If, as Wallace Stegner famously declared, the national parks are “America’s best idea,” how can we explore this idea? There is the historical aspect: America invented the concept of nationally owned and operated parks in 1872, when Ulysses S. Grant signed Yellowstone National Park into existence. But there is more to Stegner’s sentiment than just the invention of the parks. The rest of the quote goes on to say that the parks are “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
The national parks story isn’t simple or easy. It’s full of splendor and glory, as well as greed and exploitation. For every person who loves one of the parks like it’s their own home, there is another who resents the federal government for owning it. Even before Yellowstone became the first national park, park history was fraught with tension. Tension between preservation and use, between indigenous people and white explorers, between local rights and federal oversight, between wild freedom and human control, between park purists and park recreationists, and between commercial exploitation and historic value.
With this tense backdrop, or maybe because of it, art, imagery, writing, and design have played a vital role in the history of the national parks. Compelling creative materials that celebrated the land — including books, paintings, performances, and advertisements — have marked developments and milestones. These items have brought the rich landscapes and their scientific and historical significance to life.
Perhaps together, the tension and celebration make the National Park System — parks, monuments, natural areas, historic sites, and more — the perfect embodiment of America itself, and what the “best idea” of the parks is really all about.
The Earliest Years
For the benefit and enjoyment of the people
— 1872 legislation marking Yellowstone as the first national park
Many early writers and park supporters compared Yellowstone, Sequoia National Park, and surrounding areas to cathedrals and historic monuments in Europe. If those European buildings were testaments to the greatness of royalty and intellect, America’s parks were testaments to the country’s scale and spirit of independence. Europe’s man-made creations embodied exclusion and wealth, whereas our natural landscapes embodied democracy and wonderment.
The magnitude and sacredness of our land are what so much art, photography, graphic imagery, and writing has tried to capture over the years. And throughout the 136-year history of what we now call the park system, the art and storytelling that happened on its land or that took the parks as its subject matter has played a critical role in the park system’s perpetuation.
The need for people who cared about the parks to get others to care too resulted in a great amount of creative output. John Muir’s poetic writings enraptured readers and inspired early support of the parks. National railroad advertisements and brochures enticed turn-of-the-century travelers to “see America first” (rather than going to Europe for vacations). And Marian Anderson’s 1939 performance in front of the Lincoln Memorial demonstrated the American ideal of freedom — of both people and individual expression — at a time when the nation and world were facing deep crises.
From poetry to fine art to commercial art, visual and written stories have inspired, persuaded, alerted, and emboldened people. And through their impact, the legacy of the parks has been fulfilled.
1872 to 1916
We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.
— Theodore Roosevelt
Emblazoned on the north entrance gate to Yellowstone is the sentence, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” The phrase, taken from the original Yellowstone Park decree, underscores the democratic nature of the parks. The majestic spaces were (and continue to be) set aside for preservation, saved from the various industries and activities that may have ruined them: logging, hunting, water management, and more. They are for the people and yet were created to be protected from people.
In 1871, before Yellowstone was an official park, geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden led a survey expedition through the area. Funded in part by Congress and in part by the railroads, the group of 32 men — including several surveyists, a photographer, painter Thomas Moran, and a few of Hayden’s academic peers and students — spent about four months in the region.
The trek, though not the first to the area, catalyzed the national park movement. Most notably, the group introduced a scientific approach to land exploration and documented the scenes for people, most of whom had never seen anything like it. Moran painted some of the first portraits of the region. These paintings communicated scenes that few people had previously seen. In a strategic move, Hayden included Moran’s breathtaking paintings in the final report to Congress. This combination of science and artistry was what Congress needed for inspiration to start the parks.
The early years of park history could be characterized as disorganized. In many ways, the park system happened accidentally. There was no grand plan or unified vision, so operationalizing our “best idea” also happened organically. As parks were created, they weren’t always funded or documented or even staffed. From 1891 to 1913, the Army alone patrolled and protected the land but had no real authority.
The parks faced threat after threat during this time. You have to watch only one episode of Ken Burns’ and Dayton Duncan’s six-episode documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (itself a contemporary telling of the National Park Service story) to learn about the staggering number of people and groups that fought the creation of parks, monuments, and sites from all sides. But throughout, there have also been supporters, sometimes unlikely, sometimes at odds among themselves, but always with the goal of preserving the land and spirit of the parks and often with the aid of a pen, printing press, or story.
In 1906, fueled by a personal affection for the parks and deep friendship with John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act, which gave the president unilateral power to designate national monuments. Although John Muir faced many obstacles and heartbreaks during his fight for park protection, the Antiquities Act led to hundreds of thousands of miles of land being protected. Muir’s words, full of compassion and clarity, touched millions of souls, not just on paper but also in the impact they had on the history of the parks.
1916 to the Mid-20th Century
If we lost all the money we have and saved these trees, it would be worthwhile, wouldn’t it?
— William Kent
It could be argued that the National Park System would not exist without the aid of a book that displayed the parks’ beauty and splendor, National Parks Portfolio. The 1916 book’s orchestrator, Stephen Mather, was one of the park system’s most prominent protagonists and the first director of the National Park Service.
Under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, a dedicated hunter and proponent of the parks, the National Park Service was created in 1916. Whether the vision for uniting the national parks, monuments, and historic sites (previously all controlled by a handful of distinct government divisions) under a single department can be fully credited to Mather is not certain, but it was almost surely his public relations strategies that made the National Park Service a reality.
National Parks Portfolio was a critical piece within Mather’s strategy. Sensing that broad public support for the parks would encourage government support of Wilson’s proposition, he created the lavish book to share the vistas with the large majority of the population who had never seen them firsthand. With significant funding from the collection of railroad companies servicing the West, the author Robert Sterling Yard, an accomplished journalist, penned awesome descriptions of the parks and persuasive claims about the importance of the parks to national identity. The book was well-received (and reprinted), and the National Park Service was approved. It was not the first or last time pictures and words propelled America’s best idea into its next phase.
According to an internal document, “The primary duty of the National Park Service is to protect the national parks and national monuments under its jurisdiction.” Even in this early formation of a unified system that would eventually oversee 419 sites, the tensions that have always existed with regard to the parks are on view. As the document goes on to say, “and keep them as nearly in their natural state as this can be done in view of the fact that access to them must be provided in order that they may be used and enjoyed.” As this document makes clear, the intention and purpose of the parks is to both preserve the parks as-is and accommodate current-day visitors and their needs.
And visitors were flooding in at a steady rate during these years. The increasing ability for people to leave the city and visit nature was spurred by both a promising economy and the greater availability of cars. In 1920, four years after Mather became the first director of the National Park Service, visitors exceeded one million, and by just five years later, that number had doubled. Notably, and differently than in previous decades, almost all visitors arrived in cars. This ushered in the long tradition of parks creating park-specific windshield stickers that have served as proud badges throughout the 20th century.
Fast forward to 1938, when we again see an artistic endeavor playing a major role in a park system moment. A young Ansel Adams partnered with the Sierra Club to advocate for Kings Canyon National Park, an area John Muir once said rivaled Yosemite. Using photographs of the area, the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail captured America’s deepest canyon in a way that only Adams could, with images at once striking and serene. The book was given to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt, and inspired their support. Shortly thereafter, Kings Canyon National Park was created.
As the country approached the middle of the 20th century, more and more people became fans of and visitors to the parks. Between 1940 and 1960, attendance grew by 375 percent, escalating from 17 million to 79 million.
Maps: The Symbols of America’s Best Idea
If our national parks embody the spirit of America, their maps are the physical manifestation of those ideals. They are part pragmatic, part aspirational.
These national park maps show us more than just the geography of the land; they also include information about the history, the area, and the natural surroundings. They are brochures for the heart and soul of each destination: They tell the story of a place, and they mirror that place.
They start as our guides to enigmatic terrains and then become proof, once we leave, that we were there at all. And within the landscape of exploration, a core tenet of Americanism, perhaps there is nothing more symbolic than a used map, folded and refolded along weathered creases. Learning to read maps and playing the role of navigator on a road trip is a rite of passage for many kids whose families hit the roads for summer vacation.
Park rangers, introduced after the formation of the National Park Service, told stories and histories to groups of visitors eager to learn from an expert. As the park system expanded and the number of visitors grew, the maps and brochures became stand-ins in the absence of these guides.
Often, maps are the first thing handed to park visitors. As visitors began more independent excursions throughout the parks in the 1920s (before that, visitors were often led by guides) and public roads snaked through more parks, maps and brochures became a necessity. They delineated where and how to use the park.
According to the Library of Congress webpage about the national parks,
“Maps tell the story of when and how each park was established, and record physical growth as boundaries were established and expanded. Government mapping, frequently beginning in the discovery and exploration phase, provided an increased understanding of the unique features of an area, such as the locations of bodies of land and water, topographic and geological attributes, and the presence of historic and cultural artifacts.”
These maps — and the graphics, histories, and details shared within them — show our desire to see and then understand the uniqueness of an area. They have literally and metaphorically been our guides: Old and new maps will continue to teach us about the land and the best American idea.
Mid-20th Century to the 1970s
We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.
— Wallace Stegner
The second half of national park history is marked, again, with increasing threats but also expansion and successes. In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order that brought the once-scattered national parks, historical sites, military parks, monuments, and more under the singular umbrella of the National Park System. The implications of this were huge — it immediately added 12 natural areas and 57 historic sites to the federal collection, and it expanded the scope of what was considered a “park.” No longer just for wilderness areas, the park system now protected and oversaw cemeteries and memorials as well as parks and monuments.
By midcentury, significant changes were also happening outside the park system, notably the increasing focus on social rights and an expanding post-World War II boom. Civil Rights, the women’s movement, environmental activism, and more moved to the forefront of Americans’ everyday life at the same time that urban expansion and economic growth were occurring and a new version of the American middle class was taking root. This created a startlingly wide range of activities that drove interest in and energy around the park system.
Art, activism, and the parks came together once again in the 1955 book This Is Dinosaur: Echo Park County and Its Magic Rivers. Commissioned by influential publisher Alfred Knopf and written by Wallace Stegner (of “America’s best idea” fame), the book celebrated the park in order to drum up support for Dinosaur Canyon in Utah, which was under threat. In response to the steadily rising population and urban sprawl, the government had proposed installing dams throughout the West, including some at Echo Park. The book is credited with helping to save this park and others: After the book was published, Congress voted to prohibit the dams. Stegner noted in the 1985 edition of the book that the vote “set in brass the principle that any part of the national park system should be immune from any sort of intrusion and damage.”
A few years later, thanks to Roosevelt’s 1933 executive order, the National Park System was the backdrop and stage for one of our nation’s most powerful orators in history: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech was performed in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Both the park itself and Dr. King’s speech helped tell the story of tension, struggle, and hope that was felt throughout the nation. The park (with a park ranger standing nearby) was the protected space for activism and, indirectly, the belief in the freedom of all people. Like the 3,000-year-old trees in Sequoia National Park that the park system honored and kept sacred, people deserved the right to put down roots and thrive in their homes, neighborhoods, and cities and on their land.
In both the Echo Park and March on Washington stories, we see art and persuasion at work in different ways. But both pushed American ideals of beauty, freedom, and independence, and underscored the notion of parks as places where Americanism could, and should, happen.
A few years later we see an entirely different display of Americanism at work in the completion of the “Mission 66” project in 1966. Initiated ten years earlier, the project focused on expansion and infrastructure, thus fueling some environmental activism, such as the events at Echo Park. Mission 66 introduced more man-made elements to the parks — visitor centers, bathrooms, paved roads, and so on — many of which are so familiar to visitors today.
These concrete additions aimed to accommodate the boom of post-World War II visitors who came in their cars. While these man-made elements would likely have disappointed, if not horrified, 19th-century park supporters, the modernizations inaugurated a new generation of park enthusiasts and drastically changed the overall experience and design of parks. Inspired, or at least energized, by Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road, road trips as a cultural phenomenon ramped up in the 1960s. Families hit the road, some with growing prosperity and access to paid vacation time, some driving because they couldn’t afford to travel any other way. According to Allyson Hobbs, a professor at Stanford University, “Some of the most popular (and most affordable) destinations for vacations were national parks. Americans relished time away from overcrowded cities and the frenetic pace of everyday life and believed that they could find peacefulness and serenity in nature.”
1977: The Unigrid and Designing a System for the National Park System
Between 1960 and 1980, visitors to national parks grew from 79 million to 198 million. Given this surge in visitors and a slowing rate of economic growth, it’s not surprising that the National Park Service took a close look at the vast number of materials they were creating to inform and educate park-goers across their sites.
In 1977, Director of Publications Vincent Gleason sought a cost-effective way to keep up with the number of materials parks needed. Enter the Unigrid system and Massimo Vignelli, whom Gleason hired to help refine the system’s array of printed maps and brochures.
Vignelli was a renowned designer who, in partnership with his wife, Lella, operated Vignelli Associates. While this introduction can’t adequately capture the significant contribution Vignelli made to design and how we experience everyday life, it can at least highlight the immense impact he had on the parks and nearly every visitor to the parks since 1977.
Vignelli’s Unigrid added a black band and clear, white Helvetica title to every piece. But the real power lies beneath the visual fields, in the grid itself. The basic element of the grid is a 4x8.25-inch panel (corresponding to fold lines). These panels can be used in 1x1 or 1x2 combinations to compose the width and repeated up to six times for length, allowing for a variety of sizes that get the most out of a standard-sized 25x38-inch sheet of paper to reduce waste (a 70-lb. dull coated text weight). While the system has been slightly altered and the fonts changed over the years, the general vision and its utility remain intact.
Overall, the introduction of Unigrid saved money, energy, and materials because it was specifically designed for mass production. Vignelli’s attention to size options — and constraining them — was a smart move from an economic standpoint, but it also, surprisingly, improved content. According to a 1984 issue of Graphis magazine,
One unexpected bonus in the change-over was the willingness with which field personnel participated in the work. The structured presentations forced them to get involved in projects and provide specific information about park subjects.
Later, the article continues,
The information carried in the new park publications became much more comprehensive than in earlier versions. Text is prepared to known spaces, preventing it from becoming a disproportionate part of the whole. Maps look better and work better. They not only contain more data, but the standardized approach means that they can be compiled and maintained more efficiently. Illustrations are now an integral part of the full presentation, not just decoration. With their improved content, these publications serve managers, users and students better.
While many of Vignelli’s projects may feel more notable, in his 2007 book Vignelli: from A to Z, Vignelli said of the national parks project, “I think that of all of the projects I have worked on during my long career in design, this one has affected more people than any other, and because of this, it is perhaps my favorite.”
Vignelli’s brochures and maps affected millions in different ways. And the impact goes beyond the design standard he created; he also generated a new way of explaining and experiencing the parks from near or far. Again from Graphis magazine, “The new park folders have increased utility in self-guiding applications, the broadside approach enables teachers to use the folders as classroom wall charts, and the uniform formats improve map presentation, thereby paving the way for an atlas of the entire National Park System.”
In some ways, the Unigrid project represents the culmination of so much about the National Park System and its place in American history. In artistic terms, the design is part of a long history of creative endeavors that redefined the way people experienced the parks. As the National Park Service website states, “Unigrids are on the front lines of storytelling in the NPS.”
But the inspiration for the project and its outcome speak to the best of modern America: clarity, access, scale, and order. Not unlike the corporate branding that was proliferating in popular and consumer cultures at the time, the Unigrid system also added consistency, efficiency, and economy to a spread-out system. While the introduction of the system necessarily meant an end to the kaleidoscope of creative expression found in earlier brochures, it also served the constellation of humans and ushered in an evolution of the “ for the people and by the people” idea. The Presidential Awards for Design Excellence that the Unigrid system received from President Ronald Reagan in 1984 only underscores that fact.
1977 to Current Day
Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.
— Aldo Leopold
The story of the parks by no means ends with the introduction of the Unigrid system. As science and research about nature expanded, as did the ease of spreading those ideas, there was also a new understanding of what preservation could and should look like in the national parks. The shift could be described as a move from “parks as spectacle” to “parks as specimen.” There was a turn toward (re)creating ecosystems that were more like the original parklands.
Park employees started to balance the needs of humans and nature. Species of animals that had previously been hunted out, like wolves, were reintroduced, and protections and controls around vegetation were instituted. Meanwhile, human needs continued to grow. In 1980, 198 million visitors logged hours in the parks; by 2000, the number had grown to 286 million.
At the beginning of the industrial era, humans wanted to dominate nature. By the 1980s and 1990s, there seemed to be an interest in being delighted by it. Yes, this interest came with increased visitors — and the consequences of that — but it also came with a sense of collective appreciation of the value and sacredness of the parks. Since then, interest in outdoor recreation has only continued to grow and evolve. In the last few decades, the popularity of recreational vehicles and campsite getaways; extreme sports adventures; and athletic activities such as jogging, hiking, cycling, and rafting has contributed to a new, more outdoorsy way of life. And the national parks have been, and will continue to be, a huge part of that.
Between every two pine trees there is a door leading to a new way of life.
— John Muir
In the William Kent quote cited above — “If we lost all the money we have and saved these trees, it would be worthwhile, wouldn’t it?” — we can almost feel a desperation to preserve and pass along land that just as easily could have been obliterated in the Wild West style of the parks’ early years.
So, what’s next? Today, we see more and more people going to the parks. The fact that 318 million visitors went to national parks in 2018 tells us that our collective desire to escape to natural spaces hasn’t waned. In fact, maybe it’s greater than ever.
There is something really special about this collection and the thousands of maps and brochures collected in car glove compartments and piled in lakeside cabins. They not only help us understand aspects of the staggeringly complex national park history, but they are also individual time capsules. When viewed together, they represent a condensed history of graphic design trends and thinking over the 20th century. From black and white photography to bold Pop graphics to sleek modernist arrangements, the collection showcases key movements in the history of design.
Today, we have moved into a digital era. As we easily imagine so many new ways of telling and sharing a park experience using emerging technologies, these maps and brochures represent a visceral, physical story of a moment in time.
As we look back at the care, discipline, and creativity individuals put into the parks — and their stories, art, advertisements, brochures, maps, and photographs — let us hope we can do an equal or greater job. Let us hope that we can continue to share creative and imaginative expressions that compel future generations and encapsulate our own moment. As was true for every generation before us, the parks are not ours. They belong to future generations, and they always will.
Originally published at https://standardsmanual.com.