Book Review: NASA Graphics Standards Manual

Graphic designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth have been busy. In addition to their day jobs as associate partners at iconic design firm Pentagram, they have been reprinting and reissuing old and seemingly mundane graphics standards manuals – guides made by designers and issued to clients to establish unity and consistency across visual communications – in sumptuous new editions.

First was the pair’s reissue of the New York City Transit Authority’s Graphics Standards Manual, Massimo Vignelli’s and Bob Noorda’s iconic and comprehensive redesign of the New York subway signage and identity. An original ring binder version of the manual was was found in, of all places, a basement locker at Pentagram. Reed and Smyth immediately recognised its brilliance not only as a functional manual, but as a piece of design in its own right. After scanning the manual page-by-page and presenting it online, they crowdfunded a limited print edition which lovingly (and accurately) reproduced the original manual better than ever. Like many major projects of this scale, the politics behind the project is often just as interesting as the designs themselves. The NYCTA Manual is no exception, with the long, storied history of Vignelli and Noorda’s work the subject of Christopher Bonanos’s fascinating essay included with the crowdfunded print edition.

Now the pair have turned their sights heavenward with a reissue of the NASA Graphics Standards Manual – the source of the famous (or infamous) red “worm” logo. In 1974, Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn of firm Danne & Blackburn responded to a request from NASA for a corporation-wide rebranding. This rebranding was part of an ambitious effort sponsored by the federal government to improve and, importantly, humanise government agencies; a project creatively named the Federal Graphics Improvement Program.

Since the late 1950s, NASA used its famous (again, or infamous) “meatball” logo, consisting of heavy serifed letters, a space capsule orbiting the letters, a red arrow and various other symbolic iconography. It was (and remains) complex, difficult to accurately reproduce and was not designed for a technological era where computers were playing a greater part in reproduction of designed elements. Fax machines and photocopiers couldn’t reproduce it properly and it looked terrible at smaller sizes. Design wise, it was a corny mess of comic elements unbefitting of the most forward-looking agency in the world. Such a design would not do; it could not do.

I won’t go into too much detail about the life and times of Danne & Blackburn’s masterful creation – Bonanos’s included essay again does a much better job at that – except to say that while the logo (and associated graphics standards) was and remains a thing of beauty, many at NASA hated it. By 1992, the new administrator Dan Goldin decree that everything old would be new again, and the meatball was reinstated as the official NASA logo. The worm would be nothing more than an experimental interregnum, irrevocably bound up with disasters, like Challenger, of 1980s NASA. The future was now the past and the only way forward was backwards, to hark back to the golden era of NASA and the Apollo programme. Or so it might have remained had our über design nerds Reed and Smyth not given the NASA Graphics Standards Manual the same tender, loving and caring reproduction they had done with the NYCTA manual.

Which brings us to the reproduction itself. First off, it is an object of extreme beauty. The book just oozes quality and Reed and Smyth’s passion for not only this manual but for book design in general is evident from every facet of the delivered physical object. The book arrived packaged in a “static shielding” pouch; a shiny sheath that couldn’t be any more “space age” short of being launched on a shuttle and returned to Earth. It’s also a material that is immediately familiar to anyone who has worked with computer components. It’s the same material they come sealed in when new to avoid damage from electrostatic discharge. Very suitable for this book.

Upon removing the book from said shiny pouch, we are treated to the worm in all its red glory. Interestingly, the red is only specified as “solid red plus solid yellow”, but each copy of the original Manual included a page of “NASA Red” perforated swatches to send to printers and designers to match, a page lovingly reproduced in this reprint, although sadly not perforated!

The opening pages are given over to a forward from designer Richard Danne and the aforementioned essay from Christopher Bonanos – both detailed and necessary contributions that add a great deal of context and value to the manual that follows.

Each page of the manual has been reproduced in the best possible quality, but remains unaltered. It is presented exactly as it would have been seen in its original form: recto printed with the hole-punched edges visible on each page. Even the tabbed dividers are reproduced in full. What was most surprising were the fold out pages, the first of which featured a large grid drawing of the worm for large applications. It’s a great throwback to the pre-desktop publishing era when such sheets were indispensable for accurate, reproducible design. It took me back to the lettering books that were all the rage with us kids in the early 1990s, before WordArt came along and destroyed literally everything good about desktop design. There is little I hate more than Microsoft Word and I will curse it with my dying breath.

But I digress, these fold out pages – all ten of them – are quite something. Each provides important details for application of the identity, from an introduction to layout grids, to how building signage should look and even to the worm’s placement on the space shuttle. Sploosh.

[Original NASA caption] S81-30746 (14 April 1981) — The rear wheels of the space shuttle orbiter Columbia touch down on Rogers dry lake at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California to successfully complete a stay in space of more than two days.

The final few pages feature reproductions of the initial presentation given by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn to NASA executives in 1974. These pages stand out as they are printed on full-bleed black. The quality of the printing and the stocks is exceptional. This is a striking design choice, evoking the feeling of sitting in a darkened (and probably smoke-filled) room and seeing these 35mm transparencies projected before you. Well played, Reed and Smyth.

As mentioned in Bonanos’s essay, this meeting resulted in Danne & Blackburn winning the job, but also at this very early stage, perhaps revealed hints of NASA management simply not getting the design. When the designers asked for the executives’ feedback, Richard Danne recalls one exchange between NASA administrator Dr. James Fletcher and his deputy Dr. George Low:

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!” 

And then, a few minutes later: 

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!” 

As a visual identity document, the Graphics Standards Manual is comprehensive. It lays out virtually every possible usage of the worm logotype. Most importantly for a document of this sort, it is accessible to the design layperson, even (or especially) if that person is literally a rocket scientist. In fact this is one of the great mysteries of the worm saga: why many at NASA, people who literally built the technology of the future, never took to this futuristic logo.

There was a strong amateur graphic design ethos at NASA: each mission patch was designed by the astronauts themselves and even the original NASA seal and meatball was designed by an amateur, James Modarelli, the head of Lewis Research Center’s Reports Division. To these rocket scientists (and engineers and physicists and chemists and administrators and comptrollers etc.), NASA’s logo isn’t about corporate identity, in fact such a concept is anathema to such a group. It was about something more human: the NASA family. Sure, the meatball was corny, but it was homely, and had been there through the good times and the bad.

Perhaps this whole Graphics Standards Manual speaks to an even more exciting time, when creating a new identity meant creating a new purpose: reshaping the future. The worm speaks to the potential and optimism of design, power that is lost in today’s constant churn in identity and design (ugh…Instagram, what have you done..??!!).

Reed and Smyth have done a tremendous public service by reissuing this manual. It’s not just about good design, it’s about the potential for design to change things for the better. However, design can’t exist in a vacuum (ha), as the restoration of the meatball demonstrates. Design is subject to the whims of humans, just as it is reliant on those same people for its creation and implementation. Design needs humans and even the best design can be brought down by the people who created it.

Interestingly, just as Reed and Smyth were working with Richard Danne to publish their reproduction of the Graphics Standards Manual, NASA released the original in PDF format on their website. Coincidence? I doubt it. Methinks there may be some passionate design nerds at NASA who would dearly love to see the worm back, and this was one way to honour the work of Danne & Blackburn.

Naturally, people inside and outside of NASA have very strong feelings about their logo. NASA is no normal agency – ask anyone their feelings on ATO or ASIC corporate identity and they will probably struggle to give you two shits – it is an agency which stokes the imaginations of entire generations around the world. To me, the worm is NASA. It’s what I drew on space shuttles and fantastical spacecraft of the imagination as a kid, even though the worm had been confined to the design dumpster of history a couple of years earlier. It’s the identity of the NASA I saw popular culture growing up: in movies such Flight of the Navigator and Space Camp (don’t judge me); in hours of documentaries, and pages upon pages of books and news stories. I was and remain a gigantic space nerd and there was nothing in my experience more futuristic than the four letters of the worm.

But now everything old is new again, and as comes with so much of today’s thoughtless appropriation of the past, we praise the past with little thought for the future. As the terminator of the worm, administrator Dan Goldin said when reinstating the meatball in 1992, “the magic is back at NASA”. Sadly, I reckon it was on its way out.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphics Standards Manual
Published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1975
Reproduction by Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth
Published by Standards Manual, LLC, 2015
ISBN: 9780692586532
Extent: 220pp
Hardcover, case-bound, with silver static shielding (plastic polyethylene terephthalate) pouch

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