Symbols of Intent

Why Brand Standards are Important

May 24, 2017 · 5 min read

Name brands that are part of our vernacular don’t become everyday nouns and verbs by accident. Such brand organizations have a voice in our world that we resonate with.

We personally align ourselves to brands that symbolize our values, knowing they help us identify with others who share the same ideals and strengthen those connections between each other. We use brand names, logos, taglines, colors, and messages as smoke signals in a noise-filled world.

As a result, brands are not only integrated into today’s world but also our history. One way we can revisit that history is to look back to the design source materials these household names were built upon.

Standards for Integrity

Brand standards manuals are a codified set of guidelines to uphold the visual integrity of an identity system and served a very practical purpose. A brand identity is a visual system, and the corporate identity manual is the instruction book for anyone using or implementing parts of the system.

These form these manuals were produced were in printed sheets housed in three-ring binders, passed around the company to internal departments, partners, and vendors. They were company documents created to provide graphic guidance for using identity assets for a company.

Symbols of Our Past

Behind these rulebooks are statements of intent that go deeper than logos, symbols, and typographic applications. The organizations above have all made significant contributions to the fabric of American culture and identity, and design has played an integral part throughout. As we look back through the lens of these designed objects, we are also able to look forward.

In 2015, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth from Pentagram started Standards Manual, an independent publishing studio in New York City focused on re-issuing former brand standards manuals. They began reissuing vintage standards manuals in case-bound form to archive and preserve these symbols of design history.

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Photo credit: Standards Manual

Their first reissue project, the 1970 New York City Transit Authority Graphics Standards Manual designed by Massimo Vignelli and Bob Noorda, speaks to the relationship of the city, transportation, and navigation. The manual outlined the standards for the use of symbols, typography, color for implementation onto wayfinding signage and communications for public transportation in New York City.

The typeface NYCTA Standard Medium was designed by Nick Sherman specifically for the reissue. According to Standard Manual’s site, “scanned samples of the Graphics Standards Manual contained in this publication were used as the basis of the redrawing. Letter spacing, kerning, and the quirks of Standard Medium were all retained and precisely match those specified in the manual.”

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Photo credit: Standards Manual

Standard Manual went on to publish the 1975 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Graphic Standards Manual designed by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn which brought in $941,966 in funding.

At the time, the original manual was launched with a newly customized thick-lettered “worm logo,” transitioning from their older “meatball logo,” and outlined use of the identity system for implementation on publications, uniforms, vehicles, space shuttles, and more. Because there was only 40 copies of the original manual, it became highly collectible.

With the moon landing just five years prior to publication, the manual’s introduction describes the identity as a “…new tool to enhance and symbolize the progressive path we have always followed.”

Although the original standards manual inspired the reissue, the project was not sponsored by NASA. During the Kickstarter campaign, NASA released a full PDF of the original graphic standards manual on their web site.

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Photo credit: Standards Manual

Their third project was issue of the 1973 Official Symbol of The American Revolution Bicentennial Official Graphics Standards Manual — the logo for America’s 200th birthday party.

The manual demonstrate the construction of the symbol and demonstrated application to certificates, vehicles, TV spots, building signage and more.

The manual’s designer, Bruce Blackburn, notes, “What an intimidating challenge… just take 200 years of history and distill them into a form that would make a good lapel pin. Not exactly a piece of cake.”

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Credit: Chermayeff & Geismar | Photo credit: Hamish Smyth, Standards Manual

Standards Manual’s newest venture, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identity, designed in 1977 by Chermayeff & Geismar is being Kickstarted in partnership with Earthjustice and AIGA.

What was originally produced as printed sheets in a three-ring binder will be reproduced as a case-bound book with a slipcase. The manual will feature the EPA logo, usage, colors, patterns and demonstrate implementation on collateral, reports and more.

There’s no denying that design has played a valuable role in giving a strong voice to the work of the EPA. To quote the ongoing Kickstarter campaign, “Like the NASA Graphics Standards Manual, the EPA manual was commissioned as a result of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) ‘Federal Graphics Improvement Program.’ This manual beautifully encapsulates the role design has played in advancing federal programs for public good.”

With the recent threats to EPA funding and relevance in the current administration, bringing awareness to the EPA (and the NEA) through this re-issue is timely. The Kickstarter campaign ends on Friday May 26, 2017, at 3:00 PM PST.

Symbols of Our Future

Today, brand standards are still necessary to upkeep the intent and integrity of a visual system, although recently referred to as style guides, brand standards, identity guidelines, and brand books.

Most contemporary standards manuals are distributed online via web pages or PDFs. No longer tangible or as easy to reference, but also not as difficult to carry around the office. These manuals can be found on the internet, as they typically published as public information. Logo Design Love maintains an updated list of style guides.

Brand standards were important then and arguably more important now as companies cross borders and expand into the global economy. In a brand-obsessed society, consumers also need strong visual systems in order to comprehend and communicate.

Most of the PDF guides will range from 12 to 50 pages and cover digital applications after the logo and system specifications. Few of today’s manuals will succeed 100 pages, unlike the 200-page epitomes from the past.

A wonderful aspect of Standard Manual’s reissues is that they are weighty and substantial, giving us a tactile understanding of how standard manuals functioned for communications in the 60s and 70s. It makes us nostalgic for how design functioned in an era not so long ago.

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