Rare volumes provide contemporary design inspiration


    By Dr Tom Roebuck And Dr Sophie Butler - School Of Literature, Drama And Creative Writing, UEA
    Darren Leader - Darren Leader Studio


    What kind of image do the words ‘rare books’ conjure up? Probably a man turning pages with white gloves in an atmosphere that’s reverent, hushed, and a bit stuffy. The Unlocking the Archive project, led by Dr Tom Roebuck and Dr Sophie Butler from UEA's School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing, has been about challenging that perception.

    At every stage, this project has been driven forward by creativity. There’s the creativity of academics, who’ve constantly had to find fresh and inclusive ways to present old books to new audiences. Then there’s the creativity of East Anglia’s amazing graphic design community, who’ve collaborated with academics to turn old books into sources of contemporary design inspiration.

    “It’s just been such an honour,” Tom enthuses, “to work in partnership with institutions like the Norfolk Heritage Centre and the National Trust’s Blickling Estate, which are home to such wonderful collections of historic books. Many of these books are works of learning that changed how people thought about everything from religion to history to their own place within the world. These are the original works of boundary-pushing, interdisciplinary, creative scholarship! What I hadn’t anticipated is that these books would inspire such creativity in those who encountered them. Looking back on it now, there was one figure who was really pivotal here.”  
    This was Norwich-based graphic designer, Darren Leader. From the moment Darren encountered Norfolk’s historic books in 2015, he was enthralled. “I recognised many parallels between Renaissance and contemporary design practice,” Darren explains, “like experimental typography, the application of grid systems, and page composition. This challenged the assumption that graphic design began in the twentieth century. In fact, its techniques began in the early years of print technology."

    Logo Redux Special Edition Cover
    Logo Redux, a collaboration between Unlocking the Archive and Logo Archive
    (Photograph by Andi Sapey)


    These ideas inspired an extraordinary collaborative creative project: ‘New Impressions: Redesigning Norwich’s Renaissance Books’ (2017), in which Darren challenged other Norfolk and Norwich creatives to follow the same path of discovery. A diverse range of designers, artists and printmakers from the Eastern region took part in a series of workshops and discussion groups to study Renaissance books, which inspired new creative responses. Darren reflected, “Individuals that would usually regard their peers as competitors were now united in a new spirit of design research.” Their creative work tackled everything from coastal erosion to the impact of social media, and was exhibited in a live, interactive exhibition alongside the old books that had inspired it. The whole collaboration raised designers’ business profiles and gave them access to new wellsprings of creative inspiration.

    Unlocking the Archive has simply become this unique collaborative community of academics, designers and library professionals.

    In July 2020, with many libraries around the world closed, Unlocking the Archive launched its first major digitisation project, which presents highlights of Norfolk’s rare book collections alongside creative activities inspired by the books (many designed by Darren). To date, the website has had thousands of users, including those who return regularly to keep on discovering the creativity of scholars, bookmakers and designers from across the centuries, and to renew their own creativity in response. The website has already attracted a new partner institution, Northumberland Archives, to join the project at the end of 2020. Dr Sophie Butler concluded, “Unlocking the Archive has simply become this unique collaborative community of academics, designers and library professionals. We are confident that this community is going to be finding new, creative ways to meet challenges faced by libraries, archives and the heritage industry for many years to come.”

    Logo Redux open pages
    Logo Redux, a collaboration between Unlocking the Archive and Logo Archive
    (Photograph by Andi Sapey)


    This blog post was written by Dr Tom Roebuck (LDC, UEA), Dr Sophie Butler (LDC, UEA) and Darren Leader (Darren Leader Studio).

    Originally published as part of 'Visions of a Creative Future', a collection of essays and reflections by UEA researchers and our partners across the region. These pieces were written from mid-2020 to mid-2021, during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their content and tone reflects this context.

    Discover More

    Discover Historic Books’ is a new website that showcases highlights of different collections of historic books to the public. Here, visitors are encouraged to explore the books and actively ‘unlock’ information about each one through a keyhole interface. 
    LogoArchive Extra Issue 5: Logo Redux is a collaborative zine conceptualised by designer, educator and researcher Darren Leader, working in collaboration with Unlocking The Archive and the University of East Anglia, this Extra Issue intends to revive interest in printers' marks and the inventive typography of renaissance publishing.