Magazine article National Parks

Raising the Bar

Magazine article National Parks

Raising the Bar

Article excerpt

Massimo Vignelli died in May but his design lives on in the national parks.

You may not know his name, but you've seen his work a million times. The logos for Bloomingdale's, Ford, American Airlines, and Benetton? All created by Massimo Vignelli. The distinctive signage in the New York City subway systemquintessential Vignelli. The National Park Service brochures that appear in every single park unit in the country? Yep, Vignelli too.

In 1977, Vignelli created a system that gave an idiosyncratic hodgepodge of park brochures a coherent, legible, identifiable look that has been in use ever since. Dubbed the Unigrid, the plan dictates everything from the font, type sizes, column width and folds, to the signature black bar and the overall layout.

"I think it's one of the most important projects in our career," Vignelli says in Design is One, a film completed a year before his death on May 27. The documentary highlights his career and partnership with Leila Vignelli, his wife and lifelong collaborator on design projects from books to jewelry, furniture, and showrooms.

The film, which has been on the festival circuit and is scheduled for home release later this year, is a poignant reminder of the elegance of the iconic creation Vignelli made for the Park Service. The Unigrid has evolved over 37 years-even Vignelli conceded that change was inevitable-but the underlying structure remains and admirers of the design say it is timeless.

"Every designer dreams that they will design something that has these kinds of legs. And very few do," says Jessica Helfand, who co-founded the blog, "Design Observer," and teaches design at Yale University. "As much as critics might say that the Unigrid is restrictive, limiting the variables has allowed it to achieve such long-lasting power. It's an architectural principle at its core. You wouldn't build a house without a foundation... It's bedrock-typographical bedrock."

Park brochures have existed since before the Park Service was created a century ago. The railroads originally created them to increase ridership, and while the guides have changed over the decades to keep pace with new travel patterns and the expansion of the park system, they had never been standardized until Vincent Gleason became chief of the division of publications in 1962. Gleason successfully pushed for color-the Government Printing Office had previously restricted the colors to black and white for almost everything-and made the inspired decision to hire Vignelli to revamp the brochures in the mid-1970s. Gleason reasoned that a consistent approach would help him manage the office's budget and increasing workload.

Vignelli's solution was a grid-based, organization plan that limited the brochures to 10 basic sizes and formats. The Unigrid system limited waste by fitting snugly into standard-size paper. It established the famous black bar, which conveyed the organization's identity in a heartbeat, and visually linked all the park units. It was branding long before branding was a ubiquitous catchword.

"There's a systematic method to the madness here," says Melissa Cronyn, associate manager of the Harpers Ferry Center publications office, where all the brochures are designed. "The idea was that we would have these formats to choose from instead of worrying about how it was folded and size and so forth. It would leave us free to explore innovation and imagination related to the content and not have to go back and constantly reinvent the wheel. Having lived through that era of many varieties of brochures and ways of folding, it definitely saves time and money. …

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