries produced by the very concept of the professional.
The words of Horne and Levit passionately delineate the PGDA’s vision, along with unexpected and amusing confessions – a perfect embodiment of the alternative vision of history that Scotford hoped for in 1994: “It is complex, it is undefined, it is messy, but the rewards will be great.”
Michele Galluzzo: The PGDA is driven by a participatory strategy open to a broad public. It adopts a crowdsourcing model that, as recently stated by curator and historian Andrew Satake Blauvelt, “dismantles traditional gatekeeping, throwing open the doors about […] who is included, and what counts as historically significant.” In doing so, the project seems to lay the foundations for a “people’s history.” But who are “the people”? In other words, who are, to date, the contributors to the PGDA? Who would you like to see participating? How do you plan to achieve greater user engagement on a global scale?
Faith Ringgold, All Power to the People, Poster, 1970, PGDA – Added by Louise Sandhaus. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/4165/all-power-to-the-people-1.
Brockett Horne: Contributors to the archive represent an amazing community of folks who care about Graphic Design history – makers, scholars, collectors, students, educators. We want better tools for archiving that don’t rely on those with expensive education, access to specialised tools, or isolated geographically. Since the launch of our new website, we’ve seen such a diverse array of contributors from all over the globe.
Three initiatives are underway to encourage even more participation from broader audiences: events (in person and remote), optimization for adding items from mobile devices, and active social media projects, including sharing items from the archive, resources on using it, and sharing profiles of the people who contribute. For example, we have recently hosted two in-person roadshow events in California and have two upcoming Add-a-thon events focused on LatinX design (led by educator and designer Ramon Tejada) and Native Design.
MG: In the video presentation of the project, you claim to be addressing an audience of users and contributors specifically composed of design students, design educators, practising designers and design scholars. Given this closeness with the world of design, do you envision the risk that the images collected will end up privileging the designer’s point of view rather than the one of the end user?
BH: We made that video three years ago and it has served us well. Archive contributors, so far, appear to be makers, thinkers, scholars – not only design practitioners. One goal of the project is to expand the definition of design. One way we are doing that is use the word “creator” to identify who makes a work of design. That could be a designer, but also a client, publisher, letterer, calligrapher, illustrator, or other role. We are wary of a Design History that privileges the designer alone as a hero and instead see the design space as collaborative.
Briar Levit: End users are “The People” and those people can upload, browse, comment, etc. The people who come to The People’s Graphic Design Archive can participate from all angles, so it will be interesting to see what is uploaded and what is particularly popular to upload. So far, a pattern hasn’t yet emerged.
Malcolm X with Levy’s Ad, Photo, PGDA – Added by Briar Levit. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/1430/malcolm-x-with-levys-ad.
MG: As already mentioned, through a plural, participatory and intersectional archive, you aim to have a less canonical history. This is a precise curatorial choice in itself. What stakes have you set for yourself? Which submissions wouldn’t you like to find in the PGDA? Can you already provide examples of rejected submissions?
BH: I’m not aware that we have rejected anything that meets our upload criteria. The site is moderated for things like hate speech. We are grateful for our site moderators and community guidelines that help identify factual errors, bring to life controversial topics, or harmful design.
We are delighted to see so many works by women, People of Colour, Indigenous and Native designers, and other marginalised voices. The co-directors are also encouraging new uploads in these areas, too, through our own research or to boost the amazing array of scholars who are working in these areas. And, we need MORE. Please share your gems.
BL: While we encourage people to upload histories that help expand the canon and our understanding of how graphic design supports our societies, we in no way reject works that are a part of the existing group of well recognized designers. That is because The People decide what goes in the archive. If someone wants to upload a piece by Paul Rand, they may do that.
There is a brief set of community guidelines that must be followed, and if an uploaded work seem to be a fine art piece, we may ask for the description to include context as to how this fits into a graphic design history repository.
Paul Rand, Earth Day ’95, Poster, 1995, PGDA – Added by an unknown contributor. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/3041/poster-earth-day-95-1995.
MG: On the PGDA website, people are invited to upload historical items of graphic design that are at least ten years old. How was the threshold of a decade chosen for the inclusion of works? Aren’t you afraid that studios will turn the archive into a promotional tool by uploading their work en masse?
BH: The “ten year” rule is fairly common among many museums and archives. The logic is that enough time has passed to bring a critical eye to history. However, it is problematic that this excludes some VERY important movements, such as Black Lives Matter, #metoo, Land Back, and even Occupy. We have bulging folders of items called “future history” that we anxiously await to upload. And we talk about this problem with our community to understand how valuable it is.
Bradford & Archie Boston, For a Discriminating Design…, Poster, California 1966, PGDA – Added by an unknown contributor. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/3999/for-a-discriminating-design-poster.
MG: The archive includes names, strands, nations and experiences that are as yet little researched in the history of graphic design. However, the majority of these artefacts collected to date appear to be out of context, sometimes lacking information on scale or captions that would allow a better understanding of their dissemination, how they were used or the audiences they were aimed at, and the environments in which they were experienced. Is this an issue for you? Who and how is the context created? Is this one of the tasks of the archive?
BH: The best uploads include context from the contributor! Our motto is “preservation, not perfection” and we call on the community to share more context and information for items. As the site and community builds, we are hoping for more dialogue and discussion.
BL: Adding to what Brockett said, we have already had folks add credits information via comments. In my own experience adding pieces to FontsInUse.com, the community can become very active and invested. I uploaded a sign for an ice, coal, and wood business. I could gather some understanding of the business by reading the sign, but I wasn’t sure how it was meant to be hung. Commenters not only helped clarify that, but the grandson of the man who owned the business found the post and added more context! This was pretty thrilling. We hope to see this kind of community built with the PGDA.
MG: What are the long-term preservation strategies of the project? From which funds is it supported? What would happen if the funds and energy ran out?
BH: Currently, we are so lucky to have funding from private foundations and granting agencies. Since we have joined the Letterform Archive’s Digital Collective, the long-term success of PGDA is ensured – more stable than what an independent group of academics could secure alone.
Ant Farm, Chip Lord, Curtis Schreier, Cover design for Radical Software Magazine, Magazine, 1971, PGDA – Added by an unknown contributor. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/4027/cover-design-for-radical-software-magazine-summer.
MG: Until recently, there were no memes included in the PGDA – and perhaps in few or none of the graphic design histories written so far. This highlights the potential of an archive to display artefacts barely associated with the field and often not created by designers themselves. Do you think this can help us better define the current boundaries of graphic design?
BH: This sounds like a great idea! The question above shows exactly the type of scholarship, research, or inquiry that we hope the project will inspire.
Paul Souza, NTSU Lab 71 Album Cover, Album Art, Texas 1971, PGDA – Added by Bruce Deck. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/5463/ntsu-lab-71-album-cover.
MG: Is there an item to which you are particularly fond of and which you consider representative of the spirit of the archive?
BH: My favourite is when items in the archive are in dialogue with each other. Check out these ramen noodle packages, one in Japanese and one in Korean!
Instant Ramen, Packaging, Japan 1958, PGDA – Added by an unknown contributor. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/440/instant-ramen-packaging. Samyang Ramyeon, Packaging, South Korea 1960s, PGDA – Added by an unknown contributor. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/1741/packaging-for-samyang-ramyeon-instant-ramen.
BL: This is a really tough question – especially since our custom platform went live and we get a random selection of items on the home page a few times everyday and I see new things all the time! I’m feeling a lot of love for the home of my youth in Northern California, so this San Francisco Bay Area People’s Yellow Pages is one I love right now.
Becky Wilson, The San Francisco Bay Area People’s Yellow Pages No. 4, Finished work, San Francisco 1975, PGDA – Added by Stephen Coles. https://peoplesgdarchive.org/item/771/the-san-francisco-bay-area-peoples-yellow-pages-no-4.
Other Worlds is a shapeshifting journal for design research, criticism and transformation. Other Worlds (OW) aims at making the social, political, cultural and technical complexities surrounding design practices legible and, thus, mutable.
OW hosts articles, interviews, short essays and all the cultural production that doesn’t fit neither the fast-paced, volatile design media promotional machine nor the necessarily slow and lengthy process of scholarly publishing. In this way, we hope to address urgent issues, without sacrificing rigour and depth.
OW is maintained by the Center for Other Worlds (COW), at Lusófona University, Portugal. COW focuses on the development of perspectives that aren’t dominant nor imposed by the design discipline, through criticism, speculation and collaboration with various disciplines such as curating, architecture, visual arts, ecology and political theory, having in design an unifying element but rejecting hierarchies between them.
Editorial Board: Silvio Lorusso (editor), Luiza Prado, Francisco Laranjo, Luís Alegre, Rita Carvalho, Patrícia Cativo, Hugo Barata
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