The Inside Story of NASA’s “Worm” Logo

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NASA's "worm" logo

Earlier this month, the design world was delighted when NASA unexpectedly revealed it was bringing back its iconic “worm” logo, which Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn created in 1974. As it happens, Brian Collins had already been planning to invite Danne to speak to his team at COLLINS—and after the announcement he realized more people might be interested in hearing from Danne. So he sent out a newsletter invite for a Zoom gathering and capped the event at 100 … and it filled up in 15 minutes. So he recapped it at 200 … and then 300 …

NASA worm

During the event on April 15, Collins began by recounting the first time he saw the worm.

“It so blew me away because I felt like the future had suddenly arrived,” he said.

The future came from unlikely roots: Danne grew up in the Dust Bowl during the Depression and did freelance advertising and design work in Dallas before moving to New York City in 1963. There, he met Henry Wolf, Milton Glaser, Lou Dorfman and the rest of the greats working during the ad industry’s golden age.

By virtue of a connection, Danne and Blackburn eventually got an invite to bid on the NASA redesign, which they did on Oct. 1, 1974. They presented one concept—the worm—which they brought to life in a deck showing applications on everything from newsletters to vans to buses and, of course, the space shuttle.

And, of course, their firm of five (which included their receptionist) won. “It was against all the odds,” Danne recalled, noting they presented such a minimalistic design because the agency—which didn’t have any designers on staff—was producing a lot of “garbage.”

“We saw all this debris and it drove us toward a simpler solution.”

Danne paired Helvetica with the worm because the two blended so well together. (He was also quick to note that he has hardly used it since.)

Owing to Pantone’s rules for its numerical designations back in the day, Pantone 179 became “NASA Red,” and the rest is branding history.

As for the moratorium on the mark, Danne says NASA scuttled the design in 1992 when admin Daniel S. Goldin “wanted to make his mark” and call back to the agency’s earlier victories in space. “It was an ego thing.” NASA thus reverted exclusively to its original “meatball” logo. A couple of decades later, Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed would launch a publishing company with their reprint of the NASA Standards Manual—which Collins said is a testament to the legendary caliber of thinking that Danne had put into the work.

“This is the design program that wouldn’t die,” he said. “It inspired a whole new generation, 20 years after it closed down.”

Note: PRINT’s history with Danne dates back to 1969, when he participated in our “Black and White” issue. Read more about it—and see his original work for the issue here.

For more images of Danne’s work, visit his website.