Meet the Guys Turning Old Graphic Design Manuals into Kickstarter Blockbusters
In 1970, the visionary “information architect” Massimo Vignelli and his design firm partner Bob Noorda created a manual that redesigned every visual element of the New York City subway system. It was a practical solution to a serious problem: by the late 1960s, the subway had become so unsafe and disorientating that stations had become breeding grounds for crime, and ridership had plummeted. Vignelli and Noorda’s manual organized the chaos of New York City’s underground by designing the visual identity for every single sign, instruction, and logo on every train and at every station. The manual created simplicity, consistency, and authority where there had been very little. It also helped to usher in a revolution in American graphic design. As the Federal Graphics Improvement program kicked into high gear, and as typography and photography began to usurp illustration, design quickly became as important as the messages it carried. In Vignelli’s New York Times obituary in 2014, Michael Bierut, one of Vignelli’s protégés and a partner at top design firm Pentagram, stressed the legacy of his mentor: “Massimo, probably more than anyone else, gets the credit for introducing a European Modernist point of view to American graphic design.”
So, when in 2012, Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed, associate partners at Pentagram working under Michael Bierut, found an original copy of Vignelli’s manual in their office’s basement, it was akin to discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls of graphic design. Smyth and Reed nerded out. They photographed each page and made a Web site. They shared it with their friends, who shared it with their friends—the kind of people who find the curves of particular fonts toothsome, understand the romance between kerning and liminal space, and are passionate about design that feels naturally and totally correct. (And if you’re a member of this tribe, the Pentagram offices might as well be Wonka’s factory.)
It began in Pentagram’s basement: The aery light-filled building, designed by C.P.H. Gilbert as a bank, overlooks Madison Square Park and is lined wall-to-wall with typography books and binders of Pantone swatches.
The Web site blew up: a quarter-million views in three days. Inspired by the response, Smyth and Reed decided to take it one step further: they reissued the manual as a 364-page hardcover book, printed at 13.5 inches by 13.5 inches. The book’s cover is red—visually matched by Smyth and Reed to the original binder—and thick with diagrams and precise instructions. No question is left unanswered. It addresses usage of fonts and colors. It details mathematics pertaining to scaling and shaving—down to the millimeter— to make sure letters, numbers, and symbols appear balanced. That last part, that’s called optical correction. The whole thing is downright sexy.
They started a 30-day Kickstarter campaign with historical information, graphics from the original manual, and a captivating video—plus the MTA’s blessing—with a goal to raise $108,000. It netted $802,812 from 6,718 backers. In February 2015, the book shipped to the early backers. In September, Smyth and Reed made a compact version of it available for online preorder on Shopify. In the first two hours, 200 copies had been sold.
At the end of their first campaign in September, Smyth and Reed decided to try their luck again with another graphic-design bible: the 1975 NASA Graphics Standards Manual by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn of the New York design firm Danne & Blackburn. This manual—much like the transit manual did for New York City’s subways—created a visual identity for the administration behind American space travel. Not long after the United States put a man on the moon in 1969, Danne and Blackburn laid out the rules to present a unified identity to both whatever’s “out there” and to the many millions of people who, from behind screens, would watch shuttles rip open the sky.
The manual, which was famously rescinded in 1992 for essentially being too futuristic, is the birthplace of the NASA “worm” logo. (Turns out, many people felt nostalgic for the cartoonish elements of a bygone administration. More on that later.)
“Richard [Danne] kept saying that when they got the call to do the NASA job, they lost a bunch of money on it, but they always thought it was important work. It was for the greater good of the nation. You get a sense of that looking through this stuff,” says Smyth.
Again, a video was posted; this one consisting of an interview with Richard Danne, who provided his personal copy of the manual for the reissue. It begins with Danne pacing a countdown on a piano timed to a voiceover of a rocket launch. A square-framed video of a rocket launching is flanked by two more squares. In each, a camera gracefully glides down illustrations of rocket ships from the manual. They appear to be lifting off, too.
In September 2015, on day four of the NASA campaign, Alex Daly, the “crowdsourceress” whose company has overseen both of Smyth and Reed’s campaigns, told me where they stood. They had already more than tripled their $158,000 goal. Later, one of the big publishing houses reached out to them to join forces, according to Smyth and Reed. They turned down the offer. All told, they raised $941,966 from 8,798 backers.
Smyth and Reed’s reissued manuals are now the second and third biggest book projects in Kickstarter history. The first was a reprint of the Bible.
Now Smyth and Reed are running a niche, high-end publishing company. The pair have discovered that you don’t necessarily need advertisers or a book advance or a high-profile agent (though all of those continue to be valuable) to make a successful and in-demand product in 2016. You need passion, a camera, and a computer. You need the right mix of a website like Kickstarter, and an app like Shopify. Access to objects that inspire cultish devotion, and the means to mass produce them, helps too.
“It’s a new model of publishing,” says Reed. Indeed. Making these books would be a huge risk for big publishers. They’re large. They’re so many pages. They’re expensive to make. The market for them might not exist.
“Using crowdfunding, we’ve learned a lot from ourselves and from Alex,” says Smyth.
“Using Kickstarter, we were able to gain interest before putting much into it, so there’s no risk. It’s all reward,” Reed clarifies.
“We just did the math: what’s the least amount we can run, what’s that going to cost us, and a little buffer in case the cost increases. If you raise that money, and you’ve done the budget correctly, you at least break even,” says Smyth.
Danne and Blackburn’s “worm” logo (left) and James Modarelli’s adapted “meatball” logo, designed in 1959.
Smyth and Reed are enamored by how these projects have helped them foster a community of designers that extends outside of New York City. They have engaged with, and been funded by, people from Japan, Switzerland, and elsewhere—global fans of Vignelli and detractors of NASA’s not-great “meatball” logo. (The “meatball” logo preceded and, eventually, replaced the “worm” logo. Its implementation is the difference between the Magic School Bus, and well, what a NASA space shuttle should look like.)
And they absolutely want to reissue more manuals—in addition to the contemporary redesign and brand identity work they do at Pentagram. On a recent trip to their offices, I saw the work the firm is doing to redesign New York City’s parking signs. Pinned up on a cork board near the pair’s work space is the Pentagram-designed logo for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. (You know the one.) But what about something as grand and, frankly, hardcore as creating a new manual for an entire system, the way Vignelli and Noorda and Danne and Blackburn did?
“NASA’s the dream, right?” Smyth says.
“The highway system,” Reed says, as they both get excited. “Developing something on a national level would be so incredible.”
“Yeah, exactly! I would love to be able to design every single sign type that would go on every single sign on the highway,” says Reed.
“At the core of this is designers…having control.” Reed completes Smyth’s sentence and they laugh. “We want control of things,” says Smyth. “And we feel like we should have more respect, and we’re obsessed with visibility. The bigger the thing, the more people see our work, the better.”
“We’re interested in improvement,” says Reed. That’s why [the MTA manual] was so important: because it was improving transportation. [The NASA manual] was important because it signaled this very authoritative voice for a large administration doing incredible work for space. Before that, it was visually a mess,” says Reed.
“The highway signs are not something people need to buy; it’s something that’s improving their lives. Parking signs, the Wayfinding signs, that is why I got into graphic design: to design those icons that are a quarter-inch small,” Reed explains. I don’t need my name on it, just to know that I had a hand in someone living their life and navigating by way of design without them even knowing it.”
“That’s coming from two modernists though,” Smyth chimes in. “If you ask post-modernists, they’ll be like, this all looks like shit. This is boring. It should have the personality of the artist.”
That’s a whole different beast.
The process has had a profound effect on many of the designers involved. “Because Richard [Danne] is still alive, we have seen how he has experienced the whole journey. It’s been great to see how this has validated—almost vindicated—his career,” says Smyth. “And we have become good friends with Richard.”
Perhaps the two manuals have been called design bibles so many times because they were constructed with the divine purpose to help designers and the general public make sense of things. They changed mass perception and engagement, branding work, and expectations of quality. Now, Smyth and Reed have flipped the script: they’ve redesigned the system of how to make a book.
Whether they realize it, Smyth and Reed have given those invisible hands great visibility again in a totally new way. For a long time, these manuals have helped get us where we are going—literally, but also generally—in a language many don’t realize was designed for us. I suppose that’s the point. Massimo Vignelli once said, “I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless.”
Article Written By: Mary Alice Miller with Vanity Fair0