We designers like to collect print samples to keep for reference or inspiration. It used to be called a morgue file, and maybe it is still. At one place I worked, our morgue file consisted of several tall filing cabinets with multiple categories of print samples. These pieces had been collected for years. My guess is, no one had regularly gone through to eliminate items no longer inspirational or useful. I knew there were goodies lurking in those drawers but I rarely dove in. There was simply too much stuff to sort though. The size of the morgue file defeated the purpose of using it for quick reference.

I recall once seeing the office of a long-time designer in DC who was well known and well loved in the design community. I was impressed, but overwhelmed, by his library of print samples and books. I wondered if that was a requirement to be a successful and good designer.

Of course, these days, one can find almost anything online, negating the need for a large analog collection of idea-generating stuff. But there’s nothing quite like sitting on your office floor with coffee surrounded by a pile of books and other people’s design work. As I get older though, my desire for simplicity increases. A shut closet door offers little solace because I know what lurks behind. Physical clutter is mental clutter to me.

I often pretend I’m moving, and eliminate things that once held interest and now simply collect dust. Each year, I get rid of more and more of my own saved print samples. I rarely feel as though I’m making a dent. But I vow only to keep useful or beautiful items. Soon, however, I face a real move. I sift through my collections of annual reports, small bound books, paper swatches and design books in between putting out client fires, designing a logo and processing images for a magazine, among other things.

Wherever you go, there you are, as the saying goes…as well as all your stuff. Often, I keep things if only to avoid having to throw something in a landfill. The beauty of paper is that one can recycle it. Or not, as the case may be.

Some of these samples I’ve had for years and they traveled with me from the east coast. I scratch my head in confusion over full bleeds of metallic ink, annual reports with super high gloss coatings, small mailers sent in plastic ziplock envelopes with foil confetti inside, thin sytrofoam mailing pouches affixed with cool labels. The best? A plastic jewel case (not even one I can reuse for a CD) with individual calendar cards printed with metallic ink on synthetic photo paper!

Cool though these are, I’m annoyed that I can’t recycle them. I kept a broken, but otherwise perfect-looking, coffee maker for ages, that I did try to fix if for the proprietary screw that prevented entry, only because it killed me to picture it sitting in a land fill. (Incidentally, I never replaced it, favoring pouring hot water through a plastic cone filter that will never malfunction.)

What’s the right thing to do? Transport all the non-recyclable samples to my new place just to keep them from polluting the environment? For the sake of friends helping me move, I want to lighten the load. I justify tossing these things because just yesterday I took my workhorse 13-year-old HP laser printer to get fixed. I take great pride in the fact that I’ve kept this thing for years.

All of this is a long way around realizing, nay confirming, a commitment to produce work that can be recycled, better yet, reused. I never want another designer, who might be looking at my print sample in her collection, to curse me under her breath!

Opportunities exist for creating beautiful work that also sits lightly on the earth. We’re more enlightened these days, or at least we should be. Though I don’t look forward to the move after this one, I’ll be interested to see what I find myself tossing out next time.

UPDATE: Just found–An event promo with a miniature plastic fly swatter and giant plastic flies spilling out of the plastic envelope.

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