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12 October 2011

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The NASA Design Program

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Design Program is a modernist vision for an optimistic future. The logo (often referred to as the “worm”) evokes qualities of unity, technical precision, scientific capabilities and uniqueness. Reduced to its simplest form; the one width, continuous-stroke letters are as contemporary today as when the logo was first introduced by Richard Danne (Design Director) and Bruce Blackburn (Designer) at Danne & Blackburn, New York, NY) more than 37 years ago. How then, in 1992, after 19 years, did such an emblematic design program for a future-oriented Federal Agency be dropped for it’s previous (now current) Insignia (the “meatball”)? What follows is a heartfelt personal account from Mr. Danne on the obstacles and achievements of one of the century’s most important and widely published design programs.

The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program
The NASA Design Program

It was October, 1974 – my partner Bruce Blackburn and I were headed to Washington, DC for our initial design presentation to NASA Administrators. The NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) “Federal Graphics Improvement Program”, supported by President Richard Nixon, was quite new and the NASA redesign was an early and important test. There were few NEA guidelines for this Phase of work, but we had really knocked ourselves out ... going the extra mile. Danne & Blackburn had invested an extraordinary number of hours on research, design development, and the presentation. Why would we do this? Not just because we wanted to look good, we did, but because we felt pressure to gain a quick and vital victory for the NEA. No doubt about it, a lot was riding on this one.

After the successes of the Mercury and Apollo programs, NASA now found itself in a slump, impatiently waiting for their Space Shuttle program to kick in. There were no automatic headlines for the Agency now. Also, though the NEA had convinced NASA to embark on the redesign, the Agency wasn’t obligated to go the distance. Most of the Federal Agencies that signed up for redesign were just as cautious. Agreeing to a Phase 1 Study didn’t mean a commitment to implement the Study’s conclusions. It just meant, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Dr. James Fletcher was the NASA Administrator at the time, and his Deputy was Dr. George Low. Several other staff members would attend the closed presentation but it was clear the show was for these two individuals. George Low had actually served as Interim Administrator, prior to Fletcher being selected for the top spot (adding some intrigue to the relationship).

One objective of our presentation was to make a case for replacing the NASA Insignia (nicknamed the “meatball”) with a more useful new Logotype. The meatball was complicated, hard to reproduce, and laden with “Buck Rogers” imagery. Clearly it was born out of the classic airman syndrome where hype and fantasy dominated over logic and reality. Our Logotype was quite the opposite: it was clean, progressive, could be read from a mile away, and was easy to use in all mediums (it later survived much of the inferior printing furnished by the GPO (U.S Government Printing Office).

We had also developed a nomenclature system with the various Center names all linked to Headquarters in a totally democratic way. But the Logo was radical enough that it had the room abuzz. We trotted through the various applications we had designed to show how strong and effective the Program would be when it was fleshed out. Though this was not required in our contract, we had decided that it was the only way to make the point: This is a coordinated, comprehensive design program, not just another ornamental badge to be stuck on a multitude of different products by countless personnel and sub-contractors. These attendant visuals went a long way towards making the Program “real” and convincing. There was considerably more acceptance as the presentation unfolded. But there were residual issues and the focus shifted back to the Logotype itself. And here is one of the most interesting exchanges I’ve ever witnessed in a design presentation:

Fletcher: “I’m simply not comfortable with those letters, something is missing.”
Low: “Well yes, the cross stroke is gone from the letter A.”
Fletcher: “Yes, and that bothers me.”
Low: “Why?”
Fletcher: (long pause) “I just don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth!”

Others, not just the designers were stunned by this last comment. Then the discussion moved back to the strong red/rust color we were proposing. We had tried many other colors of course, including the more predictable blue range, but settled on red because it suggested action and animation. It seemed in spirit with the Can Do nature of the Space Agency.

Fletcher: And this color, red, it doesn’t make much sense to me.”
Low: “What would be better?”
Fletcher: “Blue makes more sense… Space is blue.”
Low: “No Dr. Fletcher, Space is black!”

This is not to suggest there was any animosity between the two men, and I doubt if there ever was. But their dialogue is still pleasantly stored in my memory bank. We didn’t get the ultimate win that day as no one signed off on the presentation. But we left feeling that our chances were far better than 50/50. Bruce and I headed back to New York on the Eastern Shuttle and would simply have to wait for the NASA response. That response came in a call from Jim Dean, our contract coordinator at the Agency. Our small firm was thrilled to get the news ... “It’s a Go!” I wish the story had ended right there, with a win and those feelings of optimism. But something got lost in the translation. The Agency made the decision to alert the various Centers to the new Program by sending Executive stationery to each Center Director. That stationery displayed the new NASA Logotype and it would be the first time they were informed of the graphics program and image change.

NASA was a coalition of many different Agencies that had been operating independently for decades. Formerly known as NACA, the Agency was rebuilt and renamed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on July 29, 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower. These Centers were like fiefdoms, they enjoyed their freedom and their provincial specialties. At the time of our redesign, there was resistance to almost anything emitting from Headquarters. The Centers were like unruly children ... and to say they were competitive would be an understatement.

Those letterhead “gifts” coming out of Washington and sporting the new Logotype proceeded to detonate across the country ... and all hell broke loose! Our firm wasn’t keen on introducing the whole Program in such a shallow and casual way. For one thing, the letterhead couldn’t explain how thorough and solid the new Graphic System was. Too late, Headquarters realized they had made a mistake and needed a solution. What ensued was one of the most difficult assignments I’ve ever been involved in. A PR representative from Headquarters and I would travel around the country, from Center to Center, and give that same full design presentation ... over and over to hostile audiences. Often they were “loaded for bear” before we arrived. But, as awkward and tiring as it was, it had to be done.

Chris Kraft, a NASA notable and the “voice of Mission Control” for many years, was now Administrator of Johnson Space Center. His career went back to NACA and he was hot under the collar when we arrived in Houston. But after viewing the lengthy presentation, he said: “Why wasn’t it handled this way from the start? I don’t have to like it, but I can see it’s a real Program, and I’m OK with it now.” Whew! It took months to smooth ruffled feathers and build a base of trust with the Centers. Of course, the old guard was bitter and didn’t want to let go of their beloved Meatball. They continued to employ subterfuge, to undermine the redesign effort wherever possible. They coined the term “Worm” for our Logotype. It was meant to be derogatory but it also became one of endearment over time (not unlike the Meatball). Younger NASA employees strongly preferred the new graphics program and a schism developed inside the Agency: Old vs.Young.

Over the next 6 months, D&B produced the basic Graphic Standards Manual (with assistance from former intern turned staff designer, Stephen Loges and others), about 25 pages worth. NASA hired an internal Graphics Coordinator to monitor the whole program. Bob Schulman was ultimately chosen and, though he was never shown the Logo or Design Manual during his interview, he became a staunch supporter and valuable ally for many years to come. The Manual continued to evolve over the next decade. In the end it would reach about 90 pages and cover every aspect of NASA: Ground vehicles, all aircraft, the Space Shuttle, signing, uniform patches, publications of every kind, office forms, signing, public service film titles, space vehicles, and satellite markings.

The Presidential Design Awards were established to recognize and honor the best of those NEA Federal redesign efforts. 1984 was the first year of the awards, and our NASA program was singled out for the “Award of Design Excellence.” At ceremonies held in Washington, and on behalf of Danne & Blackburn, I accepted this unique award from President Reagan. But in 1992, the new Administrator Dan Goldin was touring Centers and his plane was landing at Ames Research Center which had a large logo on the roof of a building. A couple of older staffers touring with him made some disparaging remarks about the “worm” and Golden commented: “Can I change that?” Naturally they answered: “Of course you can.”

A couple of weeks later I took a call from Bob Schulman, and he relayed that Dan Goldin story to me. He then dropped an incredible bombshell – our NASA design program had been rescinded, and the Meatball was being reinstated (apparently the Old Guard had won). He then asked if D&B would want to handle the retro conversion. It took a nanosecond to respond: “Absolutely Not!” Schulman, the effective “Gatekeeper” for our Program was also crestfallen, and he uttered: “I knew that’s what you would say, but felt I had to ask.”

As professionals, we are all accustomed to setbacks and disappointments. Often things happen when there is a change in management, a new marketing team, or an election delivers a new Administration. It’s all part of the game and there is little you can do about it. But reflecting back on the NASA program, it is still painful. My solution is to not think about it, just keep moving forward. Easier said than done. This is one of the most published design programs in the world, and is particularly revered in Asia. D&B was disbanded in 1985, but the beat goes on!

In a 2009 New York Times article titled: Art of the Seal, Design Critic Alice Rawsthorn writes, “Everything about the worm is seductively new, optimistic and futuristic, declaring that NASA is leading us toward a brighter, bolder future. The message is so clear that it doesn’t need to be explained by words or pictures.”

“The worm is a great-looking word mark and looked fantastic on the spacecraft,” recalled Michael Bierut, a partner in the New York design firm Pentagram. “By any objective measure, the worm was and is absolutely appropriate, and the meatball was and is an amateurish mess.”

Sincere gratitude to Mr. Richard Danne for allowing us to republish and edit his essay, originally titled “Space Odyssey” from his recently completed memoir of his prolific career in design, Dust Bowl to Gotham, 2011 (updated 2014). To order a copy of Mr. Danne’s 200 page, generously illustrated memoir, please visit Blurb.

For more images of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Graphics Standards Manual, please visit Display’s Flickr Set.