Co.Design

How The Creator Of NYC's Hated Subway Map Redesigned Our Nation's Parks

With a simple black bar and some Helvetica type, Massimo Vignelli showed just how important great design is, even to seemingly boring government agencies.

The mission of the National Park Service (NPS) isn't just to maintain America's national parks, monuments, and other sites of historical or conservational importance. It's also to impart to the average American why these things are important; to bring past heroes and battles and lost eras richly back to life, so that we understand the importance of preservation. To accomplish this mission, the NPS has published a number of brochures, pamphlets, posters, and maps over the years, each of which has been unified since the late 1970s by a common design language called the Unigrid system. It's literally a poster child for the far-reaching effects that great design can have, not just in making something more accessible but also in untangling the red tape of federal bureaucracy.

The Unigrid system was developed by Massimo Vignelli, a legendary designer who, amongst other things, designed the New York City subway system's iconic signage (as well as the beautiful but much loathed subway map used by the MTA from 1972 to 1979).

Image: Navy Yard via National Park History

In 1977, Vignelli was approached by Vincent Gleason, the NPS's former chief of publications, to work with the organization's design staff at the Harpers Ferry Center to come up with a consistent approach to the park's publications. There was nothing particularly enlightened about Gleason's reasons for hiring Vignelli: He was primarily trying to reduce the Park Service's publications budget by figuring out a way for designers to stop reinventing the wheel every time. Gleason wanted them to focus solely on the content.

Vignelli's solution was misleadingly simple. Unigrid is a modular grid system sized at 16.5 inches by 23.4 inches, which allowed the NPS to create brochures in 10 different sizes and formats, all of which maintained a consistent look thanks to a distinctive black bar at the top; inside this bar, the pamphlet or page title is set in white Helvetica.

That's all there is to it, but as the Corporate Design Foundation points out, the ramifications of Unigrid to the NPS were profound:

The use of a strong standardized design program also has allowed the NPS to realize two other significant benefits: financial savings and a unified organizational image. Cost savings have been substantial. Economies of scale are made possible by standardized sizes and production methods, efficient use of paper, and purchasing paper in bulk. These factors coupled with the huge production quantities involved—nearly 28 million copies of folders were printed in 1995—suggest an extremely efficient print production process.

NPS publications have a shelf life of 10-20 years, so only in the past few years has the full impact of the Unigrid program been realized. Because of the standardization of both design and print production, aided tremendously by the computer and electronic publishing, revisions can be made much more quickly and economically than before. This has been crucial in light of recent budget cuts and staff reductions.

Image: Ungrid system via Flickr user Ekusupo

Over 25 years later, the NPS still uses Unigrid for all its brochures, and there's even a great Flickr group dedicated to Unigrid and other designs by Vignelli. For over a generation, that little strip of black and Helvetica has been the lens through which we experience, learn, and gain insight about America's greatest national treasures . . . all while saving Uncle Sam quite a few bucks. Now that's great design.

To read more about the design philosophy of the Unigrid system, check out this article written in 1985 getting into the nitty-gritty here.

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