The Meatball vs. the Worm: The NASA Brand Standards Manual

In 1972, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) initiated the Federal Graphics Improvement Program under the direction of President Richard Nixon. The NEA program was fairly new when New York design firm Danne & Blackburn was tasked with redesigning NASA’s existing graphics and communication standards, which were fractured and outdated.

Rebranding a federal agency with thousands of employees and facilities across the country was no easy feat; Danne & Blackburn began the process by updating the NASA logo, which would become widely known as ‘the worm’. The new logo was everything the existing logo, nicknamed ‘the meatball,’ was not – simple, streamlined, and easily reproduced on everything from a letterhead to the side of a building.

NASA logo redesign

The new logo was both embraced and despised by those that worked for the agency. In general, the ‘old guard’ NASA employees felt it trampled on the history of the agency, while the new, younger employees viewed it as a modern and refreshing update. To this day, the debate over ‘meatball vs. worm’ still rages on.

The controversial logo established a path to a comprehensive, well-organized manual, with every aspect of the system designed around the central idea of easy reproduction. The guide was continually amended and updated for the next 10 years, with every NASA facility submitting images of their signage and branded elements – each slightly unique, but in line with the manual. These images were organized into an appendix to showcase how consistent design and branding can be accomplished and distributed even through decentralized channels.

Unfortunately, the worm logo and brand standards were ultimately revoked in 1992, as NASA went back to using the traditional meatball for all graphic communications moving forward. However, the original guide left a powerful legacy in the design world, and became a standard bearer for forward-thinking design excellence.

“Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.” –Charles Eames