Avant Garde magazine digital archive

Around 2013, Mindy Seu was in San Francisco, browsing through Adobe Books in the Mission District, when she stumbled upon the iconic fifth volume of Avant Garde magazine, the short-lived 1960s publication by Ralph Ginzburg and Herb Lubalin that to this day retains something of a cult status among designers. She snatched up the copy and started buying more rare issues where she could find them—in used bookstores, flea markets, and on eBay. By time she amassed the complete collection, she’d also formed a plan to digitize the issues and make them publicly accessible online. “I wanted it to be a resource for people, and make sure that they could see every single spread from every issue in high resolution,” she says. 

Avant Garde magazine digital archive

The result is avantgarde.110west40th.com, an impressively comprehensive, eminently browsable digital archive of every published issue of Lubalin and Ginzburg’s magazine. The site, which Seu launched in partnership with the Lubalin Center archives in 2016, lets users browse each volume by cover, and scroll horizontally through spreads large enough and crisp enough to actually read it online. It presents an index view of every spread at once, a hyperlinked table of contents, and navigation that seamlessly expands and contracts spreads and images as you’re sifting through. All told, it’s more organized and more enjoyable to browse through than any physical archive I’ve ever been in. And it’s available to anyone.

Late last year, Seu launched the site for Avant Garde’s sister publication Erosand earlier this month she put up the site for Fact magazine, rounding out the trilogy of magazines Lubalin and Ginzburg created together out of their studio at 110 West 40th street (thus the project’s domain name). Both figures were trailblazers in their industries—Lubalin in design; Ginzburg in publishing—and their work together was both striking in style and controversial in subject matter (see: the Eros court case that sent Ginzburg to jail for “violating federal obscenity laws”). Importantly, their method of magazine-making and distribution was forward-thinking for the time, which is an attitude that Seu carries forth in her digitization of them. Unlike other archive sites that favor PDFs and clunky plug-ins, the Lubalin-Ginzburg digital archive is a thoughtful, technically savvy example of how to translate printed publications and ephemera to the web.

“If you’re holding a physical book, it makes sense to flip through linearly and see one spread at a time. But there’s no need to follow that model when you have a digital interface.”

Even if the form of the original printed artifact is maintained, it needs to have a different browsing experience online, or else you’re just transplanting a PDF onto a browser,” Seu says. “If you’re holding a physical book, it makes sense to flip through linearly and see one spread at a time. But there’s no need to follow that model when you have a digital interface.”

Seu’s digital archiving project started out the way most do: with a bunch of scanning, which she did at around 12 cents a page at the Internet Archive in San Francisco. Once she had a prototype for the site, she reached out to Alexander Tochilovsky at the Herb Lubalin Center at Cooper Union, who helped her get permission for reproducing the spreads, provided resource material, and authored an essay for the Avant Garde site. (While the Lubalin Center offered research support, the entire project was self-funded by Seu.) When it came time to build the site, she turned to her friend Jon Gacnik, who coded it for free. “I pitched a pseudo-residency to Jon: ‘I can’t pay your day rate, but I can pay for travel to San Francisco, house you, buy you food, in exchange for building the site as quickly as possible,” she says. He built it over the course of a three-day weekend.

We wanted them all to be comprehensive, free, standalone archive sites, so the publications aren’t buried under an institution.”

After the site for Avant Garde was designed and built, the pair used the same template for the two other subdomains, tweaking it a bit with each release based on what’s most useful for the contents. “We wanted them all to be comprehensive, free, standalone archive sites, so you get this hyper-curated overview of each publication, and it’s not buried under an institution,” says Seu. The key goals of the design were serendipitous discoverability and ease of use. The site allows users to sift through covers and spreads through a series of “expanding drawers.” Each website offers several different methods for viewing and browsing through the magazine, by volume, table of contents, or page; when one image or section opens up, the other images naturally shrink down to their thumbnails, pushing the featured image forward, and allowing users to move through the magazines naturally. “We built a horizontal scroll, so you don’t have to click from one page to the next, which doesn’t really lend itself to naturally stumbling upon something,” says Seu. The index page shows thumbnails of every spread from every issue, allowing users to search by what’s visually most interesting, rather than weed through a list of text, titles, and names of contributors.

With the design of these sites, Seu is essentially rethinking how we might view magazines on the web. Resources at academic libraries, online archival databases, and even sites like archive.org typically rely on something called the BookReader view. This offers a module containing digital scans of the book, still in book form, with arrows on either side for “flipping” the pages. It’s essentially a book flattened into a browser and equipped with a search bar—and while it’s helpful for researchers who know what they’re looking for, it doesn’t lend itself well to the casual browsing of, say, a magazine reader. It’s certainly not built with very visual content in mind.

The Lubalin-Ginzburg archive sites solve many of these problems, but their template is not a one-size-fits all solution. Seu admits that the framework they developed doesn’t work as well for Fact, which is a more text-heavy publication than the others. The thumbnail views aren’t as effective in this case, and visitors to that site would benefit from a keyword search function. But what’s most important is that Fact, like all the sites the pair built, can be accessed with just a link, making all three of these publications far easier to sift through, enjoy, and learn from than they are sitting in archival stacks.

“It feels much less precious, which I think is important when you’re distributing a lot of information,” Seu says.