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Graphic design analysis: potential case studies in Special Collections: Home


This resource guide was originally prepared for students in HA200, a course on the history of graphic design.

We brainstormed on genres and collections that might provide interesting subjects for the students' assignment to do an in-depth graphic design analysis.

The list turned out to be a wild assortment of genres and time periods, so it may serve as an eclectic introduction to MSU Special Collections. Enjoy!

Africana posters

We have 550+ posters from Africa (mostly southern Africa) and 1980s anti-apartheid campaigns around the world.

Significant categories in the collection:

Agricultural machinery & equipment catalogs

Cover of a catalog from the Belleville Threshing Machinery company

Thanks to MSU's history as an agriculture school, we have an extensive collection of agricultural machinery catalogs.

Art Nouveau era

January 1913 cover of the socialist magazine The Masses     

The Masses (1911-1917) and The Liberator (1918-1924)

  • The Masses and its successor, The Liberator, were socialist magazines which attempted to rally support for the working poor of the United States. The Masses gained a great deal of attention for its innovative graphic design and The Liberator continued that emphasis. Paper copies are now very rare!

The Yellow Book (1894-1897) and Savoy (1896)

  • The Yellow Book and Savoy were both literary periodicals published in London. Savoy was meant as a competitor to The Yellow Book but only lasted one year (8 issues). Both were associated to some degree with the Aestheticism and Decadence movements.


Cover of Penrose's Annual for 1915     Cover of the Penrose Annual for 1958  

The Penrose annuals (which changed their exact title over time) evolved from a review of printing processes to an international review of graphic design.

These are a great resource for finding examples of excellent design from a specific year or decade. 


Historically, "broadsides" were announcements printed on single sheets so they could be posted, typically on the outside walls of shops for passers-by to see.

In contemporary usage, a broadside is usually a poem or a quote from literature printed as a poster. They're often done as souvenirs of book festivals.

Modern broadside collections:

Reproductions of historic broadsides:

Dictionary Story

A spread from Dictionary Story, a work in which typography is used experimentally.

Dictionary Story is an incredible artists' book by Sam Winston, in which letterforms themselves are used to represent elements of the narrative. This is a fascinating piece, worth seeing even if you don't write a paper about it!

Fine press movement

Embellished title page of a book from the Kelmscott Press

Find books by important presses of the Fine Press movement:

Our catalog doesn't let you search by publisher. These are keyword searches and will retrieve books from each press plus books about each press. Sort your results by date and look at the oldest pub dates for the books actually produced by these presses.

Food advertising

Early 20th century Jell-O advertisement

Little Cookbooks: The Alan and Shirley Brocker Sliker Culinary Collection

This is an incredible collection of food and cooking-equipment advertising, with material dating back to the 1860s.

Under Advanced Search, you can limit your results by decade and limit to items with pictures. ("With pictures" means the item has been scanned, not that it has images, although most do have colorful images. Eventually the whole collection will be scanned.)

Greeting cards

Greeting cards from Mi Vida Loca magazine

Penny Pangburn Burillo papers, 1977-2001

  • boxes 1-2 of this collection have dozens of examples of invitations to quinceañera celebrations

R. Crumb greeting cards

Women in World War II greeting cards collection

Historic cookbooks with many editions

Squash and pumpkin pie recipes from The Boston Cooking School Cook Book

Some cookbooks are so popular they've gone through five or ten editions. One possible project could be to see how a cookbook's graphic design evolved over time.

The Boston Cooking School Cook Book. First edition 1896, 9th edition 1951. From that point forward, called the Fannie Farmer Cookbook after its famous author.

The Joy of Cooking. First edition 1931, revised editions in 1936, 1943, 1946, 1953, 1963, 1975, 1980, 1997.

Betty Crocker's Cookbook. Five editions from 1969 to 1991.

Indian Life Readers (1940s)

Illustration from The Little Herder, of Navajo mother and child walking outside

We have five books from a larger series of bilingual readers that were prepared in the 1940s for Native American children. The artists featured are all Native American.

These are favorites of mine, but since they are bilingual I thought they might also make an interesting study.

Letterpress specimens

NaPPygRam card with headline "Digital art is dead!"

Innovative printing on handmade paper

NappygRams collection

Rogue cat ate the gripping Mason...

Running thoughts

Zero: a prospectus for a series of moments...

Rob Run Press archive [1954-1995]

  • Robert Runser was a librarian at MSU and a well-known letterpress printer on the side. This archive (3 boxes) has about 250 examples of his work.

Movie programs

In the early days of film, going to the "moving picture" was such an event that audience members could buy a printed program about the feature, with photos and interviews with the stars and director. We have 300+ examples, going back to 1916.

Film programs are still produced today for premieres and press viewings.

Ration books

Image of an American ration book from World War II

War ration book collection from 1943 includes ration book with some unused stamps, registration pages, and a "Ration Book Wallet" with advertisements from local businesses.

Texts in English and Arabic

Small chart of the Arabic alphabet

English is written from left to right, while Arabic is written from right to left. The volume below has text in both English and Arabic: