The little-known graphic design gold of novice radio

Any designer worth their weight in coffee table books is likely a big fan of Standards Manual, the publisher based in Brooklyn that specialises in, well, standards manuals, among other design history-related artefacts.

The publisher’s latest and tenth release is another beautiful title, this time exploring the graphics of amateur — better known as ‘ham’ — radio. Put simply, ham radio is the non-commercial use of the radio frequency spectrum to communicate messages, often in one-on-one dialogue and sometimes in friendly competition (perhaps checking off lists of hard-to-reach countries against fellow radio-ers).

It’s a little like a clean, slightly anorakish, non-internet-based Chatroulette, in that the users have no idea who they’ll get through to in a global network of other random users that might appear on their frequency band. The word ‘amateur’ is used to differentiate this use of radio from standard commercial broadcasting, public safety (such as police and fire service radio), or professional two-way radio services such as those used by taxis.

QSL? (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?), published by Standards Manual

The book is titled QSL (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?), taking its opening acronym from one of the ‘Q’ signals used by ham radio users to communicate with one another (its official descriptor is ‘Can you acknowledge receipt? I am acknowledging receipt’). The graphic design history bit comes in with the QSL cards presented throughout the pages, which showcase, as Standards Manual puts it, “the often overlooked visual history” of ham radio.

“The cards reveal a rich typographic expression that is rare in their authenticity — each card a personal reflection of the station’s operator,” Standards Manual adds. “A topic mostly unknown to those outside of the amateur radio community, QSL cards represent a time in global communication before the internet age, yet distinctly remind us of the social media ‘handles’ used today.” More than 150 of these cards appear in the book, all of which are drawn from the archive of New York-based collector and designer Roger Bova.

Bova’s collection began when he discovered a stack of cards at an antique store in upstate New York, and began to research the repeating call-sign he noticed as the receiver of each card — station W2RP. He found that it belonged to a man called Charles Hellman of Hastings-on-Hudson in New York, who died in 2017 aged 106, and “may have not only been the oldest surviving radio amateur in the United States but, at 92 years, also may have been the longest licensed”, according to the ARRL (National Association for Amateur Radio). 

The cards each use a typographic ‘call sign’ on the front, with the technical ‘contact data’ on the back. Radio operators (or their local print shops) produced these themselves, and they demonstrate a huge breadth of styles and approaches: some use bold colours and popping, maximal type; others take a more pared-back approach. The aesthetics are as varied as the countries that these cards hail from: there’s a Lance Wyman-esque ‘3’ on one card; another looks decidedly Swiss Modernist in its simplicity and stylishness; and some use gorgeous bespoke display type that’s rarely (if ever) seen elsewhere. 

There’s also a huge range of different media on show: some users have opted for hand-drawn illustrations and lettering, while others show photographic touches or mixed media. Overall, it offers a beautiful demonstration of the prowess of much graphic design outside of the usual canon, created by people who may not have even realised it’s graphic design at all.

QSL (Do You Confirm Receipt of My Transmission?) is published by Standards Manual and is available for pre-order now;