Queer X Design: Review

Queer X Design: 50 Years of Signs, Symbols, Banners, Logos, and Graphic Art of LGBTQ
by Andy Campbell, PhD
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers

Reviewed by Hank Trout

Most people, I would bet, look at an auto-dealer’s billboard or a flyer for an upcoming event or a placard with a social or political slogan or a t-shirt with some emblem on it without a thought all of the decisions about type font, colors, artwork, and messaging—all of the elements of design—that went into the object.

Andy Campbell, PhD, is not one of those people. Dr. Campbell, Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at USC-Roski School of Art and Design, is an art historian, critic, and curator. His work has explored the intersections of political movements, visual culture, and art history. His most recent work is Queer X Design: 50 Years of Signs, Symbols, Banners, Logos, and Graphic Art of LGBTQ, an entertaining, insightful, beautifully illustrated book that explains and celebrates the role of LGBTQ graphic design, and designers, since the Stonewall uprising in 1969—a sort of history of LGBTQ life and activism told through our symbols.

Beginning with pre-Compton’s pre-Stonewall pre-liberation of the 1950s and 60s, a time when the “love that dare not speak its name” certainly didn’t advertise itself visually, Campbell looks at, for instance, the covers for sheet music to songs of the early twentieth century, and finds Claire Lillian Ijames, an American cross-dressing vaudeville performer who, as Florence Tempest, was known, dressed as a man, for songs like “I Want a Boy to Love Me”; the tawdry, gaudy covers of paperback lesbian pulp fiction, including The Price of Salt by “Claire Morgan” (Patricia Highsmith); and artist Joan Corbin’s “jazzy, abstract” designs for the cover of One, one of the few pro-LGBTQ publications that existed in the early 1950s.

I daresay the majority of the designs that Campbell discusses are already visually familiar to most LGBTQ folk—the ubiquitous blue-and-gold equal sign of the Human Resource Campaign’s logo; Gilbert Baker’s iconic Gay Pride Flag (the rainbow flag); the logos for GLAAD and Gay.com and the ways in which they have changed over time; event- or site-specific works by Keith Haring; the AIDS Memorial Quilt (the NAMES Project) and the “SILENCE=DEATH” posters that almost single-handedly snatched the pink triangle out of infamy and welcomed it into the LGBTQ visual vernacular as a powerful symbol. Campbell discusses the historical context of each of the designs, how, where, when, and by whom it was designed, first used, and made a part of our visual language. His writing is insightful and entertaining and always interesting.

I have one small quibble with the book, and it’s really more of a note to the designer, oddly enough. Six-point text on very bright glossy neon pink (or lime green) paper is way too difficult to read. Dr. Campbell probably could have told you that.

Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.