NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 41

Archive

GraphicsRCA—The Graphic Design Archive of the Royal College of Art

Sara Jamshidi

The Royal College of Art (RCA) is the world’s oldest post-graduate art and design university. The initiation of its archives dates back to the first years of the college’s opening. The graphic design program at RCA began in 1948 by Richard Guyatt. At first it was located in the Victoria and Albert museum; since then the books, magazines, posters, and other student graphic design works have been broadly kept in several different schools (such as printmaking, fashion, and textiles). This archive was gathered in one place for the first time in 2014, on the occasion of an exhibition celebrating 65 years of the graphic design program at RCA, and was accompanied by a publication. This exhibition was since put on display in Brasilia (2015) and Dubai (2017). Nevertheless, showcasing an exhibition should not be the only purpose of maintaining an archive—especially for a broad field such as graphic design, in which most of the work is not produced for the purpose of gallery and exhibition display.   

I started working at RCA’s archive very soon after I started studying there in 2016. For one of my projects I decided to create a catalogue of the graphic design archive. The first step in making a catalogue is to become familiar with the collection. Therefore, we photographed all the works in the GraphicsRCA archive and made high resolution scans of the oversize posters. We divided the archive to two collections; the master collection is the most complete and pristine collection, which requires an appointment with the archivist to be viewed. We also created an additional collection that is managed with a more compelling method and is more accessible to users. Students and tutors at the RCA don’t need to schedule an appointment to access the collection and more copies of the items exist in the collection. For example, in any exhibition, one copy of a book can be used to show the cover and another copy could be available for browsing. Both of these collections are part of an online database and website. Since the collections are located in two different locations, physical browsing through the archive was not possible at the same time and the need of an online database became more significant. A photograph of all items in both catalogues is available for simultaneous visual research. This was the first step in becoming familiar with the GraphicsRCA archive. The next step in creating the catalogue was building a website that displayed the collection to the researchers in thematic categories based on the topics and concepts of the works. For instance, all the works created throughout the years about identity are categorized together regardless of their date, medium and final form. For this concept, I was inspired by one of Bob Gill’s classes where he asked his students about their ideas and concepts behind their works as opposed to the layouts they had designed. Another method of online viewing and categorizing the collections is completely random. Because of the serendipitous search categorization, the user is provided with items that he or she may not have thought about searching. Equally important is the accessible digital archive for cataloguing digital and intangible works including virtual reality, participatory workshops, and performance installations. In the archive room, a physical record accessed by visitors is also created, which in essence is live-archiving the GraphicsRCA archive. 

Having a unified catalogue is as important for future research and projects as it was fundamental to collect the works of graphic design in one archive for creating multiple exhibitions. An accessible archive not only has significant teaching relevance, it also encourages students to document their process. The works in the GraphicsRCA archive are significant from multiple points of view. Many of the works have been produced during specific courses and show the final portfolios made during a workshop. Passion for Print, Alan Kitching’s type workshops, and Research Design Publish are among the many critical design courses and workshops documented in the archive. These works are part of the College’s curriculum, and in addition to recording the final result, the collection includes their sketches and print-proofs as part of the process work as well. Therefore, an important aspect of this archive is to develop future programs with an eye to the pedagogical practice and curricula of the College of the past. Professor Neville Brody, graphic designer and dean of the School of Communication reflects, “… we take great inspiration from the past both in the way we run the program today and in our determination to create the dangerous minds of the past.” (GraphicsRCA 50-Years and Beyond exhibition program, 2017) 

The GraphicsRCA archive is located within an educational institution. This archive covers student lives as well as the structural programs in courses and curriculum. In different periods various professors ran the college, and these changes are evident within the works made by the students. For instance, the products of Alan Kitching’s type workshops in the 1980s and 90s are comparable with the works made in 2017 for Materiality of the Language situated practice course. On the other hand, some of the works in this archive are results of external collaborations or commissions by other institutions, museums, or organizations. Additionally, graphic design students have always designed the posters, catalogues, and publications for various events at the college. One of the most diverse collections in the GraphicsRCA archive is a poster collection for the Film Societies that dates back to 1940s and is still growing to this day. Studying the film posters from a visual communication perspective is as important as examining them from the aspect of the movies’ stories and the socio-political context within which they were shown. An unbiased archive documents the students’ works as well as the ideologies and concepts behind the designs. 

What is the main purpose of an archive? Can collecting and recording a piece of history be enough? To what extent are the chronicled works representing an unbiased image of their time? As a person who is trying to maintain a small part of graphic design history, are we considering the context and events around the design works in addition to the final products? Is this archive representing all the students with their different backgrounds, points of view, cultures, beliefs and experiences? Is this archive paying equal attention to the present and future of graphic design as it is to preserving history? These are only a few questions that we consider each day about GraphicsRCA archive. Personally, through the GraphicsRCA archive I learn about the past in order to impact a better future.

https://www.rca.ac.uk

Image courtesy of Royal College of Arts

Sara Jamshidi

is a research-led graphic designer currently living in London pursuing her Master’s degree at the Royal College of Art.  Raised in Tehran, she moved to the United States after receiving her BS in biology from Shahid Beheshti university. She studied Communication Design at University of Connecticut and Central Saint Martins in London. After graduation she joined Design Observer and Winterhouse studio, where she was senior designer and contributed as a writer.  Sara’s practice explores telling social and political narratives through communication design practice using various platforms and mediums sara.jamshidi@network.rca.ac.uk

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