The unsung gold of amateur radio graphics


Any designer worth their salt in coffee table books is likely a big fan of Standards Manual, the Brooklyn-based publisher that specializes in standards manuals, among other design-historical artifacts.

The latest and tenth release from the editor is another beautiful title, this time exploring the graphics of amateur radio – better known as “amateur”. Simply put, amateur radio is the non-commercial use of the radio frequency spectrum to communicate messages, often in one-on-one dialogue and sometimes in friendly competition (perhaps checking lists countries that are difficult to reach compared to other radios).

It’s a bit like a clean, lightly jacketed, non-internet based Chatroulette in that users have no idea who they’re going to reach in a global network of other random users who might appear on their web of frequency. The word “amateur” is used to differentiate this use of radio from the norm commercial broadcastingpublic safety (such as police and fire radio) or professional two way radio services such as those used by taxis.

QSL? (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?), published by Standards Manual

The book is called QSL (Do you confirm receipt of my transmission?)taking its opening acronym from one of the “Q” signals used by amateur radio users to communicate with each other (its official descriptor is “Can you acknowledge receipt? I acknowledge receipt’). The graphic design piece of history comes with the QSL cards featured throughout the pages, which highlight, as the standards manual says, “the often overlooked visual history” of amateur radio.

“The maps reveal a rich typographic expression that is rare in its authenticity – each map is a personal reflection of the station operator,” adds Standards Manual. “A subject mostly unknown to those outside of the amateur radio community, QSL cards represent an era of global communication before the age of the internet, but distinctly remind us of the social media ‘handles’ used today.” More than 150 of these cards appear in the book, all from the archives of New York collector and designer Roger Bova.

Bova’s collection began when he discovered a stack of cards in an upstate New York antique store and began searching for the repeating call sign he noticed as the receiver of each card – W2RP station. He discovered that it belonged to a man named Charles Hellman of Hastings-on-Hudson in New York, who died in 2017 at the age of 106, and “not only may be the oldest surviving radio amateur in the States States, but, at 92, may also be the oldest license,” according to the ARRL (National Association of Radio Amateurs).

The cards each use a typographical ‘call sign’ on the front, with technical ‘contact details’ on the back. The radio operators (or their local print shops) have produced them themselves, and they show a wide range of styles and approaches: some use bright colors and bold, maximal typefaces; others take a more streamlined approach. The aesthetic is as varied as the countries these cards come from: there’s a Lance Wyman-like “3” on one card; another decidedly resembles the Swiss Modernist in its simplicity and elegance; and some use a gorgeous, bespoke type of display that’s rarely (if ever) seen elsewhere.

There’s also a huge range of different media: some users opted for hand-drawn illustrations and lettering, while others flaunt photographic touches or mixed media. Overall, it offers a nice demonstration of the prowess of much graphic design outside of the usual canon, created by people who may not even have realized its graphic design at all.

QSL (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?) is published by Standards Manual and is available for pre-order now;

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