Thursday, September 17, 2015

Download the NASA art and style manual

Ever wonder about the artists who design symbols for the government?

Probably not, but I do. Take the famous radiation symbol for example. What went into it? In terms of design, I mean. I'm too tired and lazy to go looking for the link right now, but I read an interesting story behind the process. The government was concerned about the long half lives inherent with radioactive elements. Planners thought that nuclear waste could still be "hot" well into an era where we have ceased to speak English. Or speak any kind of recognizable language for that matter. How would you design a symbol to convey the dangers of radioactive waste to the unsuspecting denizen of centuries to come who happens across a buried canister or whatever?  The radioactive symbol is what we got.

One good thing about many government projects is that their products are often free to the public. We paid for them, after all. That's why NASA just released their style manual as free for download. The manual details the guidelines for the agency's immediately recognizable "worm logo."

"We have adopted a new system of graphics-the visual communications system by which we are known to those who read our publications, see our vehicle markings and signboards and the logotype that unmistakably brands them as NASA's," says NASA Administrator Richard Tully in the 1976 introduction to the manual.

Geez, even then they were talking about "branding."

I'm imagining what the design meetings must have been like during that era. Was it a cultural collision? I see NASA geeks involved, the guys who design robotic space probes and who would really rather be back doing that than in meeting about art. Were there ad execs like in Mad Men? Was Don Draper strolling around the conference room, cigarette between his index and middle fingers, saying, "What is this logo going to say to us? It's taking us on a journey. It's saying though the line curves it keeps moving forward...into the future."

Then again look at the era. There might also have been artists...and I mean really arty on the project. People in berets or those old African-inspired tunics. "This is my vision," one of them announces to the administrators at the pitch meeting. He unveils the easel. Then another one of his brood has an artistic meltdown.  "We are not using a Helvetica font! It's too-too!" Then he storms out and goes looking for Don so he can bum a cigarette.

At least that's how it plays out in the theater of my mind.

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