Yellowstone National Park spans 3,472 square miles, cutting across Wyoming and bits of Montana and Idaho. All told, it takes up more land than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. And yet, for the first 30 years of its existence, the park didn’t have an official map.
Yellowstone was established in 1872 as the United States’ first national park, but it wasn’t until 1912 that it had a brochure to document its natural wonders. The guide, a sepia-toned stack of paper, outlined rules, regulations, and sights in charts, tables, and blocks of text. By today’s standards, the brochure would never make it to the printer, but it was an important first step in what would become a long history of bold and experimental graphic design coming out of the National Parks Service (NPS).
Since those early days, the NPS has expanded to include 61 parks. Over the years, each of those parks developed its own visual style that morphed and shifted with the changing trends in graphic design. Now, a new book, Parks, charts the evolution of the NPS’ printed ephemera to stunning effect.
“There’s essentially no consistent style.”
Standards Manual, the publishing house behind the Environmental Protection Agency manual, partnered with photographer Brian Kelly to document the wide range of maps and brochures produced by the NPS. The book covers decades of design, beginning with the photo-focused brochures from the 1910s to the abstract visuals of the 1960s to Massimo Vignelli’s 1977 Unigrid system that’s still used today.
Kelly began collecting brochures and maps a few years ago while traveling through the parks for another project where he was shooting old growth trees. After researching the history of the materials, he noticed that the printed ephemera varied wildly from park to park and from year to year. “There’s essentially no consistent style, which I love,” said Jesse Reed, co-founder of Standards Manual. “It was like every person who was designing one of these brochures or maps had their own interpretation of what that cover should look like.”
During the 1910s, a couple decades before the NPS was an official government organization, the Department of the Interior hired photographers to travel to the parks and shoot black-and-white photos that would show up across the front covers of the brochures. At that time, the national parks were still trying to get buy-in from the public and the government, who weren’t convinced that thousands of miles of land should be allocated for tourism and preservation. The brochures were a form of benign propaganda—a way to show the parks’ beauty to people who couldn’t easily travel to them. “The early brochures were basically made to promote national parks,” Kelly says. “They were trying to get people within the government to realize that we should set this land aside.”
“It was like every person who was designing one of these brochures or maps had their own interpretation of what that cover should look like.”
For a couple decades, the parks’ brochures embraced a mostly consistent aesthetic: center-aligned serif text set over a black-and-white photo. Things started to change in the late 1930s when designers began embracing script fonts. By the 1940s, sans serif type and a generally more artistic approach was in style, which could have been an outgrowth of a late 1930s program called the Federal Art Project that hired artists to create promotional posters for the National Parks Service. In the 1950s, color started showing up, paving the way for more experimental design in the 1960s.
In many ways, the NPS designs were a bellwether for graphic design trends at large. They reflected the technological changes that made new styles possible and popular. “A lot of them were precedents for design trends that have occurred over the past 20 or 30 years,” Reed said. One brochure from 1963 for Everglades National Park in Florida featured a trippy illustration of birds and fish flying and swimming together. “It’s like an MC Escher illustration,” Reed noted. Another from 1964 for Grand Canyon National Park looks like it could have been ripped from a Saul Bass movie poster. By the late 1960s, designers were pairing Helvetica and patterned illustrations, giving the brochures an op-art feel.
It’s not entirely clear who designed these brochures. None have credits, and the sheer variety of styles suggest that graphic design tasks were handled by individual teams who were commissioned with creating cohesive visual systems for different programs. Eventually, the government tightened up its operations and decided that it would save everyone time and money to standardize the parks’ graphic system. That’s where Massimo Vignelli came in.
In 1973, the National Endowment for the Arts started the Federal Graphics Improvement Program, which helped government agencies including the NPS to overhaul their visual identities. As part of the program, Vincent Gleason, the NPS’s former chief of publications, brought Vignelli on board to develop a new system for the NPS that would standardize the look and production of all its printed ephemera. Vignelli’s Unigrid system was based on a modular grid that allowed the NPS to create brochures, maps, and posters with a unified look. The system showcased Vignelli’s signature simplicity: a title printed in reverse white Helvetica on a black bar stretches down the right side of brochures; maps echoed the same black bar up top. Still, the system was deeply complex, bound by grids and rules that dictated exactly how a piece of design should be laid out. The system worked wonders for efficiency, the NPS writes:
Over the 10- to 20-year lifespan of a typical brochure, individual copies average just a few cents each. The Publications office at Harpers Ferry Center prints 24 to 28 million copies a year. Laid end-to-end, they would stretch across the continental United States, passing by many of the 400+ national park areas that distribute them.
The Unigrid system is still in use today, more than 40 years after it was first introduced, which Standards Manual co-founder Hamish Smyth says is a testament to its brilliance. Its simplicity was its strength—and the reason the Vignellis love the project so much. “It surprised me,” Smyth said, “but of all the work he and Lella [Vignelli] did, they were most proud of the work they did for the parks.”