When designer Roger Bova’s eyes fell on a collection of enigmatic maps on an antiquities trip, he was immediately drawn to the embarrassment of the typographical riches he had found. He suddenly held in his hand a visual history of 150 amateur (or “amateur”) radio transmission cards, known as “QSL cards”.
QSL cards were personalized postcards created by a specific transmitting station that a receiver would send back as confirmation of receipt. For your information, they display its unique call sign (station code name) and have a gridded area to hand-record more technical contact details, such as band frequency, type of contact code (voice or Morse) and other shipping details. Graphically, each card contains the specific touch of the station operator’s personality.
While Bova initially viewed these cards as pure graphic gold, he also realized “that they were keepsakes from a time between the world of letters and the age of the internet”.
Some time later, Bova had a post-work hang and a special QSL card viewing with the designer and Order and Standards Manual co-founder Jesse Reed, who instantly had a “good, sick gut feeling” from the cards. “When we were shown this collection of QSL cards, less than 30 seconds passed before we knew we had to archive them for a book,” the standards manual team said. “Amateur radio was a familiar subject for us as a hobby, but [we] had never seen this side of the practice. Thus began their collaboration to bring this rare visual collection of a mostly unknown hobby to the world.
The result is QSL? (Do you confirm receipt of my transmission?), tenth title of the Standards Manual. (You may remember their other bangers posted as NASA Graphics Standards HandbookWhere New York City Transit Authority: Objects.) The rhythm of QSL? is displayed in chronological order, from c. 1977-1989. Each card has been scanned (front and back) at 1:1 scale without any modification of its original design. What is better? Throughout the book, they made the decision to enlarge certain details in specific maps to a scale of 500-600%.
For example, on the QSL card of the Radio Club of Orion in Budapest, there is a small station logo about a quarter inch high, but when enlarged it contains the graphic strength of the logo design classic. The boldness of the Orion logo dates back to Peter Saville’s 1978 visual identity for Manchester’s Factory Records, and even more so to the thick, blocky work of reclusive German designer Wilhelm Deffke. According to design critic Steven Heller, Deffke’s pioneering and prolific logo work numbered over 10,000 corporate symbols by the early 1930s.
The nature of collection QSL? contains extensive evidence of handmade and machine-made designs around the world. Loop of thick, mid-modern arrowheads on the old Czechoslovakia ham station, Tesla. A cartoon raccoon holds a daisy at Berlin’s Greika station. A block printed landscape advertises EA7QB in Granada, Spain. A more common design is pictorial illustrations of a station’s equipment configuration or an illustration of a handshake emerging between radio equipment and a globe.
In this myriad of visual communications, Bova notes in the book’s foreword: “After the left-brain excitement of engineering and building their stations, these operators had to harness their right-brain to create something thing – anything – visual. Each 4″ x 6” faceplate could feature a stoic government sign or a crazy sketchbook doodle, or anything in between. What is unanimously demonstrated is the graphic potential of the attention, freedom and authenticity of each operator.
Other visual tropes also emerge, such as the shape of a country or location, the station’s channel code featured as the most prominent type detail, and various symbols of the National Association of Radio Amateurs (ARRL) . While there are consistency from card to card, they are formatted in different ways and represent each individual operator in an unmistakably unique way.
The ham operators mostly chatted and asked about radio technology, signal clarity, equipment, and other exciting topics related to the hobby itself. As Reed says, “It was a real community. The way designers want to talk about fonts and color, they talk about the best gear or signals they’ve found.
Bova and Reed also discovered a recurring signal while archiving this collection. It almost passed, but a call sign appeared on each QSL card: W2RP. Subsequent research led to a happy discovery: W2RP was the call sign of the late Charles Hellman of Hastings-on-Hudson, NY. As reported by the ARRL, Hellman “not only may have been the oldest surviving radio amateur in the United States, but, at age 92, may also have been the oldest fired”. Charles died in 2017 at the age of 106, but his collection lives on in this book, providing a visual portal to the international community that was dear to him, and to thousands of other hams.
In addition to providing a graphical bonus, QSL? carries an academic slant that invites the public more directly into the fold of this community. One section includes definitions of all Q codes (as defined by the National Association for Amateur Radio), while another uses the anatomy of a QSL card to meticulously dissect the meaning of the codes. Anthropologist Marc Da Costa helped give this scholarly approach to the book, as well as penning its well-researched preliminary draft. Overall, this is a deep investigation wrapped up in a slick but no-frills book with a heavy emphasis on pre-computing visuals, depicting a group of hobbyists who wanted nothing more than to get in contact with anyone in the world. So even though radio amateurs didn’t say much outside of cheesy hobby chat, Bova notes, “the real communication that people were passing back and forth was the visual maps.”
Sound familiar? As Reed observes, “That’s what Twitter has become. You can contact anyone in the world and find their ID and they become part of your feed and community. And you talk about the bubble you’re in. The same goes for Instagram, TikTok, Chatroulette and all the other internet apps that host billions of people. QSL cards were the precursor to the kind of personalization you would see on a MySpace or Livejournal page in the 2000s.
Da Costa condenses this correlation best in the book’s foreword:[At] at its core, much of ham radio culture consisted of people just chatting to each other. Long before Internet-age social networks brought strangers together, radio offered an exciting opportunity to reach beyond the confines of one’s home or hometown.
While the initial enthusiasm for typefaces, colors, logos and illustrations inspired Bova and Reed to pass this archived collection on to the world, they also discovered more personal reasons for taking on this new book project.
Reed’s first venture was a skateboard business in which he used an early Yahoo! GeoCities site allowing the brand’s stickers to be sent by post to anyone who has sent them a SASE (pre-addressed and stamped envelope). He received requests from all over the world, such as Afghanistan and China, so he always had a soft spot for communication like this.
Bova, meanwhile, explains his personal connection to the collection: “My great-grandfather came to Cincinnati and he had a booth at Findlay Market. I went back a little bit in the 1980s. On all the fruits and vegetables, he put a sign with a Sharpie; and he developed his own hand style, basically like graffiti. It’s so personal when you do it by hand.
It’s nearly impossible to capture the magic of an object without holding and looking at it yourself, but somehow the folks at Standards Manual have done it. For example, Reed explains how the mechanically designed 1974 logo for South Yorkshire County Council reveals “minor printing imperfections and the art of printing and manufacturing repeatable graphic design elements.” I was thrilled to go into these maps and find so many symbology gems.
QSL? deepens the visual authenticity of this subculture with a remarkable and comprehensive collection of one of the oldest ham operators, respectfully archived thoroughly and integrally. In the editor’s own words: “There was no ‘this one is cool, this one isn’t.’ Which is cool.
This book can be a QSL card in its own right. Essentially, it’s an alternative written record related to our need to connect. Perhaps he will even find readers who own other parts of Hellman’s collection and inspire them to share their part of this vast visual history with the world. Perhaps Hellman’s family will be delighted to discover that their old possessions now have a new purpose, thanks to a couple of designers. Who knows? We will have to stay tuned.
(“73” is the radio code for “Best regards”.)
QSL? (Do you confirm receipt of my transmission?) is available on the Standards Manual website for pre-order. Copies will be shipped in November.