The NASA logo of today—the "meatball"—is actually the organization’s original. It’s pure ’60s space-race fodder, and it’s served as the casual face of NASA since 1959, save for a two-decade stint when the "worm" logo replaced it. Personally, I’ve always liked NASA’s logos as snippets of place and time, as both managed to be timely without ever becoming tacky. But with NASA facing funding woes, the organization could use a jumpstart into the new millenium, a facelift, a reminder that space was the original awesome.
In 2010, design firm Base reimagined the NASA logo for Viewpoint magazine. Rather than Jetsons flourish or ’80s futurism, the team wanted to propose a new look for a post–Cold War era and gesture toward the future. (We honestly have no clue what’s ahead—but it’s often quite beautiful.)
"The meatball logo belongs to America. It is part of our historical heritage," Base designer Thierry Brunfaut tells Co.Design. "But the context of this has changed with time. At the beginning, the logo was linked to the army. It was about competition and power. But now there’s the ISS … different nationalities are working together in space. Space discovery is not about competition anymore or ‘being the first out there’ but about the future of mankind."
The sentiment is dead on. While NASA is still the undisputed worldwide leader in space exploration, since 1960, science has gone international. Forget the ISS—consider the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson. Thousands of researchers from across the globe contributed to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, and its countless terabytes of data are constantly processed by servers of a similar expanse. The greatest discoveries of tomorrow will happen on networks, not in labs.
All of this modern ideology had to make it into the NASA logo, and we haven’t even talked about space yet.
"From the start, we set out to find something that was evident and immediate, that wasn’t about design, and didn’t require explanation. Something that on a very basic, universal level was about what NASA is and does. We went back to the essence of NASA, which is not about technology or politics but a dream," Base designer Thierry Brunfaut tells Co.Design. "So we went with a fairly neutral typeface that won’t look immediately dated. But we also wanted to de-emphasize the name in the logo to create more of a symbol that would be universally understood. So we eclipsed the name with a giant sphere, which could be Earth or any other planet. The idea is to suggest an infinity of possible discoveries, new planets, new worlds … An infinity of possible paths to our future as mankind."
This new logo sends an entirely different message from both NASA and America. Rather than conveying authority or eliciting idolization, it’s actually after the complete opposite. By obscuring part of the logo itself, we’re reminded that NASA is about exploring the unknown at the most intrinsic level. It’s a tacit acknowledgement of a lack of knowledge, with the slightest inspirational peek at things to come.
At the same time, it’s perfectly meta. In an era when YouTube clips are parodied five minutes after becoming popular, we’ve grown into a society that not only tolerates but expects allusion. So while Base’s NASA logo probably wouldn’t have worked in 1960—what the heck is that word supposed to be?—in 2012, it’s a perfect riff on itself, and even on the greater nature of how logos are meant to be seen.
Sadly, NASA passed on the logo. "They politely replied they were ‘not looking to revise their identity at this time,’" Brunfaut laments. "Would’ve been nice if that piece of news had come in through an intergalactic phone call as opposed to an email."