Jessica Helfand | Essays

Annals of Typographic Oddity No. 2: Spaceship Gothic

Apollo brochure

An upcoming auction of space memorabilia at Swann Galleries features a number of unusual specimens of paper ephemera which have miraculously survived the last half-century of American (and Soviet) space exploration. Who designed them? Among them are two brochure covers—from 1969 and 1972 respectively—documenting the journeys of Apollo 11 and 16. It's not the miniature American flags that are unusual: after all, the image of Neil Armstrong skewering a lunar crater with an American-made flagpole has become one of the more permanent images with which so many of us remember these comparatively early days of astro-pioneering. But what of the ornate Victorian typesetting? Perhaps the anonymous designer(s) of these booklets believed that NASA's ambitions in space were simply an extension of the Westward expansion that had typified gold rush America. (A few weeks ago we discovered water on Mars. So much for the gold rush.) Pioneering as a nomadic, cultural ideal remains perhaps lodged in the American consciousness: as such, it is perhaps worthy of its own typographic bias. But somehow, it remains a bizarre and somewhat counterintuitive choice — a visual oxymoron.

Posted in: Graphic Design, History, Politics, Science , Typography

Comments [8]

I wouldn't ascribe Empire as an intent -- probably just a fonctionnaire trying to create an 'official' historical document.

What I find more compelling are the typewritten letters of provenance with 'paragraph space' to fit the corresponding patch or momento. I can easily imagine a retired astronaut rummaging through the attic, finding their old parking permit, and sitting down to the typewriter -- all to raise a bit of cash.

Even more haunting are the 'life insurance covers'. Astronauts would sign a limited number of first-issue stamp/envelope covers commemorating the mission before liftoff. These pieces were kept by the astronaut families as 'life insurance' in case they didn't return. Notably, the only items with Neil Armstrong's signature.

Thanks for the link.
M Kingsley

From the outside, America's space exploration program has always been seen in the context of science fiction. But from the inside, it's first and foremost been an extension of the traditions of the U.S. military. (Check Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff for a quick reminder of this.)

Within NASA, the trappings of military esprit de corps, including all the filigree and quasi-Victorian affectations of rank and insignia, have been slow to die, and never really have. Even at the high tide of the Federal Design Improvement Program in the 70s, Bruce Blackburn's wordmark for NASA (also known as "the worm") was not popular within the ranks. And when NASA management decided to reinstill past glory after the Challenger disaster, a key signal was the reinstatement of the original NASA insignia ("the meatball") which identifies the organization to this day. The ornate typography on the Apollo brochure covers is probably meant to invoke the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant as much as Wild Bill Hickock.
Michael Bierut

I am reminded of the 1939 New York World's fair, which in its first year was called "The World of Tomorrow" and used as its logo/centerpiece the Trylon and Perisphere - a globe and obelisk that attempted to be futuristic but was curiously old fashioned.

The design planners of the fair wanted it both ways - they sought to project a futuristic aura but understood it could not be too over the heads of its audience. In fact, the first year of the fair never achieved its projected attendence in part because the public did indeed perceive "The World of Tomorrow" was over their heads (the other reason was it cost too much at the tail end of the Depression).

The second year the fair was called "Towards Peace and Freedom" and underplayed the futurism conceit. In fact, the most popular attraction (even more so than GM's Futurama) was the Entertainment Zone with its carnival midway full of burlesque (akin to Coney Island and Times Square) and a strip joint designed by Salvador Dali. While Futurama employed futuristic typography, the Entertainment Zone relied on bifurcated tuscans and other antiquated carnival styled letterforms to signal the fact that it was "for the masses," not the elite.

While the designers of the NASA identity (and especially Bruce Blackburn's futuristic worm - the logo that followed the "meatball" and was ultimately retired in favor of the more nostalgic meatball almost a decade ago) may have sought to project a futuristic aura, the PR people understand the need for balance between space age and homespun design.

I can only presume that even when it comes to NASA they think the public prefers nostalgic futurism (i.e. Jules Verne) to Ridley Scott. Something like a Disney blend of Frontierland and Tomorrowland.
Steven Heller

A former mentor, who was as a designer for NASA in the 1980s, worked on their information graphics. He bragged about the Swiss mentality present in all of the communication programs he did. He boasted of the white lab coats to neutralize any of their clothing from reflecting onto the pasteboards. Things seemed so sophisticated coming from him. But that was the 80s NASA. Here, looking at the 69-72 NASA, I'm bombarded by images from Civil War movies because of the bombastic aesthetic. It's easy to be critical, but who knows what things would have looked like at NASA had somebody like Paul Rand or Armin Hofmann worked there. Maybe something like this. Maybe.

Maybe it's just a Texas thing. Johnson Space Center is home to manned spaceflight and there is/was/can be a strong Old West association with anything Texas - either internally promoted or externally applied.

Just ran across your blog today and have enjoyed it. I'm teaching undergrad arts students Flash - I'm a programmer, they aren't - so it's nice to find places like yours that help to bridge the gap between us -- and wonderful how blogs encourage that kind of cross discipline interaction.

As these artifacts date back to the late 60's and early 70's it is important to remember the influence of the cold war. As Victorian type is a traditionally American form, with the space race used as a tool of nationalistic and militaristic one-upmanship, the propaganda meisters might have had an effect on these types of choices. There are also the psychedelic poster designs of the period, with their use of ornate typography offering up another possibility for the odd choice. Lastly it is interesting to reflect on the power of juxtaposition in implying a sense of wonder and complexity. As an example I would point out the scene in the film 2001 A Space Odyssey Of 1968, in the final scenes of which we see a room furnished in the baroque style alongside futuristic space architecture. I think this was intended to provoke a sense of timelessness and to call into question ones sense of what the future might look like.
Brad Chanin

Good points Brad. On a similar tangent, the noted film director Tarkovsky also used classical references to project this sense of timelessness - I think it's an excellent technique.

Victorian type is not a traditionally American form (as the name implies), but it certainly enjoyed a revival among the counterculture of the sixties that was every part as American as it was British, as anyone who's watched Monty Python's Flying Circus can testify.

I presumed that the baroque typography above was nothing more than some jobbing printer's reach for "something special," the semantic equivalent of rathskeller blackletters that appear on college diplomas. Vernacular typography is full of these near misses, and it's the generally appreciable style that wins out over the increasingly ambiguous culturally association.
Jonathan Hoefler

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