Graphics Standards Manuals
Human Being Feature
Essay by Tag Christof
Photography by Clément Pascal
July 19 2016
CLOG’s latest edition‚ Landmark‚ attempts to reframe the notion of permanence in architecture. It asks open-ended questions about style and value and quality in order to understand why some buildings of dubious usefulness are granted the status of protected landmark while others‚ which might be highly original‚ are summarily demolished. As this goes to press‚ Hotel Okura in Tokyo’s Minato district‚ a uniquely Japanese icon of 1960s International design and whose perseveration was very publicly supported by Monocle and others‚ is being torn down.
Though graphic design doesn’t take up valuable real estate like buildings‚ there are major parallels in the way we think of its preservation. Why‚ exactly‚ is a Peter Saville album cover instantly canonized‚ while‚ say‚ a really gorgeous coffee tin is summarily tossed? The easy answer is‚ we couldn’t possibly archive and showcase all the world’s graphic output—most‚ frankly‚ doesn’t deserve it. But the criteria by which we confer value upon a piece of design‚ whether product‚ graphic‚ architecture or otherwise‚ all too often has more to do with celebrity than utility‚ innovation‚ or artistry.
Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth are two young designers at Pentagram working in the studio of Michael Bierut. In 2014‚ they launched a Kickstarter campaign to reprint—in the highest quality possible—a rare but pivotal piece of graphic design history‚ the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual. The original manual was the result of an exhaustive process of research and design by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda for the late–great Unimark‚ and was released in 1970 to detangle the then bewildering New York City subway system. Few people had actually seen the whole document until Jesse‚ Hamish and fellow designer Niko Skourtis had earlier photographed it in its entirety and posted it online‚ but it had long been mythologized by graphic designers‚ urban planning nerds and modernist purists alike.
Bierut himself is an arbiter of successful design‚ and so projects within his orbit usually fare rather well. In any case‚ the Kickstarter exceeded anyone’s expectations: it exploded out the gates and went on to raise over eight-times its original goal of $100K—Jesse and Hamish had tapped into something extraordinary. It was a rare opportunity to own and experience a piece of design history that in no small way has shaped New York City.
The success of the NYCTA manual made way for a second project‚ and we were overjoyed to learn that it would be a similar execution for a reissue of the 1975 NASA Graphics Standards Manual—a comprehensive work by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn‚ which‚ among other sweeping brand changes‚ ushered in NASA’s iconic “worm” logotype. The manual was officially rescinded‚ along with the worm‚ in 1992. The project’s Kickstarter‚ which ended this fall‚ went on to raise nearly $1 million.
In an unexpected turn‚ NASA released a full PDF of the manual free to the public in the midst of the campaign. Though it remains uncertain whether NASA really intended to take a shot at the designers’ project‚ its timing was certainly uncanny. You can just hear some hardened‚ crewcut commander mutter about those meddling kids as he ordered the file published. And in a sense‚ NASA—if its intention truly was to undercut an initiative they saw as opportunistic—is absolutely justified. In the spirit of openness‚ common knowledge‚ and generosity that the organization is so well-known for‚ to make the document freely available was a logical move.
Still‚ NASA’s poorly digitized electronic file is just that: an electronic file. It will inevitably be lost amongst the terabytes of other stuff you carry around in your burgeoning cloud. Jesse and Hamish’s Graphics Standards Manuals‚ on the other hand‚ are substantial‚ beautiful objects whose production is being pored over in minute detail. Indeed‚ they are powerful means for making these important works into landmarks.
Last time we spoke‚ you guys had just wrapped up the Kickstarter for your NYCTA Graphics Standards Manual. A lot has happened since then. How are you guys feeling?
Jesse Reed: Excited might be the best word to describe it. So many opportunities have come from the first book‚ it’s been an amazing ride. We had no idea where the project would take us and even if there would be a follow-up‚ but we’ve been fortunate enough to publish a second‚ smaller version of the NYCTA manual‚ with the NASA manual on the way.
Hamish Smyth: On top of that‚ we have pretty full days at Pentagram‚ so we’re both looking forward to a few weeks off before we start production for the NASA book‚ and then our next project.
Very few designers can claim to have gotten a rise out of NASA‚ but it seems like that’s exactly what you’ve done. Have you had any direct contact with them?
JR: Our lawyers have been in communication with their legal team about the project‚ but that’s the extent of our conversation. There are rumors of enthusiasm within the agency‚ which I hope are true‚ but that information comes second hand.
HS: After NASA released the manual‚ I laughed when someone on Twitter said‚ “Real mature NASA‚” followed by a link to an article describing their PDF release. It’s pretty cool to have an organization that I respect so deeply react to something we’re doing.
What’s your take on the hullabaloo after NASA released the old manual as a .PDF?
JR: Releasing the PDF was a good move on NASA’s part. It’s important that everyone have the opportunity to see the manual‚ in one form or another‚ and this helps fill the possibility of missing out (even though the manual had been available online well before this). I find it incredible that NASA was so public about announcing the PDF. We don’t know if it was in direct response to our campaign‚ but it was a proud moment to watch a federal agency pay so much attention to a graphics manual—not something that would have happened even 10 years ago.
HS: In the first week of our campaign (before NASA released theirs)‚ I tweeted about the PDF version of the manual that has been available at archive.org. I think it’s great that it’s out there. The point of our campaign is to get the manual into as many hands as possible—and this just furthers that goal. I think we did lose some backers who were satisfied with the PDF‚ but I most designers know that a book beats a low resolution PDF on screen any day.
You had the blessing of one of the manual’s original designers‚ Richard Danne‚ right?
JR: Correct. The project started with an email to Danne explaining our previous involvement with the NYCTA Manual and our hopes of doing a second book with his NASA program. Within a few hours of the email he responded with an enthusiastic “yes.” Coincidentally‚ Danne was coming out to New York the following week for an AIGA event‚ and he was gracious enough to hand deliver a copy of the manual. Months later we flew out to Napa where he lives with his wife‚ Barbara‚ and that’s when we conducted our interview for the Kickstarter video. He’s an incredible human being with a true passion for problem solving and improving people’s lives through design.
HS: Jesse said it all‚ but I can’t reiterate enough what a gentleman Richard is‚ and how lovely his wife Barbara was on our visit. Throughout the campaign it was so fun to get encouraging emails from Richard‚ and to hear how his peers and friends had been reacting to the campaign.
Of course‚ this all begs wider discussions about originality. There’s formal originality and there’s conceptual originality—at the very least‚ as an exercise in preservation‚ the Graphics Standards Manuals are conceptually highly original. Do you think claiming moral high ground by clinging to abstract ideas about originality is perhaps a mute point in design today?
JR: Preservation is a good way to describe both projects. Obviously‚ we claim no right to be authors of the work. I don’t think there’s ever been confusion about that. Our primary objective with the NYCTA manual was simply to provide access. We knew from the second our copy was discovered that this document was something everyone needed to see‚ read‚ and experience—the same is true for NASA and any other manual we’ll produce in the future. Historical precedent is critical for young designers to be aware of. When I hear that students don’t know who Raymond Loewy is‚ or Max Huber‚ or Henry Dreyfuss‚ it’s devastating. Design history‚ and history in general‚ should be at the forefront of any curriculum taught today. Our books are meant to be included in that dialogue.
HS: I agree that original ideas in design are truly a rare thing these days‚ and I’m not even sure you could call our books conceptually highly original. But as an exercise in preservation they succeed‚ and show a huge demand within the industry for these types of books. Like Richard Danne said when we asked how it felt to work on the NASA rebranding‚ we feel like this “was important work.”
It’s interesting that Danne & Blackburn remain pretty obscure as design figures. Did they do any other work that has endured?
JR: Between the two of them they have designed corporate identity programs for the Federal Aviation Administration‚ U.S. Department of Transportation‚ New York Power Authority‚ and the American Revolution Bicen-tennial‚ to name a few. Are they all sexy? I think so‚ but some people may beg to differ. Again‚ as Danne would say‚ “It was important work.”
Meatball vs. Worm. Fight.
HS: One is a beautiful logo‚ one is a beautiful patch. They both have their place‚ but the worm should be on the side of the spacecraft and the meatball should be on the side of an astronaut’s suit.
JR: The worm is a symbol‚ an icon‚ and a beautifully conceptualized mark. By saturating four letterforms with visual cues of clarity‚ precision‚ and aviation‚ they have come to accurately represent an agency that embodies these very qualities. It allows almost anyone to draw the logotype by memory‚ a testament to its accessibility as an identity. On the other hand‚ the meatball‚ to me‚ is more of an illustration. If you were asked to describe its components without seeing it first‚ you might get close‚ but there are too many moving parts for someone to quickly retain its exact form. Similar to how most universities offer an official seal in addition to a logo or wordmark‚ the NASA meatball could also serve this purpose.
What unites the NASA and NYCTA Standards Manuals projects?
HS: I think what unites our projects today is their simplicity. They both feel so rational‚ so inevitable. Nowadays‚ design feels more complicated. Maybe it is‚ maybe it isn’t‚ but it sure feels nice to read these books and see every little thing in place making so much sense.
JR: Both systems were put in place to solve a massive problem in visual organization. The New York City transit system in the 1960s consisted of three separate agencies all using their own visual language (if you can call it that) to direct passengers. What Unimark did‚ Vignelli and Noorda‚ was to analyze this underground labyrinth and turn it into a flowing network of logical decision making. The same goes for NASA. All of the divisions and offices around the country were communicating at their own discretion—there was no loyalty to the core administration‚ in terms of speaking with a unified visual language. Freelancers were hired to create brochures and posters from time to time‚ and even if some of them were acceptable‚ they didn’t represent a connected network of like-minded individuals. Danne & Blackburn‚ like Unimark‚ studied the agency in excruciating detail and eventually created a program that brought clarity to the madness.
Do you consider yourselves Modernists?
JR: I don’t consider my work to be in any particular style (I’m too young to make such claims). I believe in reductive design‚ which could translate to modernism. Clarity still trumps decoration‚ and I find pleasure in abstract forms containing an inherent message or idea. Mordernism is difficult to achieve‚ especially when you’re working in a commercial environment. If Bierut has taught me anything‚ it’s flexibility. An abstract mark is great for a contemporary theater company‚ but completely inappropriate for a law firm. It may look like modernists play the same cards every time‚ but it’s rare that one size fits all.
HS: Jesse’s joking—he writes in all lower case—total modernist in denial! But I’m the same—I don’t think I’m established enough to have developed my own style. My taste in products‚ furniture‚ and architecture leans modernist.
You both work in Bierut’s studio at Pentagram. How did you first get together to work on extracurricular projects?
JR: It happened naturally. We were together when a group of us found the manual‚ and we took the initiative to photograph every page and create a website. Our former colleague and friend Niko Skourtis also contributed by developing the site. Both of us are incredibly passionate about these bodies of work‚ and that translates into getting things done quickly‚ efficiently‚ and to our standards.
Were you surprised by the NYCTA manual’s immediate Kickstarter success?
JR: Yes. Designers love the Manual for obvious reasons‚ but we highly underestimated the response from transportation enthusiasts‚ New York natives‚ and residents‚ not to mention the people who couldn’t believe such a document even existed. “A book about a font on signs—what?!”
HS: We honestly thought we’d just scrape through to get 1000 backers. We ended up with over 6500. It was a huge surprise.
You must use the NYC Subway pretty often. What do you appreciate about Noorda & Vignelli’s old system in practice?
JR: Knowing what I know about the process‚ what I appreciate most is each and every decision point a rider has to make. There are rumors that Noorda basically lived underground and stalked passengers as they were entering‚ exiting‚ and making a transfer. Before Unimark‚ the entire system was a mess. Vignelli and Noorda had to literally start from scratch and conduct months of visual analysis to determine how the new system would function. That said‚ my real nerd moment comes out in the 4 degree compensation made within the counters of the arrow—it’s a thing of beauty.
HS: Just the right information at the right time. That was the idea behind their system (and should be for all systems). I love using the subway system and seeing a sign in just the right position. Not too soon‚ not too late‚ just enough text. That’s not normal‚ is it?
Can we look forward to a third (or fourth or fifth) Graphics Standards Manual?
JR: Chances are good.
What are your backgrounds? How did you get into design in the first place? Hamish‚ you’re Australian and studied at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Jesse‚ you studied at the University of Cincinnati‚ right?
JR: I originally went to school for fine arts with the intention of studying photography at the University of Cincinnati. My first few quarters were successful and I could have continued on that path‚ but later in the year my eyes were exposed to “graphic design.” It’s funny to think about‚ but before college I had no idea that graphic design was a profession.
Looking back at my childhood‚ however‚ it makes complete sense that I’m doing this for a living. When I was younger I used to be very involved in small businesses and playing in bands. I started a skateboard company when I was 13 where I designed all the logos using Microsoft Word. I wasn’t doing it to be a designer; it was just something that needed to be done. In my band‚ I would literally cut and paste individual lines of text onto a sheet‚ make a photocopy of it‚ and then photocopy them again for distribution—those were our fliers (they looked “punk‚” but it was just me not knowing Photoshop). Looping around to the end of my freshman year‚ it was line interval studies that really changed my perception of art versus design. A lot of my friends were in the design foundation classes‚ and something about the black and white simplicity of these thick and thin line studies were fascinating to me. The following week I applied to UC’s design program (on the deadline‚ no less) and was accepted. Best life decision to date.
HS: In Adelaide‚ Australia‚ I had a wonderful high school teacher‚ Scott Parker‚ who saw something in me and encouraged me to pursue design as a career. We were also lucky to have design as a class from years 10–12 (sophomore to senior in U.S. language). Like Jesse I was a young entrepreneur‚ starting a T-shirt company with my best friend‚ Tom West‚ at 18 (we actually did alright!). That experience has been really handy.
Scott encouraged me to move to Melbourne and study design at RMIT. After my degree I was lucky to win an internship at Pentagram New York through Ken Cato’s wonderful Ideas on Design organization (formerly AGIdeas). After that internship Michael Bierut offered me a full time position‚ and I have remained there since.
Ever dabble in other design or art disciplines?
HS: Wow it’s so cliché but we’re both into analogue photography. I take my Rolleiflex everywhere I go‚ and secretly want to do that full-time. My dad and his dad had a darkroom at home‚ so I was surrounded by it growing up. I develop black and white in my sink at home. Does it get any more Brooklyn that that?
JR: I’ve been involved in a few photography shows here and there‚ and still shoot as much as I can. All of my real photographer friends are much better than me so I’ll continue to be a hobbyist and let them crush it in that world.
What are you working on besides the Graphics Standards Manuals project?
JR: Pentagram keeps us plenty busy. I’m finishing up an identity program for the Wildlife Conservation Society that has been a long time in the making. I’m also working on a potential photo collaboration with a buddy of mine—it should be a good way to shift my eye towards something other than a computer screen.
HS: Planning our next Standards Manual project! But besides that‚ I’m beginning work on a project that has do with gun control. I’m also finishing up printing and distributing the Subway Poster project that I Kickstarted this year with my girlfriend‚ Alex Daly.
If you were a typeface‚ what would you be?
JR: Franklin Gothic Extra Condensed.
HS: I’m so over everything right now…Courier?
How do you settle creative differences or conflicts amongst one another?
JR: Luckily‚ there haven’t been many. We may debate an idea for a while but it’s never come to a cutthroat disagreement. We’re completely invested in these efforts and we trust each other.
HS: We’re also both pretty rational people‚ so we seem to be able to take a step back and see the larger picture. The right answer usually emerges.
Were you two actively involved in the design of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign logo? There was such a polarised reaction to it and now it’s been totally eclipsed by the news cycle scandal. How important do you think design really is in winning political campaigns?
JR: I was. Michael and I worked on the identity as volunteers to the campaign. It was a thrilling process to say the least‚ and I couldn’t be happier with the result. In terms of the controversy surrounding the mark‚ it’s amazing that such a thing could spark heated debate. We’re talking about seven squares and a triangle—how could you really hate it that much? Of course‚ design criticism is at its peak these days—combine that with an already loaded topic like politics and that’s a formula for strong emotional discourse. Michael says it best‚ “Logos are not important in winning political campaigns‚ but communicating with consistency and intelligence is. A logo is just the center of a system that can enable the latter‚ particularly in a world where so many channels are available to reach people.”
We believe in the candidate‚ and that’s why we contributed in the one way we know how.
You get to choose the U.S. president next year. Who would it be?
HS: I’m not allowed to vote here‚ but go Hillz.