11. NASA (1974)

Bruce Blackburn, Danne & Blackburn


Despite being selected for our Top 20, this logotype for the National Aeronautics and Space Admini­stration (NASA) is no longer in use. Known as the NASA logotype, and nicknamed the ‘worm’, the logotype was introduced in 1975 in an attempt to introduce a touch of modernity by replacing NASA’s circular blue, white and red insignia (aka the ‘meatball’), that James Modarelli had designed for the federal agency back in 1959, a year after its inception.

the discontinued nasa logo

The modernisation of NASA in the 70s was part of the US Federal Design Improvement Program – an initiative instigated by the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) at the behest of President Richard Nixon. Under this scheme, more than 45 federal agencies, including The Department of Agriculture and The National Zoo, had their graphics critiqued and redesigned: New York design studio Danne & Blackburn was tasked with the job of modernising NASA’s logo.

NASA logo in use
NASA logo in use
Going to work in space
Going to work in space

“The meatball was complicated, hard to reproduce and laden with Buck Rogers imagery,” recalls Richard Danne, design director of the project. “Clearly it was born out of the classic airman syndrome where hype and fantasy dominated over logic and reality. Our [proposed] logotype was quite the opposite: it was clean, progressive, could be read from a mile away, and was easy to use in all mediums.” Danne & Blackburn didn’t merely create a new logo for NASA, it worked up illustrations to show how it envisaged the logo being used in a host of applications, demonstrating a well thought-out brand identity system. “This [was] a coordinated, comprehensive design programme, not just another ornamental badge to be stuck on a multitude of different products,” maintains Danne.

For all its modern appeal and design rigour, the logotype was retired from official use in 1992. According to NASA’s new administrator at that time, Dan Goldin, the worm was disliked by the agency’s employees and complaints had been received about the logo’s “incompetence and lack of projection”.

the old nasa logo

However, some argue that Goldin was motivated to make the change by more than just design aesthetics. According to Bert Ulrich of NASA’s Public Services Division, older members of staff at NASA remembered the old meatball insignia with fondness as it represented NASA in the Apollo days, before the 1986 Space Shuttle tragedy. The Newport News Daily Press suggested in an article published on May 23, 1992 that Paul Holloway, then director of NASA’s Langley Research Center, may have dealt the death blow to the worm in a conversation with Goldin. “You know how to lift the morale of NASA?” Holloway reportedly asked Goldin. “You can do it by changing the worm.”

The Washington Post then ran a story on June 16, 1992, shortly after Goldin’s announcement that the worm would be replaced by the meatball. It reported that the director of NEA’s design arts programme, Mina Wright Berryman, had sent a letter to Goldin pointing out that “The worm is not simply a logo but an integral part of NASA’s comprehensive visual standards programme.” Berryman, reportedly, went on to point out the lengths gone to in the 1970s to review and revise the agency’s graphics and also remind Goldin that NASA had one of the most successful visual communications programmes of any US agency, winning a Presidential Award for Design Excellence in 1984.

BELOW: The Reissue of the 1975 NASA Graphics Standards Manual 

Nevertheless, Goldin rescinded the logotype and reinstated the old, Modarelli meatball insignia, which is still used by NASA to this day. Pentagram’s Michael Beirut recently compared meatball with worm in a piece in the New York Times Magazine: “By any objective measure, the worm was and is absolutely appropriate, and the meatball was and is an amateurish mess.”

More articles on Creative Review’s Top 20 logos