How A Student Designed The Recycling Logo, And Got A Measly $2,500

The Financial Times sits down with Gary Anderson, who over 30 years ago, designed one of the world’s most famous logos, as a college student.

In 1970, Gary Anderson was a 23-year-old college student at the University of Southern California, when a Chicago container company held a design contest to raise awareness about the environment. Anderson’s submission won, and it became the internationally recognized recycling logo—and a design classic that ranks with the Coca-Cola and Nike marks, for sheer ubiquity.

Anderson with his logo, back in the day.

Financial Times Magazine ran a first-person retrospective in which Anderson recounts the experience:

It didn’t take me long to come up with my design: a day or two. I almost hate to admit that now. But I’d already done a presentation on recycling waste water and I’d come up with a graphic that described the flow of water: from reservoirs through to consumption, so I already had arrows and arcs and angles in my mind.

The problem with my earlier design was that it seemed flat, two-dimensional. When I sat down to enter the competition, I thought back to a field trip in elementary school to a newspaper office where we’d seen how paper was fed over rollers as it was printed. I drew on that image – the three arrows in my final sketch look like strips of folded-over paper. I drew them in pencil, and then traced over everything in black ink. These days, with computer graphics packages, it’s rare that designs are quite as stark.

Despite a clear talent for the medium, Anderson actually became an architect rather than a graphic designer, and ironically learned to lament environmental regulations from time to time. But I won’t spoil the whole story here. Check out the full account on the Financial Times. Then remind yourself; you may become most well known for the work by which you’d prefer not to define your career. (And you may make all of $2,500 for it.)

Read more here.

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  • Tom Scott

    I wonder if that's his final logo in the photo. One of the arrows is folded differently than the other two.

  • Dave

    "Measly $2,500"?

    He entered a contest. He won, and received said amount as the prize. So, he has nothing to whine about.

  • Bad Habit

    ..... says the man who probably hasn't had a thought that qualified as "Intellectual Property" in his entire existence.

  • Jesse Rees

    I feel like when you have been paid for your invoice or for your contribution to a contest they have no legal obligation to pay you anymore.  For Nike to go and reward Carolyn Davidson is remarkable.  They showed their appreciation and I hope Gary Anderson received the same treatment.  Very cool information in this post and in the comments!

  • Jessica Port

    Most of these comments are missing the point. The value of this logo, especially given its ubiquity, is worth much more than $2500. You don't base the price of a logo on the number of hours put into designing it (!) so much as you do on the value it creates, its potential for long-term use, number & use of applications, and its purpose in communicating an important message. 

  • kpr

    Find me a client who will continue to pay me for my logo design should it create long-term "value." 

    Unfortunately, even in 2012, the majority of graphic designers (industrial designers exempt as their work is a bit different) are generally paid by the hour or by the project and not by the value or equity their design creates. Unless of course they've drafted one hell of a contract. 

  • syddel

    How much should he have received (keeping in mind that £2,500 back in 1970 was like the equivalent of £32,425.00 today)?

  • Guest

    According to the FT article, it seems to me that Mr. Anderson was content with his cash prize, so thank you Mr. Wilson for whining on his behalf.

    I have wondered from time to time who created the recycle logo and am impressed with its enduring design - thank you Mr. Anderson.

  • bar

    Where do you get $2500 from? All the source says is "There was a monetary prize, though for the life of me I can’t remember how much it was... about $2,000?"

  • Phunken

    We are talking 30 years ago, inflation etc... For a competition that become famous sound fair enough. Now as an architect he can make 20 times as much.

  • Rasmus

    As a designer, I usually don't like it when people measure the value of a design or a logo based on how long it took to make it. That's just ignorant. That said, $2500 dollars are pretty good considering that a year later Carolyn Davidson, a student at Portland State University designed the Nike Swoosh logo for an astonishing $35!

    (12 years later she did actually got further reimbursed with a Diamond Swoosh ring and stocks in Nike)

  • Tombik

    Awesome work. Most of people don't realize that also thigs like this logo have been made by single person.


    Good money, considering the logo itself does not make any money in subsequent usage...but correct me if i'm wrong. i just don't think companies would pay for its use when placing it on their products.

    anyways, great one to have in your portfolio, that's for sure!

  • Jaime C

    Hey, design students aren't in it for the money, right? This is an awesome claim to fame in my opinion! Makes me wonder what Gary Anderson is doing now. Great photo, by the way!

  • Justin Tadlock

    $2,500 in 1970 as a college student?  Measly?  He was rolling in it.

  • Duncan MacDonald

    "A measly $2500" 
    For two days work. 
    In 1970. Get real, seriously.

    Even by today's standards that's a good pay day, even if you aren't a student.
    And if we go on the CPI for 1970 that works out at about $14000.

    Hardly "measly".