Last month, COLLINS hosted a Zoom gathering for designers featuring Richard Danne—who, with Bruce Blackburn of Danne & Blackburn, created NASA’s legendary “worm” logo program in 1974. In his presentation, Danne showed some slides from their original pitch deck to NASA … so we followed up to see if he might be up for sharing the full historic deck with PRINT readers. Danne agreed—and he did us one better: He gave us a sneak peek at a new book he’s currently working on. In his own words, what follows is an account of the fateful meeting that would define the look of space exploration for decades. The excerpt begins following the 1972 launch of the National Endowment for the Arts initiative to improve visual standards across government agencies. At the time, NASA’s look was defined by its “meatball,” created by employee James Modarelli in the 1950s.
Here’s Danne, with the slides arranged chronologically as they were originally presented:
It was October 1974, and my partner Bruce Blackburn and I were headed to Washington DC for our initial design presentation to NASA administrators. The National Endowment for the Arts “Federal Graphics Improvement Program” was quite new and the NASA redesign was an early and important test.
There were very 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.”
Many of us who worked on these massive federal redesign projects were surprised that all of this was happening on President Richard Nixon’s watch. Go figure!
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. Low had actually served as Interim Administrator prior to Fletcher being selected for the top spot (adding some intrigue to the relationship).
After the proper introductions, our 35mm slide presentation got underway. One objective 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—the U.S. Government Printing Office).
It is important to note that Danne & Blackburn was only presenting one solution to the client—it was a controversial idea for the time as it would be today. But we had developed a nomenclature system with the various center names all linked to headquarters in a totally democratic way. Yet 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 entire program “real” and convincing. There was considerably more acceptance as the presentation unfolded. Perhaps it was worth all those hours we had invested?
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!”
Editor’s Note: There’s much more to the story of NASA’s worm. Stay tuned for news about Danne’s forthcoming book.
—Excerpt © 2020 by Richard Danne. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.