is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
I tend to prefer the logos that I was familiar with as a youth far more than the ones that have replaced them. Two examples that come to mind are DC Comics’ Milton Glaser-designed seal from the 1980s and Saul Bass’s longstanding AT&T logo. Both were ill-advisedly retired in favor of far inferior updates.
The case of NASA’s famous, modern “worm” logo designed by Danne & Blackburn is an interesting exception. Rather than being superseded by a contemporary revision, the worm was replaced by a revival of the logo that came before it. Apparently many people with lots of influence preferred the NASA logo from their youths, and they brought back what is commonly referred to as “the meatball.”
Wired recently wrote about the worm in this article, which draws upon the wonderful work that the folks at Kind Company have done in highlighting milestones from mid-century Modernism over at their curatorial site Display. The Wired article points to this personal account of the worm’s development from one of its creators, Richard Danne of the design firm Danne & Blackburn. It offers wonderful insight into some of the finer details of a fondly remembered moment in design history—as does this collection of gorgeous photographs of one of Danne & Blackburn’s original NASA Graphics Standards Manuals from the worm’s hey day, posted to Flickr by Display.
All of which gave me occasion to revisit the worm in detail, and to realize that, as it turns out, I don’t like it very much. Though it was in fact the logo that I grew up with, looking at it now closely, I realize that it’s really not that spectacular a piece of branding. It’s better than the meatball, that’s for sure, but it just doesn’t invoke anything in me other than nostalgia for the Modernist past.
Which I think is the secret to its ongoing appeal to designers; it echoes a time when design was, if not more powerful, then more aspirational than it is today. Not that I think the logo is an effective conveyance of the dream of space; rather I think the worm represents the aspiration that all human endeavors, even the most ambitious, can be expressed within the constrained visual vocabulary of modernism. Looking at the logo as it appears in the photographs above, what comes to mind is not the idea of reaching beyond man’s limits, but the idea of incorporating the heavens into an enterprise, a system that reflects mid-Twentieth Century business practices. Seen this way, the worm actually feels quite unambitious, like a poor reflection of NASA’s lofty goals. The meatball needs to go, but the worm is not the answer.
Update 10 Sep 2015: NASA has just made a PDF version of this standards manual available for free download at nasa.gov.+