They land with a thud on the doormats of the nation: Hefty booklets brimming with promise, giving teenagers a tantalising glimpse of the future they could have … providing they get the right grades.
But university prospectuses don’t just look forward. They can also offer a fascinating peek into the past. All that’s required for that shift in focus is the passage of time.
Deep in the heart of the library at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU), lies a lovingly compiled collection of prospectuses dating all the way back to the 19th century, and the Leicester Municipal Technical and Art Schools.
For a historian of DMU, they’re a treasure trove of facts about the courses on offer and the staff that taught them. But they tell a much wider story too, and they do it with just one page.
The various covers chronicle the changing tastes and trends in the world of graphic design and art over the last century and beyond. To the expert eye, they’re as emblematic of a particular era as flares, shoulder pads or a Rachel-from-Friends bob.
“I find them fascinating from a design perspective,” says Katharine Short, the DMU archivist. “Looking at them all in order is like travelling through a summary of twentieth century design and marketing history.
“Styles and tastes change, the presentation becomes more sophisticated, and the branding becomes more uniform - although they always aim to grab attention whether through their lettering, bright colours or excellent photography.”
The prospectuses are held by the DMU Special Collections archive, and you can see a selection from the collection in an online exhibition.
We asked graphic design lecturer Ben Archer, programme leader of the Communication Arts degree at DMU, to pick out some archetypes and explain what they reveal about art and design.
“When graphic design is done well, it is intelligence made visible,” he said, “If there was no theory of visual communication, then everything would be noise.
“This is quite possibly my favourite prospectus cover. It’s pure arts and crafts, and has the echo of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Glasgow School,” said Ben.
“Look at the theme of nature, with the plants rising on each side. Designers still thought in organic terms back then.
“People still experienced what we would think of as a classical education. They’d be told to go to museums, and draw Greek and Roman statues. That rigour in observation and drawing – which has largely gone to hell in a handcart in the last 50 years - you can see in the hand-lettering and the layout.”
“This one is clean and simple. The illustration is lovely. The organic symbolism of the 1900 prospectus has given way to observational realism.
“The previous prospectus had yellowed with age, but it is a monochrome print. This is a three-colour job.
“Like the 1900 one, it is an exercise in restraint. Good design will aim to achieve the maximum message with the minimum means. If you can do with that with a limited palette, then you’re quids in.
“This is the epitome of art deco. As with the 1921 prospectus, there’s a beautifully restrained colour palette.
“It reminds me of the metal friezes in the doors of the Hawthorn Building. I’m not sure if it references those, or if it was designed by the same person.
“In the 1930s there was an obsession with technology and the tools of the trade and that’s symbolised here. There’s a spanner, set squares, tubes of paint, a nut and a bolt, engraving tools … it’s referencing applied design and it’s a far more didactic image than the previous one which was saying ‘Leicester’s a nice place, and the campus is too.’”
“This is a very tasty piece of design, especially for a provincial college in the 1950s in the UK. At first glance, you might think it it’s a German design, or Swiss, or maybe French.
“People often appear surprised by the way developments in graphic design follow trends in fine art, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. With the rise of abstract expressionism, you get this non-representational approach in design.
“Once again the design has that economy of means. It derives its impact from a dynamic composition.
“This was done in an age when every character in a layout was a lump of metal someone had to fit in a frame and that had to fit the space around it.
“The date is on its side, but it’s a positive shape in a negative shape.
“It’s all produced in-house. It would have been a point of pride to do a good job. It’s the best possible advertisement for the college.”
“Between the 50s and late 1960s you get the rise of something called the International Style.
“It’s a very corporate look, and the composition is over-cerebral. But look at the line of type, with the two letters set to the left. That’s an act of the utmost daring. That gives the design tension.
“The purple background gives it a hippy-dippy and groovy flavour. That’s the kind of colour you’d see on a Raleigh Chopper.”
“This is one of my least favourite ones. You look back at it now, and shudder.
“The design you see in the real world is rarely a solo effort. It usually involves a team. There are checks and balances to stop people going out on a limb. In other words … a whole bunch of people provided this eyesore.
“But there’s a place for ugly in the history of graphic design. And it’s good here because it shows changing tastes.
“I can see a sense of humour at work, though. The top level of the game shows the graduands breaking through the glass ceiling.
“It’s not without meaning, however it’s much more explicit than the earlier prospectuses; they were hinting at the kind of life you could have if you studied here, but there’s no escaping what this is telling you.”
“In the mid-1990s, with the rise of stock photography, there was a craze for using wildlife images. But the last I knew, DMU is one of England’s most inland universities, and we don’t offer marine biology courses.
“This doesn’t have the personality, the grace or the economy of means that the others do. But maybe its job was just to be memorable.”
▪ Read more on the DMU Special Collections blog at: http://artsandheritage.our.dmu.ac.uk
Posted on Friday 4th August 2017