National Park Service Identity and Signage

From the SEGD archives, circa 2009: this project was a very important contribution to the National Park Service, which celebrated its centennial less than a month ago on August 25, 2016.

National Treasure

With the help of a graphic identity that reflects the National Park Service mission, “America’s best idea” keeps getting better.

In the mid-1800s, as more and more Americans made their way West, a few intrepid souls found themselves in a place called Yellowstone. Long known to American Indians (“Yellowstone” is thought to be a translation of the Minnetaree words for “rock yellow river”), this mysterious place of bubbling cauldrons and steaming geysers quickly caught the attention of others back East. In 1871, Yellowstone became a national park. In 1916, the National Park Service was created. Today, as it nears its 100th anniversary, the National Park Service cares for 392 parks that include many of America’s most important natural and cultural treasures.

For most of its history, the NPS gave little attention to its visual image, content to convey its identity with a logo unchanged since 1952 and the ranger’s flat hat. There was little reason to worry about public perception of the agency (it has always ranked high in opinion polls) and certainly no need to change its look or to distinguish it from other agencies. Occasional confusion by the public (“Smokey Bear” works for the Forest Service) was regarded with polite amusement. But in recent years, as budgets declined and competition for congressional attention increased, NPS leaders began to understand the need to distinguish the agency from others with sometimes similar missions and often overlapping constituencies.

Realizing the need

In 1999, the National Park Foundation (the official charity of America’s national parks), with the help of Ogilvy Public Relations, conducted focus groups as part of an effort to market a national park pass. Not surprisingly, the data showed continued public approval of the National Park Service. But it also revealed that, while public approval remained high, public understanding was low. Americans did not understand the breadth of the NPS mission, and perhaps more importantly, did not know why the mission should matter to them. Ogilvy suggested a number of ways to address this issue. A primary recommendation was to create design standards (for the first time) to set forth a clearer, stronger, and more distinctive graphic identity for the agency.

In Spring 2000, the NPS received bids from firms interested in helping it develop identity standards. It considered bids from several large and well known studios, but in the end the assignment went to Dennis|Konetzka|Design Group (DKDG), a small firm in Washington, D.C. DKDG was selected on the strength of the standards it had recently created for the U.S. Geological Survey, and for its willingness to deal with the frustrations that often come with working with a public client—including in this case a very short deadline. (NPS leaders wanted to begin rollout at a September conference.)

The firm had never worked with the National Park Service, but principals Michael Dennis and Mike Konetzka instinctively understood that what the project needed most was a measure of restraint. They realized that NPS was a conservative organization (both by charter and by tradition) whose staff had little tolerance for the “slick corporate look” they feared might be proposed. This, and the high public regard for the agency, suggested that a new look was not needed. Instead, the task would be to build on the various design traditions that had emerged within the NPS over its 100-year history. There was a lot to build on.

Looking to the past

Although never codified or consciously managed, the distinctive NPS public image emanated primarily from three visual components: its park rangers’ attire, its architecture, and its distinctive arrowhead logo.

National Park rangers are well known for their flat-brimmed hats. But the hat is not what sets them apart visually. (The same style is worn by Royal Canadian Mounted Police and many state troopers, and even Smokey Bear.) The most distinctive aspect of the NPS uniform is its gray and green color, introduced with the Uniform Regulations of 1920. Little has changed since then. Rangers now wear shoes, trousers, and skirts instead of boots and breeches, but the uniform remains a recognizable public symbol of the agency.

Although never intended as a primary expression of identity, architecture has long helped define the NPS style. Two relatively recent periods of intense construction account for the architectural forms associated with national (and state) parks. The first was the result of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression’s later years. The genre (sometimes called “parkitecture”) was similar to the rustic Adirondack style used in the East, but is characterized by the stone and rough-hewn timbers most often used in Western parks, or the adobe used in the Southwest. The work is largely the legacy of architect Herbert Maier, who worked as a consultant to the NPS during the 1920s and 30s and later as an employee. Despite an appeal that endures today, the rustic style of architecture was rapidly abandoned after World War II.

The second period of intense construction began in 1955 and continued until 1966, hence its “Mission 66” name. During this era, more than $1 billion was dedicated to the construction of 100 new visitor centers and thousands of administrative and service buildings, comfort stations, and employee housing units. The period also saw a 40 percent increase in the number of parks. A primary Mission 66 contribution was the very concept of the visitor center. The notion of including visitor services, interpretive media, and administrative offices in the same building had rarely (if ever) been considered before. The style of the new architecture contrasted sharply with the rustic look that had dominated NPS architecture. These new buildings, modern in form and material, referenced contemporary and commercial styles rather than the natural forms and finishes of CCC construction.

While most of the designs sought to achieve a pure expression of modern form, some attempted to relate to the local vernacular. Still others (like Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis, or Mitchell/Giurgola’s “airport terminal” visitor center at Wright Brother’s National Memorial) drew their form from the park’s theme. Undoubtedly, the most contentious feature of Mission 66 visitor centers was (and still is) their locations. Rather than attempting to blend with the landscape, most were prominently positioned near (and even on top of) the park’s primary features. Although popular with visitors for their convenience and panoramic views, these locations are avoided today.

The most recognizable NPS graphic symbol is its Arrowhead logo, which—along with the ranger uniform—is the principle means by which the NPS is identified by the public. The Arrowhead was originally designed by a group of NPS architects (surprise!) following the failure of a design contest to produce a suitable result (no surprise). Although never explained by its designers, the logo’s components (arrowhead, sequoia tree, and mountainscape) are assumed to represent the natural and historic legacy that the NPS helps to preserve. Inclusion of the bison was intended to connect the agency to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which features the animal on its seal.

In 1968, perhaps to mark the successful conclusion of Mission 66, the Arrowhead was replaced by a stylized symbol designed by Chermayeff & Geismar. The new symbol reflected the belief that, just as the rustic architecture of the 1920s and 30s had been supplanted by the modern styles of the 60s, so too should the nostalgic graphic symbols be replaced by more contemporary ones. But few liked the new “triangles and balls” symbol and the Arrowhead was reinstated after about a year.

Well aware of this history, DKDG approached the Arrowhead carefully, intent on making it a stronger logo but determined not to change the design significantly. Two challenges faced the design team: the Arrowhead’s complex composition made it difficult to reproduce in small sizes and in various media; and, it was not clear to some observers that the logo was intended to be an arrowhead.

To address the first issue, DKDG created various iterations of the logo, including a single-color line version, a flat grayscale version, and a version using NPS green and two tones of brown, each with two digital originals for reproduction at smaller and larger sizes. To address the second issue, the designers added two more versions, one in continuous gray tones and the other in full color, both fully articulated to depict a three-dimensional arrowhead. Although to most observers the changes were minor, adoption of the newer version was resisted by some with the park service. Even after almost 10 years, the older version can be seen in many parks, largely because it is being replaced by attrition, but also because of continuing resistance.

Going on the grid

In the mid-1970s, after a major publishing effort for the American bicentennial, the National Park Service took a new look at the publications produced by its Interpretive Design Center in Harpers Ferry, W. Va. Inspired and closely guided by Massimo Vignelli, NPS designers created the UniGrid Program, which is regarded as one of the most significant recent examples of public-sector graphic design.

The UniGrid style is characterized by bold black bands, two typefaces (initially Helvetica and Times Roman), layouts with strong horizontal orientations, and a limited range of standard sizes. The strategy behind the program is to limit production variability, and instead to focus on the quality of visual and editorial content.

The familial look of the publications also makes the UniGrid program a primary component of the NPS identity. NPS prints more than 20 million brochures annually, many of which are admired and collected by park visitors from around the world. In 1991, the program was selected for inclusion in Contemporary Masterworks, a collection of 450 works of art and design “…which have achieved status of masterpiece or classic, and have made a significant contribution to twentieth century culture.” 

Taking it outdoors

By the early 1990s, the look of UniGrid publications had made its way into other areas of NPS design. The style first extended to outdoor interpretive exhibits (which the NPS calls “waysides”), eventually influencing the look of other kinds of park signs.

Signs are the primary way the NPS communicates with park visitors. (The number of NPS signs is estimated to be as high as 800,000.) Entrance signs offer greetings, welcoming visitors and reminding them that they are entering one of a system of parks cared for by the National Park Service. Other signs guide visitors as they travel to or within parks, encourage them to understand and appreciate what they encounter, remind them of their role in caring for parks, warn them of potential dangers, direct them to various features, and help them have a convenient and pleasant stay.

As early as 1926, the National Park Service issued standards to ensure that its signs communicated consistently and effectively. Many of the signs in parks today conform to the 1975 standards developed by Chermayeff and Geismar, who introduced brown as the signature NPS sign color and Clarendon as the standard typeface. Unfortunately, in some parks the standards were applied to signs other than the motorist guidance signs for which they were intended. Other parks continued to follow their own standards, using a range of typefaces. This, and the fact that others eventually adopted brown to designate parks and similar attractions, meant that by the 1990s, National Park Service signs were not as distinctive or as appropriate as they could be.

Setting new standards: UniGuide

To remedy this, the NPS hired Don Meeker & Associates to create comprehensive sign standards for national parks. Meeker was selected (though a competitive process) in part because of the standards he developed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which won a Presidential Design Award and were credited with helping to reduce drownings in Corps-managed lakes and waterways.

Using Yosemite National Park as a pilot project, Meeker created standards for three categories of signs: motorist guidance and traffic regulatory; park entrance and facility identification; and “visitor information,” which includes signs relating to regulations, interpretation, resource protection, general information, safety, and pedestrian wayfinding.

A major part of the work to develop new standards was the search for a typeface to replace Clarendon. The new typeface needed to have a distinctive but more contemporary look, be easier to read, and be approved by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Meeker chose type designer James Montalbano for the task. Working with the Pennsylvania Traffic Institute (at Penn State University) to test various possibilities, the design team eventually created a handsome serif face that Montalbano named Rawlinson in honor of his father-in-law (who was, ironically, a colleague of Smokey Bear at the Forest Service). NPS Rawlinson proved to be significantly easier to read than Clarendon, and was ultimately approved by FHWA for use on roadways in national parks. Early in the process of developing the identity standards, Montalbano gave DKDG drafts of the Rawlinson type family and the firm incorporated them into its prototypes and templates. Eventually Rawlinson was paired with Frutiger to give the NPS two distinctive and functional typefaces. The decision to move away from Helvetica, which it had used for many years, was not easy for the NPS, given its respect for Massimo Vignelli and his love for the typeface.

Like the redesigned Arrowhead logo, the NPS sign standards faced mixed reactions when introduced. Its champions and its critics often focused on the same issue: consistency. Some recognized the contribution that consistent signage would make to effective communication and to the creation of a distinctive and strong public identity. Others insisted that “modern” graphics and materials were at odds with the nature of park environments and that consistency in the appearance of signs would compromise a park’s unique character.

The debate was often focused on entrance signs. Some argued that they must have a consistent look to connect the place to the National Park system. Others pushed to preserve the wood and stone structures that still mark the entrance to many parks today. In the end, designers found a middle ground. Consistency was achieved by the repetitive use of the Arrowhead logo, Rawlinson and Frutiger typefaces, and the other elements of NPS identity on the sign panel. Appropriateness was maintained by allowing (in parks where it made sense) panel support structures (and often the panel itself) to be made of materials drawn from the local vernacular.

Perhaps the primary lesson to be drawn from the history of NPS identity centers around this “conflict” between consistency and appropriateness (a lesson that should certainly be remembered by firms aspiring to work with the agency). As Chermayeff and Geismar, Vignelli, Meeker, and Dennis and Konetzka will likely attest, getting the contract and securing initial design approval from a complex bureaucracy is not the challenge. The real work comes in achieving buy-in from cautious and sometimes skeptical managers and staff after official approval has been received and implementation is underway. They will also probably attest that, no matter how important consistency is to maintaining a strong organizational identity, what is proposed is far more likely to be accepted if it is drawn from, and always respectful of, what has come before. But drawing from the past to create a better future is what good design is about, no matter who the client might be. In fact, it is what the National Park Service is about as well.

--By Phil Musselwhite, segdDESIGN No. 27, 2009

Editor's note: Phil Musselwhite is a graphic designer who has worked for the National Park Service for the past 36 years.  Since 2001, he has headed the Office of NPS Identity that managed the development of new NPS identity and sign standards. 

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