Space out: a history of NASA’s graphic design

‘The Worm’ is a showcase of NASA's iconic logos – from the original 1974 manual, all the way to up to its eventual banishment in the early 1990s

Nasa magazine
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Back in April 2020, NASA announced that it was bringing back ‘The Worm’, the fabled 1970s-era logo that graced some of the most significant space expeditions of the decade.

In those days, the agency’s serious grip on detail didn’t necessarily extend to branding. When designers Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn created the new logo in 1974 and its accompanying ‘NASA Graphics Standards Manual’, they found the engineering-driven organisation wasn’t especially bothered about how to present themselves.

Man holding miniature space shuttle

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Danne and Blackburn’s meticulous guide to how the logo, typography and graphic sensibility should be applied across everything from confidential memos to minibuses and, of course, spaceships, wasn’t enthusiastically followed. The design industry still loved it though and in 2015 the GSM was given a lavish reprint back in 2015 by Standards Manual, a publishing house set up by Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth from New York design agency Order. Reed and Smyth were long-time admirers of the golden age of graphic design standards manuals, back when these were the corporate equivalents of holy tablets, and NASA’s was one of the best.

Now as a follow-up to the reprint, Standards Manual are creating another showcase trawl through the NASA archive. ‘The Worm’ traces the application of the snaking logo that was the subject of the original 1974 manual, all the way up to its eventual banishment in the early 90s. A simple, timeless graphic, the Worm conjured up both far futurism and the all-embracing sophistication of a huge, benevolent corporate identity. And there’s a happy ending, as the logo made a triumphant return on the side of the SpaceX Crew Dragon launched at the end of May, as well as on the spacesuits of astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley. 

Man wearing nasa suit

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Space is more politicised and commercialised than ever before. The number of countries capable of launching their satellites are now competing with private companies looking to monetise the everyday ways in which we use satellite-based communications and location services. NASA is still committed to pushing ever further into the solar system, only this time it helps to have a distinct identity that stands out from the crowd. With over 300 pictures of the Worm in action, on the ground as well as in space, the monograph is a fine reminder of how to do corporate branding on a truly interstellar scale.

space shuttle in sky

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The Worm is available to pre-order through Counter-Print, £52

Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.