Whenever people think about working in creative design, government jobs would usually be considered at the bottom of the list; who really wants to create DMV flyers or boring documents day in and day out? While the phrase “the good ol’ days” has become somewhat of a joke, this statement really does apply to government design. In the 1960s, design broke ground in the United States federal government in a radical way.
Good Art Makes Good Politics
President Nixon, whose administration lasted from 1969 – 1974, wanted to bring radical change to the way the federal government portrayed itself visually. This era was an economic boom for logo design, advertising and branding, and the administration wanted to find a way to integrate this growing field into their agenda for the country. For President Nixon and his advisors, good art made good politics. Attention to the culture and employing incredibly skilled artists to handle federal government work was important because it helped strengthen the practice, brought a new field of work into a place where art normally was not even thought about, and, most importantly, brought a new level of function and creativity to the cold government departments.
These things helped strengthen the bonds between liberal, creative arts and cold, strategic, and apathetic government work. Nixon’s advisor Leonard Garment, a strong advocate for the arts, said this about design: “cultural affairs represent an area of under-attention as compared to our technology.” Strengthening the arts and allowing them to function in government work will serve to strengthen the quality of life across the country. This philosophy led to some of the highest-quality branding projects to ever come out of public works.
NASA: Setting the Example
Regardless of one’s opinion about the government, it’s hard to deny how beautiful the incredibly well-designed logos and brands came out of this philosophy. The marks people have come to associate with these government entities came out of this era of design.
While all of these logos are incredibly well crafted and are bread-and-butter examples of good brands, NASA stands above the rest. Formerly a much more literal illustration of space known as the “meatball”, NASA used this circular logo for the first 16 years of its life, only to switch to the highly popular and well-known “worm” logo in 1975. Unfortunately, future administrations did not share the same philosophy toward design and reverted back to the classic mark not too long after.
This logo is fantastic for multiple reasons, but the biggest reason this was so successful is that it strips away the generic iconography of “space” and creates something simple and unique that still embodies what NASA is about. One can look at the Worm and immediately associate it with space and technology, without literal stars telling the viewer anything about it. This logo is still popular to this today; while it no longer functions as the primary mark, NASA uses this logo on apparel, stickers, and merchandise and has raised millions of dollars for further space research in their endeavors.
Good branding is important everywhere, even in government. While most of these ideas about using art everywhere have been quelled in 21st Century bureaucracy, these departments look cool and connect better with their citizens, which can be incredibly difficult in such a diverse country. Good art and design bind us together and it must remain part of our everyday lives, whether it’s the granola bar we eat every morning or our federal government’s space department.