Construct a Perfect Pentagon

On standards manuals

From the 1977 United States Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards System. Courtesy of Standards Manual.

New York City Transit Authority Graphic Standards Manual. Standards Manual, 2014.
1975 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphic Standards Manual. Standards Manual, 2015.
Official Symbol of the American Revolution Bicentennial: Guidelines for Authorized Usage; Official Graphics Standards Manual. Standards Manual, 2016.
1977 United States Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards System. Standards Manual, 2017.

Imagine it’s the turn of the millennium, and you have somehow learned that in fifteen years, a specialty press will have devoted itself to the meticulous reproduction of the internal graphic-design manuals produced by state and federal public agencies in the 1970s. These manuals have been reprinted in Italy on heavy glossy paper and bound between substantial boards, embossed, stamped, varnished, linen-covered, boxed, sleeved, and bagged in heavy card-stock enclosures and metallic foils. Thousands are sold at prices between $50 and, for a limited edition, $500 each. Imagine learning then that in less than a generation’s time, people will want to own and consult the internal technical rule books for these agencies’ signage, publications, plaques, insignia, typography, letterheads, and vehicle livery. What would you expect about the world to come?

Perhaps in this future world an increased investment in public institutions has prompted a collective curiosity about the history of their culture and graphic ephemera—particularly in how the design of that ephemera embodied the values of transparency, accountability, and community. Or perhaps this future world would look more like the one we now live in: one in which a calculated, self-fulfilling nihilism about the duty and capacity of a democratic republic to secure the common welfare of its people has incapacitated those agencies’ ability to carry out their missions. What would it mean, in that case, to retrieve and publicize some of the last documents those agencies produced before the advent, around 1980, of the long-term political strategy that set out to destroy them? Would the reprinted manuals suggest an attempt to recall and revive how those agencies once functioned, or only how they once looked?

A few years ago, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth discovered their first manual in the Pentagram basement. Pentagram, where they worked at the time, is a New York design firm whose sterling reputation rests on the significant graphic and environmental work they did in the 1970s. The manual, bound in the kind of awkward ring binder you might remember from elementary school, was a rare surviving copy of the New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual: the original design for all the maps and signs and symbols (what architects and designers call wayfinding) for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of New York. Standards Manual, the publishing venture Reed and Smyth began alongside their design consultancy, Order, reissued the NYCTA manual in 2014. What followed, by way of a Kickstarter online fund-raiser, was seven thousand copies of a big square red book, thirteen and a half inches on its sides and more than an inch thick, weighing more than seven pounds. It has some 350 heavy matte pages, printed in CMYK ink plus nine Pantone spot colors with a stochastic screen for subtle gradation of tones and bound in hardcover with silk-screened white lettering on Italian cloth over heavy boards.

The first NYCTA manual was issued in 1970, when the city subway was not exactly what you would call a system. It was a patchwork collage of formerly private, competing, and often redundant lines, between which routes and transfers were counterintuitive and obscure. Rival private railways confused commuters with signs and doorways and other means—anecdotally, even on purpose—to divert them away from competing parallel lines. It’s possible that the NYCTA was redesigning the map at that moment because it could not redesign the territory: although the NYCTA was and is a New York State agency, the city was by then headed toward its dark age and its 1975 “Ford to City: Drop Dead” financial crisis.

This graphic redesign was the work of a firm called Unimark, presided over by late-mid-20th-century graphics maestro Massimo Vignelli, for whom Reed and Smyth’s boss at Pentagram, Michael Bierut, would later work. Vignelli designed things like the double-A logo for American Airlines in 1967, the blue oval logo for Ford in 1966, the once-ubiquitous “big brown bag” for Bloomingdales in 1973, and the still-used format for all the maps and guides and pamphlets at every National Park in America. Vignelli’s NYCTA redesign, developed with Bob Noorda, is remembered for what is now thought of as the failure of its map, which radically stylized and contorted the city’s geography to accommodate orderly forty-five-degree angles and squares, and rigorously—if laboriously—featured separate parallel lines for every adjacent express and local track (rather than the graphic shortcut used today of multiple insignia tagged to single color-coded lines that stand for multiple tracks). But all the insignia and colors persist, along with a somewhat degraded version of the once-meticulous typography—and still, above all, in the words of the manual, “the basic concept of this branching system is that the subway rider should be given only information at the point of decision. Never before. Never after.”

As a design project, Vignelli’s was definitively modern, not in the utopian tabula rasa sense of erasing and replacing, but in the sense of threading a quintessentially rational and functional system through a complex and unwieldy preexisting condition. The NYCTA graphic system is the sort of project that is so primary, or primal, that it seems almost not to have been designed at all. It is literally A, B, Cs and 1, 2, 3s, encapsulated in circular dots in primary and secondary colors: red, green, yellow, orange. The manual alternates detailed precomputational parametric charts for the kerning of lettering and detailed prototype blueprints for the positioning of signage in stations, with full-page, seemingly if not actually full-size templates. The capital letter A rests in a perfect circle of inky black that rests within a similarly perfect square page. Turning the pages of the manual—A in a circle, B in a circle, C in a circle, D in a circle, E in a circle, F in a circle, G in a circle—is an almost Zen experience. Its repetitive self-similarity is either deeply meditative or deeply enervating, depending on what kind of day you’re having.

Standards Manual’s third reissue, from 2016, is called Official Symbol of the American Revolution Bicentennial: Guidelines for Authorized Usage; Official Graphics Standards Manual. It was first published in 1974 by the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission, established by Congress in 1966. The symbol and its usage standards were overseen by Bruce Blackburn, a young designer at Chermayeff & Geismar Associates, who called it the “soft star” and came up with the idea in his sketchbook while commuting on the Long Island Rail Road. (Ivan Chermayeff, a Vignelli contemporary, developed looks and logos for such ur-entities as Mobil Oil, New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, PBS, NBC, Pan American Airways, and National Geographic.) Unlike the reprinted NYCTA manual, in which scans of the original documents are curatorially inset within the slightly larger pages of the book, the Bicentennial manual is an exact reproduction of the original: a magazine-like soft book, fifty-two pages with forty-nine image plates, 9.5″ × 11″, with four Pantone spot colors and saddle-stitched binding, printed in the USA. The pages are thick and shiny, pale and almost pearlescent, a little slippery to the touch. There’s a lot of white space and very fine lines. The whole evokes the best and thickest possible insert you can imagine finding in a double-LP vinyl-record sleeve: something about it makes you feel like you should be wearing heavy headphones and, by the recurrence of the same symbol in 290 permutations, approaching an elevated state. The manual introduces the symbol and illustrates every proper and improper use for television, printing, license plates, plaques, and more:

The symbol takes the form of an American 5-pointed star in white, surrounded by continuous red, white, and blue stripes which form a second star. . . . These colorful stripes also evoke a feeling of festivity and suggest the furled bunting traditionally used in times of celebration throughout the nation. The symbol is contemporary in design in keeping with the forward-looking goals of the Bicentennial celebration: “to forge a new national commitment, a new spirit for ’76, a spirit which will unite the nation in purpose and dedication to the advancement of human welfare as it moves into its third century.”

The fine print and iteratively illustrated guidelines repeat and vary. One page describes how to draw your own logo, if you need one that’s too big to be photostatically reproduced from the templates in the manual:

Construct a perfect pentagon, bisect the sides and connect these points to make a 5-pointed star within the pentagon. Determine the center point of the star and connect it with all 5 points, allowing these lines to radiate from the pentagon. Using the center point of the star, draw a circle with a radius equal to ¾ the length of one side of the pentagon. Points where the circle intersects the lines radiating from the center of the star are labeled “A.” . . . Using “A” as a center point, draw three circular arcs.

There’s a page “intended to portray some common errors which might be made.” “Care must be taken to ensure that the Bicentennial Red is always printed as a brilliant color.” “The symbol must never be placed within any graphic device, such as a circle.” “Words must never be placed within the center of the star.” What linger in the imagination are the verbs. Their quality of matter-of-fact exhortation—the “must” that acknowledges the “might”—assumes competence and, in the hortatory tone, not mere obedience but a willing diligence in the reader: construct something perfect, then connect; determine; allow; use; place; care; look; ensure.

Another manual, reprinted in 2015, is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphics Standards Manual, issued in 1975 and also the work of Blackburn, by then working at his own firm with partner Richard Danne. The NASA manual was part of a project undertaken by the National Endowment for the Arts, called the Federal Design Improvement Program, which enlisted the General Services Administration and advisory panels in the redesign of federal agency graphics and the design of federal buildings. Like the reissue of the NYCTA manual, the reissued NASA manual is a big, heavy book, some 220 case-bound, satiny pages on which the slightly smaller pages of the original manual (many of their corners round and radius-filleted in an appropriately futuristic-seeming way) are reproduced. It comes in a silver foil bag that evokes the collection of moon rocks, or—if you are of a certain age—the crinkly packaging of “astronaut” ice cream. The most diverting pages are those on which the new NASA logo is reproduced on the sides of buses, trucks, vans, amphibious helicopters, supersonic jets, space shuttles, satellites, and deep-space probes, tracing a radical continuity between the mundane and the sublime. “The marking of NASA spacecraft,” the manual confides, “is essential, critical, and difficult.” “[An] important consideration is that the vehicle be marked so that it can be identified from different angles, whether in a launch mode or in outer space. . . . Helvetica Medium is the typeface used on the spacecraft.” The manual brings that meticulous and methodical aerospace engineer’s sensibility—leaning toward optimization, simplification, performance, prioritization, and carefully calculated relationships between maxima and minima, standards and deviations—to mere paper: “All of NASA’s publication requirements should utilize . . . a vertical format unless the subject matter or occasion provides a compelling reason to deviate.” “Within the limitations . . . of government printing standards, paper specifications for NASA publications should be directed toward . . . non-absorbent papers which provide good ink hold-out.” “Dear Colleagues,” then NASA administrator James C. Fletcher writes in the introduction, “To achieve maximum communication of the agency’s program objectives, both internally and externally . . . we have adopted a new system of graphics . . . The new system focuses on a new logotype, in which the letters ‘N-A-S-A’ are reduced to their simplest form.”

After its singular achievement of the late 1960s, NASA found itself, by the mid-1970s, at something of a loss, the kind of loss that often prompts efforts at graphic rebranding of just the kind the agency undertook. The monumental moonshot was over and done. The final scheduled Apollo missions had been canceled, essentially for lack of interest. Leftover Apollo parts had been repurposed to make an ad hoc space station, Skylab, which by the time it came to require orbital correction and other repairs, in 1979, was allowed to fall and burn up somewhere over Australia. The next generation of popularly thrilling and scientifically compelling missions—unmanned interplanetary landings and flybys—were by that time well under way, but had yet to beam back their photogenic results, as happens with such multiyear projects. The sense that NASA’s glory was behind it was compounded by steep cuts in funding and reduced expectations—all embodied in the anticlimactic and eventually tragic history of the Space Shuttle.

These events can be made to serve a nihilistic narrative. A narrative of so-called big government, bureaucratic excess, and micromanagement; of technocratic and phlegmatic functionaries, presided over by a famously fastidious engineer-president who lacked the spirit to rescue Skylab (or, for that matter, the American hostages at the US Embassy in Iran). But another narrative is simpler and truer. With the space race no longer a central battlefield in the cold war, NASA had its budget cut from around 4 percent of federal spending to a fraction of 1 percent, but was still compelled to do something visually spectacular enough to sustain the national pride and purpose of the Apollo era into the 1980s. The Space Shuttle was not a shuttle, a regular and reliable ferry from here to there; nor, in its low orbital loops, did it go all that far out of Earth’s atmosphere into space. Its irregular launches were, as policy, big, flashy rockets to nowhere, managed by an institution stretched to its defunded limits—a government agency reduced to a fireworks factory.

“The great question of the Seventies,” said President Richard Nixon in his address to Congress in January 1970, in language that astonishes today, “is shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, our land, and to our water? Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions.” The formation of the Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972, whose enforcement was the agency’s initial task, quickly followed. And, as part of the same Federal Design Improvement Program engaged by NASA, so did a comprehensive design manual in August 1977.

Reissued this fall, the EPA manual is another substantial book, this one inside a recycled chipboard sleeve, its interior lined with a pure watery blue in wax-smooth card. “This Graphics Standards Manual,” wrote the agency’s then administrator Douglas Costle, “is the result of carefully considered reviews by those concerned with the communications goals and responsibilities of this Agency. . . . With everyone’s cooperation and understanding, we will be able to improve our service to the public, simplify some of our tasks, and produce our communications more memorably, consistently, and economically.” Part of the simplification—the work of a surprisingly young and unsurprisingly Swiss designer at Chermayeff & Geismar, Steff Geissbühler—was a system of strangely intuitive graphic program identifiers (horizontal wavy lines for noise pollution, vertical wavy lines for pesticides, angled lines for toxic waste, radial lines for radiation, bar-code-like vertical bands for technology transfer, gradients of horizontal lines for air) and color-coded analogues (Toxic Red, Radiation Red, Noise Yellow, Pesticides Green, Research and Development Green, Air Blue, Water Blue, Solid Waste Brown, Technology Purple) that could be mixed and matched to identify exactly the Venn-diagram overlap of ecological systems, policy procedures, and technological tools interacting in any given venture. There was also a new logo, a bold capital “EPA” in heavy Univers typeface, next to a stylized flower that, to 2017 eyes, looks unavoidably, and perhaps somehow not coincidentally, like the Obama “O” symbol resting on top of two leaves similar to the one on top of the Apple logo.

The manuals of the 1970s are minor masterpieces—no less than illuminated manuscripts—of the integration of words and pictures, form and content. And the EPA manual is perhaps the last and the best of them all. Envelopes. Booklets. Directories. News Releases. Newsletters. Letterheads. How to type a press release. The language sounds like this: “Because the EPA is involved in many different and complex areas, a clear separation of program areas and activities is required . . . A set of graphic tools has been designed for each of these programs . . . These tools consist of individual program colors and identifiers.” “Four grid formats have been established . . . These grids are shown . . . on the following pages with dimensions given in picas.” “Shown below are four alternative layouts for the Grid B format. Please note that these do not account for all the possibilities available. The telephone directory cover shows a typographic illustration reflecting the basic three-column layout . . . The Water Program booklet cover features a photographic illustration bleeding on two sides, aligned with flush left type of the titles.” “The Special Format is to be used . . . only when a publication requires very special attention from the audience. In turn, special attention should be paid to the design and layout. A generous use of white space and illustration is demonstrated below.” “Master art for letterheads is available through the Office of Public Awareness.”

Almost none of that language was implemented. By 1991, the EPA’s own archives reportedly didn’t contain a copy of the 1977 manual. A decade earlier, incoming administrator and Reagan appointee Anne Gorsuch Burford had issued her verdict: “I don’t like the stationery,” she said. “I want my daisy back.” The use of the possessive my is striking, in that the so-called daisy had been originally neither her doing nor her possession. The daisy was the agency’s original, fussier floral logo, a clumsily updated version of which remains in place today. Gorsuch Burford oversaw a reduction in the agency’s budget by 22 percent, hired ex-industry officials to nominally police their former companies, and eliminated—at the cost of 17 million 1983 dollars in severance—3,200 of 10,380 career employees. She spoke of having reduced the agency’s clean-water regulations from filling a binder six inches thick to only a half inch. “When she first came in . . . she sort of bought into the rhetoric of the campaign,” William Ruckelshaus, the EPA’s first administrator under Nixon, and later Burford’s successor, told the Washington Post. “She treated a lot of people in the agency as the enemy, and they weren’t. But within a week, they were.” Cited for contempt of Congress during a slow-rolling Superfund scandal typical of the era, she was pushed out in 1983. But her son Neil, age 15 at the time of his mother’s firing, would ascend, in 2017, to the Merrick Garland seat on the Supreme Court.

What distinguishes the reissue of the EPA manual from Standards Manual’s other publications to date is the inclusion, as an appendix, of forty-seven out of more than fifteen thousand photos that the EPA commissioned as part of its Documerica Project, which ran from 1971 to 1977 and sought to “photographically document subjects of environmental concern.” The captions tell the story: “Mary Workman Holds a Jar of Undrinkable Water That Comes from Her Well, and Has Filed a Damage Suit Against the Hanna Coal Company. She Has to Transport Water from a Well Many Miles Away. Although the Coal Company Owns All the Land Around Her, and Many Roads Are Closed, She Refuses to Sell. October 1973.” Mary, who looks to be about 60, wears a faded sundress and thick eyeglasses. “Jack Smith, 42, Left, Rhodell, West Virginia, near Beckley, Was a Miner Disabled When a Roof Caved in Who Had to Wait 18 Years to Get Workman’s Compensation. He Was 21 When Injured and Had Worked One Year in the Mines. Of the Nine Boys and Seven Girls in His Family All the Males Went into the Mines Except One Who Died in Infancy. Smith Is Shown on the Porch of the Beer Joint He Operates. Seated with Him Are His Brothers, Leo, 39, and Twin Roy, 42. April 1974.” Jack is missing his legs and part of his torso; he smokes a cigarette. June, 1973: a little boy, raring to go on his tricycle on a fenced balcony, is described in the caption as a “Black Resident on One of the Balconies of the Robert Taylor Homes, A Low Income Highrise Apartment Building in Chicago.” An old man in denim overalls in front of a horse cart and an old farmhouse, a bride with cascading hair and her bridesmaids in lace and floppy straw hats, a woman in a hairnet lying in a hospital bed—all in New Ulm, Minnesota. A flannel-shirted ice cutter and handyman, 76, in East Randolph, Vermont: “Since His Legs Went Bad He Is Now Able to Do Only Small Repair Jobs.”

These are candid photos in the most transparent sense of the word, free of the mannered and selfie-inflected posturing that would likely accompany a similar project today—if such a project were not now wholly impossible. These images present a vertigo of the recent past: a kind of uncanny valley in which the subjects are too distant to seem just like us but too recent to be consigned to some black-and-white past. In the analogous Depression-era documentary photography of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, the pall of similarly visible tragedy can be somehow ameliorated for present-day viewers by all the shades of gray. Our reduction of retrospection to “retro”—of history to decades, of decades to hits and fads and fonts—must also be a palliative defense against this uncanny recency. Even the stylishness with which Standards Manual packages timeless modernities itself belongs to this cycle, this ritual, of revival.

The Documerica photos represent an unfulfilled promise. They are a methodical documentation of an anticipated before—America before the EPA’s planned environmental cleanup—that despite considerable achievements during the pre-Gorsuch-Burford era and more sporadically since then, has not lived up to its anticipated after. For all the localized and quantifiable improvements in ecological and environmental conditions, I feel, when I look at Mary Workman of Ohio and Jack Smith of West Virginia, that we have broken a promise that we made to them: the simple and perhaps very American promise that the future will be better than the past. Something about the ingenious candor, in both subjects and artists, of the photos makes them feel all the more like innocents to whom we owe care. The Documerica photos closely resemble, in their un-prettied-up artlessness, those photos of everyday American life encoded in the contemporary 1977 Golden Record, the metal phonograph disk (and needle) shipped by NASA into deep space on the Voyager 1 and 2 deep-space probes. From chemical and astronomical diagrams to whale song and thunder, the Golden Record was a document of life on Earth. “We are attempting to survive our time,” wrote President Jimmy Carter in a message placed into Voyager 1, “so we may live into yours.” Voyager 1 will next pass through a solar system, its first since our own, forty thousand years from now.

There are pleasures, and profound purposes, to the Standards Manual reissues that have less to do with the coincidental histories of political and visual culture to which they can be applied. In our digital age, there’s a salutary handmade utility to these physical books of analog tools and rules. Paper, requiring no power supply, does better than pixels in emergencies. Today we mostly throw out the physical manuals that still come with some of our electronic tools; the coding and systematizing they once represented can always be found online. In 2017, there’s a complicated thrill of authenticity to the scanned reproduction of primary sources, complete with stories of retrieval and recovery from archives and attics. The specific past represented in these documents of the 1970s was a brief time when a small group of designers—a boy’s club—got very good at what they did, based on an uninterrupted half-century of narrow but deep research. They were patronized by an elite establishment clientele in corporate and civic institutions whose consensus about what constituted good taste briefly, and mostly by happenstance, coincided with the modern in design. A time of oppressive excellence.

It didn’t last. The reasons are complicated. Establishment good taste drifted elsewhere. The expression or evocation of good taste was itself politicized, in some popular imaginations, into something elitist, rather than merely establishmentarian. And then there were the computers. The laborious photostatic procedures of pre-desktop-computing graphic design and printing and publishing, not to mention the hot-lead casting linotype machines that preceded them, required the hundreds of pages of templates and reproducible patterns in standards manuals, as well as a disciplined rigor—an idiot-proofing—baked into those templates and patterns that isn’t necessary when any idiot can open a drop-down menu and select Calibri.

The Standards Manual reprints are substantial and beautiful physical objects, and as such, a reprieve from screens. But the ability to retrieve and restore such singular documents, at least for Standards Manual, has depended on the existence of socially networked online media. The publishing project, Kickstarted in its early funding and distribution, is a digital artifact, even as it records the tail end of a pre-digital age. From its most willfully hopeful angle, this crowdsourced, technologically flattened, bottom-up, and socially mediated project, awakened to artisanship and hacker- and maker culture, can look democratic. It can make you hope for a completed loop between digital cooperation and material practice: offering, on paper, an open-source code (or, to divert a slogan from the Whole Earth Catalog, another would-be-democratizing publishing project of universal instructions whose initial publication coincided with these government manuals of the 1970s, access to tools).

And yet the pleasures of retrieval and revival—of finding something magical in the basement—are never neutral. One of the properties of style, as opposed to design, is that it is always a notional revival of some other golden age: gothic, classical, Tudor, colonial, midcentury. The architectural and graphical stylings of the 1950s and ’60s were typical in evoking another time, but unusual, in the history of style, in that they evoked not a past, but a future. An airborne, atomic, and metallic future. The dynamic and functional formal conventions of post–World War I modernism in design were styled to better resemble the chromium components and compound curves of aerospace—of ailerons and nacelles and capsules. There’s something about the fact that today, when we want a contemporary-feeling or forward-looking chair, we still pull out a model from the Eames Aluminum Group series, from 1958. It should make us wonder how we’ve spent or squandered the intervening years that today we deploy the fonts of sixty years ago, still, to be futuristic. The founders of Standards Manual recently opened an airy storefront, alongside the offices of their design consultancy, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Their books are displayed on the famous 1960 coated-steel 606 Universal Shelving system by the industrial designer Dieter Rams, whose midcentury designs for electric shavers and transistor radios heavily determined the styling of the Apple iPod, iPhone, and other hardware. Peek through the glass partitions between the store and the office and you’ll see, at the big shared desk alongside some 1933 Alvar Aalto stools, four Eames Aluminum Group chairs.

The reissues of Standards Manual are a great public service. The only hazard is that in successful revival and meticulous reproduction—in hipness, in coolness—the specific, spare, sober, sophisticated late-high-modern graphic design of the 1970s will itself be reduced to another style: to a Polaroid-approximate Instagram filter, or, like its architectural equivalent and contemporary, Brutalism, an exotic object of fascination and fetish. Rather than, say, a manual. Barring some surprising shift, when America celebrates its 250th birthday in 2026, the ceremonial logo will likely be backward-looking: some wan historicist restyling of a Colonial motif. It seems audacious to today’s eyes, as opposed to merely correct, that the Bicentennial logo was instead so contemporary. Whatever else the modern is in design, it represents a kind of liberation from the recursive longings of style, which are always for the past and the future, into a deep and enduring present.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

More from Issue 30

More by this Author