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Two graphic designers are trying to preserve NASA’s famous 1970s 'Worm' logo

Two graphic designers are trying to preserve NASA’s famous 1970s 'Worm' logo


It was the logo that rebranded the space agency

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Pentagram New York

A logo should immediately convey a company’s identity. With the right visual style, it can communicate the goals and ambitions of an organization without the use of words. But as crucial as it is to pick the right logo, these graphics aren’t unbending. Companies change or update their graphics over the years, often at times when they are headed in new directions. Google demonstrated that this week, when it unveiled a new look for the company’s transition into Alphabet. A new logo often symbolizes a new era for an organization.

Conversely, old logos offer a sense of nostalgia for people — a memory of an era that’s long been over. It’s why there’s a whole subculture of people aimed at preserving old logos; for them it’s a way of preserving history. And it’s that idea that’s driving a new Kickstarter campaign launched this week by two New York City graphic designers. They’re interested in preserving one of the most memorable logos of the past century: NASA’s "Worm" logo.

A new logo often symbolizes a new era for an organization

The Worm was created by the design firm Danne & Black­burn in 1974 as a way of updating and unifying NASA’s aesthetic. Their work was compiled into the NASA Graphics Standard Manual — a guidebook that was instrumental in changing the space agency's look. It dictated how the logo should be placed on various NASA materials — including everything from agency letterheads to Space Shuttles and rockets. In essence, the manual rebranded NASA.

The two designers behind the Kickstarter — Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth of the Manhattan-based design studio Pentagram — have scanned all 82 of the original manual's pages. Once the campaign is over, they will print out the scans and bind them together in a white hardcover book, which they’ll give to backers for $79. The reissue will also include a forward by Richard Danne, one of the original designers of The Worm, as well as an essay by New York writer Christopher Bonanos about the culture of NASA.

NASA's Worm logo is no longer used by the space agency — yet it's nearly as iconic as the Space Shuttle it once adorned. The graphic is comprised of the four letters of the NASA acronym in a sleek, curved font. The middle "A" and "S" connect at the letters' bases, giving the feel of an elastic worm weaving its way through the graphic.

The Worm (left) is compared to The Meatball (right). (Pentagram)

The Worm wasn't NASA's first logo. The space agency had been using a rounded logo — known as "The Meatball" — since 1959. The Meatball showcases a white NASA acronym on a blue circle filled with stars; a red flourish wraps around the letters. Though during NASA's early years, The Meatball wasn't being used uniformly across the organization. "NASA at the time was really a collection of different agencies, and they didn't really follow the leadership of the administration," Reed tells The Verge. "They kind of all did their own thing and had their own slightly different graphic identities. So it was all kind of a mess."

In 1972 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) initiated the "Federal Graphics Improvement Program." Launched by President Nixon, the initiative was meant to improve the aesthetic standards for government agencies. That meant NASA was going to get a new, unified look.

"It was probably the most difficult thing I ever worked on."

The NEA brought in design firm Danne & Black­burn to upgrade the space agency's graphics. Richard Danne says they wanted to make something as simple as possible, since the printing technology back in the 1970s wasn't very sophisticated. They felt The Worm was uncomplicated while being versatile enough to accommodate NASA's various agencies. It also gave the impression of a rocket lifting off, Danne says. "It’s one stroke, one width, and a very fluid form," says Danne. "An English critic said it allowed the viewer to read into what space is about. It has a vertical lift to it." Danne says they went with a strong red color to imply that NASA is an organization of action.

As an avid space enthusiast, Danne described the experience as the project of a lifetime. Though coming up with the perfect logo proved challenging for him. "The reality is they were a bunch of engineers or scientists, so they were not very sophisticated in things graphical or visual," said Danne. "They have these tremendous IQs, but the visual realm was so alien to them. You'd think designing for a space agency would be easy, but it was probably the most difficult thing I ever worked on."

No formal announcement was made about the logo change. NASA alerted its employees by sending out new stationery with The Worm on the letterhead. Afterward, the NASA Graphics Standard Manual was released as a guidebook for NASA personnel to use when branding their work. And as the space agency created more spacecraft and vehicles, the manual was updated to instruct employees how to place the logo. "The manual gave them the same visual language to speak with NASA's authoritative and clarifying voice," says Reed.

Not everyone was happy with The Worm, though. Some employees were nostalgic for The Meatball, and for the next two decades, many lobbied to bring it back. "The younger employees were partial to our new program, but the older employees wanted The Meatball," says Danne. Eventually the resistance worked, and the original logo was reinstated in 1992. The NASA Graphics Standard Manual was no longer needed, and many copies were lost.

"The manual gave them the same visual language to speak with NASA's authoritative and clarifying voice."

Despite the graphic change, Reed says there are many who still love The Worm — and they've been vocal about it. Last September, Reed and Smyth launched a similar Kickstarter campaign to reissue the 1970 Graphics Standard Manual for the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA). After that project raised a whopping $802,812, Reed says he received numerous requests from people to bring the NASA Graphics Standard Manual back to life as well.

The enthusiasm shows, too. Reed and Smyth set the Kickstarter goal at $158,000, but they exceeded that limit easily on the campaign's launch day. Currently, more than $300,000 has been pledged to the effort, with more than 3,000 backers wanting books. And there are still 32 days to go.

"This manual has been out there for quite a while, so it has this cult following," says Reed. "Almost over 40 years later, people are still so enthusiastic about this work."

The reissued manual. (Pentagram)