The Letterform Archive Launches a New Online Archive of Graphic Design, Featuring 9,000 Hi-Fi Images

An online design muse­um made by and for design­ers? The con­cept seems obvi­ous, but has tak­en decades in inter­net years for the real­i­ty to ful­ly emerge in the Let­ter­form Archive. Now that it has, we can see why. Good design may look sim­ple, but no one should be fooled into think­ing it’s easy. “After years of devel­op­ment and months of feed­back,” write the cre­ators of the Let­ter­form Archive online design muse­um, “we’re open­ing up the Online Archive to every­one. This project is a labor of love from every­one on our staff, and many gen­er­ous vol­un­teers, and we hope it pro­vides a source of beau­ti­ful dis­trac­tion and inspi­ra­tion to all who love let­ters.”

That’s let­ters as in fonts, not epis­tles, and there are thou­sands of them in the archive. But there are also thou­sands of pho­tographs, lith­o­graphs, silkscreens, etc. rep­re­sent­ing the height of mod­ern sim­plic­i­ty. This and oth­er uni­fy­ing threads run through the col­lec­tion of the Let­ter­form Archive, which offers “unprece­dent­ed access… with near­ly 1,500 objects and 9,000 hi-fi images.”

You’ll find in the Archive the sleek ele­gance of 1960s Olivet­ti cat­a­logs, the icon­ic mil­i­tan­cy of Emory Dou­glas’ designs for The Black Pan­ther news­pa­per, and the eeri­ly stark mil­i­tan­cy of the “SILENCE=DEATH” t‑shirt from the 1980s AIDS cri­sis.

The site was built around the ide­al of “rad­i­cal acces­si­bil­i­ty,” with the aim of cap­tur­ing “a sense of what it’s like to vis­it the Archive” (which lives per­ma­nent­ly in San Fran­cis­co). But the focus is not on the casu­al onlook­er — Let­ter­form Archive online caters specif­i­cal­ly to graph­ic design­ers, which makes its inter­face even sim­pler, more ele­gant, and eas­i­er to use for every­one, coin­ci­den­tal­ly (or not).

The graph­ic design focus also means there are func­tions spe­cif­ic to the dis­ci­pline that design­ers won’t find in oth­er online image libraries: “we encour­age you to use the search fil­ters: click on each cat­e­go­ry to explore dis­ci­plines like let­ter­ing, and for­mats like type spec­i­mens, or com­bine fil­ters like decades and coun­tries to nar­row your view to a spe­cif­ic time and place.”

From the rad­i­cal typog­ra­phy of Dada to the rad­i­cal 60s zine scene to the sleek designs (and Neins) found in a 1987 Apple Logo Stan­dards pam­phlet, the muse­um has some­thing for every­one inter­est­ed in recent graph­ic design his­to­ry and typol­o­gy. But it’s not all sleek sim­plic­i­ty. There are also rare arti­facts of elab­o­rate­ly intri­cate design, like the Per­sian Yusef and Zulaikha man­u­script, below, dat­ing from between 1880 and 1910. You’ll find dozens more such trea­sures in the Let­ter­form Archive here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Where to Find Free Art Images & Books from Great Muse­ums, and Free Books from Uni­ver­si­ty Press­es

The First Muse­um Ded­i­cat­ed Exclu­sive­ly to Poster Art Opens Its Doors in the U.S.: Enter the Poster House

Dis­cov­er Iso­type, the 1920s Attempt to Cre­ate a Uni­ver­sal Lan­guage with Styl­ish Icons & Graph­ic Design

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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