What to Do with Design Stuff?

Did you know you are more likely to be a hoarder if you are a graphic designer than not? So says an independent survey conducted by me in February 2011, when I sampled five people—two of which practiced graphic design and three not. The former were stuffed with stuff. As a hoarder, your hoardings may be neatly and efficiently preserved in expensive acid-free boxes (48 percent of all those queried). Or they may be spread around, randomly filed, stuffed in nooks and crannies (most others). Yet either way, whether anal or anarchic, it is a pseudo-scientific fact that design stuff has a way of growing out of control and beyond rationality.

No matter how determined you are to do otherwise, design stuff is hard to keep in check. I recently agreed to go on a 12-step design-stuff diet, pledging to eliminate a certain amount of material that would be measured by weight. Every week for 12 weeks, my goal was to shed 30 pounds of stuff—light enough that I could carry it in a tote bag to, say, a flea market, but heavy enough that it made an impact on my overall baseline of stuff.

Disposal was, to say the least, traumatic. How can that much stuff be disposed without feeling wasteful, wanton or woebegone? This question touches the heart of “what is design stuff?” And why, “if it was important enough to keep in the first place, why should it be easy to delete from one’s life?” It never is.

Design stuff is material that makes being a designer, well, kind of fun—the paper or three-dimensional perks of the trade. Design stuff is the samples of other talented peoples’ work that by saving we hope their talents will rub off on us. It is the paper stuff we acquire by the bag load at AIGA and other conferences (things that we can never obtain in a single place anywhere else). It is the popular culture ephemera—vintage and new—that serves as inspiration (or just nice to look at) and makes us smile because of its nostalgic suggestion. It is the shelves, stacks or piles of books, magazines and journals that we cannot, or so we believe, live without.

Design stuff finds refuge in drawers, on shelves, in boxes; we store it in offices, apartments, dens, living rooms, garages and attics (basements are too easily flooded). Along with lint balls, design stuff is often hiding under the bed. Design stuff is mostly paper, but can also be packaging or points-of-purchase displays—it may be small, medium or large. We hang it on walls and pay considerable amounts to have it framed. Uncontrollably, we hunger and devour it in stores, markets, shows and eBay (damn you, eBay!!). Ravenously, we hunger for and devour bargains, but when they don’t materialize, we pay sizable sums to own the more rare and costly stuff (sometimes realizing we owned it when we were children). In fact, knowing that years ago Mom might have thrown out some potential treasure, we are even more conditioned to hoard anything that could be construed as potentially valuable in the future.

There are incredible stories about fortune falling from the sky into design stuff collectors’ lives. I once got a call from a lucky duck who, while digging through a box of junk at a second-hand bookstore, found nine pristine copies of—gulp—Ladislav Sutnar’s Catalog Design Progress, considered rare enough that the price at antiquarian booksellers generally hovered around $500. Do the math. That same person once found at a rummage sale—get this—an original printing of Jan Tschichold’s Die Neue Typografie, the bible of 1920s modernist type reform. The stuff gods were looking kindly on him. And there are more stories by both one-time and long-term seekers for whom design stuff seems to rain from the sky.

For many in our families, design stuff is just more worthless junk. My father once folded a very valuable vintage cardboard point of purchase display I had just bought, using it to prop open a door as a stopper. To me it looked antique, for him it was a relic of when he was a kid. It was worthless then, so why any different now?

Design stuff may not have an official value, but its intrinsic value is as high as you are wiling to claim it. What I wouldn’t give for a rare copy of a Burton Snowboard catalog (it was so beautiful). There are probably hundreds of people ready to throw out theirs right this minute, because it is old and no longer useful. Oh, the humanity.

But, frankly, I’m no longer in the market for design stuff. I’m a recovering hoarder. And I am committed to removing the stuff bit by bit, so I can live a normal life (like I did when I was 18).

So, what do I do with design stuff? Some I keep because there is an emotional/professional attachment. Some I give to friends, because I am an enabler. Some I sell, because I can always use a little money for food and clothes. And most of it goes to archives, because increasingly, archives, libraries and museums are becoming welcome repositories for the kind of stuff we designers think is important. Let someone else hoard the hundreds of pounds of stuff—I’ll feel better and look handsomer, too.