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

The People’s Graphic Design Archive Democratizes Design History

The nascent, community-based digital repository provides a loom with which to weave a more inclusive design history canon through crowdsourced submissions.

A 1960 fuchsia birth announcement by designers John and Marilyn Neuhart. A tattered El Maestro Revista De Cultura Nacional woodblock print book jacket from 1922. Vintage newsprint journals from Win and The Yipster Times. The People’s Graphic Design Archive (PGDA) is littered with these and other forgotten, seemingly insignificant ephemera such as gum wrappers, greeting cards, obscure business brochures, and defunct maps.

These graphic design minutiae are being digitally preserved by the some 5,000 PGDA contributors, reaching over 10,000 users who are engaged with the crowd-sourced platform thus far. “They are coming from all over the world, imagining design from a variety of vantage points—as practitioners, as scholars, as students, as critics,” says PGDA co-director Brockett Horne. 

Birth announcement for Lisa Ferreira Designers: John and Marilyn Neuhart 1960s.
El Maestro. Revista De Cultura Nacional. Tomo II. Núm. VI (book cover) 1922

While contemporary archivists share an interest in preserving historically significant artifacts, the PGDA provides a loom with which to weave missing or untethered historical threads––an assemblage composed not only of fully realized design projects but also process work, photo documentation, written correspondence, oral histories, and articles from outside the traditional design history canon’s anglo or european-centric periphery. A greater contextual fabric is formed in the digital database as entries are interlaced to create new patchworks with one another throughout time.

Though its official inception was on September 1, the PGDA was conceived in 2014 by educator, designer, and co-director Louise Sandhaus who still spearheads the project to mitigate the potential loss of noteworthy historical design artifacts. Users are invited to submit what they deem a “cultural treasure” or “historical material” ten years or older and produced by unrecognized designers––often from underserved populations or locales––giving both parties a voice in an evolving narrative as well as a mirror to see themselves represented in ongoing historical discourse.

Win Peace and Freedom Through Nonviolent Action; vol. 5, no. 9 (newspaper) Designer: Mark Morris 1969

Rich tags are then employed to assign those entries diverse meanings with the potential to yield new historical interpretations to queries despite the PGDA’s nascency. It allows the database to serve as a conduit disseminating information at a time when traditional gatekeepers and political pundits are pushing an incomplete or revisionist history.

Notably is the potential for a “future history” tag, which could mark collections associated with younger or current movements such as Black Lives Matter, Land Back, and #MeToo. Therein lies the possibility for the PGDA to act as a mechanism to facilitate the mobilization of citizens arming them with the necessary visual graphics for consistent global messaging. 

“As we expand features for the site, we hope communities of interest will form—potentially around political and social issues,” says Sandhaus. “But I love that in real-time, a group might document and upload the graphics used for an uprising or social justice event. Capturing the works in context allows a more complex story to be told.”

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