Design

Bruce Nelson Blackburn and the NASA “Worm” Logo

The NASA “Worm” logotype will not be forgotten, and neither will its creators

If you’re a millennial, when you hear the word NASA, it’s likely that the first image to pop into your head is the logo known as the “Meatball” (you might even be wearing a sweatshirt with it on as you read this). It’s the logo that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration used during its greatest accomplishments, including the Apollo moon landings, and still uses today.

Designed by James Modarelli in 1959, a year after NASA was established, it's made up of a blue circle filled with stars, a red swoosh that represents an airplane wing, a spacecraft orbiting the wing, and those four white capital letters.

Bruce Nelson Blackburn and the NASA “Worm” Logo 1
NASA "meatball" insignia, primary logo 1959–1975, 1992–present

However, Gen Xers growing up in the 70s might find that those four letters call to mind another iconic logo: the “Worm,” which was introduced in 1975 as part of the US Federal Design Improvement Program. Under this scheme, more than 45 federal agencies had their graphics reviewed and redesigned. New York design studio Danne & Blackburn was tasked with the job of not only modernizing NASA’s logo, but creating a whole new brand identity.

Following the news that the award-winning artist and designer Bruce Nelson Blackburn of Danne & Blackburn passed away earlier this month, aged 82, today we’re taking a look back at his achievements in design and the birth of the timeless NASA logotype.

Bruce Nelson Blackburn and the NASA “Worm” Logo 3
NASA "worm" logotype 1975–1992, re-instated as a secondary logo in 2020

Bruce Nelson Blackburn was born in Dallas, Texas on June 2nd, 1938, and later raised in Evansville, Indiana. He earned a Bachelor of Science in Design from the Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning School at the University of Cincinnati. He served as national president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) and was a member of the international design organization, Alliance Graphique Internationale (AGI). He authored “Design Standards Manuals”, which set out to explain the importance of design manuals for federal designers and how they can be used.

As well as creating the Worm, he also designed the official U.S. Bicentennial symbol, and branding and communications programs for IKON Office Solutions, Champion, IBM, Equistar Chemicals, U.S. Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers, and Prudential. He won awards presented by the AIGA, New York and Chicago Art Directors Clubs, Graphis/International, Communication Arts, Typomundus, and Society of Typographic Arts.

Bruce Nelson Blackburn and the NASA “Worm” Logo 5
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphics Standards Manual

Recognizing that the Meatball was difficult to reproduce given the limitations of the printing technology available at the time, in response to their assignment, Richard Danne and Bruce Nelson Blackburn delivered a logotype in NASA Red (Pantone color number 179) that was “clean, progressive, could be read from a mile away, and was easy to use in all mediums.”

It was simple (the cross stroke of the As had been removed) yet innovative. Their NASA Graphics Standards Manual presented a futuristic vision for an agency at the cutting edge of science and exploration, demonstrating an entire host of different applications.

Bruce Nelson Blackburn and the NASA “Worm” Logo 7
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphics Standards Manual
Bruce Nelson Blackburn and the NASA “Worm” Logo 8
National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphics Standards Manual

Despite Danne and Blackburn being awarded the Presidential Award for Design Excellence for their work in 1985, in 1992, the Worm was retired. It is said that the Meatball was brought back to remind people of NASA’s heyday, and has been the official NASA symbol for the last 29 years. But the Worm has certainly not been forgotten, becoming a symbol of popular culture and licensed for T-shirts and other souvenirs sold all over the world since 2017.

Last year saw the Worm brought out of retirement when, for the first time in history, NASA astronauts launched from American soil in a commercially built and operated American crew spacecraft on its way to the International Space Station. NASA astronauts Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley took off in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket displaying the sleek red logotype on the side, wearing suits that also featured Danne and Blackburn’s design.

Bruce Nelson Blackburn and the NASA “Worm” Logo 10
Space X

In the post that announced the Worm’s return on NASA’s website, the space agency wrote: “There’s a good chance you’ll see the logo featured in other official ways on this mission and in the future. The agency is still assessing how and where it will be used, exactly. It seems the Worm logo wasn’t really retired. It was just resting up for the next chapter of space exploration.”

The Worm logotype has certainly not been forgotten, and neither will its creators.

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