Back to the Future

In the winter 1992 edition of the AIGA Journal, newsletter to the American Institute of Graphic Artists, entitled “What Else Can Go Wrong,” association President Carolyn Hightower called on her membership nationwide to directly petition then President-Elect Bill Clinton. Design Historian Philip Meggs contributed an article on the same page of the journal outlining the specifics of this impending disaster. What issue was of such burning importance to inspire such a call to action? The threatened position of the NEA? The loss of federal funding to urban design projects? The national censorship debate? The establishment of a national design commission?

Well, yes and no. On the surface Hightower was rallying her graphic designers in defense of an imperiled logo; the signature of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which has emblazoned everything — from rocket ships to office memoranda — that the agency has fired off since 1974. This endangered species was threatened with extinction at the hands of NASA’s new director Daniel S. Golden, who proposed scrapping the current logo — designed by the New York corporate identity firm Danne/Blackburn — in favor of an earlier incarnation. Hightower urged her readers to advise Mr.Clinton, that “the Danne Blackburn NASA logo is too important to lose. It is a symbol of distinction and graphic excellence.”

One can only wonder how the Clinton transition team prioritized the flood of mail this call-to-arms unleashed. Suffice to say that as of this writing the President is sufficiently beleaguered by other problems to yet make any proclamation on this issue. But while the upper echelons of government may be insensitive to the situation, graphic designers and the folks at NASA are taking this issue quite seriously.

Both Hightower and Golden have something at stake here and each sees their position reflected in the NASA logotype. Obviously, Hightower isn’t out to protect one specific logo; after all, corporations have a habit of revamping their visual identity systems on a regular basis, opening up juicy new design projects every time they do. (And you can bet a hungry graphic designer is encouraging some CEO to do exactly that as we speak.) By the same token, Golden certainly has other issues to concentrate on, possibly more pressing than art-directing identity projects. No, the battle over the NASA symbol is purely… well, symbolic.

According to Meggs — in his plea to spare the neck of the noble logo, which accompanied Hightower’s letter in the Journal — the controversy centers around two competing logos: the pre-1974 insignia favored by Goldin, and the professionally executed signature now facing the axe, championed by Hightower, Meggs, The Danne/Blackburn design was a child of the Federal Design Improvement Program,an initiative instituted by the Nixon Administration. It is clearly the result of serious professional design consultation – the kind of serious professional design consultation it behooves Ms Hightower and the AIGA to promote and protect.

Meggs argues that the 1974 NASA logo is a paradigm of visual identity systems. The nexus of abstract art and capitalism, the visual identity system (synonymous with corporate identity) takes the form of a rationalized, highly formatted design program constructed to control corporate image. The close ties forged between commercial art and the burgeoning multinational corporate culture fostered a graphic design profession — in opposition to an art or trade — and in turn supplied an aesthetic authority to the modern corporation. Corporate image evoked a sense of increased efficiency, systematization and cultural sophistication. Corporations appropriated the seeming neutrality, universality and high cultural associations of abstract art, while designers assumed the caché of big business consultancy.

This union has become so naturalized that graphic modernism has become synonymous with ubiquitous corporate style. Abstracted logotypes suited the growing multinational diversification, with its sprawling geographic and commercial reach. “In the information age figurative logos carry too much baggage…” writes critic Karrie Jacobs. “They’re reminders of historic and geographic ties, of the dark ages when American corporations wanted to be known for making particular things instead of selling services and sending binary impulses careening around the globe.” This transformation from the iconic to the symbolic — in evidence from at least the early 1940s — was promoted enthusiastically by designers fixated with systematization and an orderly progression toward the FUTURE.

The 70s version of the future took the form of the computer-technic, hard-edged, soft-cornered super-corporations evoked by mainstream vehicles like Star Wars and Star Trek. Space travel was imagined as the heroic effort of super-galactic corporations. For instance, in Krubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey passengers make the journey from Earth to space-station on board a PanAm space shuttle, call home to Earth via ITT, etc. Even the evil super computer was called by its logogrammatic name H.A.L. -one letter short of I.B.M. It is in this spirit that the Danne/Blackburn NASA logo functioned. The excitement of outer space exploration was represented as a feat of technological and corporate superiority, a wonder of cutting-edge organization.

Later films like Blade Runner, Alien, even ET — where the poor little alien is poked and prodded by the insensitive brutes from the government agency — envision a clash between the soulless corporate types and the rest of us poor working Joes, duped again by the management. This seeming distrust of the bureaucratic nightmare of the corporation mirrored a sudden turn away from the abstract. The futurism and scientism of the seventies began to give way to a nostalgia typified by the 1984 Reagan/Bush reelection campaign featuring dreamy images of small town America. Art Historian Maud Lavin coined this aesthetic movement “New Traditionalism” which had “become pervasive, promoting a backward looking consumer utopia, a return to the conventions of the nuclear family, and fifties-style allegiance to patriarchy and patriotism.”

Major corporations like Prudential, National Broadcast Company and TIME magazine, among many others, unearthed old logos and mascots for their new looks. And all these programs were instituted under the watchful eyes of professional consultants without the AIGA bemoaning the loss of the classic logos. Yet when NASA administrator (and amateur designer) Golden makes a similar suggestion, the AIGA gets nervous because Golden’s cavalier disposal of the NASA identity system belies the government’s disregard of design as an integral organizational process and commitment to mediocrity. Hightower and Meggs rightly see Golden as a symbol of the growing perception of professional design as an expendable luxury.

But Golden is not a semiotic simpleton and his pitch is not that different from one that Alan Seigal or Roger Black might spin at a professional design presentation. Meggs reports that in his inaugural address to NASA employees, Goldin announced, “The magic is back at NASA. The can-do spirit of the past is alive and well. In honor of this spirit, it seems only fitting that the original NASA insignia…be a part of our future.” Goldin’s longing for past glory is resonant in Lavin’s analysis of the traditionalist spirit. “[W]hat is traditional is generally an ersatz affirmation of the good old days, an arms reach back to post-war prosperity yet curiously updated.”

Goldin has good reason to long for the good old days of NASA. The agency had been besieged with external interrogation and internal self-doubt ever since the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, in which seven astronauts died, and the following debacle in which NASA’s mismanagement and bureaucratic quagmire were harshly criticized. That humiliation was compounded when the multi-million dollar Hubble space telescope turned out to have technological problems rendering it practically useless. The association of NASA with the techno-corporate image evoked by the 1974 logo seems to reinforce the idea of the agency as a bungling, incompetent American corporation, unable to compete in the world of alien competition.

The return to the romantic image of exploration, the Buck Rogers fantasy of outer space evident in the pictorial futurism of the old logo, attempts to reinvest the federal agency with the familiar comic book image of the future. The battle between Hightower and Goldin is re-framed as a competition over whose image of the future resonates most effectively. Each position is intrinsically self-serving: Goldin wants to exorcise the phantoms of Challenger by the destruction of the symbol, i.e. erase the 70s and 80s and start over again; Hightower sees the visual authority of the professional design consultancy — and the high fees that come along with that professional stature — jeopardized by the cavalier interference by an uninitiated Philistine.

But deeper still is a battle between utopian dream/images and the fantasy of space travel; the romance of Jules Verne vs. the techno-pop futurism of Steven Spielberg; the genius/tinkerer vs. the high-tech corporate R&D team; fantasy vs. rationalism. Our American image of the future and the idea of exploration may have moved beyond a 70s version of cutting edge technology and gotten all tied up with nostalgia, national pride and national insecurity. While his method is all wrong, Golden may be right in that he sees the visual representation of fantasy has to be more than legible.

© Michael Rock