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When The Environmental Protection Agency Had Good Design

A new reissue of the EPA graphic standards manuals designed by Chermayeff & Geismar shows what graphic design can do for government agencies.

During a few forgotten years in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government valued the power of good graphic design in communicating the mandates of its agencies. This was the time of the beloved NASA “worm” logo and the standardization of federal highway signs—all orchestrated by Nancy Hanks, Nixon’s pick for the National Endowment for the Arts. Unfortunately, the period was brief: Even strong design can’t always survive a regime change.

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EPA logo by Chermayeff & Geismar, 1977. [Photo: courtesy Courtesy Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv]
That’s how the inspired logo and identity system for the Environmental Protection Agency, designed by Chermayeff & Geismar, went from being a pinnacle of systematic, well-considered government design to out of use in just a few years. In 1977, the design firm organized the new federal agency into a series of smaller departments, and applied a modern, eye-catching visual identity across them all. Two years later, the Reagan administration swept in, and Anne Gorsuch—mother of recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch—was appointed head of the EPA. The logo—which had replaced the EPA’s original seal with a daisy at its center—didn’t last long after that.

Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar, with their sculpture for 9 West 57th Street, New York City. [Photo: Courtesy Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv]
“Her reaction to the new identity was not bad at all at first,” recalls Steff Geissbuhler, the Chermayeff & Geismar designer who headed up the project. What she couldn’t get over, however, was the new stationary. “She took one look at it and said, ‘I want my daisy back.’ I think after that her staff started to diminish the system, and it slowly started to disappear.”

Steff Geissbuhler, designer at C&G who worked on the EPA Graphics Standards System, c. 1975. [Photo: Courtesy Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv]
These days, the logo has long been back to a version of its original seal—and while the old Chermayeff & Geismar logo is still celebrated among some graphic designers, the identity system as a whole is largely forgotten. Now, the pair behind Standards Manual—publishers of the popular NASA and New York City Transit Authority manuals—are resurfacing it. The design system found in U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Graphics Standards System, launching today on Kickstarter, is remarkable for how inventively and effectively it communicated difficult messages about the environment, which were just starting to gain traction. It’s also a timely reminder of the role that considered graphic design can play in propping up an issue and an agency–one that, these days, just so happens to be under siege with the Trump administration.

When Nixon created the EPA in 1970, environmental legislation was a bipartisan issue. The EPA was founded to regulate environmental pollution and address serious environmental problems that were affecting towns, suburbs, and wilderness areas across the country. Within its first year of existence, the agency launched the Documerica project, which for six years sent freelance photographers to document the environmental problems afflicting average Americans.

Scan of original pages. [Photo: courtesy Chermayeff & Geismar]
The year prior to the EPA’s founding, Nixon had appointed Hanks as chairman of the NEA, where she became a powerful and persuasive arts advocate. Hanks started the Federal Graphics Improvement Program in 1972, and it was under that program that the EPA joined 45 other agencies, including NASA and the Department of Transportation, in receiving new identities. Hanks, says Geissbuhler, was the one to bring Chermayeff & Geismar onto the EPA branding project. When he and his team started working with the agency, it was spending millions on brochures, most of which were farmed out to freelance designers and created from scratch, with no consistency in color, typography, size, or messaging. The agency had the daisy seal logo, but lacked a comprehensive visual system.

Chermayeff & Geismar’s new identity became a major cost-saving mechanism, because it allowed the agency to apply visual elements quickly and consistently across media. Geissbuhler designed a modern, stripped-down version of the seal for the logo, incorporating symbols of the sun, land, and water into a more stylized version of the flower. Importantly, the firm also assigned colors to the nine sub-departments of the EPA, making it easy to distinguish the departments that addressed specific aspects of environmental regulation, such as water, noise, toxic substances, and radiation. Those departments were also represented visually in the form of their own bright color and simplified pattern, such as wavy lines for water, or circles spiraling out like frequency waves for radiation.

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Scan of original pages. [Photo: courtesy Chermayeff & Geismar]
“That’s the really interesting thing about this identity,” says Jesse Reed, who runs Standards Manuals along with fellow designer Hamish Smyth (disclosure: I’m friends with them both). Reed and Smyth connected with what is now Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv through the professional design organization AIGA, their partners in the reissue. While they were aware of the firm’s EPA logo, neither of them had seen the system as a whole. “They had developed this elaborate visual language, where every category had its own color patterns, lines, and curves, with different ways of interpreting different categories,” says Reed. “And they all spoke in harmony to one another, so you knew immediately it was the EPA.”

The graphics could be used on their own, or they could overlay the photographs from the Documerica project, which, as Geissbuhler notes, were somewhat depressing on their own. The graphics livened them up while still calling out the specific issue. As Reed points out, that’s the difficult yet essential problem of designing for an issue as overwhelming as the degradation of the planet.

“The challenge that federal programs face is that there is a perception that government is not exciting,” he says. “Graphic design has power to take important info that can be dry and straightforward and elevate to the degree that it does entice you to think about the concerns.”

It’s hard to think of politics as boring these days, but as essential governmental agencies like the EPA and the NEA continue to be under duress, it’s important to remember the brief period of progress they experienced in 1970s. At a time when facts are under attack, clarity in communication is vital, particularly when it comes to something as sprawling, obtuse, and bureaucratic as the federal government. This isn’t really the time to get hung up on the stationary.

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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