Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Imagination Series

One of my prized collections is a stack of paper samples, called the Imagination Series. My collection is fascinating to read, exciting to look at, and represents one of the great turnarounds in merchandising history.

In the early 1960s, Champion Paper was a company that was virtually unknown to designers and art directors. It was a time when most paper companies hawked their samples as dull little composition books of blank, multicolored pages. Looking at paper samples was like looking at blocks of really subtle sticky-notes.

James Miho   |   aiga.com

That all changed after a survey confirmed that the company had no name recognition. From 1963 to 1986, largely under the direction of James Miho, Champion Paper produced a yearly sample book, each themed and extravagantly illustrated. There were 26 books in all (there were multiple editions several years), and their themes included San Francisco, U.S. rivers, Brazil, Australia, Hong Kong, the circus, catalogues, Main Street, time and trees — to name a few.

The sample books, which were often a full year in the making, were doubly special. On one hand, they contained hundreds of interesting facts pertaining to their particular theme. Here, for example, is a spread in Volume 16 — which was devoted to Brazil — on tiles:

But what was also special about the Imagination Series is that each page was a different type of paper, and almost every image was printed in a different way. Volume 18 — which was devoted to Hong Kong — featured a transportation page showing the different possibilities of black inks, including when used with silver ink:

In Volume 12 — which was devoted to San Francisco — there's a page featuring famous personalities associated with the city. Each portrait also represents a very different inking formula (which is true for images throughout each edition). I've selected three images that show how differently red ink (magenta) can be used.

The Imagination Series was aptly named because it showcased all sorts of imaginative printing possibilities and surprises — additional brochures, multi-layered die cuts, metallic and varnished inks, and pockets revealing folded maps and charts. The series became an immensely valuable printing resource for designers.

Of course such samples were very expensive to produce, so when the Champion Paper salesperson came to the ad agency, he could only spare editions for selective designers (the people who would actually order paper). Other employees would beg, borrow and steal (quite literally!) to get the the latest of the Imagination Series. Few people were as welcome in an ad agency as the Champion Paper salesperson, and the Champion Paper Company quickly became a leader in the advertising and printing industries. It also caused other paper companies to become more design-conscious in their own merchandising.

I still look through these splendid books for inspiration.


  1. What attractive and amazing booklets. They likely inspired designers in more than one way. I've read that the mental workout required by the complexity in these samples actually increases brain flexibility and capacity.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. Mark these are indeed most wonderful. Inspirational works of art in themselves!


    Art by Karena

  3. Hello, Road to Parnassus,

    It's easy for designers of all kinds, once something has worked well for them, to fall back on proven solutions and formulas. And people can work that way successfully for a while, but eventually slide into a mediocrity. The Imagination Series, aside from selling a lot of paper, infused designers with new ideas, perspectives and excitement, and in that sense certainly increased their brain capacity!

  4. Stefan of Architect Design commented:

    I've been having internet problems so I Haven't been able to comment -but I have been reading! The sample book you posted today is just amazing - I love catalogs like that! Do you have all 16? I assume that was from your collection.


  5. Hi, Stefan - Glad you liked the catalogs. You know, it's been about 25 years since the last Imagination Series, and I still haven't seen a paper catalog quite as exciting. All of the images in today's posting are from my own collection, which numbers 16 of the full 26 that were issued.

    Good luck with the Internet problems — I know how frustrating that is !

  6. What a lovely and useful set of catalog books for a designer to have. I really like the one devoted to tiles. I suppose that the decorative pattern on them was inspired by the Portuguese colonists in Brazil.

  7. Hi, Rosemary - Yes, the tiles displayed in that spread are to be found in Brazil's colonial towns, and blue and white colors predominate. The text says that today (1972), some of Brazil's leading artists create new designs for this old form, and artisans preserve the tilemaker's art with reproductions of the very old ones.

  8. I would be tempted to pull out each page and frame it, first copying the back side to put into another frame. Not very practical, but quite interesting.

  9. Hi, Valerie - I like your idea. It reminds me of the really smart looking walls I've seen featuring framed record albums.

  10. Hi, You've taken me back to the days of rubber cement, Cellotak, T-squares, dye transfers, and my own revered (long-lost) collection of Champion paper samplers.
    They were eagerly awaited, and well-thumbed. They whispered of what a print job could BE, given the right client and right budget. Somehow my own collection of (hard cover) issues of "Audience" have somehow made the journey, but your collection trumps mine by a LOT. Thanks for sharing - great memories of an earlier time in the ad game.

  11. Hi - Interesting to see there are still folks around that even remember the Champion Paper Series. I too have the cherished collection of Champion Paper Imagination Series. I've gone through a lot of 'stuff' lately and have either tossed or given much out-of-date materials away. Although I haven't looked at the Imagination Set in years, I believe I'm missing a couple issues. Not quite sure what to do with them. Not unlike you, I also have the first year of AUDIENCE as well. I'd give it to a younger designer, but not sure they really want it.

    1. Hi, Don,

      It's so interesting to get your comment at this particular time because I'm also sorting through the stuff of my life and am ready to finally part with the Imagination Series. BUT, I do think they have value on several levels (as in rare books), and I want them to go to someone who would appreciate them.

  12. You can see every page of this amazing series of paper samplers here:
    Check out the Index in December each year to find the issue you want to look at.