Design: Virtual Vaults

Posted December 4, 2017 in Design

The pace of technological change is an obsession of our times, and no change has been more constant or marked than that of communication technology. The means by which we understand our world – and articulate our views of it – changes at an ever-increasing rate. Even within generations, it can be hard to keep up. A time-travelling visitor from Dublin of 50 years ago might reasonably be expected to find familiar touch points in our means of transport, the buildings that we inhabit, even in the clothes that we wear. Ask anyone over 35 to show you how Snapchat works and you might be faced with more immediate confusion.

Graphic design is the means by which we can visually articulate ourselves in this evolving landscape of communication. And so it follows that graphic design practice and output are in a state of near continuous flux. This has meant that outcomes of contemporary practice are less likely to be physical artefacts than they would have been in the past. And in many cases these outcomes are designed to last only for a short time.

For the past five years, the 100 Archive has taken on the challenge of documenting the landscape of graphic design itself. It aims to be the broadest and most inclusive record of graphic design work made in Ireland and by Irish people around the world. The 100 Archive was established by four independent Dublin-based studios; Aad, Atelier, Detail and the studio I co-founded, WorkGroup. Drawing on the participation (and generosity) of the graphic design community here, the archive has put in place a two-stage peer review process that has delivered seven Archive Selections. Each selection contains 100 graphic design projects, large and small, which together create an impression of design here in any given year. The work is accompanied by a lively and ongoing articles series which over time has also given context to the work.


At November’s Future conference in the RDS, participants were invited to speculate on the future of media and design from a variety of perspectives. As part of the event I chaired a discussion on behalf of the 100 Archive between leading graphic designers and archivists. I wanted their view on how we might document graphic design work in this ever changing context. Also for discussion was the impact that dissemination and documentation has on the work itself.

I was joined by Astrid Stavro (Atlas, Spain) and Tony Brook (Spin, UK) — both are co-founders of internationally-regarded graphic design studios who work with high-profile clients in and beyond their localities. In addition, Brook is the co-founder of Unit Editions, an imprint with an impressive and extensive range of titles relating to graphic design practitioners and outputs. Also on the stage was Joanna Finegan from the National Library of Ireland’s digital collections. The team of which she is part is in the process of building an Irish National Web Archive. The 100 Archive will be working with that team in the near future, feeding into their selection process and helping to promote best practices for designers in preparing their work with a view making it archive-ready.

Finegan spoke about the process so far — growing the web archive from a pilot project to a full domain crawl: “The web archive started as a pilot project. And what happens to your pilot project depends on two things: One is your organisation and how accepting they are to supporting it. And then; the persistence and fortitude of the people who are involved in the project.” “My colleague Della Keating started the pilot, and it was a small number of sites. We’ve built it up since then, so our pilot project in that regard did work – even for an underfunded institution it really did work. And next week we will be doing a domain crawl of the Irish web space. I think that’s really a testament to work of my colleagues, and support in the library and outside of it.”

The web archive exists in two streams: a selective web archive of in-depth, curated high quality collections backed up by a broad crawl of the Irish web space. The web archive had started with news and politics at its core, with the design and structure of included sites becoming part of the selection criteria over time. “We would look to our overall library collection development policy, try and build on the strengths that are there, and also as well fill some of the gaps,” Finegan notes. “Our pilot project started with the general election and presidential election of 2011 … We’ve started to look at the design awards, and started to archive good examples of web design. And hopefully collaborate with the 100 Archive, which I think will do great things for us.”

The explicit inclusion of design as part of the criteria raise questions. Is it more important to have a of snapshot of a particular time and understand the design in the context of that, or is there a call for work to be archived for its design, in its own right? “To me, it’s paradoxical in a way because design is ephemeral by nature.” Stavro offers. “It’s not art. So, I mean to archive something that is ephemeral, and that’s a very interesting question as it relates to a particular moment and a particular context,” she adds. “I’m very pro-archiving, but at the same time, surely there’s a contradiction in archiving things which by nature are not made to last?”

For Finegan the process begins with the present, allowing the archive to grow as time passes. “To [answer] your question about archiving something that’s of its time — that’s actually what we would aim to do: archive the contemporary collection.” “We have to do our best to capture what we can now and in the current time. So that’s what a living archive is. Libraries and archives are not dead things.”

When it comes to the dissemination of work, and promoting graphic design, the web has been transformative. I asked the panelists where did they see their work having the biggest impact, or the biggest engagement? The answer was unanimous: Instagram.

According to Brook: “The website still I think is a good format that I like to use. But a lot of people I think, see it through Instagram.” For Stavro: “It depends on how you’re asking this. In terms of exposure, I think it’s a lot nicer people see it in situ or wherever it’s meant to be: if it’s a poster they see it hanging instead of a reproduction on Instagram. But the numbers on Instagram are amazing!” “I find it interesting:” Brook observes “Instagram is like a snack, and the website is more like a meal. Because you can you get full project and you can see you see the full scope of it. But as a little taster of what’s going on, then Instagram is fantastic.”

So if Instagram is the snack food, does that create an appetite for the more full experience? Does it polarise what people want in terms of print? “Yes. We did a book on a very obscure designer from the seventies in Holland. And within a week of putting this thing out, he was being talked about on Twitter. It’s incredibly satisfying when you discover someone’s story and you think it’s fantastic and you find that other people connect with it and agree. I can’t see how that would have worked in a previous life. [United Editions] couldn’t exist — the books couldn’t exist — without that technology.”

The National Library of Ireland has a presence on Flickr and other social networks. And plans are afoot for it to have a voice on Instagram too in the future. No matter the platform, the same underlying ideas apply. “I suppose the core principles for archivists are the same: to collect it and identify it as valuable and identify not just the content of it but the structure and the context”, says Finegan. “And care for it, make it accessible in new ways using technology as best we can. It’s what’s that little bit in the middle, of the care, it’s only four letters but that encompasses a huge amount in the paper-based work and the digital world as well. Care now and digital preservation now is what makes it accessible into the future.”

Words: David Wall

Photos by Ste Murray at the Future


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