Manual labour

The identity manual is enjoying a revival as reprints conjure up a bygone age and appeal to our hunger for printed permanence. With manuals for the New York City Transit Authority and NASA already reproduced, Michael Evamy looks at this nascent scene as a fully funded Kickstarter appeal to reprint the British Rail identity guidliness comes to end tomorrow

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This was the year manual porn well and truly went public, its ring-bound pages thrown open to display logo, font and grid in all their immaculately delineated glory. If you ever felt the need to keep your craving for design discipline and strict typographic instruction from your loved ones, now you can reveal all.

We’re talking about the corporate identity manual here, in case you’re wondering. Corporate identity guidelines, laid down exhaustively in hefty tomes or suites of ringer-binder files, dictated the look of major corporations and public institutions in the 1960s and 70s, from tankers, trains and vehicles to signs, print and pot plants.

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Renders of pages from the reprint of the 1965 British Rail corporate identity guidelines

As such, they prescribed and now document a large slice of the commercial visual culture of the mid-to-late 20th-century. Today, with digital versions and buddy-buddy brand-books among the more affordable, less painstaking modern alternatives, the openings for producing no-stone-unturned, heavyweight printed guidelines are few and far between. Which makes these behemoths of a bygone era much sought-after.

There’s always been an affection – and a market – for these original documents among those with a leaning towards design’s mid-century modernist legacy. It’s just taken a while for anyone to make the material widely available.

Publishers Unit Editions threw the spotlight on a topic perhaps considered too arcane by mainstream design publishers with Manuals 1, published in early in 2014, which proved unexpectedly popular and quickly sold out. A sequel (Manuals 2, in case you were guessing) rapidly followed, and a succession of Kickstarter schemes aimed at reprinting some of the acknowledged classics of the genre.

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Original NASA Graphics Standards Manual
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Render of the reprinted NASA Graphic Standards Manual

Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed of Pentagram’s New York office raised nearly $1m from 8,798 backers to fund a hardcover reissue of NASA’s 1975 Graphics Standards Manual, originally designed by Danne & Blackburn. The book was due to be on press last week.

Smyth and Reed have also successfully reprinted the New York City Transit Authority’s Graphics Standards Manual, designed by Bob Noorda and Massimo Vignelli, having unearthed a hallowed original in a basement locker at Pentagram, under a pile of someone’s gym gear. A compact edition of the NYCTA manual is also available.

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Cover and page from the reprint of the NYC Transit Authority’s Graphics Standards Manual

Not to be outdone, the UK has a Kickstarter-funded identity manual of its own – as designer Wallace Henning has succeeded in raising £40,000 for a high-spec reproduction of British Rail’s 1965 corporate identity guidelines, designed by Angela Reeves of Design Research Unit. (If you’re reading this before 9.30pm on 22 December, you still have time to lend your support – although it has already now reached its original target.)

The success of the NYCTA reprints has taken even Smyth and Reed by surprise. Having originally hoped to scrape together 1,000 orders, they have sold more than 16,000 copies. And not only to the usual suspects.

“We also see a lot of regular people buying our books,” says Smyth. ‘We sense that many people didn’t even realise graphics standards manuals existed. The fact that someone actually thought hard about where that sign would be placed, or what typeface that report would be written in, might seem very interesting to non-designers.”

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Pages from the reprint of the NYC Transit Authority’s Graphics Standards Manual

As to what fascinates this pair of self-confessed design nerds, “Perhaps the biggest thing is a respect for the work. There’s something intoxicating about those pre-digital days where everything seemed simpler, but was incredibly labour-intensive to put together. “To designers of our era, that physicality is hard to resist…. Designers are yearning to create manuals like these.”

Sean Perkins, founder of North, whose celebrated 1997 manual for RAC featured in Manuals 2 and can now exchange hands for £2,000, says these “beautiful objects … show the science of an identity. They put all the elements in one place…. And print is the only way to accurately display colours and sizes. You can’t control those things in a digital format.”

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Renders of pages from the reprint of the 1965 British Rail corporate identity guidelines

It’s nigh-on impossible to find clients who will commit to an identity for ten or 20 years, says Perkins, and invest in printed guidelines once the hard work of introducing an identity is done. “Clients find it difficult to challenge the rules when they’re written down as a formula. So they don’t bother.”

Manual porn may be a symptom of something deeper: an attachment to a time when consistency, durability and fitness for purpose mattered more than chameleon-like, quick-change brandability.

Wallace Henning adds: “I think the manual is evidence that when that much passion and effort is employed great things can be created. They come from the era when there seemed to be more time to get things right, rather than clients expecting something made within weeks and months, not years.”

This article features in the current issue of Creative Review. Michael Evamy is the author of Logo and Logotype (Laurence King). See evamy.co.uk. Wallace Henning’s Kickstarter to reprint the 1965 British Rail identity guidelines is at kck.st/1XjHYUk and has 29 hours to go (it has already reached its £40,000 target). The reprinted NYC Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual is available as a compact edition from standardsmanual.com

  • thomasbeagle

    What happened to the aeroplane at the bottom of the image captioned “Cover and page from the reprint of the NYC Transit Authority’s Graphics Standards Manual”?

    • NFA

      That was for the MTAs “Train to the Plane” gimmick/scheme which was essentially just the A train that ran express in basically the same stretches that the regular A train ran. Sort of a less than half hearted attempt at creating the illusion of a speedy airport train service mostly relying on, no entirely relying on branding. I think it lasted into the 1980s. And I’m ashamed to say 30 years later NYC still has no modern fast airport rail link to JFK.

  • A good layout and well constructed manual.