Briar Levit is an Assistant Professor at Portland State University and graduate of Central St. Martins College of Art & Design. Originally from the California Bay Area, she was previously the Art Director of magazine as well as an independent book designer. Levit’s feature-length film, , is a documentary about graphic design production methods between the eras of the letterpress and the desktop computer. Her current work is focused on helping expand the design history canon to include lesser-heard stories, highlighting the work of women and people of color as well as previously-considered banal work yet still tells critical stories about design and the cultures at large. Together with Louise Sandhaus (CalArts) and Brockett Horne (MICA), she maintains , a user-submitted archive of graphic design. This year, Levit is releasing her first book, a set of essays titled Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design History, for Princeton Architectural Press. We caught up over the winter holidays to talk about her numerous projects, Russian Constructivist women, Soviet cartoons, and the value of a rewriting of design history. (Interview has been edited for brevity.)
Can you talk about how you went from being a design practitioner, toward a fascination and focus on design history?
I came to design history because I’m a big thrifter and collector. I would be coming home with many books on graphic design production, mostly obsolete production manuals from the 70s and 80s. I enjoyed looking at the process and the steps, and thinking about what it would have been like to use them (I started school just after manual methods were abandoned). When I showed them to my peers, people I shared a studio with who are quite a bit younger than I am, they had no concept of it. It was all new to them. And I thought, well, people are interested in this!
I remembered having seen and how much I enjoyed it; how it opened up an understanding of something that had been clouded in mystery. I knew Linotype was a type company, but I had no idea that there were machines. I would go to the library and see books that were clearly letterpressed, but I wondered why they would still letterpress in the 1950s? This film answered many questions for me that simply were not talked about in school and did it in a really fun way. And I realized that a movie was a way to explain a complicated topic. I got in touch with the director, , who is also a graphic designer and I thought, if this graphic designer can make a movie, maybe I can as well. That just goes to show how important it is to see someone going before you to realize that, oh, okay, maybe I can do that too.
So that’s how the history focus started. If you make a movie about production methods in the mid-century, it’s going to uncover issues of feminism and misogyny. Issues of restriction of jobs. Unions came to light for me. I could only cover so much in a 75-minute film, but it showed me that there’s so many more things, so many more stories, and they’re all interesting stories. They may not be the most visually glamorous stories, but they are stories that relate to what we do today. There’s a clear through-line to what’s happening in design and tech today.
When we were messaging earlier, you mentioned focusing on collaborative history—could you explain what you mean by the term?
The idea of a survey history book written by one person seems preposterous to me. This idea of one person who knows and supposedly researched it all is just so flawed. So the book that I’m working on, Baseline Shift: Untold Stories of Women in Graphic Design, is a collection of essays by a number of scholars and historians, most of whom are also designers. It includes very under-discussed narratives of women in design and allied trades, going back to the 18th century, and up to the 1980s.
Would you give us some hints or previews of what stories we’ll find in the book?
There are 15 essays total. They are in chronological order, starting with one about British colonial printers, written by Sara McCoy, which have been covered quite a bit in academic outlets, but not so much in in more mainstream publications.
There’s an essay about about Louise E. Jefferson—a designer who got her start during the Harlem Renaissance and continued to design for decades. She worked primarily in publishing, designing book covers, picto-maps, and more. Her story is really fascinating and she also fits into a designer as author category because she went to Africa, did her own research, and wrote and illustrated a book about about African art. This essay is by Tasheka Arceneaux Sutton. There’s an essay about Bea Feitler, the Brazilian Art Director for Harper’s Bazaar, who is probably the most famous person in the book. However, I learned so much about her reading Tereza Bettinardi’s essay. There’s an essay about Angel de Cora, written by a Linda Waggoner who wrote a . This essay focuses on the . Angel De Cora is a Ho Chunk Indigenous designer, and lived a life balancing between a Western way of making work while returning to and finding her Native way of working.
My essay is about Ellen Raskin, who was a prolific children’s book and YA author. She’s best known for The Westing Game, which she wrote and designed. She was another Goodwill discovery for me. I had her book displayed prominently in my house never having looked to see who the designer was until recently. I had that thing where when I see that something from before 1980 was designed by a woman, I get a little rush of excitement, which is kind of sad but indicative of the need for more histories to be researched and shared.
and Sean Adams wrote about Marget Larson, who designed incredible commercial graphics with a counterculture quality. Somehow she was able to mix these two aspects; likely because she was in San Francisco in the 60s and 70s. Her name is virtually unknown now, but she was quite a big deal in her day. So she’s one of those who was just lost to history.
The collection of essays also speaks to the idea that design, historically, was not a solo thing done in a cafe. There were a lot of people that came together to make things happen. And it required money to have the space, to have the equipment. So these collectives would sprout up around print shops, and typesetting equipment, often related to either political affinities or a need to have a solid job and not being able to work in a print shop where women were not welcome. So there is an essay about The Madam Binh Graphics Collective which designed and printed as allies for the Black Liberation movement and others, written by And there’s another essay, written by , aboutNorma Kitson using her predominantly woman-run type shop to set type and print for the Anti-Apartheid movement.
And there are still more than this!
These notions about graphic design history also come up in your teaching. Can you talk about some of the ways you approach it in your classroom?
I believe in offering a lot of power to the students to bring their own research, interests, and culture into the classroom. I teach undergraduates so the research isn’t original, but it is self-directed, and therefore generates far more interesting results which engages the students to a higher degree. For their first project, I have them choose a topic—any topic that is graphic design, or, parallel to graphic design—I’m pretty loose about it because I want them to be invested. I then post their piece of writing to our . This has resulted in some exciting explorations with pieces about 19th Century Mexican printer , and their fetishization of indigenous culture, uprisings, , , and the history of the
As you’re encouraging your students, or perhaps someone reading this, to do their own design research—where would you suggest people start?
I’m biased. My other major project is the , which is an online crowd-sourced archive. Anyone can submit a piece of work—right now we have around 2,000 entries. We want anyone and everyone to help decide what should be a part of design history, what is entitled to be saved. I believe so many of us have little drawers of things that we believe are wonderful or important, and you can scan or photograph it. Perfection is not the goal, we just want to save it.
I’m also a huge fan of the , which is just an excellent resource. The quality of the images is incredible. If you wanted to read a whole issue of Emigre Magazine, the scan is so good that you can!
The truth is there are so many archives online, and so many of them have images. I recently went looking for images of Avon packaging, and I found it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised; this is the time of online archives. If you dream it, it might be there. So I encourage if someone has any particular interest, to search for it and just get lost digging. Some great places to start are:
- —Perhaps this one seems obvious, but it is fantastic! I don’t think I could have made Graphic Means without this resource.
- —I just keep ending up here.
- —Some collections belong to an impassioned individual. I found this one searching for Hallmark psychedelia and it is superb!
- —This just launched and is the work of Dan Rhatigan who provides an incredible voice in Graphic Means among his other typographic achievements.
- has vast collections available online!
- —Their online collection continues to grow!
- —It can be easy to forget this one, but Discogs is an incredible resource for learning about new designers and tracking down work for ones you are already interested in.
- —Couldn’t leave this oddball out since I mentioned it earlier.