“A truly tangible piece of code”: Patrick Fry unearths a graphic gem in punch cards

In the latest book by the London-based designer, Patrick investigates the visual history of punch cards, offering readers a whole new perspective on data.

3 February 2020


Patrick Fry is a London-based designer with an interest in ephemera that knows no bounds. For instance, the last time we caught up with Patrick he was investigating bricks, diving deep into their design language and history. Now he’s turned his interest to something even more niche: print punch cards.

“A bit of a strange one,” he tells It’s Nice That on this new-found love for a nugget of design. Patrick was pulled towards punch cards for their ability to “tell the story of any given book’s life,” he continues. Punch cards display the life of data before it was made digital, “an era when 1s and 0s seem to hover above our heads”, they present a time “when you could touch (and punch) data.” It seems slightly impossible to imagine that this was a way in which everyone interacted with data, particularly as the designer was “shocked to discover how important and ubiquitous punched cards are, yet so few people know they ever existed” – until the release of Patrick’s new book Print Punch: Artefacts From The Punch Card Era.

As a publication, Print Punch collates a narrative about these tiny pieces of paper and card through graphic details and archival photography, kickstarted from when the designer first saw images of people interacting with them. A jarring thing to witness, it “got me thinking these are so unique in the history of computers,” Patrick points out, “a truly tangible piece of code in a world we now associate with the intangible.”

GalleryPatrick Fry: Print Punch: Artefacts From The Punch Card Era

To build this narrative further, Patrick has worked with dozens of contributors – at first to “test the water” if the subject was worth investigating further. A number of people (“a mixture of professors, technology nostalgists, engineers and archivists”) shared the designer’s passion, volunteering to jump down the design rabbit hole with Patrick.

Unearthed as a result of not only a visual history of punch cards and their use, but also as an insight into the inner workings of various companies during this time. The IBM archive, for example, presented “some amazing images” never seen before in print, while an “exciting and dusty contribution” came from Office Magazine and “Pittmans Office Training” from the 1950s – discovered via the Land of Lost Content museum. Accumulating in 400 scans of punched cards, Patrick and his team began the mammoth task of editing, seeking out the cards that are “either usually interesting or important to the history of technology,” says the designer.

Looking at these artefacts in today’s design context, Patrick points out how many practising creatives today could learn from the “arcane beauty in the combination of grids,” or even tiny details like the “absence or presence of holes and the off ways that they are customised for brands,” he tells us. “I think some of this beauty comes from the fact that these cards are designed for machines primarily and not humans; it is true engineering driven design, but they had to be read by humans in some ways (such as early OCR dot matrix printing) so there was a tension between the two functions.”

Now released for designers to devour themselves, overall Patrick hopes that Print Punch offers creatives “a new found appreciation for the aesthetics of past office life and maybe a little less expectation of modern day technology.” It puts the use of data into a comprehendible perspective after all, displaying “the work and energy that went into computing just a few bits of data back in the 1960s,” overall helping to show “the miraculous leap forward to present day tech.”

GalleryPatrick Fry: Print Punch: Artefacts From The Punch Card Era

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About the Author

Lucy Bourton

Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.


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