NASA has a better grasp of design than any other government agency. The U.S. space agency has several teams devoted solely to data visualization and graphics, and its materials have a consistent design language that’s pretty much the best compared with any other arm of federal bureaucracy.
Part of the way NASA maintains such a consistent design language throughout its many branches and projects is through exacting, standardized rules for how and when its branding can be deployed, and how its promotional materials should be presented. The regulation NASA style is laid out in an official guide, a version of which can be found here. (This PDF doesn’t have a date on it, but it’s at least a few years old—it’s signed by David Mould, who resigned as NASA’s Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs in 2009.)
Here are just a few ways NASA keeps its public communications materials beautiful:
The NASA insignia, the familiar red, white, and blue circular logo, is the only acceptable insignia for communications material that reaches the general public. Though individual projects have their own logos, the agency wants to ensure its primary brand remains the most recognizable to the public, its personal agency brand remaining by a confusing array of other, lesser insignia. Designed in 1959, its nickname—officially sanctioned by the style guide—is "the meatball." Despite unofficial proposals for more 21st-century designs, the agency doesn’t stray from tradition. "It is our prime brand identifier, reflecting the history and tradition of the agency," according to the guide.
There are very specific guidelines for how small the insignia can be, and how much white space must surround it. The white border around the circular insignia must be at least as wide as the N in the NASA logo is tall. The smallest size it can be reproduced at is 5/8 of an inch tall, and its colors are very specific: Pantone 185 red and Pantone 286 blue. Elements or colors cannot be added, it can’t be blurred, reversed, or distorted, or—god forbid—glowing. It should never be placed in a busy area of an image (duh) or placed partially behind another image in a visualization. In a one-color version of the insignia (used on light-colored backgrounds), the vector gradient—the difference in color in the swoosh that runs through the letters in NASA—must be clearly visible. There are even rules for where exactly it can be placed on a government vehicle, planes included (toward the back of the vehicle, flush with the lettering of the name of the agency on the door).
Helvetica, Helvetica, Helvetica. NASA knows better than to let its designers run wild with crazy Word art, unlike some other government agencies. All headlines, subheads, and call-outs in visual materials should be in the king of san serifs. In a pinch, Garamond can be used for body text, and if Helvetica isn’t available, Arial is acceptable. And put down the drop shadow: under no circumstances can a typeface be three-dimensional.
However, NASA’s willing to bend the rules for its kid-friendly educational materials, where Comic Sans—that most maligned font—is okay, as are various other approachable, whimsical fonts like Smile, Typewriter, and Kidprint.
NASA has a huge photographic collection, which the agency encourages its designers to make use of—with some rules. For example, NASA encourages keeping the focus of an image small: "the use of tight, up-close images—even when depicting a vast panorama—is an essential component of NASA’s communication strategy," the style guide reads. Other suggestions:
- Remember the human element whenever possible.
- Energize images with dynamic cropping.
- Avoid stagnant shots of buildings and machinery. Instead, depict these items in a manner that conveys what makes them innovative and exciting.
It’s easy for a PowerPoint to go awry. To combat this, any slide show that doesn’t use NASA’s pre-designed template has to be approved by the agency in advance:
Think of an electronic slide presentation as a multipage publication, with the first slide the front cover, the last slide the back cover, and the slides in between the inside pages. However, the insignia may be centered on the last slide to sign off. In order to make usage as simple as possible, tutorial and master slides may be downloaded at http://communications.nasa.gov. This template has Communications Material Review preapproval. Only customized presentations must go through the Communications Material Review process.
Dedication to good visual communication is particularly important for NASA, a public scientific agency that seems to constantly have to prove its worth. Without top-notch data visualization to make out-of-this-world science accessible to the general public, much of what the space agency does would remain mysterious and abstract. The agency and its champions have enough trouble convincing Congress that sending probes to far-flung reaches of the solar system is a worthwhile use of billions of dollars of public funding. The general public does not, by default, appreciate the importance of such titillating scientific information as the chemical makeup of rocks on Mars or the impact of solar winds. Consistent, well-designed communications materials and great visualizations help explain to the non-rocket scientists of the world what NASA does, and why it’s important, so the agency can keep doing what it's doing, and not consign itself to giving the space-reins over to citizen science and private enterprise.
Check out the guide itself here.
Slideshow Credits: 06 / NASA/ESA/E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona);