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Reissued EPA standards manual is a gorgeous reminder of '70s environmentalism

The latest from Standards Manual recalls an era of enhanced design and commitment to its mission

EPA Graphics Standards System, reproduction pages.
All images via Standards Manual unless otherwise noted

During a month when activists and protestors feel compelled to march in favor of science in general, and action against climate change in particular, the original mission of the Environmental Protection Agency seems more important than ever. With a new head administrator, Scott Pruitt, who has, in his own words, spent years fighting the agency’s “activist agenda,” and some Republicans in Congress even introducing legislation to abolish the EPA, it may be easy to forget the ’70s-era optimism that led to the agency’s formation.

A forthcoming reissue of the agency’s rare, late ’70s design bible, the 1977 Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards Manual, announced today via Kickstarter, looks back at that time, showcasing both a comprehensive and impressive graphic design project as well as a different era in environmental policy.

“It’s not secret this is a very timely reissue, since the agency itself is under attack,“ says Jesse Reed, co-founder of the Standards Manual imprint, along with Hamish Smyth, which is reissuing the manual in time for Earth Day and the climate march.

EPA Graphics Standards System, detail scan of Special Format page.

EPA Graphics Standards System, Program Colors.

Focused on preserving design history, Standards Manual, which has reissued publications like NASA’s graphic design manual and Massimo Vignelli’s MTA guidelines, saw a similar opportunity with the EPA manual, which it’s releasing in a 244-page edition. It will include an essay by one of the designers and select images from Documerica, an EPA-sponsored photo project from the ’70s.

A reimagining of the agency’s early visual identity, the 1977 Environmental Protection Agency Graphic Standards Manual was the work of famed design agency Chermayeff & Geismar, led by Ivan Chermayeff and Tom Geismar. The New York-based firm, responsible for logos for blue chip companies and leading institutions such as NBC, Mobil, PBS, and National Geographic, was hired through another federal initiative, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Federal Graphics Improvement Program, which helped streamline and simplify the design of government (the look of everything from the Postal Service to NASA was reworked via this program, which lasted from 1972 to 1981).

In addition to the value of government service, the chance to work with a federal agency was a coveted one for designers due to the immense reach of such a project.

EPA Graphics Standards System, Color and Identifier.

EPA Graphics Standards System, Program Identifiers.

Chermayeff and Geismar didn’t create the agency’s daisy logo, but they did simplify the seal as part of an extensive system of graphic guidelines for the agency, covering reports, releases, interagency communication, and branding. Flexible and responsive, such a holistic system of colors, patterns, and photos is commonplace today, but was cutting-edge at the time of the late ’70s redesign.

Unfortunately for designers, the system was never fully adopted—a sad irony, because unified communications would have saved the agency effort, money, and resources (an underlying goal of an agency devoted to conservation). The EPA administrator at the time, Anne Gorsuch (yes, the mother of the recently appointed Supreme Court judge), supposedly didn’t like the new logo and seal, and her dismissal meant the support for the new system fell apart.

EPA Graphics Standards System, detail scan of Variations page.

EPA Graphics Standards System reissue sample spread, Documerica photographs.

The book isn’t just a time capsule of design. Every copy includes 48 pages of photos from the EPA’s massive Documerica program, which sent freelance photographers across the country in the ’70s to document the state of the environment and everyday life. Many of the images, capturing smokestacks billowing smog, polluted rivers, or clogged roadways, captures the sense or urgency, crisis, and action that characterized the early environmental movement and the government’s response in the ’70s (during that decade, the EPA was formed, and both the Clean Water and Endangered Species acts were signed). These stark photos, which are currently in the public domain, have been released, but haven’t gotten widespread attention.

Reed and Smyth believe raising awareness, both of the design and the agency’s original mission, is incredibly important today.

“It’s meant to bring focus and attention back to a federal program that was at least trying to fix some of the problems going on in the country in terms of environmental protection,” says Reed. “It’s not going to save the EPA in and of itself, but it’ll showcase the importance of this kind of communications work.”

Standards Manual, which is releasing the book in partnership with the AIGA, the professional design association, and the original design firm (now Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv), will donate a portion of every book sold to Earthjustice, the nation’s largest nonprofit environmental law organization, which just happens to be taking action against current actions by the new EPA administration.