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Inside the fascinating world of “ham radio” QSL cards

Before the internet reduced communication to the whiz of an email or text, sent and received within seconds, people had sloweroptions for staying in touch with each other. Some wrote letters, others sent postcards, and in the world of amateur or ham radio, operators relied on an obscure piece of communication known as a QSL card.

A new book from Standards Manual titled QSL?: A Visual Language of Two-way Radio Communication highlights more than 150 of these cards while shedding light on the fascinating ham radio network and the visual communication system that supported it. QSL cards, which stand for “I confirm receipt of your transmission,” were commonplace in the early 20th century, when millions of ham radio operators tuned into specific radio frequencies to talk with strangers and share ideas with people from all corners of the world. Oftentimes, operators didn’t know how far their messages were being received, so operators began mailing QSL cards to affirm that radio signal was received. Soon enough, collecting these cards became a hobby in and of itself.

A couple years ago, designer Roger Bova stumbled upon a stack of QSL cards at an upstate New York vintage shopand was immediately struck by their visual character. “I love that everything on these cards has been considered by someone who you wouldn’t think would consider it,” he says of the card’s amateur aesthetics. The QSL cards in the book are from Bova’s collection, which were sourced from the same U.S. radio operator and span the late 1970s to 1989.

Visually, QSL cards are part postcards, part business cards. These pieces of paper gave operators a chance to express their own personality on a postcard-sized canvas. Collectively, they form an expressive kaleidoscope of styles, colors, fonts, and mostly hand-drawnillustrations.

Bova’s QSL cards vary wildly from sparse, utilitarian documents relaying basic information about the sender to more ornate cards, with meticulously hand-drawn typefaces, graphic maps, and quirky illustrated symbols. In the book, each card’s front and back is presented on a 1:1 scale, with some graphic details blown up at 500% scale. “This is the juicy stuff that designers get hot and bothered about,” says Jesse Reed, a partner at the Brooklyn-based design office, Order, and cofounder of Standards Manual.

For both Bova and Reed, the book is meant to provide unusual visual fodder for designers. “It’s like a morning cup of coffee, the inspiration to clear your head,” says Bova. But it also hides a few design lessons. Each QSL card is a prime example of “authentic” design at its best—the exact opposite of the polished graphic communication that corporations strive for as a brand pillar. These are genuine pieces from amateur radio operators who seem to have made a number of design decisions without overthinking any of them. “We can learn from that to be playful and not strategize,” says Reed.

The sheer variety of the cards is also a good example of how diverse creative outputs can be when we’re not all feeding on the same aesthetics in the echo chamber of social media. “There’s a sense of general groupthink in everything we create now, whether it’s your design work or an Instagram post,” says Bova. By contrast, QSL cards look so distinct precisely because people were making them in their own bubbles of creativity, free from the broad and pervasive frame of reference that informs so much of design today.



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