Inside the Rise and Fall of NASA’s Beloved Worm Logo
One of graphic design’s most famous love triangle begins, as most graphic design stories do, with a request for proposal.
It was 1974, and Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn, founders of New York design studio Danne & Blackburn, had just responded to such a request, one asking the firm to re-brand NASA. It came under the Federal Graphics Improvement Program, an ambitious effort to revamp the visual identity of government agencies, most of which were, in a word, ugly.
Danne & Blackburn’s proposal hinged on a futuristic wordmark that came to be known as “the worm” for its zigzag appearance. The logo, with its thick lettering and crossbar-less A’s reminiscent of rocket nosecones, was the centerpiece of a broader document called the NASA Graphics Standards Manual. It outlined how the logo and the rest of the graphics system should be implemented on everything from spaceships to stationery.
The 90-page manual filled a ringed binder, and for decades NASA had just a handful of copies. It has since been photographed and widely posted online, but originals remain rare. Today, the manual is getting a modern makeover by Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed, two designers in New York’s Pentagram office who hope to compile it in a hardcover book ($79 plus shipping). They’ve turned to Kickstarter, much like they did to to reissue Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda’s work on the NYC Transit Graphics Standards Manual), and say the manual still has a lot to teach us about design and branding.
“I used manuals just like this—it’s what I learned from,” Reed says. “They’re still so relevant even though they were designed 40 years ago.”
Throughout its 40-year lifespan, the NASA manual has become a cherished piece of graphic design history, both for the quality of the work and for the dramatic lore surrounding it. Danne & Blackburn won the NASA commission, and before long the worm replaced the meatball as the agency’s official l logo of the agency. It looked great, but there was one problem: While considered a victory for graphic design, many of NASA’s employees hated it.
Until the early 1970s, design was an afterthought for the government, if it was a thought at all. The logos of the day, often a circle with the name of the agency around a gaudy illustration, were more like crests. ‘They looked like they were put together by bureaucrats,” says Stephen Loges, a graphic designer who worked on the NASA manual at Danne & Blackburn from the mid -70s to early ’80s. “Everything looked alike, and it was all bad.”
NASA’s first logo, colloquially and affectionately called “the meatball,” was a perfect example of the aesthetic: a blue circle inscribed with “NASA” in a heavy serif font, a rocket against a sprinkling of stars, and a strange curving red arrow. It was a mess by graphic design standards, hard to reproduce, difficult to scale, and, frankly, corny. “I think the meatball has a folksy cuteness, a sort of nostalgic look and feel to it,” Smyth says. “But I don’t think it’s appropriate for a space agency.”
Still, people loved it. It felt friendly, like a familiar cartoon character. “I grew up with the meatball as a kid in the ’60s, so I have an affection for it,” says Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian. “That’s the case with a lot of folks with NASA these days.” So naturally, when the worm was introduced in the mid-’70s, it met some resistance. In his memoir, Danne recalls a now-famous exchange between James Fletcher, NASA’s administrator at the time, and his deputy George Low during an early presentation of the graphics system:
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.
Fletcher, after a long pause: I just don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth!
Fletcher’s sentiment was echoed throughout much of NASA. Despite being graphically brilliant, the worm was a hard sell to an organization full of engineers who couldn’t care less about kerning and color swatches. Nevertheless, Danne, Blackburn and Loges spent the next decade working on the manual, eventually writing 90 pages of design directives that explained how to use the graphical elements in a huge variety of situations. “I was writing for an audience who might not know the first thing about design,” Loges says. “There was a section explaining what a grid was.”
The manual specified things like which typeface to use on mastheads and letterheads (Helvetica medium) and proper placement of the insignia on vehicles (just below and to the left of the handle on the driver’s side). Ensuring the logomark worked on a space shuttle was trickier. Because the shuttles were covered with heat-resistant tiles, the graphics could be placed only in a few areas. That had to be visible in photographs during liftoff, and smaller than the US flag and the words “United States of America” marking. “NASA was sort of secondary,” Loges says.
Because of this meticulous attention to detail, the manual was (and still is) widely considered a remarkably thorough example of a graphics system. “I think it’s a fundamental example of clarity,” Reed says. As for the wordmark itself, it just felt like NASA. Like design critic Alice Rawsthorn explains in her essay “The Art Of The Seal,” “If the meatball shows us what made NASA so thrilling — rockets, planets and sexy-sounding hypersonic stuff — the worm simply suggests it, and does so with such skill that it’s become the design purists’ favorite.”
Despite its execution and nuance, it seems the worm was doomed to fail. As legend has it, Dan Goldin, NASA’s newly appointed administrator, arrived at Langley Research Center one Thursday in May of 1992 and noticed the meatball was still on the hangar. “They never did remove the meatball,” Barry, the historian, says. “And they took a very long time to getting around to painting the new logotype on the building.” NASA was in a slump at the time, and Goldin saw an opportunity to boost morale. He asked George Abbey, his special assistant, and Paul Holloway, the director of Langley, if he could reinstate the meatball. Yes, they replied, and you should.
And so it was. Like an indecisive lover, NASA dumped the worm and made up with the meatball the very next day. “By Friday morning the worm was out, and the meatball was back,” Holloway proudly recounts on his official NASA webpage. Even though the worm still lives on the Hubble telescope (launched in 1990) and the Enterprise shuttle, NASA attempted to make the change swift. “The switch started a scramble to find the old logo. Goldin wore a meatball lapel pin that he borrowed. At his speech to employees, the meatball logo was attached to the lectern.”
This time, it was NASA that loved the logo and the designers who hated it. “It wasn’t back to the future,” Loges says. “It was back to the past.” And Danne, as you might imagine, took it hard. Seventeen years isn’t nothing, but he had hoped the logo would see many more launches. “It’s all part of the game and there is little you can do about it,” he wrote in his memoir in 2011. “But reflecting back on the NASA program, it is still painful.”
Today, he has a bit more perspective. “I can’t be sure, but perhaps the program is more revered because it was rescinded,” he says. Like so many musicians and writers, the worm took on a postmortem glow. Even though the logo is long retired, Danne says he gets an email or two each week from someone, usually a student, eager to discuss the worm. “They seem to get it,” he says. “The past is prologue to the future.”
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