Misbehaved Modernism: When Bauhaus Arrived to American Bureaucracy and Became Acquainted with Chaos

“I just don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth!” exclaimed National Aeronautics and Space Administrator Doctor James Fletcher. He was taking his first look at Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn’s 1975 logo re-design for NASA: the four-letter acronym of the administration spelled out in three curved bands of uniform width. No spaceships. No stars. Not even bars crossing the A’s. Its Pantone 179 red was chosen by Danne & Blackburn to connote the simmering kinetic heat of rocket propulsion. The administrator took issue with this as well, asserting that “space is blue,” before his deputy could not help but inject: “No, Dr. Fletcher, space is black!”

A genealogy of NASA logo designs.

Despite its position on the forefront of technological innovation, NASA had been aesthetically palaeolithic since its onset. Its first logo – featuring a red, delta-shaped wing over a starry blue sky – was designed in 1958 by a NASA technical illustrator named James Modarelli. Despite its undeniable sci-fi charm, the logo functioned very much like a smudge printed in black-and-white. When astronaut Alan Shepard received the insignia in the form of a medal after his inaugural space flight, Time famously described it as looking like something “from a Cracker Jack box.” The logo made NASA one of the first targets of the National Endowment for the Arts Chairwoman Nancy Hanks, who, during the Richard Nixon presidency, embarked on a sweeping campaign to rebrand government agencies. Her mission: to change America’s drab bureaucratic landscape using Modernist design ideals. Outside the government – from the boardroom to the supermarket – America was undergoing a hyper-commercialized Bauhaus makeover, helmed by masters from the continent such as Massimo Vignelli. This was the decade that popularized the term “corporate identity.”

Spacecraft markings from Danne & Blackburn’s Graphics Standards Manual for NASA (1975)

Now published by Standards Manual, Danne & Blackburn’s 1975 re-design for NASA (literally) took Modernist principles into faraway places it had never been before. Its gravitational center is most certainly their spartan “NASA,” a blazing red monolith that sits atop everything from letterheads to cargo vans to satellites. The designers even went as far as to expand on all the ways not to corrupt the logo – no outlines, no vertical placement, no drop shadows. One would expect that this programmatic approach would be adored by an administration filled with rocket scientists and no-nonsense pilots, but in fact, it was met with vehement opposition. According to Christopher Bonanos’s essay about the re-design and its aftermath, the discontent ranks of NASA took to calling the new logo “The Worm,” a reference to its uniform and curvy lettering. The logo engendered a feeling of corporate soulnessless so strong that Danne and Blackburn were forced to tour NASA sites and explain their system. NASA begrudgingly swallowed the worm for 17 years, until in 1992, when its new administrator Daniel Goldin called for its death as a way to boost morale during the downcast time following the Challenger explosion. Danne & Blackburn’s logo was then quickly and unceremoniously scrubbed from every possible surface at NASA and replaced by the original Modarelli design, which is still used to this day. In a short introduction to the manual, Richard Danne reflects on his first major project being wiped off the face of Planet Earth, admitting that he takes solace in the fact that spacecrafts bearing the logo are still floating somewhere in deep space.

Uniform patches from Danne & Blackburn’s Graphics Standards Manual for NASA (1975)

Perhaps the most iconic antecedent to Danne & Blackburn’s failure to launch was Massimo Vignelli’s 1970 infographic re-design for the New York City Transit Authority, also published by Standards Manual. From its birth, the New York Subway System was well-recognized as an abject tangle. Merged in 1940 from four independently operating transit lines, its signage was a baroque mosaic of ad hoc solutions. Some of its signs were actually mosaics. Others were made of porcelain, giving passengers the ambiance of waiting in an enormous public toilet. On an informational level, the transit system’s signage and maps were so useless that in 1958, a typographer named George Salomon crafted an unsolicited proposal to the city entitled “Out of the Labyrinth: A Plea and a Plan for Improved Passenger Information in the New York Subways.”

“We are expecting delays.” A woman eternally waits for the train in Modernist sign heaven.

Yet, the city was slow to act. According to an essay by Paul Shaw, in 1966, the NYCTA put Massimo Vignelli’s Unimark International on a short consulting contract to propose new signage for the Subway. Vignelli’s partner Bob Noorda spent the summer in stations across New York, charting the flow of passengers through space and, along with Vignelli, submitted a proposal that was quickly thrown into the typographic bedlam. NYCTA had the new signs hand-painted rather than screen-printed and placed them on top of old signs without removing them, all to the horror of Vignelli, who described the situation as “the biggest mess in the world.” It was not until 1967 – when a change in the transit routes caused the NYCTA to begin using handwritten cardboard signs – that Unimark was given carte blanche to create the standardized and color-coded signage system that remains in place today.

 

Perhaps the most fascinating part of leafing through Vignelli’s rigid and all-encompassing system is noticing the ways in which it has changed. Some of these modifications, like the introduction of Helvetica instead of Standard Medium, were practical. Others, like the turnstile signs, were technological. And even more of them, like the use of white-on-black signage as opposed to Vignelli’s black-on-white, were motivated by the inherently grimy nature of public space. One of the hallmarks of today’s Subway signage is a thin line that rests at the top of almost every sign. This line can be found in Unimark’s Graphics Standards Manual, but it is drawn there as an indicator of the sign’s mount, not as a graphic element. Changes such as these point to the chaos that besets even the most meticulously constructed systems – an inherent process of entropy that frays all ideals. And, as we look toward the ongoing legacy of Modernist design, it becomes apparent that the gift of longevity will go to that which looks best covered in dirt.

The NYCTA (1970) and NASA (1975) Graphics Standards Manuals have been re-published by Graphics Standards Manual.  

Text THOM BETTRIDGE

Images COURTESY OF GRAPHICS STANDARDS MANUAL

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