Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On the Grid

The National Parks: America's Best Idea, the six-episode Ken Burnsian documentary by Ken Burns, began airing on PBS this past Sunday night, and I thought I would take the opportunity to post about one of designer Massimo Vignelli's best ideas: his 1977 template for the national park system's brochures. Vignelli himself has said it is one of his all-time favorite works – and that is really something, considering he is responsible for New York's MTA subway map and signage, Knoll's graphic identity system, and with his wife Lella, classic designs for Heller, among other iconic designs across a variety of disciplines.

Vignelli's design utilizes a "unigrid" template to maintain consistency across brochures for the almost 400 parks in the national parks system.

The unigrid in action.

The most effective, instantly recognizable part of the design is the black bar across the top with the park's name in very clear Helvetica (a signature Vignelli move, and an echo from his earlier designs for Knoll and the MTA). I always look forward to seeing what image each park chooses, and how they crop it in the space provided. The Ozarks brochure with the watercolor of people canoeing on the river is my favorite, of the parks I've visited. (Click to enlarge.)

In recent years I think attention to detail has slipped a bit on some of the brochures – for example, above, you can see that someone decided to get creative and make the word "Dinosaur" bigger than normal on that brochure (because, you know, dinosaurs are big). Though, now that I look at it, maybe that's the size it was meant to be originally. It sits nicely in the space, if there's no tagline required.

One truly disturbing development is the fact that many of the parks have replaced Helvetica with what looks to me like a medium-weight Verdana (?). For non-designers: this is the same problem presented by Ikea switching from Futura to Verdana – but far more serious, because the parks belong to us, whereas Ikea belongs to some Swedish guy.

Verdana (and Arial too, which might have been a more logical misstep) were designed as low-memory screen fonts, and – even the typographers who invented them would probably agree – are not meant to be printed on anything that matters.

Still, the main elements of the system are in tact, and as the John Muir of printed ephemera, I'm no less excited to get a brochure each time I visit a park. I just prefer Helvetica. Used in the way Vignelli intended it, it emanates modern civic-mindedness – it reminds us on a subtle level that the parks are ours, that we as a people, through our government, own these majestic places and reminders of our history.

More info:
Read about Massimo and Lella Vignelli at AIGA's website and at Vignelli Associates. Plan a visit to your national parks at nps.gov; check out Ken Burns' documentary series The National Parks: America's Best Idea on your local PBS station and at pbs.org.


SKL said...

Excellent post. I love the Nat'l Parks brochures, too. Wonder if they need a production person?

Ruth said...

Good post.