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Helvetica and Supergraphics: The Design Behind Our New Exhibit

I sat down with Amanda Perez, exhibit and graphic designer at the National Archives, to talk about her  work for our new “Searching for the Seventies” exhibit. Halfway through the interview, we were joined by Dan Falk, visual information specialist and the audiovisual and structural designer for the exhibit.

The introduction wall to the "Searching for the Seventies" exhibit with an oversized Kodachrome slide light box. (Photo by Amanda Perez)

Amanda’s first step in designing the exhibit was to look for inspirational images. Some of the most intriguing came from the pages of 1970s home design articles, found on an independent blog. What struck Amanda were the supergraphics—large wall decorations popular in the seventies—present in most of the images.

“I remembered them from my childhood, from my parents’ friends’ houses,” she said.

In the exhibit, the supergraphics are meant to create a seventies vibe without detracting from the photographs, which are the true focus.

Designers from the Exhibits office matched colors for the supergraphic. (Photo by Amanda Perez)

Amanda chose three theme colors as the exhibit’s three-part organization emerged from the planning process.

First came “Ball of Confusion,” derived from a 1970 song by The Temptations. Jimi Hendrix, who died in 1970, inspired the color purple in the exhibit. According to Amanda, “Purple became a sort of theme.”

When she started looking at warmer colors to balance the purple, she knew that they had to use orange because it was such a staple of the seventies. Orange also fit well with the “Everybody is a Star” section of the exhibit.

For the “Pave Paradise” section, they “sort of settled on red.” Amanda knew they’d picked the right colors when they began looking at them in conjunction with the photographs. “The colors synced with people’s clothes, with the images,” she said. “It really is about the photographs.”

Samples of the colors used in the exhibit. (Photo by Amanda Perez)

The supergraphics and three theme colors also serve a functional purpose: the graphics, painted in the corresponding theme colors, lead visitors through the different sections of the exhibit. But the lines never touch the photographs “so that they have their own space on the wall,” Amanda said.

There is also an “On Assignment” section of the exhibit, decorated with a film strip pattern and featuring the work of four different DOCUMERICA photographers. According to Dan, these sections will lead the the viewer slightly outside the main exhibit into an alcove that focuses on the work of those four photographers.

The filmstrip runs along the top of the exhibit wall. (Photo by Amanda Perez)

The cases that hold the photographs, also designed by Dan and Amanda, are constructed from aluminum and colored with powder-coating rather than traditional paint. Powder-coating releases almost no VOCs and is considered more environmentally friendly than traditional liquid paints. These cases will also travel well if the exhibit is shared at other locations.

Besides color and layout, another important decision was the choice of fonts. The exhibit is Helvetica based, for both symbolic and practical reasons. The font became very popular in the seventies, and many businesses redesigned their logos using the readable, minimalist font. Both Dan and Amanda grew up in the DC area, so they’re especially familiar with Helvetica; it’s used on all Metro signs and literature. (For fellow design nerds: Dan, Amanda, and I also discussed a fantastic documentary about the typeface, called Helvetica.)

The font’s legibility was also important. Because there are so many photographs and labels in the exhibit, the designers wanted something clean that wouldn’t distract from the photos. Helvetica is a large family of typefaces, so it allowed for a clear hierarchy of headings and subheadings. To incorporate a  more playful feel while keeping it simple, the design team used a rounded condensed version of Helvetica as the largest subheading font. The exhibit also includes a distinctive header font called Gala, which is “funkier” than Helvetica and gives the exhibit more personality.

From top to bottom, samples of the fonts used in the exhibit: Helvetica Neue (body copy), Helvetica Rounded Condensed (sub heading), and Gala (heading).

When I asked them what they enjoyed most about designing the exhibit, Dan and Amanda had a difficult time deciding on just one aspect. Dan pointed to the design board on Amanda’s desk, saying, “That was the most fun.”

She agreed. “True. It was really fun pulling together the concepts for the exhibit.” Amanda, originally a photography major, noted that she also retouched all the photos for the catalog, so “I got to spend a lot of time with each photo.” Dan added that it was great to see the final photos because they had spent much of the design process looking at pink-hued reference slides.

Both agreed that it was exciting to see the final design come together. The walls have been painted, the photographs framed, and the final design elements pieced together.

“Searching for the Seventies” opens March 8—come see the photographs, as well as Dan and Amanda’s amazing design work!

(Wondering why these photos look so clear and crisp, unlike your 1970s family photos? There’s a reason! Stay tuned for our next blog post.)

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