Graphic pioneers

Designers are notorious magpies, constantly collecting inspiration from obscure type samples or graphics of yesteryear. Paul Stiff, Paul Dobraszczyk and Mike Esbester of the Department of Typography & Graphic Communication at the University of Reading have done a lot of foraging lately, for their research project ‘Designing information for everyday life, 1815-1914’. Much of the most inventive designing of everyday printed material was thrown away, but the trio has dug up printed ephemera, from historical charts to hotel trade cards, railway timetables and mail-order catalogues. Victorian ‘information design’ was an intelligent, but little-known ancestor of today’s graphic design, says project leader Stiff, and some of the treasure trove will be on display at St Bride Library in London later this month in ‘Designing information before designers’.

The exhibition is organised under the themes of ‘time and travel’, ‘questions and answers’, and ‘selling and buying’. The variety of printed material is ‘as great as the occasions in daily life which required print’, adds Stiff. ‘Visually, they range from modest to brash, from fluent to tongue-tied, from off-the-peg ordinary to bespoke ceremonial, as well as – obviously – from penny-plain to fourpence coloured. We see ingenuity, improvisation, a willingness to grasp opportunities and to take risks.’

Designing information before designers/ Print for everyday life in the 19th century is on at St Bride Library, Bride Lane, Fleet Street, London EC4 from 11-29 January

Latest articles