Where’s Smokey the Bear?

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Parks, published by Standards Manual (Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth of Order-Design) offers a unique view of the USA. The book is a collaboration with photographer (and collector) Brian Kelley, who previously worked with Reed and Smyth on NYCTA: Objects, a display of ephemera from the New York City MTA (previously the NYCTA). While Kelley was in the midst of a photography project that required him to visit national parks, he started collecting the maps and brochures from each location. Once he began finding some examples from the 1960s in particular, Reed and Smyth were immediately convinced his collection should be a book. I talked to Reed about the nature of the material and what it means to design history.

This is a kind of design history from a unique perspective.You’re right, this is most definitely a graphic design history book through the lens of United States National Parks—I’m most proud of that aspect. It covers most print techniques that had evolved over the 100-year span of the book—typography, photography, ink, paper, graphics, information design, etc. Once you get into the nuance of each specimen, the discoveries are virtually endless.

At what point did the Parks department become so “modern” in its approach to graphic design? The National Park Service’s transition to “modernism” happened at presumably the same rate as everything else in America, which began in the mid-1960s and lasted (arguably) through the early-2000s. I’m not sure when the NPS system deviated from Helvetica and replaced it with Myriad, but that was the end of modernism for the parks. Just like New York City was getting a fresh new subway system from Unimark, and Coke was running their “It’s the real thing.” ad campaign, the country went through a boom of European-influenced modernism. The parks were no exception. The only difference was they didn’t have a system for it. Each freelance designer was interpreting modernism in their own way—which I find to be charming.

Where, if any place, does Smokey the Bear fit into this design calculus?Funny you should mention Smokey. He doesn’t appear in the NPS material because he’s actually the creation of the Ad Council, which first introduced the character in 1944. But Mr. Kelley also began a collection of Smokey the Bear materials which surprisingly (or maybe not so) has a cult-like following. You can see the beginnings of Brian’s collection here.

Would you agree or not that there is something a little antithetical between “nature” and “modernism”?I would agree with that statement—but!—that’s what makes the Vingelli unigrid successful, in our opinion. The contrast between the place you are experiencing and the tools you’re using are meant to be different. They play different roles. The role of the map is to safely navigate you through unknown territory that could result in you making it out alive or getting lost in the woods for days (or weeks!) on end. Not to mention the safety information regarding real-life bears (not our friend, Smokey) that could also be a matter of life-or-death preparedness when camping in the parks. My point is that these materials were intended to have a sense of safety and authority that reassured visitors while enjoying the great outdoors.

This isn’t to say we’re not fans of the more expressive and illustrative maps that came before Vignelli, but if I were actually in a predicament and all I had was this paper map to get me out (pre-smartphones), I’d prefer to have the black and white no-nonsense version [than] a beautiful piece of abstract geometric design.

Besides those handful of designers, we don’t know who was responsible for the other stunning work showcased in our book. That said, we would love if this was an opportunity to uncover some of the unsung designers of the time (please get in touch if you have more information!).

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual
culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →