Launch America: the story behind the identity of NASA’s newest brand

Last month’s NASA-SpaceX mission was the most-watched online broadcast NASA has ever tracked – but how do you go about creative direction for a commercial rocket launch?

Throughout its 60-year history, the US’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has accompanied its ground-breaking scientific research with graphics to mark every occasion.

From James Modarelli’s 1959 logo, affectionately known as the “Meatball”, to Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn’s beloved 1970s Worm, and countless mission patches and badges between and beyond, creatives have been branding NASA and its achievements since its inception.

Last month’s Crew Dragon launch in partnership with SpaceX was no exception to this rule. The historic launch, the first from US soil in nine years and the first ever to come from a commercial partnership, was also the inaugural usage of the new Launch America brand, the identity that will now sit across all of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program endeavours.

Making Launch America into “a real thing”

The design process behind the Launch America identity began in earnest around four months before May’s launch, NASA executive producer and Launch America creative director Paul Wizikowski tells Design Week. But the idea itself stretches back much further.

“Because the Commercial Crew Program has always been focused on ‘American astronauts on American rockets from American soil’, the Launch America name had existed within the program for years,” Wizikowski says. “But it had never been the point around which everything else revolved.”

This changed when Wizikowski was appointed as creative director of the project by NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. Wanting to work from “what was already there”, the team took what existed of the identity – a wordmark and International Space Station (ISS) icon – and “wrapped their arms around it”, he says.

“We cleaned it up and fleshed it out – we essentially made it a real ‘thing’, which would then allow us to adopt it out everywhere,” Wizikowski says. And as he points out, this really did mean everywhere – the Launch America identity needed to work as well in press conference settings weeks before launch as it did during the countdown broadcast, he explains.

Monday Night Football

Because of the collaborative nature of the Commercial Crew Program – both SpaceX and aircraft manufacturer Boeing are part of the work – branding Launch America posed different challenges to previous NASA creative projects, Wizikowski says.

Initiatives like the Space Shuttle Program, which ran between 1981 and 2011, were led by NASA and thus branding for it could largely be informed by the wider agency look. But with other entities involved for the first time, Launch America needed to represent all its contributors.

SpaceX’s existing visual identity was “forward-leaning” and “sleek”, Wizikowski explains. Finding ways this could co-exist with NASA’s well-known and well-loved aesthetic was “the single biggest challenge throughout the whole project”.

“The project was really about uniting everyone under one team, rather than stealing the thunder from anyone,” he says. To strike this balance, he says the team were inspired by Monday Night Football, the weekly broadcast of NFL games in the US on sports channel ESPN.

“Within Monday Night Football, you have the overarching entity of the NFL entity brand, which in our case would be Launch America, and then you have each individual team’s branding too, which this time was NASA and SpaceX, but in the future will also be NASA and Boeing,” he says. Such a format, he says, allowed the two organisations to be united, while not giving one precedent over the other.

Creating broadcast graphics that worked for both sides

With the Launch America identity set, attention turned to its applications – the most important of which was the launch broadcast. Early in the process, Wizikowski enlisted the help of the relatively new remote creative collective Oxcart Assembly, who were invited to pitch for the project just before the onset of the coronavirus in the US.

Oxcart Assembly principle Jeff Jetton explains the team was tasked initially to design a graphics package for the launch, which alongside imagery for the broadcast also touched on things like uniforms. They were also asked later to create the opening title sequence for the eight-hour broadcast. As with the wider branding, the graphics onscreen needed to work for both teams, Wizikowski adds.

“SpaceX and NASA both had their own scientific graphics they wanted displayed during the broadcast and we couldn’t have either set of information looking out of place within the wider Launch America branding,” he says. “There were a lot of deliverables that needed to be considered.”

Luckily for the team, Wizikowski explains, SpaceX’s preferred colour scheme of neutral greys, white and black could be worked to compliment NASA’s more traditional red, white and blue palette and vice versa.

Saul Bass, Tarantino and the NASA Standards and Graphics Manual

While some of the work, in particular the uniform design led by Oxcart’s Tony Gardner, was influenced by “love and admiration” for the original NASA Standards and Graphics Manual, Jetton says the title sequence drew from a much wider pool of inspiration.

“We went through a lot of ideas that referenced everything from Saul Bass’ work on Grand Prix, to Tarantino,” he tells Design Week. The brief for the opening titles devised by Wizikowski and Oxcart Assembly was to compile a sequence of 10-15 NASA “firsts”, which would eventually give way to the Crew Dragon launch as NASA’s latest notable historic event.

Jetton and team had 60 days to compile 60 years’ worth of NASA history into 60 seconds. Throughout the process, he says parents and some children of the team were brought in to help with the task – alongside NASA photo archivists Connie Moore and Sheva Moore.

But family sifting through archival video was not the only personal touch added to the sequence by the team, Jetton reveals. Oxcart graphic designer Erik Loften’s wife donated a picture of her grandfather explaining the lunar lander to one Neil Armstrong, while Tony Gardner contributed patents and illustrations of some of the valves and hardware his own grandfather had designed for the original launchpad at Kennedy Space Centre.

“Parallaxing the Neil Armstrong photo and adding the original line drawing of the patents in motion added an immensely personal element to the title sequence, while keeping it visually interesting,” he ends. “It was obviously beyond cool to see those personal images transformed into elements of Launch America’s brand identity.”

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