Calling All Graphic Design Researchers!

Preserve and share your research. Someone’s trash is our collective treasure.

by Louise Sandhaus

In 2015, I stood in designer Gere Kavanaugh’s studio with Diana Murphy and her assistant, Jordan, among boxes and boxes, notebooks and notebooks, flat files, things pinned to walls, rolls and tubes, all of which contained documentation of Gere’s considerable career. Among this mountain of accomplishment, was not only her work, but that of friends like Corita Kent, Marion Sampler, and Deborah Sussman. I’d never seen most of it before. For anyone interested in adding stories of prolific but overlooked contributions to design history, it was GOLD.

In the months to come our team photographed and scanned the treasures we had uncovered, capturing Gere’s considerable output and the documentation that surrounded it, while also accumulating notes and interviews with Gere to understand what we were looking at: Who was the client?; What was the project?; When was it done and where?; What was the context? And, of course, Gere always had a charming and informative tales to tell as well. All of this was the material that became A Colorful Life: Gere Kavanaugh, Designer, the book that Kat Catmur and I realized in 2018.

But after the book came out it hit me full on: Where was all the documentation that allowed us to tell the story of Gere’s considerable and considerably overlooked career going to go? In the hands of other historians there were plenty of other interpretations and stories to be told. We had told one story, when there are many! All those photos and notes we had accumulated were now on dusty hard drives and piling up in bins. We were having deja vu all over again; repeating the same vertiginous experience of that day in Gere’s studio when we encountered all the material that showed Gere's process, her photos documenting the work, correspondence with clients and vendors, as well as the finished projects themselves. It’s this valuable documentation and as well what are considered “less important” projects with no place to go that will likely end up in the dumpster. Yes, some of the most interesting work will go to museums and some of the records will go to the Cranbrook archive, where Gere got her MFA, but most will end up getting tossed. And the research I had done would meet the same fate.

The reason is that maintaining physical archives is expensive. There’s the space, cataloging the work, storing it so that it’s not damaged, managing the materials for the future, and if at all possible, making the work publicly available by digitizing it. It’s a daunting task. But The People’s Graphic Design Archive makes it easy to save this material and share it with others! It’s what I’ve done with all my research for my books Earthquakes, Mudslides Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936–1986 and for A Colorful Life. And I’m not alone. Other researchers have what they’ve uncovered including all the material that didn’t end up in their final publications. Geoff Kaplan added the thousands of high resolution photos of alternative press publications captured for his book Power to the People: The Graphic Design of the Radical Press and the Rise of the Counter-Culture, 1964-1974; Danielle Aubert and her intern added the research that went into Danielle’s Book, The Detroit Printing Co-op: The Politics of the Joy of Printing. Now this material is available for other researchers to tell other stories that create an even more complex and inclusive story of graphic design. So many others including the PGDA team have been adding what they’ve uncovered on the way to large ambitious projects: Briar Levit, Tasheka Arceneaux-Sutton, and Pierre Bowens, to name a few.

The community, working together can preserve and expand graphic design history. It’s easy! Calling all researchers, whether you’ve found a trove of material, a single carton, or a hard drive, or even a single treasure in a basement. Share your research. For the history of graphic design, it’s our common gold.

Check out some PGDA Archive Exclusives :

It's your turn to add to the archive!

The PGDA is a collective effort and welcomes and encourages everyone's participation. It's easy to submit work to the Archive.

You can add anything from finished projects to process, photos, letters, oral histories, anecdotes, published and unpublished articles, essays, and other supporting material to the archive here.

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