NASA creative team shares its “out of this world” design secrets

From the meatball, to the worm and now Artemis, graphic designers at NASA have branded the face of space travel for decades.

Beyond ground breaking research and scientific endeavours, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – otherwise known as NASA – boasts a rich history of graphic design.

From James Modarelli’s 1959 logo, which became the affectionately named “meatball”, to the modernist NASA “worm” of the 1970s and 1980s by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn, and all manner of mission patches and marks through the years, creatives at NASA have been branding the organisation since its inception.

Image courtesy of NASA

“A literal way to put women on the moon”

Most recently, much creative attention has been focused on Artemis, the mission that will see the first woman on the moon in 2024. The mission itself is steeped in both mythological and historical significance. According to Greek myth Artemis was goddess of the moon and sister of Apollo. Meanwhile, it has been more than 45 years since the last moon landing and this mission is part of a larger one to eventually get to Mars.

In homage to the moon missions of the past, Artemis’ official logo has been heavily inspired by the original Apollo mark. “We wanted to create a twin feel, but also modernise it,” says Paul Wizikowski, video production advisor to the administrator at NASA.

The Woman in the Moon mark featuring Artemis. Image courtesy of NASA

Beyond the official logo, last week the team released a supplementary mark: The Woman on the Moon. It depicts Artemis within the moon, looking up and forward into space and is also linked in part to the original Apollo logo. “Scrawled into the moon of the original Apollo mark is a face,” explains Wizikowski.

“Our design team wanted to update that. While there wasn’t a place for her in the actual Artemis logo itself, we wanted to find a way to literally put a woman on the moon as part of the wider branding.”

The components of the mark itself also work to support this story. Human spaceflight communications manager Ashley Edwards says: “I think the way she’s kind of looking up toward the light is indicative of desire and dream and hope.

“And not only is she the goddess of the moon, but she’s also the goddess of the hunt. She’s often depicted with a bow and arrow and in some of our earlier designs we played around with the bow and arrow. In this one you get a sense that she’s aiming at something high, she’s having to take that deep calming breath that you do when you’re in the middle of the hunt.”

Images courtesy of NASA

“Allowing the past to inform today”

The use of previous designs in newer projects is common for NASA’s creative team. Edwards says this is part of a “long tradition of honouring and respecting NASA’s legacy” within graphic design.

“We really wanted to allow the past to inform what we were doing today – that’s happening on the technical side of things, so we wanted to make sure we were doing it visually as well [with the Artemis logo and Woman on the Moon mark],” she says.

Wizikowski echoes this: “It’s all about our story, because our story is so uniquely different from most entities and corporations. We get to literally tell a story that is out of this world.”

The Artemis mission patch. Image courtesy of NASA

Balancing practicality and dreams

But spaceflight and science aside, Wizikowski and Edwards are quick to point out any logo or mark for NASA still needs to function well. “We have to try and keep in mind the usage.

“When you build a logo in this day and age it needs to be scalable. It’s got to be small enough to be an icon or fit onto a pin, but big enough to look good when enlarged.”

And underpinning all of this, Wizikowski says, is the logo’s use as a mission patch. “We had to create something that could live on a patch, but could also exist separately from it, as a true logo in its strictest form,” he says. He adds that balancing that practicality with the need to “dream a little bit” is all part of the task.

The first priorities of NASA graphics are that designs are clear, identifiable and reflective of the agency, according to Edwards, who says all marks and logos need to be recognisably part of the NASA “family”.

She adds: “We have to keep in mind our brand as an agency is NASA; whatever sub-brands or sub-designs we have need to flow from that original mark.” This helps unify all of NASA’s more than 17,000 employees and 10 centres, according to Edwards, as much as promote its efforts externally.

Apollo mission patches. Image courtesy of NASA

“More about getting it right than getting credit”

The journey to creating the iconic logos and marks we see requires a team of designers and creatives across NASA’s framework. For the Artemis logo, Edwards notes the process was “the conversation of designers from across the science mission directorate, the human mission directorate and a number of centres.”

“We had versions of [the Woman on the Moon mark] that were busier, but we wanted to get to the balance where everything involved in the logo has meaning,” she says, adding elements like the colour were contributed from different groups. “It was more about getting it right than getting credit.”

Wizikowski adds: “If you ask astronauts, they know they’re doing their job as one of the team – the people who will go to the moon are doing it as part of a much bigger story. It was the same thing here.”

According to Edwards, the ultimate aim for the team is to create something that makes an impression on people. She says: “The one thing that is important to remember about these missions is the human element, the human essence of what it is we’re trying to do.

“What I really hope is that people just stop and take a minute.”


Banner image credit: NASA/George Shelton

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  • Lyle Waller November 1, 2019 at 7:53 pm

    “Out of this world” is about right since none of NASA is connected to reality.

  • mike dempsey November 3, 2019 at 4:16 pm

    Oh dear. What a cliche-ridden image. How disappointing for NASA after all that great early work.

  • Emily Penny November 6, 2019 at 8:36 pm

    I mean it’s not rocket science.

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