Digital design collections are museums’ latest trend

Museums have collected design objects for ages. The V&A in London was founded in 1852; the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) established its design department 80 years after that. For a long time they chugged along, building collections of furniture and tableware, posters and other works of graphic design on paper, consumer goods and the like.

But the advent of digital, computer-based technologies since World War II—especially the rise of the personal computer in the 1980s and ’90s—has raised new questions for museum design departments about what sort of things they should be in the business of collecting. How do you collect a digital file, for example?

We decided to undertake a small survey of the digital design holdings of a few key museums: the V&A, MoMA, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), which started its design collection in 1982, well into the digital era.

The results are fascinating. They provide a clear picture of what kinds of objects curators believe to have played a key role in the development of digital design, and what sort of digital design history we will be telling years down the road.

1. V&A

digital design at V&A
“Oscillon 40” and “Studies in Perception” via V&A

The V&A has strong holdings in so-called computer art. In the early days, from the 1940s through the 1970s, this was a pretty straightforward category, since not many artists were using computers.

The collection includes Ben Laposky’s “Oscillon 40” (1952), which manipulated electronic waves using an oscilloscope to form an image, and Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton’s ‘Studies in Perception’ (1967), which replaced the grayscale of a photograph with electronically produced symbols to form the image of a nude woman. At 12 feet long, the picture is perceptible only from afar.

digital design collection at V&A
“Page” number 45, “Forest Devil’s Moon Night,” “Dark Filament,” via V&A

As we round from the 1970s into the 1980s, however, the term “computer art” becomes more muddled, as much graphic design begins using computers. Eventually the term came to denote a new niche of art production.

It is represented in the V&A collection by works like Kenneth Snelson’s “Forest Devils Moon Night” (1989), one half of a stereoscope that combines with its other half to form a 3D image, and James Faure Walker’s “Dark Filament” (2007), an abstract image that is not readily identifiable as either a digital work or a conventional painting.

2. MoMA

digital design collection at MoMA
OCR-A, Oakland, HTF Didot, and Verdana, via MoMA

MoMA has a strong collection of historic typefaces. Some of them, like HTF Didot, which was developed for Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1991, are not native to the digital sphere, but many are.

Among them are OCR-A, the first font designed for Optical Character Recognition computer software (1966); Oakland (1985), a font designed for the low resolution display of the 1984 Apple Mac; and Verdana (1996), developed by Microsoft for the higher resolution screen environments that we are used to today.

digital design collection at MoMA
Pac Man, Tetris, and The Sims, via MoMA

Computer games form another interesting component of MoMA’s digital design collection. They range from arcade classics like Pac Man (1980), which pioneered the use of an interactive flat landscape, and Tetris (1984), to more sophisticated games created after the turn of the millenium.

Perhaps the most iconic example of the latter is The Sims (2000), which simulates the lives of a family living in a suburban household within a microcosmic city, all under the control of the player.

3. Cooper Hewitt

mobile phone collection at Cooper Hewitt
Dancall 5000 cordless phone and iPhone, via Cooper Hewitt

Cooper Hewitt has diligently collected not only the artistic products of computer software, but also the devices that created the digital world we inhabit today. Often, a clear narrative of technological advance is evident.

For example, they hold a Dancall 5000 Cordless Phone—dating back to 1986, it is one of the earliest of its kind—as well as a first edition iPhone (2007), the prototype for the modern smartphone.

digital animation collection at Cooper Hewitt
Concept art for Inside Out, Toy Story 3, and Ratatouille, via Cooper Hewitt

Cooper Hewitt has also collected concept art for digital animation films like Ratatouille (2007), Toy Story 3 (2010), and Inside Out (2015), in great depth.

The relationship of these concept drawings to digital design is tenuous; indeed, many of them are produced using more conventional artistic methods like ink drawing and painting. But as a genre, there is no question that computer animated films by studios like Pixar and Dreamworks have played a truly revolutionary role.

4. SFMoMA

digital design collection at SFMOMA
Apple Macintosh, via SFMoMA

Since it started its design collection in 1982, you’d expect SFMoMA to have no problem getting with the digital program, and that seems to have been the case. Just two years later the museum identified the Apple Macintosh, which pioneered the use of a Graphical User Interface and mouse for PCs, as a worthy object for the museum’s inventory.

digital design collection at SFMOMA
Émigré Graphics Digital Fonts. Image via Letterformarchive.org

SFMoMA’s typography collection doesn’t run as deep as its East Coast counterpart’s. However, the institution did have the good sense to collect Émigré Graphics’ seminal Digital Fonts catalog of 1986. It will come as no surprise that Émigré Graphics is headed by Zuzana Licko, who created the Oakland typeface shown earlier.

wired magazine at sfmoma
Wired magazine spreads via wired.com, printingmag.com

Perhaps no publication has been more central to the development of digital culture than Wiredwhich ran its first issue in 1993. Especially in its early days, Wired was also on the vanguard of graphic design, employing artists like Erik Adigard to design complex multi-page spreads like the ones shown above, which sometimes used as many as 28 colors and utilized metallic inks. SFMoMA devoted an entire exhibition to a selection of these spreads from 1993 to 1997.

digital design collection at SFMOMA
Umi/Aki Java Calendar and Snowflake Java Calendar, via SFMoMA

Lastly, we were struck by a selection of calendars in SFMoMA’s collection. Yes, calendars—but not just any calendars. These digital designs date back to the mid 1990s and were designed from the ground up by John Maeda. Maeda started out as a software engineering student at MIT but was seduced by graphic design, and ever since he has worked at the intersection of these two fields.

Conclusion

One thing this small survey makes clear is that the digital design holdings of major museums are most dense within the time frame of 1950 to 2000. After the turn of the millennium they get more sparse. The pattern suggests that, with the exception of key innovations like the iPhone, we’re not yet sure what counts as historic digital design in an era suffused by the digital at every turn.

What digital design works would you nominate for a museum collection? Share in the comments!

The author

Alex Bigman
Alex Bigman

Alex contributes from New York City on topics ranging from branding and typography to the history of design.

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