Standards Manual pays homage to the era of amateur radio, resurrecting the art of QSL cards


Well known among graphic design professionals, Standards Manual is an independent publishing house founded by Brooklyn-based designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth in 2014. Their mission is to archive and preserve artefacts of design history. and make them available for the future. generations.

They have won acclaim by resurfacing in New York City Subway, NASA and EPA style guides. But their latest project, their 10th to date, is by far the most esoteric to date. QSL? (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?) is a collection of over 150 “QSL Cards”, showcasing the oft-overlooked visual history of amateur (aka “amateur”) radio.

We chatted with Jesse to find out how they did it and what the project taught them about design in general.

What is a QSL card?

About the same size as a postcard, a QSL card is a written confirmation of two-way radio communication between two amateur or citizens’ band radio stations; unidirectional reception of a signal from an AM radio, FM radio, television or shortwave radio station; or the reception of a two-way radio communication by a third party listener.

Archived from the collection of designer Roger Bova, the maps reveal a rich typographic expression of rare authenticity – each map is a personal reflection of the station operator.

“One of my favorites is the RBØHZ station; we use it as an example of ‘QSL Card Anatomy’ in the introduction to the book,” says Jesse. “What I love most is that the whole map is completely hand-drawn, but with stunning precision and just enough personality to not look forced. This ‘hobbyist’ approach exemplifies why the maps are so interesting. They are designed by each operator, who are presumably “non-designers”, but their decisions are so profoundly astute.

“This one in particular displays three different typographic styles: a geometric sans, a condensed sans, and a transitional serif. It’s not easy to pull off! Even down to the hand-drawn border, the balance between precision and personality is perfectly perfect.”

He adds: “It’s hard to pick my favourites, but if I had to make another pick it would be Station HA5KAG full-back, especially for his ‘ORION’ logo. I remember seeing that symbol during our first look at the cards, and I thought, “That’s what makes every card so special”, which is the little icons and markings that probably go unnoticed.

“But when you zoom them up to see the detail, they’re juicy! This phenomenon is repeated throughout the collection, and that’s what we tried to amplify as much as possible.”

Echoes to the present

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 are strikingly similar to today’s social media handles. today.

Each card prominently displays a typographical call sign on the front, often followed by technical coordinates on the back. They were usually produced either by the radio operators themselves or by a local print shop. And the results are broad in their approach: some minimal, some maximal, hand-drawn, photographic or hybrid.

This collection, however, is a bit special.

After discovering the stack of cards in an antique store in upstate New York, Bova began searching for the repeating call sign he noticed as the receiver for each card: station W2RP. It turned out to be that of the late Charles Hellman of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.

As the ARRL (National Association for Amateur Radio) reported, Hellman “not only may have been the oldest surviving amateur radio operator in the United States, but, at age 92, may also have been the oldest dismissed”. He died in 2017 at the age of 106, and this book is a window into the community he and thousands of others were a part of.

Typographic themes

The maps in the book are displayed in chronological order, from the late 1970s to 1989. Each is presented at a 1:1 scale with no changes to its original design, including the front and back. Throughout the book, detail is included next to particular maps, magnifying various elements to 500-600% scale. This decision was made during the early planning stages of the book, which the editors thought designers, archivists and radio enthusiasts would appreciate.

“Typographically, there isn’t necessarily a standardized visual theme,” says Jessie. “But I would say that most cards display their call sign in all caps. For this reason, I think a lot of operators are going for bolder type, but again, that’s not a universal truth. I will say, in terms of color choices, red, blue and black seem to be the most common, hence our choices for the book cover design.”

That said, another reference document included in the introduction – written by researcher Marc Da Costa, who also provided the supporting images – is a spread from CQ magazine, which suggests how to design your own QSL card. The text goes into surprisingly poignant detail about best practices for approaching design. As a passage reads: “Type face [sic], or lettering style, can also have a subtle but noticeable influence on the conveyance of the printed message. Obviously a full, blocky, bold typeface would be much more suited for use by a contractor or blacksmith than a jeweller, the latter getting a better representation of a graceful type or style. ‘writing.”

Origins of the project

So how was the project born? “When we were shown each QSL card, less than 30 seconds passed before we knew we had to check them in for a book,” says Jesse. “Amateur radio was a familiar subject for us as a hobby, but we had never seen this aspect of the practice. As graphic designers ourselves, producing work with such care, freedom and character is nearly impossible to do in the corporate world – we all need this reminder that design can be personal and fun!”

As Marc Da Costa notes in the book’s introduction, “The sending of physical QSL cards has recently declined, but the ARRL office still handles hundreds of thousands each year.” The publishers hope this book can inspire a new generation of hams, designers or collectors of visual culture, to appreciate the slower modes of communication of yesteryear.

Jesse adds: “Honestly, some of the maps from the 70s and 80s, in this book, at least, are just as contemporary as a Nike or Starbucks campaign is today. Of course, there are examples that some designers would consider mediocre, but that’s subjective and up to you. Like our other 2019 title parks, there’s something for everyone, which is precisely the beauty of a diverse and “incoherent” set of work generated by the community.

Contemporary relevance

And it’s not just an exercise in nostalgia, he continues. “If there’s one major takeaway from QSL cards, it’s their precedent to what social media is today,” says Jesse. “Callsigns are our modern social identifier, and their design is no different than your profile avatar. This was Twitter before Twitter, and instead of a follower, you got a QSL; a lot more satisfying if you ask me.”

And he hopes readers will enjoy learning about QSL cards as much as he did. “Before our collaborator – Roger Bova, owner of the collection – presented his discovery to us, we knew nothing about this particular aspect of the amateur radio community”, he explains. “After digging deeper and learning more from Da Costa’s fantastic research, we were won over by the component of the QSL card: its creativity, its role and its representation of the act of ‘handshaking’.

“As practicing designers, it’s so refreshing to learn about a design practice that has been around for so long, but is only familiar to a group of people who are actively involved in the practice. It shows that there are always new communities, art forms, and expressions in the world. Never stop looking!”


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