Design Best Practices

Vertical Thrust:
The Story Behind NASA’s
Legendary Logo Design

Simon Martin By Simon Martin March 2, 2017

“Man must rise above Earth to the top of the atmosphere and beyond,
for only then will he fully understand the world in which he lives.”

– Socrates (469-399 BC)

The realization of Socrates’ vision was thousands of years in the making. On a summer day in 1969, the eyes of half a billion people around the world were glued to their television sets, and watched it happen. On July 20, astronaut Neil Armstrong planted the first human foot onto a world that wasn’t our own, and declared it to be “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And it was a leap into a new age of exploration.

Since the earliest days of space exploration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been at the forefront. With some of the world’s most brilliant engineers, mathematicians, and scientists the agency has led the way into uncharted territory. NASA has effectively opened up a new era of human spaceflight through its brave and relentless efforts to explore the infinite void.

But when you launch human lives into the far reaches of our known galaxy, there is no margin for error, no room for distraction, and no place for careless mistakes.

The 1975 NASA Graphics Standard Manual also played a role in that dedication to precision. The part it played—in the design of everything from letterheads to space shuttle signage—was one of many parts that helped unify the intergalactic institution as it journeyed into the outer cosmos, in the years following man’s first steps on the moon.

And leading the way in creating that aesthetic—one that would define a modernist vision for mankind’s venture into the great beyond—was a designer from a small town in Oklahoma, who had a distinctive and optimistic vision of the future.

“I think space exploration ranks at the very top of any human endeavor,” he says, overlooking his front yard at home in Napa, California. “It’s almost the most stimulating challenge for man that I can think of.”

His name is Richard Danne, and his vision would come to help push humanity onward and upward.

Man on the Moon

Until the early 1970s, design standards across US government agencies and institutions were almost non-existent. NASA’s first official insignia was determined, by a design competition among the agency’s employees, in 1959—a full decade before Armstrong was to step off his ladder and onto the surface of the moon.

The winning entry came from employee James Modarelli and incorporated a planet, stars, a chevron wing (a revolutionary concept at the time), and an orbiting spacecraft—an illustration that later became known as the “Meatball” logo. The insignia was a mashup of visual metaphors, and although it represented the goals of the agency, it was far from ideal. It was difficult to reproduce, and almost impossible to print accurately, due to the limitations of printing technology at the time.

In 1971, after corporate identity design had been shown to have an important function in the world of modern business, President Nixon directed the heads of all federal departments and agencies to clean up their design standards. It was an initiative that became known as the Federal Design Improvement program.

Like all other government agencies, NASA was long overdue for a design overhaul. But the task was unique—an ‘otherworldly’ design challenge. After all, how does one even begin to craft an identity for an institution built upon the concept of exploring the unknown, with the possibility of encountering extraterrestrial life forms?

Feet in the Dirt

Richard Danne was born in 1934, at the depth of the Great Depression. Raised on a farm in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, he grew up preferring the trumpet to the pencil. Even so, after attending Oklahoma State University, his penchant for hard work and a natural curiosity about the changing state of graphic communication led him to UCLA’s Graduate School of Design. But the most important design work was being done in New York, so in 1963, in a leap of faith, he packed his suitcase and took a one-way trip across the country.

Within months, Danne had established himself within New York’s tight-knit graphic design scene. After a few years of various projects ranging from film titles to creating the identity for Harvard Business School, a mutual friend introduced him to Bruce Blackburn, a fellow New York designer. After discovering that they both shared a similar philosophy of design, they founded Danne & Blackburn and began to take on projects together.

And how better to launch a design agency with a bang, than to redesign the visual identity of a space agency?

With the recent success of the Mercury and Apollo space programs, NASA felt a growing need for a new ‘look’. It was one of the first federal agencies to call for proposals after the establishment of the Federal Design Improvement program.

Although they didn’t know it at the time, Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn were about to embark on a project that would be one of the most iconic and timeless pieces in the history of graphic design.

Vertical Thrust

“What we decided to do, after we’d done an awful lot of experimentation and looking at different kinds of symbols and logos and things, was do something radically different from what NASA had done before,” explains Danne. “What they had been doing previously was just sticking the Meatball logo on very cluttered materials. They were shockingly bad.”

Danne and Blackburn’s initial pitch presentation, held in a dark room with 8 NASA executives and a slide projector, was met with a mix of enthusiasm and restraint. While the agency was in dire need of a revamped design program, the original NASA employees were still very drawn to the nostalgia surrounding the original Meatball logo.

“We went there with only this one solution, which today is almost unheard of, and back then it was very unusual for somebody to come to a major presentation with a single solution,” says Danne. “But what we did was do about 25 demonstrations of applications of our logotype to show that it was not just a badge, but it was a working and comprehensive system all done with paper, pen, and ink. It took a tremendous amount of investment on our part, but we did the signing, interior and exterior. We did aircraft. We did the shuttle. It was just coming into being. No one was quite sure what it was going to look like yet.”

According to Danne, the now-legendary presentation produced some of the most interesting exchanges he has ever heard in his professional design career. He specifically remembers one that took place between NASA’s Administrator, Dr. James Fletcher, and the Deputy Administrator, Dr. George Low:

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!”

But Danne and Blackburn pushed on with their futuristic vision for the agency.

“After the initial showing of the logo, you could tell that they were stunned, but as we added to it and kept playing out the applications, you could see that the room was just warming up, because they quickly saw that this was a program and not just an ornamentation above.”

In line with the nature of the Federal Design Improvement program, NASA wasn’t required to give Danne and Blackburn a yes or no answer immediately. After they arrived back in New York, the designers continued working on the logo; adding various cross-strokes and color variations. After a few days of waiting, they got the call… “It’s a Go!”

The Overhaul

Described by Danne as “clean, progressive, legible from a mile away, and easy to use across all mediums,” the futuristic new logotype was the most distinguishable feature, and the central element, in NASA’s 1975 Graphic Standards design program overhaul.

In the logotype, the letters N-A-S-A are reduced to their most simplified form, and all are formed by a red stroke that has the same width throughout the entirety of the design. In doing this, Danne and Blackburn effectively captured two unique qualities that were paramount in establishing the character of the agency: unity and technical precision. They made the decision to eliminate the cross-strokes in each of the two ‘A’s to suggest what they called a “vertical thrust” that reflected a space shuttle launch and the future-oriented character of NASA.

“The new logotype is pleasing to the eye and gives a feeling of unity, technological precision, thrust, and orientation toward the future,” said NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher, as he formally introduced it to the agency. “Unity, technology, pioneering achievement—that’s what NASA is all about.”

Combined with a dizzying array of applications ranging from letterheads and film titles to uniforms and the space shuttle, the comprehensive system covered every branch of the agency.

“Whether it’s used as a stem word or just a graphic guideline, it’s simple almost to a fault, but it’s still very technical, it’s still very streamlined,” says Danne. “I think, having worked with applying it for over a decade, the greatest single feature is its flexibility. You can do so much with it, starting from that simple base, and you can certainly put it on much more competitive printed materials and things, whether that be on screen or on paper or whatever it is. It’s incredibly flexible, and our system was intended to do that.”

But in an agency rooted in the nostalgia and wonderment that had existed long before Armstrong made his giant ‘leap for mankind’, not everyone would embrace the futuristic vision of the agency’s new visual identity.

Back to Earth

Danne and Blackburn’s overhaul of NASA’s design program was considered to be one of the most successful examples from the Federal Design Improvement program, and in 1984 the pair was recognized by President Reagan with an Award of Design Excellence for their work.

By the early 1990s, however, NASA was looking for new leadership to help realign the organization after years of budget problems and infrequent mission launches. Dan Golden, a member of NASA’s ‘old guard’ who had been with the agency when Armstrong first stepped on the moon, was chosen to take the helm.

As an early employee of the agency, Goldin and his group of old guard associates had a particular attachment to the Meatball logo and, in what many in the design community have called “a giant leap backwards” for the institution, reinstated the old logo in 1992 in an effort to boost morale.

“I’m not one to say that a logo is everything. It’s not,” says Danne. “But ours has stood the test of time whether or not it’s been in official use. I’ve been in contact with many NASA employees over the years and there are plenty that say ‘That’s my NASA. That’s the NASA I grew up with.’ And now a lot of those guys are flight directors helping to lead the next generation of space exploration. To me, that’s all the justification I need.”

For many, Danne and Blackburn’s unmistakably brilliant NASA logo, with its nod to unity, technical precision, and promise of an optimistic future, was a symbol of pushing our own understanding of mankind and the infinite void; a symbol of both the grandest adventure of all and the bravery of the human spirit.

And while they might have preferred that things had worked out differently, for seventeen magical years Danne and Blackburn were able to shine a much-needed light on the future of space exploration. In doing so, they helped inspire a generation of dreamers who just might make it possible for all of us to take a trip around the moon in our own lifetime.

“As a kid, I was so enamored by the heavens, if you know what I mean,” says Danne. “We are in a time in our evolution as human beings where we are being greatly tested and we have come through. To be identified with that I think, I think it just doesn’t get more gratifying than that.”


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