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A Design Archive That Gets Back to the Basics

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A year into the pandemic, many of us are longing to do what once might have seemed mundane: leaf through the design section at the library, walk maskless through the galleries of a museum, or just spend a quiet afternoon at a local bookstore. For Valery Marier, a Toronto-based graphic design student in her final semester at the York/Sheridan Program in Design, life (and her practice) couldn’t wait. After months of encountering road blocks in accessing design resources, she was inspired to create the online library archives.design to collect and display, free of charge, historic design projects ranging from standards manuals and magazines to vintage branding by NASA and Apple.  

“I initially started the project as a response to my own frustrations doing design studies over the past year,” explains Marier. “Since the libraries in Toronto were closed, my research was limited to materials that were freely accessible online. While the Internet Archive is an invaluable treasure trove of information, I found that I spent most of my research time trying to get around their clunky search system.” Marier concluded that others might also be experiencing similar issues and began work on archives.design.  

Currently, online archives are experiencing a boom, with organizations ranging from the Smithsonian and NYU’s Zine Library to AIGA taking their collections to the digital space, but Marier’s website is unique in its simplicity. Rather than providing a vast, searchable bank of works, she presents the projects visually as they appear on a bookshelf, followed by a short description and link, essentially bringing the library to your laptop without the need to borrow, scan or return anything. 

A tablet and phone screen display a digital book
Image courtesy of Archives.Design

“I wanted to ensure that the navigation was simple enough that anyone could understand it,” she explains, and this was accomplished by organizing each item according to its “aspect of design” and availability on the Internet Archive. “I also decided to display each item by its cover,” she continues. “I figured that, since I was making an archive of graphic design-related items, what better way to browse them than by what they look like.”

As any former college student will confirm, expensive books can easily break the bank. In some cases, the cost of materials alone for some majors, particularly design or art history, can discourage many lower-income students from pursuing a career in fine arts. “I think that we need archives like this because it helps level the playing field of research and education,” says Marier. “Without digital archives, most people wouldn’t have access to these materials—especially graphic design, where works have a tendency to become expensive collectors’ items as they age.” 

Marier is far from alone in her search for a more egalitarian educational experience. Currently, JStor, one of the internet’s most significant repositories of academic journals, books, and primary sources, offers tiered memberships based on an organization’s size and perceived need. There are also dozens of free-to-use design resources online. But archives.design’s greatest strengths lie in its ability to curate and quickly generate design inspiration. “The biggest challenge that these archives have right now is with their end-user experience,” explains Marier, who says a combination of confusing navigational elements, a heavy reliance on boolean operators, and inconsistent metadata can often make it difficult for users to find what they are looking for. 

“I also believe that there is an inherent value in human curation,” she adds. “A lot of large digital archives tend to just scan and dump items into their collection, with no clear form of curation when you visit their website.” In an era when we are all trying to spend less time in front of our computers, keep our brains more streamlined, or simply do nothing, the stripped-down, utilitarian nature of this website makes complete sense. Curation, Marier explains, makes it feel as if “there is a thread that connects each item in the collection instead of a random selection of things.” And less randomness is undoubtedly something we all hope for in the coming year.