Installation view of "Typeface to Interface: Graphic Design from the Collection" at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
(Left) Corita Kent, International Signal Code Alphabet, 1968.
(Center) Jacqueline Casey, posters for Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1968–1969.
(Right) Barbara Stauffacher Solomon, San Francisco Museum of Art program guides, 1964–1972. Photo: ©Henrik Kam. Courtesy SFMOMA.

“I’m a hoarder and a collector. I’ve still got about 300 of my childhood comic books. I’ve got all the issues of MAD magazine from the beginning. I have bubble gum cards and all kinds of funny pens and pencils from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s.” —Aaron Marcus

Marcus, an AIGA Fellow whose career accomplishments include physicist, mathematician, graphic designer, cartoonist, conceptual artist, professor, and author—to which I add design philanthropist—concentrates less these days on collecting and more on archiving and finding deserving homes for his prized artifacts. In 2014, he donated a substantial graphic design collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), including pieces that span the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s by some of the world’s most prominent designers. According to Joseph Becker, associate curator of architecture and design, Marcus’ gift added depth to SFMOMA’s existing graphic design collection, and allowed the museum to tell a more comprehensive international story in Typeface to Interface: Graphic Design from the Collection (through October 23), one of 19 exhibitions that opened in May 2016, following a three-year museum closure and expansion.

The new 235,000 square-foot building, designed by Snøhetta, increased the museum’s exhibition space from 70,000 to 170,000 square feet, of which 3,600 are devoted to Typeface to Interface. The exhibition is divided into five subtly color-coded galleries and features 237 items that provide a wide-ranging view of graphic design from the ’50s onward. During this period visual communication transitioned from a primarily print-based practice to include interface design for screen-based media. Artistic and conceptual experimentation edged its way into the world of advertising, wayfinding, and information systems, while structural formalism made room for free-form expression.

The exhibition reveals the push and pull of these different approaches; from the clarity and ordered sans serif typography of the International Typographic Style and its American interpretations by Casey and her MIT team, to the cryptic, organic lettering of Wes Wilson and Victor Moscoso’s psychedelic rock posters; from Vignelli’s modular information systems, Aicher’s Olympic pictograms, and Susan Kare’s computer icons to the expressive typefaces of Zuzana Licko and the rule-breaking layouts of Emigre; the unbridled freedom of Stefan Sagmeister and Martin Venezky to Nicholas Felton’s complex process of collecting and visualizing personal data in his Feltron annual reports.

Printed pieces and on-screen media are displayed alongside the analog tools and digital technologies that influenced these shifts, beginning with Marcello Nizzoli’s 1950 Lettera 22 portable typewriter. SFMOMA has commissioned videos that demonstrate and explain the significance of these tools and technologies, some of which are no longer available; like early software programs of the 1984 version of the Macintosh, the first mass-market personal computer with an icon-based user interface and mouse for navigation and input. Sketches by Kare for the pictographic language that she designed for the Macintosh in 1982 are also on show.

Another video takes a look at the 1997 hand-held PalmPilot with its stylus-based interface and Graffiti alphabet, a single-stroke handwriting recognition system developed by co-founder Jeff Hawkins. Another examines the iPhone’s interface and innovative touch-screen display by Jonathan Ive, as well as Google Glass, designed by Isabelle Olsson and Matty Martin in 2012. The exhibition ends with Viktor, a computerized drawing machine developed by Jürg Lehni from 2006–2016, blurring the lines between digital and analog. Viktor draws pictures in chalk on the museum wall that highlight key moments in the history of visible language.

Scattered throughout this vast showing are 20 examples from the Marcus collection: Swiss posters from the ‘50s and ‘60s as well as Swiss-inspired works by Jacqueline Casey and Ralph Coburn for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, posters by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, several of Wolfgang Weingart’s experimental prints, and New York subway guides by Massimo Vignelli.

Also featured are selections from three of Marcus’ own serial works, acquired by the museum in 2015. In Type Writer Type, 1966, Marcus created a variety of geometric compositions defined by the texture and gray values achieved by combining different mono-spaced letterforms typed on a typewriter. An early adopter of digital interfaces and computer-based graphic design, Marcus composed the interactive virtual environments in Cybernetic Landscapes, 1971–1973, using typographic structures and symbols coded in the programming language Fortran, which was first introduced by IBM in 1957. Poem Drawings, 1977–1978, which Marcus refers to as “visible-language experiments,” further engage typography and text as abstract sequences of codified forms rendered on a plotter according to a set of programmed constraints.

During a lively conversation with Marcus, I asked what compelled him to gather these items and hold onto them for so many years. “Well, I just loved the stuff,” he said. “I loved to look at it and now I hate to see these things lost. I try to be a good steward, feeling that it’s my responsibility to honor and respect and to pass on these things to people who want to see them and can appreciate them.”