When Matthew Jones was a teenager, he would regularly purchase packs of blank VHS tapes at the Walgreens opposite his house, or sometimes at a local Blockbusters or nearby K-Mart. Like many of us who were around before the permanent sense of indecision catalyzed by on-demand, Jones grew up making off-air recordings, editing deck-to-deck, and hoarding VHS tapes. He didn’t really appreciate the aesthetics of the blank tapes that he was using, though. They were functional, with ubiquitous cardboard slips, rainbow ribbons, flashy triangles, and loud gradients.
As an adult, Jones took a job at a business that made its money transferring old family films and tapes to DVD and file. It was here that he realized that many of the VHS tapes he looked at day after day were actually quite stunning; their thin grey strips quite elegant, the variety of designs almost ingenious. “I found myself slowly noticing more and more design details, and I wondered who these designers were,” Jones says.
When the company he worked at acquired a commercial printer with a scan bed on top, Jones began to scan tapes. Looking around on Google, he saw hardly any high-resolution images of these little pieces of everyday ephemera. There were plenty of horror and VHS box art scans, “but no love for the lowly home recording tape box that had been part of so many homes and families.” From this realization, the Vault Of VHS was born, a blog dedicated to the design of retail VHS packaging for both home and pre-recorded tapes.
To date, Jones has amassed and identified over 400 unique designs. No two are the same, though many look it. The exact years of most tapes are hard to determine, but from the few tapes that do have design dates on them, we see the collection ranges from late 1979 to around 2003. There’s something captivating about this trove of rainbow wheels, thin grids, stretched sans serifs, 3D type, and radiant orbs floating above pools of undulating liquid. The packs are curious, because for objects that contain very little information—simply minutes, format, and company—they’re so heavily designed. Designers at the time were evidently given a lot of creative license with these products, and because they were dealing with a small amount of content, they found flashy and engaging ways to stand out. While at the time VHS tapes might have felt stale and ordinary to the everyday consumer, today, their designs have the same appeal of heavily graphic posters, where color and typography come together purely for the sake of it, rather than to communicate a specific message.
By far the most common VHS motif is straight rainbow lines. “Some seem to say, obviously, ‘three colors make a tv signal’ or ‘color means quality’,” says Jones. “But others seem to be design holdovers from a previous era, relying on muted yellow, orange, and brown as a rainbow, harking back to a disco era the lead designer or design team couldn’t quite shake as they were dragged, kicking and screaming, into a new decade. The multicolored bands fascinate me endlessly. They can look futuristic, but with just the wrong tilt, or slightly varied color palette—even for the time—instantly archaic. You’ll pardon the pun, but it’s a fine line to walk.”
Here, Jones takes us through a number of designs from his Vault Of VHS Tumblr. Think of it as one of those ‘best-of’ countdown shows that video was so perfectly designed to preserve, if it happened to coincide with an unmissable episode of Saved by the Bell.