Lessons from the 1977 EPA Standards Manual Kickstarter Campaign

by Julie Anixter

 

If you’re not in the design world you might have missed two events that took the industry’s collective breath away, the reprinting, through two incredibly successful Kickstarter campaigns, of the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and the NASA “worm” identity system.  A graphic standards or systems manual is the rule book for any brand’s expression and consistent delivery in the world.  That means the precise guidelines for the logo, the colors, the type fonts, the signage, the conventions for marketing materials, and basically everything else that makes up the visual identity of an organization.  When I took over as Executive Director for AIGA, the professional association for design, I knew about those two standards manuals. When Sagi Haviv, a principal in the New York design firm, Chermayeff Geismar & Haviv offered to gift us with 1977 EPA Graphic Standards Manual, designed by the renowned Steff Geissbuhler it started us on an adventure that concluded this week when we met our goal. That means that this beautiful manual will now be available to our backers, and eventually to the public through the work of designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth at Standards Manual.  The experience has been eye opening and exhilarating.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1.  Richard Nixon became an unlikely champion of the environment by starting the EPA in 1970, the year the first Earth Day occurred.  It was a tipping point year  for the environment.
  2.  The agency evoked strong public emotions from the beginning and continues to to this day. “Few federal agencies evoke as much emotion in the average American as the U.S.  Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Either directly or indirectly, the agency’s operations confront the average person in intimate ways. Everyone wants  breathable air, drinkable water, and land free from harmful pollutants on which to live.”  source: EPA Archives
  3. The EPA’s mission, and actual work, like that of any government agency, relied on a coherent communications system — which is never a given.
  4. That communications system was established seven years later when the agency hired Chermayeff and Geismar Associates  which included partner Steff Geissbuhler.
  5. Geissbuhler reimagined the logo, and all of the communications, and named the colors that spoke to the key areas of environmental protection including air, water, noise, pesticides, waste and more.
  6. The EPA graphic standards system, under Administrator Anne Gorsuch, was never fully implemented because of her personal preferences for the former logo. This is a familiar syndrome. One disaffected executive can deep six enterprise design.
  7. Nonetheless, this story of this historic time in US environmental history is contained in the DNA of every page of this amazing document. That’s what a good brand and visual system does. The 1977 EPA standards manual, with its serious intent to protect the environment through clear and ubiquitous communications, may be the most profound evocation of an environmental yearning that is arguably even more meaningful today: Americans have come to look back with nostalgia at the pristine state the Nation once enjoyed.
  8. Embarking on this project required legal counsel.
  9. Kickstarter campaigns require great effort. Great product, great teams, relentless PR, and without a doubt, a great video like this one.
  10. This project, while celebrating work done in 1977 is not just about honoring the past.  It’s ensuring that the work of this designer, this design firm and most importantly, this agency, can remain relevant in the present and inspire us to protect the environment in the future.

To learn more or back the 1977 EPA Standards Manual visit Kickstarter.

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Julie Anixter is a co-founder of Innovation Excellence. She is also the executive director of AIGA, the professional association for design.  The co-author of three books, she’s working on a fourth on how innovators transform disciplines.  She worked with Tom Peters for 5 years on bringing big ideas to big audiences, and has spent decades as a practicing innovator across industry, the US Military and the non-profit worlds.  You can follow her on twitter here.