For about a year now, the U.S. Postal Service has been looking pretty good. Newly branded signage, mailers, and touchscreens have freshened up the USPS identity. But until this week, no one knew who did the work. New York studio GrandArmy has stepped forward to claim the project. And in doing so, the designers have revealed a part of the design process we rarely get to see: They've shared their original ideas for the rebranding—pieces of their work that USPS then altered, without further consulting the agency.
“We thought it might be interesting (and frustrating) for the design community to see how an agency’s work can be changed after files have been handed over,” Eric Collins, designer at GrandArmy, tells Co.Design.
Collins is the first to acknowledge that “99% of the project” made it to the USPS unscathed. GrandArmy’s vision was to create an identity for USPS that “connotes some of the pride we believe Americans should feel for their USPS.” And you can see that play out in GrandArmy’s bold aesthetic choices—like use of the Knockout font family—which brings a towering, "We Want You!" feel to the signage.
“Our research covered a general survey of USPS’ visual history, but we also drew inspiration from modern airport signage, from the NYC subway system, from traditional hand-painted signage—really from a variety of sources,” Collins writes. “We’re always trying to juxtapose eras and styles. Some elements of the design might feel heritage, for example, but their implementation and the grid they follow is a strictly modernist approach to design.”
Nowhere was this juxtaposition more apparent than in the Priority Mail and Priority Mail Express boxes. The team mixed eras of post office logos side by side, and juxtaposed effects like old stamp effects next to a the contemporary typographical layout. They also added an eagle to each box, based upon a vintage letterpress block and drawn by Steven Noble.
These bold boxes were the part of GrandArmy’s work that the USPS changed the most. “You can see that while the eventual boxes are 'inspired' by what we had created, almost every detail has been changed,” Collins laments. “And these details are important. Because the system is so stripped down and simplified, all of the small choices become critical.”
With all respect to GrandArmy, I’ll admit to liking the final, augmented USPS box quite a bit. Sure it's a bit like Wonder Bread—airy and inoffensive—but it’s friendly and inviting, with just a sprinkling of Americana. It’s Fourth of July without scaring the children.
But for the USPS of today—the punching bag facing billions of dollars in losses, the one that looks nothing but doomed to wither away in an ever-more electronic world—maybe they could have used a rallying flag, a screeching eagle, or some image that says, “We’re part of American heritage, dammit, and we’re not going anywhere without a fight.” Because critics and competitors may go after the post office, but nobody fucks with an eagle.