Blog

Design Use in Federal Agencies

  • Design Commission
  • June 1, 2017
  • Madeleine Morley

Standards Manual and AIGA have announced their partnership in reissuing the 1977 Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards System. “The EPA manual…most strikingly demonstrates how efficient, informative design has been used to advance federal programs for the public good.”

This article was originally published by AIGA Eye on Design.

Standards Manual, the appropriately named team behind the beloved NASA and NYCTA standards manual reissues have just announced their partnership with AIGA and design firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv for a timely reissue of the 1977 Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards System as a hardcover book. The EPA manual, created by Chermayeff & Geismar (now Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv), most strikingly demonstrates how efficient, informative design has been used to advance federal programs for the public good. It’s a relatively unknown story, so the reissue makes for an important piece of historical excavation and conservation.

With every book sold, a donation will be made to Earthjustice, the nation’s largest non-profit environmental law organization, as well as AIGA’s Design Archives.

“It’s a gift on so many levels,” says Julie Anixter, executive director of AIGA. “We get to partner with Standards Manual and CGH to preserve a critical part of the nation’s environmental history, and a portion of the proceeds will allow us to do more of this kind of work.”

Former Pentagram designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth—the co-founders of publishing imprint Standards Manual and new design office Order—were first drawn to Steff Geissbuhler’s design for the sheer fact that it’s such an early example of a flexible identity system, one that was probably too ahead of its time for people to fully grasp the significance. It was introduced to the organization and quickly dismissed, never receiving the full implementation it deserved.

“The political timing of the reissue is right, too” says Reed, referencing the current administration’s threat to kill the EPA. “If we were ever going to shed a greater light on the importance of environmental protection, it’s now.”

When the governmental agency was first set up in 1970 by president Richard Nixon, one of its top priorities was to consolidate numerous state offices in order to effectively carry out its goal of “working for a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people.” Despite this aim for efficiency, the EPA’s graphic design and communications was staggeringly inefficient, with millions of dollars wasted annually due to non-standardized formats and a constant need to design every new communication from scratch.

In 1977, with funding from the NEA’s Federal Graphics Improvement Program, the New York design firm Chermayeff & Geismar was charged with tackling the problem.

“Its system was using graphic design to streamline operations and minimize resources,” says Reed. “People don’t often consider design as a tool for efficiency, but the function of the manuals was exactly that. Decisions were being made and put in place so that the agency could better budget their time and money—they knew every standard paper size, how much information could fit in, what it needed to say, and in what visual expression—this potentially saves millions of dollars over 40+ years.”

EPA Graphic Standards System reissue sample spread. Courtesy of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv.

From a designer’s perspective, what’s most impressive is the complexity of the flexible system, and its role as a precedent of very contemporary design thinking and visual literacy. “It’s not simply placing the same logo in the same color in the same place on every application—this system has a strong foundation with countless possibilities,” says Reed.

“Geissbuhler recognized that the agency had nine categories of focus. Instead of simply adding its name to the logo ‘Water, Toxic Waste, Radiation, etc.,’ he assigned them each a unique color and identification pattern. This color and pattern could be combined in endless variations to remain consistent with the overall visual language, while also allowing the categories to have their own unique voice.”

The system allowed for the EPA to express different yet interconnected messages quickly and dynamically. Printed using high quality scans of CGH’s and Geissbuhler’s personal copies, the reissue is a testament to the originality and enduring value of the design.

“Flexible systems are a common weapon in the arsenal of today’s computer-powered designers, but this holistic thinking was very modern at the time,” continues Reed. “And crucially, the EPA system wasn’t about selling a product or generating revenue, either. The system clarified information, identified a mission, and spoke with authoritative elegance—this combination, in part, is the strength of graphic design.”