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“Radical Accessibility” and “Serendipity”Are Key to New Initiative from San Francisco’s Letterform Archive

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“Radical Accessibility” and “Serendipity”Are Key to New Initiative
from San Francisco’s Letterform Archive

Nearly 1,500 items and 9,000 images integral to the history
of typography, graphic design, and written communication
now available FREE and accessible to all 

8 April 2020 — San Francisco, CA: During the Dark Ages, monasteries were the repository of knowledge and information. With the Renaissance, the preservation of culture and writing took flight with the invention of the printing press. Since then, the beauty of the written word has manifested itself in endlessly creative and artistic lettering styles and typefaces. Nowhere on Earth is this beauty, creativity and artistry more important – or more available, free, to the entire world — than at San Francisco’s nonprofit Letterform Archive ( This unparalleled collection of typographical artifacts, the digitization of which has been a four-year labor of love, is debuting online in a moment when the world needs it the most. 

“This has been a dream since before the archive opened five years ago, and this launch was planned long ago,” says Rob Saunders, founder and executive director of Letterform Archive. “But what a perfect moment for radical accessibility.”  

Normally, Letterform Archive, located in San Francisco’s creative Dogpatch neighborhood, is strictly a “brick and mortar” collection where artists, scholars, and the font-loving public come in and learn from – and touch – a collection ranging from a 4,000-year-old cuneiform clay tablet to a page from a Gutenberg Bible to style manuals from Apple Computer. From a fifteenth-century handmade Rothschild Book of Hours to psychedelic ’60s posters and the early pixelated digital type designs of the 1980s , it is a collection unparalleled in the Bay Area and unique across the world. 

For the last four years, Saunders and his team of librarians, curators, developers, and designers have been preparing for this moment: making its world-class digital trove of typographical artifacts available – free of charge – to anyone and everyone on the planet. The Archive’s online repository of digitized materials related to lettering, typography, calligraphy, and graphic design spans thousands of years of history. Opened as a beta in 2018, the Online Archive was previously available to members only.

The Archive developed its own photography standards, in consultation with E. M. Ginger of 42-Line, to produce high-fidelity imagery that is as true to the original as possible. Visitors can zoom in and pan around the images for a more detailed view of each object. Viewers will gain access to materials in a variety of formats, including books, periodicals, packaging, posters, original artwork, sketches, type specimens, and related ephemera. 

“Many of our materials are unique, curated from designers’ archives or donated by collectors. They represent centuries of design history for the benefit of current and future generations of design students, professionals, and researchers,” said Saunders, a collector of the letter arts for over 40 years. In 2015, his personal passion opened to the public, eventually offering hands-on access to a curated collection of over 60,000 items. “Some come with specific research ideas in mind, while others are simply looking for inspiration. Invariably, thanks to the breadth and accessibility of the collection, they stumble on something unexpected. Serendipity is key to the Archive experience.”

During the height of the current pandemic and its social distancing protocols, Letterform Archive has opened up the Online Archive to give people all over the world access to a lifetime’s worth of inspiring and informative exploration. The most obvious feature of the site is what Saunders calls its “big, beautiful imagery.” Nonetheless, Saunders and project lead, Librarian Kate Long, are equally proud of the metadata behind those images. Volunteers Murray Grigo-MacMahon and Websy developer Nick Webster developed the site and its incredible data architecture, while Jon Sueda and Chris Hamamoto led the charge on its exquisite design with Omar Mohammad.

“It’s the information that fuels the powerful search and filter functions of the site, and it’s written specifically with graphic designers in mind,” says Long, noting that this first phase of the site surfaces just a small percentage of the metadata collected by Letterform, with more to be revealed as the project develops. “Our challenge was to draw on our existing library services knowledge, but also rethink standards and terminology for the material and audience unique to the Archive. We wanted to create an intuitive experience for designers using the words they use, with a user interface full of rich imagery”

During its five-year history, Letterform Archive has welcomed over 10,000 visitors from 30 countries, including students, practitioners, and letterform admirers from every creative background. Later this year, the Archive will move into a new, expanded building, providing more hands-on access, when such access is once again available.

Saunders sums up: “This project is a labor of love for everyone on our team, with many generous volunteers, and we hope it provides a source of inspiration and delight to all who love letters and design. At a time when good news is in short supply and so many resources have gone dark, we hope to light a creative spark.”