Launching! NASA’s long-forgotten design manual is yours to own
Was Nixon a President who appreciated good design and acknowledged the importance of branding? This may be the case as it was during his administration in the early ’70s when U.S. government departments were asked to raise the standard of design and communications with the National Endowment for the Arts Federal Graphics Improvement Program. Eventually NASA’s fragmented, old-fashioned visual identity was one of the first cases to be examined. “The agency approached a young, small New York City–based firm run by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn to present a proposal for a brand-new visual identity for NASA, and in 1974, their work—the NASA Graphics Standards Manual, with instructions on designing everything from letterheads to space shuttles—was approved” says Slate’s Kristin Hohenadel. “The signature of NASA’s visual identity was the memorable logo known as The Worm which was jettisoned in 1992 and replaced with NASA’s original logo, known as The Meatball” she added.
Today, 23 years after its dethroning and almost 41 years after it was conceived the ring-binder manual is being reborn as a hardcover book by Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth. The duo behind the highly successful New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual Kickstarter campaign, are on a mission to revive another iconic body of work. Their (already successfully funded) funded aims to celebrate the work of Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn (of Danne & Blackburn), their 1975 NASA Graphics Standards Manual. “As design nerds, we think the Worm is almost perfect, and the system behind it is a wonderful example of modernist design and thinking” comment the duo. “The Worm and its design system represent an agency whose goal is to explore space and push the boundaries of science. Where the Meatball feels cartoon-like and old fashioned; the Worm feels sleek, futuristic, forward-thinking. All good things for a space agency at the bleeding-edge of science and exploration.
We think this manual and others like it—regardless of the organization—are a beautiful example of rational, systematic design. The NASA manual is one of those examples that sets the standard for design excellence—a document well worth preserving for the future as a learning tool, a gorgeous object, and a moment in design history” they add.
The reissue which will be printed from scans of Danne’s personal copy accompanied by a forward to the manual “is not sponsored or endorsed by NASA and is an independent project undertaken in an effort to preserve and disseminate an archival record of graphic design from the era”. “Growing up with the ‘Worm’ logo on toy shuttles and learning about sky lab when we were younger. Fast forward to design school, the NASA manual was embedded in our foundation of superior design thinking—it represented the kind of work we wanted to do as professionals” said Reed.
Yet, for a long-lost manual book full of typefaces and diagrams and gridded layouts, NASA’s Graphics Standards Manual has evolved into a treasure hunt. Just some days after the launching of the crowdfunding campaign, NASA released a PDF of the document for free. “We can’t say the move is directly responding to our project, but it’s safe to suspect they are related,” Reed told Motherboard.
NASA’s Worm “consists of NASA’s initials portrayed in super-simple letters stripped to absolute essentials. There aren’t even any crossbars on the A’s, which are depicted as upturned V’s, rather like rockets ready for liftoff. Each letter is composed of a tube, with the first A flowing into the S, as if speeding off into space. The word mark is in a confident shade of red, occasionally with NASA’s full name written below in black Helvetica, the default typeface for any 1970s corporation with aspirations to modernity. Everything about the Worm is seductively new, optimistic and futuristic, declaring that NASA is leading us toward a brighter, bolder future” wrote NYT’s Alice Rawsthorn on the controversial, thick-lettered branding.