Today, the national parks are represented in our visual culture primarily through photographs posted on social media. But long before people posted selfies in Yellowstone, designers were depicting the glories of the nature reserves through maps and brochures that aimed to woo travelers and convince them to visit the American outdoors.
A new book called Parks chronicles the history of these brochures, starting with documents published by the Department of the Interior in 1916 all the way through the wacky layouts of the 1960s to the late 1970s, when the designs start to coalesce around a single look and feel, all thanks to the famed designer Massimo Vignelli. Through these historical documents, the book reveals the evolution of government design in the United States as well as larger graphic design trends—while preserving these visual treasures as an important part of the national parks’ history.
The book includes hundreds of images taken from the collection of photographer Brian Kelley, who was first inspired to start collecting paper ephemera related to the national parks while working on a photography project where he documents old growth trees, which are the largest living specimen of a given type of tree. In hunting down these ancient trees, Kelley visited many national parks and came across a few maps that inspired him to start hunting down older maps. He bought brochures and maps off eBay, often from people who had found a box full of them when a family member passed away.
“It’s an object that people really held as an accomplishment, an artifact of all the places they went and explored before social media grabbed everyone’s brains and got us out of nature,” says Jesse Reed, a graphic designer and cofounder of the independent imprint Standards Manual, which is publishing Kelley’s collection.
Standards Manual publishes books on the history of graphic design in the United States, including standards manuals (as the imprint’s name suggests). So far, Standards Manual has published books that document the graphic design standards for America’s bicentennial celebration, NASA, and the New York City Transit Authority, as well as a volume dedicated to the corporate graphic design of the firm Chermayeff Geismar & Haviv. Without Standards Manual to revive some of these historical documents, reminiscent of an era where standards were kept in dense volumes rather than in the cloud, many would likely languish in the obscurity of someone’s basement—which is coincidentally where Reed and his business partner Hamish Smyth found the New York City Transit Authority standards manual that started them down the path of republishing them.
For Reed and his partner Hamish Smyth, the collection of national parks brochures and maps fits right into the imprint’s goals, even if it’s not technically a standards manual. “All of [Standards Manual’s books] are in the mindset of preserving the history of graphic design and visual communication,” Reed says. “The maps are an overview of graphic design history in the United States.”
Smyth points out that you can trace the transition of graphic design in the brochures, starting with the traditional layouts of the 1920s brochures with their centered titles, serif fonts, and stunning black and white photographs of landmarks like Yosemite’s Half Dome and Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. But by the time you get to the 1960s, the National Parks Service was hiring independent designers and artists to create unique, one-off images to sell people on each park—one of Death Valley from 1965, for instance, is a bright orange brochure that features only an illustration of a sun peeking down from the top of the page and wavy letterforms that spell out the park’s name on the bottom.
By the time you hit the 1970s, the government got much smarter about how it could use design to save money and improve its services. Despite the creativity of its different park brochures, the NPS started to realize that it could cut down on costs by standardizing how each park printed materials for visitors. In 1977, it hired Massimo Vignelli, who’d previously designed the graphics system for the New York City subway, to create a system that would work for every single park and standardize all of the agency’s paper publications—or stamp out each park’s originality, depending on how you look at it.
Vignelli came up with a framework called the Unigrid system that provided a set of visual devices to streamline all of the NPS’s maps, pamphlets, and posters. That meant that each title would now run vertically along a brochure’s right side in Helvetica, and designers would work within a modular grid system that dictated where they could place images and text.
It was a boon for the government financially and logistically. “One of the good things about the Vignelli system is that it standardized paper sizes, weights, and types, and it was a grid system where you knew roughly what it was going to look like and how much text you had to have written and how many images might fit,” Smyth says. “It streamlined things quite a lot, and in the end they saved a lot of money from printing by buying things in bulk.” Vignelli’s Unigrid was so successful for the NPS that it’s still in use today.
Parks is now available for pre-order on Standards Manual’s website for $55.