The sky is deep blue as the ferry pulls away from Patchogue on the southern shore of Long Island. A 20-minute ride across the equally blue Great South Bay deposits visitors on the dock at Watch Hill, a marina and campground near the eastern end of Fire Island. A grouping of angular wooden structures with slatted paneling and sea green accents rise up from the dock, hugging the water. A sign on one of the buildings for the Watch Hill Visitor Center quietly announces an outpost of the National Park Service, though a set of brightly colored graphic posters, hung just above the standard sign, stand out more starkly against the weather-worn wood.

The posters—one with a flat graphic of the island’s iconic black-and-white lighthouse, and the other featuring a pair of white egrets above blocky white letterforms—are the work of local artist and designer James McDonald, who was first hired by NPS to create a logo for the park’s 50th anniversary. The project soon evolved to include posters for all six of the Fire Island National Seashore’s distinct sites, each one an ode to the unique landscape of beaches, dunes, forests, and historic places scattered along the isle’s 32 miles.

Lindsay Ries, a wildlife biologist and park ranger, first saw McDonald’s designs at Oyster Festival a few years ago. “I remember walking into his booth and just really loving his work,” she says. “The bold colors, the maps. I didn’t know how he could do something for us, but I kept a bookmark he handed out.”

Years later, when she joined the park’s 50th anniversary committee, Ries and her co-members were trying to come up with ideas for promotional materials and settled on creating a logo. “Do we look for a graphic designer? Or have people in the park do something?” she remembers asking. The committee was originally drawn to vintage sources, like the works produced in the late 1930s for the National Park Service poster program, a few of which are now reproduced by Ranger Doug in Seattle, or used as inspiration for contemporary commissions. But once Ries suggested McDonald, a talented local who often visited the Fire Island’s beaches as a child, the committee quickly reached agreement.

FINS-50th-anniversary: The original Fire Island National Seashore 50th anniversary logo. “We have so many elements at Fire Island that we wanted to represent,” says Ranger Lindsay Ries. “That’s how we ended up with a suite of logos for every site.”
FINS-50th-anniversary: The original Fire Island National Seashore 50th anniversary logo. “We have so many elements at Fire Island that we wanted to represent,” says Ranger Lindsay Ries. “That’s how we ended up with a suite of logos for every site.”

McDonald, who works under the moniker I Lost My Dog, approached the project as a labor of love. A native of Suffolk County, Fire Island’s unique and complex combination of community and wilderness is well-known to those who live nearby, but visitors often only see a small slice of a vibrant, and rich ecosystem where nature and residents coexist. “I wanted the posters to be memorable and bold, so at each stop, you know exactly where you are,” explains McDonald.

Using photographs provided by NPS and his memories of the beaches and dunes, the result is a set of seven “logos” that telegraph each locale—an close-up of the fresnel lens used by the lighthouse, a boardwalk winding through the sunken forest, a pair of beach chairs soaking up the solitude at Talisman (also known as Barrett Beach). Though McDonald often opts for hand-lettering for his illustrations and maps, each image in this series uses chunky type set in Gill Sans Ultra Bold for maximum visibility at a distance. The flat colors and crisp lettering translate at large and small-scale, adorning flagpoles, buildings, and lapel pins. Also citing the work of WPA poster artists as inspiration, McDonald’s work feels both contemporary and classic, an updated take on a traditional form.

“It’s a really great connection for people,” says Ries. “Not only are you here, but you’re part of this Fire Island National Seashore, this larger system that goes well beyond where you’re standing right now.”

Established in 1964, the Fire Island National Seashore boundary encompasses 26 of the island’s 32 miles, and includes a 7-mile stretch of undeveloped land; Robert Moses State Park, the only portion accessible by car, occupies the west end. Seventeen residential communities also call Fire Island home, each with a distinct identity. According to Elizabeth Rogers, public affairs specialist for the FINS, these range from family-oriented to “party town,” there are gay communities, and one that considers itself the capital. Most importantly, residents not only maintain a laid-back vibe with an emphasis on bare feet and bicycles, but they’ve fought for Fire Island to be a place “where people can come and be themselves.” A grassroots movement, started by residents in the 1960s continues to this day, maintaining the unique character of the place, with its interwoven system of boardwalks and tightly knit inhabitants.

“Part of the reason the park was established was to stop Mr. Moses from running a road down the length of the chain of barrier islands that protect Long Island’s south shore,” says Rogers. “After the hurricane of 1938, Moses used road building to expand his state park system. He used that hurricane and the erosion [it caused] as a reason, citing that roads stabilized the islands.” The establishment of the park 50 years ago coupled with locals ongoing efforts, have since kept cars, and the outside world, at bay.

McDonald is a bit of an outsider himself. “I have a graffiti background, that’s where I really started,” he says. Though McDonald has since channeled his passion for tagging and drawing into a career in graphic design, remnants of his previous pastime can be seen in his work—the bold lettering, the attention to detail—and in this case, a sensibility for capturing the unique character of a place.

The posters have been a hit with residents, visitors, and rangers alike. “People connect with them so much that they’ve taken them,” says Ries. Talisman seems to be the most popular souvenir, joked Rogers. “We tried our best to put them up in places that would not be easily accessible,” she explained. “We did not succeed.”

McDonald is tickled by the interest in his work. Though they’ve only had to replace two so far, he tries to see their theft as the ultimate compliment.

Graphic Design in the Wild is an ongoing series that investigates noteworthy works of graphic design culled from daily life.