How One Collector Uncovers Graphic Gems Via Discarded High School Yearbooks

June 20th, 2023

1977 West Valley High School, Fairbanks, AK (detail). Courtesy of Veronica Kraus

The best collections are those that inspire us, help us see the world in a different light, and make us wonder, “What ever happened to my high school yearbooks?” At least that’s the case with the collection belonging to Veronica Kraus. Currently, the Minneapolis-based art director/designer shares the graphic gems she finds on her Instagram account High School High. “I’m always seeking new and varied forms of visual inspiration to keep my perspective fresh, and vintage yearbooks have been a huge part of that.”

Case in point: the 1980 yearbook from Art and Design High School in New York City. Kraus says it’s one of her favorites. “It feels like a slightly unfair choice given that it’s one of the top public arts schools in the country and boasts alumni like Vladimir Kagan, Barbara Nessim, and Calvin Klein, but that’s also what makes it so special. In addition to traditional pages of student portraits, the yearbook contains a sprawling creative showcase of the remarkably talented graduating class in areas like painting, drawing, photography, fashion, costume design, architecture, and graphic arts. The work is incredibly diverse and impressive, especially when you consider the age of the students and the limit of technology at the time.”

1980 Art and Design High School, NYC

1980 Art and Design High School, NYC. Courtesy of Veronica Kraus

For Kraus, the yearbook collecting journey started in 2019. “A 23andMe connection helped my mom (who was adopted at birth) learn the names of her biological parents. I started scouring the Internet, trying to find photos of them, which led me to seek out high school yearbooks as a resource. As a designer/art director and avid scavenger of ephemera and inspiration, I quickly became obsessed with the unique, unpretentious design and nostalgic encapsulation of American youth culture over the decades.”

Every ephemeral item has a story to tell.

She continues, “While I do a lot of antiquing/thrifting, the bulk of what I post is found online. There are a handful of databases you can peruse in exchange for creating an account, Classmates being the biggest. The kicker is that none of these sites give you a gallery or preview, so you either have to know the specific school you’re looking for or do a lot of digging and gambling, which just so happen to be my favorite pastimes.” 

1972 Homestead High School, Mequon-Thiensville, WI. Courtesy of Veronica Kraus

Looking at her collection of yearbooks as a whole, you can’t help but feel a sense of appreciation and awe for the amount of digging and gambling it must have taken to compile such a treasure trove of annuals. “Many yearbooks were (and still are) created using company-provided templates, which often equates to a ubiquitous design and less creative involvement from students,” Kraus says.

Taking a templatized approach explains why so many yearbooks (including the ones I received throughout my childhood) are rather lackluster from a visual point of view. However, the schools that take the initial template and use it as a jumping off point for creative collaboration between students (with the help of a faculty advisor) is where the magic happens. I think we can safely assume that all the examples presented here fall squarely into this category. “I believe the yearbooks created by students are the most exciting and inspiring,” says Kraus.

1984 South High School, Fargo, ND

1984 South High School, Fargo, ND. Courtesy of Veronica Kraus

Visually speaking, the yearbooks in this collection loosely followed the predominant graphic design and illustration trends of the day. According to Kraus, this meant “editorial spreads and photo collages” in the 1960s, “psychedelia and grooviness” in the 1970s, and “rainbows, airbrush, graffiti, neon, and technology” in the 1980s.

In most cases, the graphic nuances of these yearbooks likely went unnoticed by their recipients, who would have been more interested in the photos of themselves and their friends—not to mention the pages in front and back where the signatures go. Nevertheless, the design of these yearbooks reflects the people and culture of the school at the time, making them valuable and informative visual time capsules.

1978 Glenwood High School, Phenix City, AL

1978 Glenwood High School, Phenix City, AL. Courtesy of Veronica Kraus

Incidentally, they are chock-full of historical information as well. For example, you can see what teenagers in Aberdeen, Idaho, were wearing in 1967; local businesses operating in and around Anchorage, Alaska, in 1975; or, for genealogical purposes, who was in the graduating class of Sandia High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1988.

Speaking of history, the origin of the yearbook goes back to the mid–1800s when an American photographer named George Warren came up with a clever (and highly profitable) idea for utilizing the relatively new technology of glass negatives. According to National Public Radio, Warren began taking portraits of college students in Boston, selling them multiple copies of the same photo, which they could then trade with friends. Warren encouraged the students to get the photos bound into an album by a local bookbinder to preserve the memories, and—voila!—the concept of the yearbook was born.

1981 Henderson High School, Chamblee, GA. Courtesy of Veronica Kraus

What makes these yearbooks stand out from, say, a trade paperback or album cover from the same time period is the youthful, DIY sensibility embedded in its pages. Look closely and you’ll notice hand-drawn letterforms with off-kilter proportions; layout page designs with inconsistent and/or awkward spacing; a mish-mash of graphic styles; and a general disregard for “design rules” in favor of unbridled and exuberant play.

Ultimately, this is what makes High School High feel so charming and refreshing. Especially today, when artwork can be manipulated to sterile perfection through powerful apps like Photoshop and Figma, these collectible volumes, with their imperfect, experimental feel, serve as a window into a pre-digital past and a pleasant reminder of what’s possible through a more naive approach to design.

1971 Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, MD

1971 Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, MD. Courtesy of Veronica Kraus

When asked about the importance of collecting paper ephemera in a world that has gone digital, Kraus concludes, “As much of a digital archive enthusiast as I am, I believe that nothing beats feasting the senses on tactile source material. Every ephemeral item has a story to tell—one that is worth preserving and analyzing—and with each additional item collected that story becomes richer and deeper. If seeing is believing then collecting is understanding.”

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