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NASA logo thoughts, whither the magic?

2010 February 21

So a few days ago I wrote “remind me one of these days to gather up my thoughts on the NASA logo(s).” Then, the very next day, The Plain Dealer ran an editorial cartoon featuring the old-new NASA logo. And while I don’t believe in fate, per se, there are certainly times to take hints that life seems to be giving you. Thus, “one of these days” shall be today.

NASA has mainly used two logos over the years:

NASA logos

The "meatball" logo, and the "worm" logo

The “meatball” logo debuted in 1959. It was eclipsed (as it were) by the “worm” logo from 1975 to 1992, since when it has resumed duty as the primary NASA logo. (According to Wikipedia, at least, the worm logo still retains some limited official status “such as for commercial merchandising purposes;” it seems that the use of “throwback” graphics to sell more stuff is by no means confined to the NFL.)

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the meatball. It looks kind of goofy and overdone, whereas the worm logo looks bold, futuristic and sturdy. In the interests of full disclosure, however, I should note that the era of the worm logo coincided with the years when I was growing up, so I can’t rule out some element of nostalgia on my part (just as nostalgia on the part of an older generation was openly a factor in reviving the meatball).

I will also note that the worm logo is not without faults. In addition to looking sturdy, bold and futuristic, it also looks cold, sterile and a little bit boring. There’s none of the adventure which the meatball logo captures.

But as a designer, the worm logo still looks more appropriate to me, as well as a good deal more practical. Things have obviously changed somewhat in recent years, probably due to the internet, but I still generally lean towards a logo that either is, or can be reduced to, a simple and rugged form which will work at small sizes and low resolutions.

What’s really interesting is that, in looking up the information for this post, I found a fascinating page of notes about the meatball logo on NASA’s own web site including a frank acknowledgement of its drawbacks. (I will confess here that I’ve encountered a few of the same issues with Modern Alchemy’s complicated logo; live and learn.) The document quotes one publications contractor as saying, of the meatball: “it’s a design nightmare.”

I really love this remarkably free and open self-critique, though I have to note one small, amusing irony. The same page which ends with thoughts about the importance of graphic identity standards is, in browsers which display such icons at least, accompanied by what appears to be the logo of the Sun corporation:

Screenshot of NASA web page

I have circled the element in question, in the upper left

Presumably the site is being hosted on a Sun server and this is just a default graphic, entirely independent of the author of this page, but still. Whoops.

Getting back to NASA’s own logos, though, if I have any serious conclusion to draw it is probably that not only is neither logo perfect, but a perfect NASA logo may be all-but-impossible. Logos, after all, are but part of a graphic identity, and graphic identity should in theory reflect a more broadly-defined overall identity. In some cases a good graphic identity can probably help an organization’s overall identity coalesce, but I do not believe NASA is one of those cases.

Much has been written over the years of NASA’s problems, frequently relating to a lack and/or surplus of direction(s) for the organization. But I will at least say that, as a designer, trying to imagine a way to represent NASA is awfully difficult given that it is not only a large, dispersed organization constantly subject to shifting political fortunes, but more fundamentally it seems to be defined by a negative: ultimately NASA seems to be a kind of catch-all organization for everything that is not within low Earth orbit.

What else is there, really, to connect up all NASA’s various activities? Orbital bus service, aeronautics research and development, manned space flight, astronomical observation and research, unmanned exploration of the solar system, meteorological studies, etc., etc.

In a way, and at the risk of sounding overly sarcastic, I find myself wondering if, all else being equal, a complicated, fussy and unwieldy meatball of a logo isn’t actually a good fit for NASA after all.

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