NASA Graphics Standards Manual

May 01 2016

It should be no secret that we are admirers of the work of New York based designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smith. Last year we covered the release of their first effort, a precise reproduction of the New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual. Based on a rare original copy of the original manual they discovered in the basement of the design firm at which they both work, Pentagram.

This week the duo is back with a new Standards Manual, this time a reprint of the NASA manual composed of high quality scans of designer Richard Danne’s personal copy. The issue also includes an introduction from Danne, an essay on the culture of NASA by Christopher Bonanos, and a selection of rare images scanned from their original 4×5 transparencies. We caught up with the duo during the final stages of production for the last issue of our Human Being Journal. You can read an unabridged version of this interview in Human Being Journal, Issue 07.

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 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.

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.

So, we look forward to a third (or fourth or fifth) Graphics Standards Manual?
JR: Chances are good.