Cover design by Piet Schwarz

Traveling Down Graphic Design Rabbit Trails

I am thick in the middle of research for my book and I am having a blast. The rabbit trails that I find myself traversing is reinvigorating my love of the trivia and interesting things you can find on the internet and in the library. That serendipitous wandering that I used to do when the internet was new and less curated. I have also found myself actually walking into my local and the main San Francisco Library after many years of just grabbing things online.

Albrecht Durer, Hierinn Sind Begriffen… (1528) - page from the Grabhorn Collection in the SF Public Library

Albrecht Durer, Hierinn Sind
Begriffen… (1528) – page from the Grabhorn Collection in the SF Public Library

By the way, if you are in San Francisco and haven’t been there yet, the main SF Library is fantastic. It houses the Grabhorn Collection ( which was started by Robert Grabhorn and according to the library website “it had grown to include almost every typeface, printer and publisher of note from the past five hundred years. The collection is particularly strong in early type specimens and the work of sixteenth century French and Italian masters. Also of note are fine press editions of twentieth century letterpress printers, including printers’ ephemera. The collection supports the study of printing, papermaking and bookbinding with a large reference collection of books, pamphlets, and periodicals.”

More info about the collection.

The latest rabbit trail had me spending time at the Letterform Archive (, a new graphic arts archive that was created last year out of Rob Saunder’s personal collection, into a non-profit repository of graphic arts, printing, typography and other related ephemera. They are also allied with Cooper Union for a post graduate certificate and workshops on type design.

I have been there several times and am always amazed that they let you actually touch and hold and page through their materials. If you ever wanted to see the original of the famous Bodoni “Manuale Tipografico” or hold copies of the early 20th century periodical from Germany, Gebrauchsgrahik, as I did yesterday, or see a wealth of cool posters, then this is the place to come.

Woodcut illustration by P Helms, Hamburg

Woodcut illustration by P Helms, Hamburg

Cover design by Herbert Matter + Borel

Cover design by Herbert Matter + Borel

Cover design by Joseph Binder

Cover design by Joseph Binder

Cover design by Piet Schwarz

Cover design by Piet Schwarz

I spent an hour and a half looking at copies of Gebrauchsgraphik from 1927 to 1934 and was immediately transported into the past and experiencing the birth of modernist graphic design. There were feature articles on Herbert Bayer and the Bauhaus, on poster design from France and Germany, features on A.M. Cassandre, work by E. McKnight Kauffer, Georg Trump, Lucien Bernhard andothers from the turn of the century;  cover designs by Joseph Binder, Piet Schwarz, Herbert Matter the great swiss poster designer.

Once the magazine became international in 1927, volume 4, there are articles in English and German and we see the work of Dutch, Belgian, Swiss, British and American designers. There were showcases of the best advertising happening in the US from the Art Director’s Awards in New York City in 1930 and 1931. In those advertising pieces, you can see the beginnings of change from the old-school turn of the century style type and images and compositions to the new avant garde, asymmetric layouts and sans serif fonts being used. It’s fascinating to review and the era reminds me so much of the layers of change we ourselves have been through in the last 20 years of web design improvements.

I highly recommend visiting the space if you have any interest in any of these topics, they will give you an overview of the collection and leave you to peruse some of the favorites. If you have a specific interest, you can request to see that material and spend your whole time looking at one thing or one group of things (books, periodicals, posters, ephemera). They block appointments out in 1 1/2 hour blocks. They are located in the Potrero Hill area of San Francisco.

I expect that during this research process I will be meandering into other interesting places and will share them as I discover them.

Lamenting The Digital Legacy

Last semester I taught a class. This semester, I have embarked again on the journey that is “writing a book”. I have picked back up, the project I started in 2004, which was a remix of my thesis project from graduate school—a book version with narrative and history about Dr. Robert L. Leslie and the Composing Room which published PM and AD Magazines. All aspects of this subject are important influences and drivers in the emergence of modernist graphic design in this country.

But this post isn’t about the book per se.

This post is about the discovery and the revelation of the lie we have all been promised with the digital age and how things would be safe forever from rot, from fire, from decay.

When I worked on my thesis project, I did the final thesis as an interactive piece in Hypercard. A piece of software that isn’t runnable on any modern system 20+ years later. The discs with my thesis are just pieces of plastic to add to the landfill.

I digitized video from a VHS tape, which I am having digitized again because I can’t open the original Premiere 5.1 files on any of the 5 modern apple machines that I currently own. I still have an old 8600 packed away somewhere that I kept just in case—but I have no idea how to go forward from an old format in a piece of software that is still being made but doesn’t open old versions.

I am having that VHS tape and the cassette tapes professionally digitized now, because I don’t own a VHS player anymore and I am afraid the tape is so old it might break in a consumer player. I hope the tape doesn’t disappear along the way. Once I get those digitized files, I am not sure what to do with the discs or how long they will last.

My text files from grad school are just bits on a CD. A CD which I can’t actually open on 4 out of the 5 machines because no one makes computers with CD’s anymore. I had to go out and buy a portable CD drive just to see what was on these discs. I had to go buy a portable cassette player to hear the audio tapes that I had made when I interviewed the designer Hans Barschel as part of my thesis work. The text files I made of notes and designer biographies and other related aspects of the project were made in long defunct programs like MacWrite and Quark Express.

My writing work from my initial book efforts 10 years ago were all done in Microsoft word and I can happily say that those files opened seamlessly and were effortlessly updated to the newer version. I never thought I would say this but Yay! Microsoft.

As I have been working on the research for this project, I am thankful for the analog world of the time. I have found magazine articles, books, photographs, letters and all sorts of ephemera including the full run of the magazines, lovingly saved in archives around the country. They aren’t reliant on changing technology to view and are accessible if you can get there in person—although more and more of these libraries are digitizing their collections—which I worry about. My photocopies of articles I made 20 years ago are more accessible than the original writing work I made at the time.

I am simultaneously distraught at the loss and resigned to just letting it go.

I am saddened that our children and theirs won’t have access to the riches of photographic memories and textual artifacts like we have from our ancestors because of the effervescent quality and short shelf life of the digital “revolution” and the need for ever-changing, always improving software and platforms which ultimately render the things we save into pixie dust.

Teaching Visual Interaction Design

Combine an Interaction Design program, with a crash course in visual design, mix it up with how visual design principles, practices and approaches intersect and influence designing the full user experience and you get the class I am teaching. We are doing a crash course in the basics – gestalt principles, typography basics, type history, wireframing basics, prototyping basics, color theory and application. Later in the semester we are doing a full brand personality – brand development module, creating style tiles and a web style guide, data visualizations and dashboards and then designing mobile and web. It’s a great refresher for me to pull together everything I know in this space from my graphic design degrees and from my practical work experience the last 20+ years and try to distill it all down into a semester. It’s an exercise in simplicity design.

I am posting my presentations after each week’s module. Follow along if you will.