The United States Postal Service has served, in some semblance of its current offerings, the American public since 1775. From ponies to airplanes to digital offerings, the USPS has continued to evolve, impacted by the changes in the way we communicate. Despite its recent financial struggles, the USPS still stands as an American institution with its focus on service and determination (the whole “rain nor sleet…” motto of dedication).
Creative agency Grand Army, led by its founders Eric Collins, Larry Pipitone and Joey Ellis, gave USPS a rebrand that both modernized its look while sticking to its distinctive roots. Below Collins, Pipitone and Ellis explain their font choices, process, and other considerations for rebranding an institution with such a deep history. After all, as they point out, the USPS is “an amazing technical marvel.”
How did you get involved with the USPS?
The USPS knew their retail locations needed help. Things had been cluttered, disorganized and visually messy for years.
So their brief was a total re-thinking of the in-store experience through signage, language and way finding, and to create a unified system that would hold everything together. The goal was to make the experience easier, faster and simpler through design.
They couldn’t physically modify any of their locations to achieve this — so the brief was to streamline the process through “paper and paint,” meaning printed materials and wall applications only. A difficult but interesting challenge.
What were some considerations when rebranding such an established institution?
We wanted to make people proud of the USPS. Politically it often seems like a target, or that we’re constantly hearing about what is wrong with the USPS. Rarely do we ever stop to think about what an amazing technical marvel the entire institution is.
So this was one of our starting points: Let’s create a system that connotes some of the pride we believe Americans should feel for their USPS. The USPS has a rich history that interweaves with the history of this country, going back to its inception. We wanted to nod to that heritage.
But all of this was just half the brief to ourselves. Heritage without something to balance it is just old, or stuffy. We wanted to view this history through a modernist lens. So we developed a very stripped down grid and typographic system. The whole project really boils down to 3 color fields, 3 typefaces, and a simple ratio that determines the size of elements between them.
What was your process?
Our research covered a general survey of USPS’ visual history, but we also drew inspiration from modern airport signage, from the NYC subway system, from traditional hand-painted signage — really from a variety of sources. We’re always trying to juxtapose eras and styles.
As to the actual design process: A huge part of it was simply creating a system capable of holding both the quantity and diversity of the information they needed to display. Aesthetics aside, when you look at a finished project for something like this, there’s a tendency to just think, “Well, of course, how else would you lay it out?”
But that was a huge part of the problem before we could even consider type, or color, or any specific design questions. Organizing and rationally dividing the information by hierarchy was actually the most difficult process.
The red/white /blue color fields clearly are meant to reinforce the brand’s heritage, but they’re not just a flourish. These fields are used according to consistent ratios across all pieces — this grounds each design and also directs your eye quickly to what information is most important.
The font Knockout was chosen aesthetically because it hints toward some of that Americana angle, but also because functionally a condensed gothic was a pragmatic choice. We knew we wanted large headlines as the primary information on each board. A condensed face becomes useful when you want your type large, but still have a potentially long line to deal with.
Those decisions help form the backbone of the system. Then beyond that there are too many tiny choices to count, but they all add up in aggregate to a consistent and harmonious whole: There are rules for when a line breaks, when type centers, what fonts and sizes to use for each level of information, when to use solid rules or dotted rules, clear space around bodies of text, color field sizing, etc., etc., etc.
How did you land on the final iterations of all of the materials?
Designing something as complex as this project is almost like building a machine. You sort of start with 4 wheels and then take it for a test drive. Inevitably it breaks down. So you add and iterate and test it again. You keep trying new variables: maybe the type of information changes, or the quantity, or the length of a line, whatever it might be.
Eventually by repeatedly breaking and patching the system, you get closer to something that works, regardless of what you throw at it. That’s when you know you’re finished: when the system can’t be broken.
Then you know the rules, and its only a matter of application. We had quite a lot of pieces to build out, but once we had the guidelines in place the rest was easy.
When did this roll out?
This system is currently out in the world — it was originally deployed when the boxes launched. We’ve noticed already that as changes are made to the service, the boards and certain pieces are being edited. We aren’t making these on-going changes. Our roll was to develop the system, and the pieces that served as the “guidelines” are what you can view on our website. Any further changes from here on out are being handled by the vendor managing things now.
(All images provided by Grand Army. View even more images here.)
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