Forty years ago, the United States turned 200. It was a divisive time, with the loss of the Vietnam War and the controversy of Nixon’s failed presidency, a time that the writer Thomas Hine labeled the Great Funk. Still, in honor of the country’s birthday, there were fireworks and celebrations–and an iconic new logo and branding system, designed by Bruce Blackburn of the firm Chermayeff & Geismar Associates.
Now, the graphics standards manual that dictated the visual identity for the ’76 celebrations is available once more, at a time where a symbol of unity is more needed than ever.
The graphics standards manual for the Official Symbol of the American Revolution Bicentennial was released last month by Standards Manual, a two-year-old publishing imprint, founded by the Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth to revive compendiums of graphic design from older eras. The graphics standards manual, which typically comes in the form of a hefty tome and lays out all the dimensions and specifications for every aspect of a visual identity from color to spacing, has seen a resurgence in the last few years. Reed and Smyth first launched a campaign to reprint the New York City Transit Authority’s graphics standards manual after they discovered a copy; it was so popular on Kickstarter that they subsequently reprinted the manual for NASA’s classic worm logo, which was also designed by Blackburn.
Smyth says that the two decided to make the American Revolution Bicentennial their next project partially because it had been designed by Blackburn about five years before the NASA logo–in fact, it was part of the reason that he got the NASA job. The logo was commissioned in 1971 by the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission.
“But we also just love it,” Smyth says. “We think it’s a really interesting piece of design that was celebrating a big moment in the country’s history. From a pure design standpoint it’s a really nicely executed logo.”
In the manual’s introduction, Blackburn describes his design process, which started with a five-pointed star whose points were wrapped by lines of red and blue to soften the militaristic elements of the symbol. Initially, the logo’s words ran underneath the star logo, but Nixon (who was still president at the time) didn’t believe it looked governmental enough, and so demanded that the words encircle the star, turning into more of a seal.
During 1975 and 1976, Smyth says, the symbol was hugely popular, and could be found everywhere. “I remember seeing it everywhere, especially on flags, in 1976,” writes journalist Christopher Bonanos in the reprint’s introduction. “My hometown’s brand-new library buried a time capsule under a bronze plaque bearing the symbol. NASA painted it, at immense size, on the side of its Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center.” But soon after the celebration the symbol faded into relative obscurity, perhaps because the government put heavy limits on its use and it wasn’t available universally.
While many today may not even recognize it, the identity feels relevant once more. Two weeks after the 2016 election, America is more divided than it has been over the last 20 years, according to one Gallup poll.
“Given the events of the last few weeks, I think we could all do with some unity and national pride in a neutral sense,” Smyth says. “It was created to celebrate the bicentennial, but it could almost be the logo for America.”
[All Photos: via Standards Manual]