21st April 2020

Logo love tangle

NASA is, without doubt, one of the world’s coolest organisations. The Space Shuttle, the Hubble telescope, putting men on the moon – it’s heady stuff. Yet for all its scientific and technological prowess, NASA seems to have an enduring problem with its own logo.

The original NASA logo was drawn up by NASA employee and illustrator James Modarelli in 1959. It was in itself a simplified version of the NASA Seal, an insignia that the organisation still uses today for more formal or ceremonial occasions. It was very representative of what NASA did – the blue circle was a planet, the white stars represent space and the red chevron aeronautical design. Whilst not the most harmonious of designs it had a space-race go-for-it adventurous appeal, reminiscent of Flash Gordon and heroic missions. NASA staff loved it and it became known colloquially as ‘the meatball’.

Then, in the 1970s, the US government implemented its Federal Graphics Improvement Program – an ambitious program designed to update the identities of government agencies. As part of this program, New York design studio Danne & Blackburn were invited to design a new NASA logo in 1975.

Their solution was striking, and a complete contrast to the older logo. Using only bespoke typographical forms it suggested movement and modernity. It looked clean, it looked confident, it looked like the future.

And it wasn’t just a logo – it was quickly backed up by a comprehensive design manual showing how to use the logo on everything from worker’s overalls to the wings of the Space Shuttle. The manual was a masterclass of its day. Where possible, it said, the logo should appear in ‘NASA Red’. NASA Red was ‘a very active colour which brings a kinetic dimension to the letterforms. The color reflects the lively and future-oriented character of NASA.’

Widely applauded by the design community, the new logo (christened ‘the worm’) was never quite so popular with NASA staff. ‘It took them a long time to take down the old signs and a long time to put up the new ones’ as one insider put it.

In 1992, Dan Goldin, a newly-appointed NASA Administrator was touring NASA’s Langley Research Center. He noticed that the old meatball logo signage was still in place. He asked some of his co-workers what they thought about this, and should they revert back to the old logo? ‘Yes’ was the emphatic response. By the end of the week the worm was dumped and the meatball was back in favour. And that, it seemed, was that.

Except it wasn’t.

On April 2, 2020 NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted ‘The worm is back!’ The worm will adorn NASA’s new Falcon 9 rockets – the first US-made rockets to carry US astronauts in nearly a decade – all the way to the International Space Station.

NASA’s official website says: “And there’s a good chance you’ll see the (worm) logo featured in other official ways on this mission and in the future. The agency is still assessing how and where it will be used, exactly. It seems the worm logo wasn’t really retired. It was just resting up for the next chapter of space exploration. And don’t worry, the meatball will remain NASA’s primary symbol.”

So NASA now has two logos and its not really sure how to use them. Hmmm…..

So which is the best logo for NASA? The jury seems to be out. NASA still want the meatball as its primary logo, but when tech website The Registrar recently ran an article on the return of the worm, it polled its readers. The result was a resounding victory for the worm with 1,474 votes, against 493 for the meatball.

Our view? We get the appeal of the meatball, its a retro-flavoured icon. But when a logo can say so much, so elegantly, with so little, we have to go for the worm.