The People’s Graphic Design Archive Is Rethinking How We Talk About Design History

Courtesy PDGA.

“Those who have been educated in graphic design have been led to believe that there is something that is good graphic design and then there is bad graphic design,” Sandhaus says. She points to Emory Douglas, Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967–1980, as an example of someone whose work has not customarily been included as part of the graphic design canon, despite how powerful it is at communicating. The omission of Douglas and others points towards “something that had to do with taste and a certain set of values,” she says, which came from professional organizations and other institutions “trying to distinguish what professional graphic design looked like, how they behaved, and what they did.” The PGDA seeks to push back against these traditional graphic design narratives by removing any type of gatekeeper from the equation.
In July 2020, Briar Levit, a professor of graphic design at Portland State University, uploaded an early 20th century sign for an ice delivery business to the online archive of typography, Fonts In Use. Yellowed and battered with age, the sign for “John Finnegan Ice” used five distinct typefaces, which the community helped identify along with a probable geographic location and year. In the comments section of the post, the site’s community chimed in with additional information, debating whether “Lafayette 8456” was connected to Lafayette, Louisiana or South Lafayette Avenue in Chicago; and if 8456 indicated a telephone number or a zip code. By the end of the thread, it was determined that John Finnegan Ice was located in Illinois—not Louisiana as originally thought—and the owner’s grandson, Raymond Finnegan, amazingly came forth with details about the sign as well as biographical information about his grandfather. It’s this same synergetic energy that the People’s Graphic Design Archive (PGDA), the new crowd-sourced open platform founded by author and educator Louise Sandhaus, educator Brockett Horne, and Levit, hopes to tap into. Using the power of community, the site is attempting to expand the discourse on graphic design history “from the bottom up”—as stated on its website—by representing “diverse cultures and a broad range of interests.”

More than just pretty pictures, the archive hopes to be a cornucopia of photos, videos, letters, documents, oral histories, anecdotes, articles, essays, and other writings that challenge the mainstream notion of what graphic design is and create new narratives in the process.

One could see how the PGDA is an antidote to websites like Pinterest where images are routinely uploaded without much context, creating a tendency where the same items appear over and over again. More than just pretty pictures, the archive hopes to be a cornucopia of photos, videos, letters, documents, oral histories, anecdotes, articles, essays, and other writings that challenge the mainstream notion of what graphic design is and create new narratives in the process. According to Levit, this could include items that have been brought over from other disciplines, “like a book on astronomy from the 16th century” or from “people who were doing activist work in the 1970s and making really important communication through independent publications” when no other suitable modes for knowledge-sharing were available.
They are currently involved in fundraising efforts—a necessary next step in order for the archive to migrate from its current home on Notion to a more robust version of the site, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from beginning to upload right now. After all, as Levit points out, there’s lots of history waiting to be written…and rewritten.

The People’s Graphic Design Archive

With the motto of “preservation, not perfection,” Sandhaus, Levit and Horne set out to make the archive a place where the people can determine what’s important and what should be included in the history of graphic design through the materials they upload. “We’re leaving this for anybody to decide,” Sandhaus says. “The study of graphic design is a young discipline in and of itself, so our idea of what graphic design is, is coming from a fairly short period of study,” Levit adds. “I think it makes sense to open up and remind not just the people in academia but really everyone who has an interest or a connection to the field that it’s not set in stone.”
Sandhaus, a graphic design professor at California Institute of the Arts, came up with the idea for a graphic design archive “by everyone, about everyone, and for everyone” while putting together her book, Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California & Graphic Design, 1936–1986. In researching the book, she realized that what is typically regarded as canon in graphic design history represents only a very thin slice of the important work that exists out there in the world. Furthermore, because many physical archives lack space and/or resources to readily accept boxes of new material, valuable cultural artifacts would either collect dust or wind up in the trash, lost forever to history.
Sandhaus, Levit, and Horne see themselves not as owners of this archive but as “the mothers” who are simply stewarding the project towards a point where the website can assume collective ownership. There will be an editor on the backend of the site whose job is essentially to hit the upload button, but ultimately the power will reside with the community to decide not only what graphic design is but also what belongs in there. Much like Fonts In Use, there will be a space for discussion and debate, which Sandhaus hopes will make for a more enriching experience. “It’s a place to participate, not just consume,” Levit adds.