How A Student Designed The Recycling Logo, And Got A Measly $2,500

The Financial Times sits down with Gary Anderson, who over 30 years ago, designed one of the world’s most famous logos, as a college student.


In 1970, Gary Anderson was a 23-year-old college student at the University of Southern California, when a Chicago container company held a design contest to raise awareness about the environment. Anderson’s submission won, and it became the internationally recognized recycling logo–and a design classic that ranks with the Coca-Cola and Nike marks, for sheer ubiquity.

Anderson with his logo, back in the day.

Financial Times Magazine ran a first-person retrospective in which Anderson recounts the experience:

It didn’t take me long to come up with my design: a day or two. I almost hate to admit that now. But I’d already done a presentation on recycling waste water and I’d come up with a graphic that described the flow of water: from reservoirs through to consumption, so I already had arrows and arcs and angles in my mind.

The problem with my earlier design was that it seemed flat, two-dimensional. When I sat down to enter the competition, I thought back to a field trip in elementary school to a newspaper office where we’d seen how paper was fed over rollers as it was printed. I drew on that image – the three arrows in my final sketch look like strips of folded-over paper. I drew them in pencil, and then traced over everything in black ink. These days, with computer graphics packages, it’s rare that designs are quite as stark.

Despite a clear talent for the medium, Anderson actually became an architect rather than a graphic designer, and ironically learned to lament environmental regulations from time to time. But I won’t spoil the whole story here. Check out the full account on the Financial Times. Then remind yourself; you may become most well known for the work by which you’d prefer not to define your career. (And you may make all of $2,500 for it.)

Read more here.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach