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Our proposal for NASA’s new logo.

If you could redesign any brand, which would it be? This was the question asked us recently by Viewpoint, the bi-annual magazine about trends, brands, futures, and market strategies. Hmmm, we thought. What company or organization is doing super-cool, interesting, worthwhile things, and is completely undersold by its logo or brand? Within minutes we were in unanimous agreement on our subject for this project: NASA.

From the start, we set out to find something that was evident and immediate, that wasn’t about design or concept, and didn’t require explanation. Something that on a very basic, universal level was about what NASA is and does.

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NASA’s aptly nicknamed meatball logo

The first thing we see in NASA’s previous logos is that perennial truth that what looks futuristic today looks passe tomorrow. And of course tomorrow comes faster today than it did yesterday. We also wanted to avoid anything that would be too techy—NASA isn’t about technology; it’s about using technology as a vehicle for doing and going and discovering. So we went with a fairly neutral typeface that won’t look immediately dated. But we also wanted to de-emphasize the name in the logo to create more of a symbol that would be universally understood. So we eclipse the name with a giant sphere, which could be Earth or any other planet. In this way, we don’t get rid of the “meatball”; it’s still there, you just don’t see it.

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The logo can appear on plain backgrounds or over imagery. (all photos courtesy NASA)

This idea that Earth is just another planet is reinforced in the tagline. “THERE” implies that our home is bigger than just Earth—space is no longer there, it’s here. We also like the fact that “THERE” contains the entire journey in a single word. Of course NASA is an American agency, but we wanted to downplay the nationalistic side of it and sidestep the flag-planting mentality. So the  “US” in the tagline isn’t “U.S.”; it’s all of us, everyone on Earth. It’s getting back to the idea of NASA taking giant steps for mankind. And we’re all along for the ride.

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The logo can also work as a window to the places NASA goes and the things it does.

As part of our proposals for NASA, Viewpoint asked us a few questions about the project:

Viewpoint: What made you choose NASA over any other household name/brand?
Base: For starters, we didn’t want to choose a subject for this redesign based only on their having a bad logo; of course everyone wants to work with clients who are doing cool and interesting things. So that immediately narrowed it down a lot. And yes, we also wanted to find an organization that we could do great work for. One of our art directors suggested NASA, and the agreement was unanimous.

Viewpoint: How did you kick it all off? What was your starting point?
Base: We opened it up to everyone at Base and had a variety of input from across our five offices. At the beginning of a project we try always to stay open to any and every idea, though those preliminary ideas usually end up being doors to other, better ones. Our starting point was to have no starting point, zero gravity!

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Viewpoint: Please tell us a bit about your research phase.
Base: We had a number of people involved in this, from Brussels, New York, and Madrid. Some early references and sketches were based on “up.” We tried out vertical logos, images of people looking upward… And as a reference, we loved the Pioneer plaques, the pictorial summations of human life and earth that were sent aboard the Pioneer 10 and 11 in the early ’70s, sort of as dog collars, in case these ships were intercepted by extraterrestrial beings.
Of course space photography was going to be something to investigate because there are so many beautiful and awe-inspiring images. But the other edge of that sword is that NASA already has such strong imagery associated with it. Then for some of our options, the images seemed too tied to the idea of American power. What saved us was getting back to the essence of NASA, which is not about technology or politics but a dream.

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The Pioneer plaque (courtesy NASA)

Viewpoint: You talk a bit about “de-emphasizing” and “downplaying” NASA in your treatments. Do you think this approach is more important in today’s branding?
Base: There are always nuances and interplay between each of the elements you’re working with. We at Base always think about it as a mixing board—you have typography, color, writing, imagery, a grid, etc.… each with its own sliding level. And in finding the right balance or mix between these things, some are turned up, others down. Because if you scream everything at the same time, no one will listen. But more than simply a balance, you try to use each of these elements in light of the characteristics you’re trying to bring out in and through the others. To play these elements off each other, so they collectively add up to more than their sum.
Certainly today there is a trend toward work that is deeper, more considered, and more substantive than simply slapping a static logo on everything. And it has to be more layered than simply design. If given the chance to further develop our ideas for NASA—which would be a dream, by the way—we would of course go deeper than what’s here, to better reflect the organization’s architecture, missions, research projects, and what it wants to say about itself.

Viewpoint: What key influence do you hope your NASA work would have on other designers?
Base: We would hope that people see this project and understand it. This is something we always strive for at Base, to be self-evident, to get to the essence of something as simply and clearly and immediately as possible.

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Viewpoint: What do you feel is NASA’s core DNA?
Base: Exploration and discovery. But the context of this has changed with time. At the beginning, it was linked with the army; it was about competition and power. But now there’s the ISS [International Space Station], and it’s a new era. Different nationalities are working together in space.

Viewpoint: Who are you aiming to resonate with? A new generation? Existing fans? Others?
Base: Everyone! Part of the reason we chose to work on NASA is because what they do is so fascinating no matter who you are, where you live, how old you are. Space is infinitely interesting; the more we know, the more we want to know. So we made an effort to capitalize on that, to bring people in and invite them to where NASA is going.

Viewpoint: Is this project about getting more everyday people engaging with the brand?
Base: Absolutely. In the ’50s and ’60s, launches and space missions were events in popular culture. 500 million people watched the moon landing. Granted, that was an unprecedented event, but since then, NASA’s missions, while no less spectacular, seem to have faded to the background of the public consciousness. We all know that NASA is still doing cool space stuff, but most of us don’t know specifically what or how cool it really is. There’s a distance today between NASA and the general populus; we want to close that gap by bringing out the awesomeness of what NASA is doing.
And they already do it pretty well. Their current website is wonderful in how much information it presents. But while they’re generous with the information itself, they’re not as generous in how they present it.

Viewpoint: … or is it about making it more authoritative or serious or fun or techy?
Base: Serious, fun… sure, but also inclusive and generous.

Viewpoint: What should NASA do in the future? Sell super cool souveniers, have a fab space satellite tracking iphone app, augmented reality, cool webstuff, augmented reality etc., let users be able to project messages onto the moon…………..?
Base: More flavors of astronaut ice cream!
But seriously, one question we ask is: How do you make space, something that is so abstract and intangible and “irrelevant” to most peoples’ lives, more relevant, without cheapening it with a virtual game or phone app?
Or maybe that’s a solution too…
With whatever we would do for NASA, we would want to try to link human adventure in space with people on Earth. The school class of the daughter of Base partner Thierry Brunfaut had 10 minutes of direct conversation with an astronaut while he was in space. Space travel shouldn’t be only for a lucky few, and there can be more initiatives like this to make the connection real and bring the magic down to Earth.
Along those same lines, NASA could do Ustream sessions from the Space Shuttle. The new IMAX movie, about a repair mission of Hubble, will be fantastic exposure. But with any NASA initiative, we would be careful in exposing information to maintain the mystery and wonder that feeds all of our curiosities and imaginations.

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An iPhone app could track NASA’s movements…
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… or enable Earthbound NASA fans to communicate with astronauts.
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Base to NASA: We read you loud and clear.

Our proposal for NASA is featured as the inaugural entry of Viewpoint’s “Brand Lab” column. The theme of the issue is “The New Normal,” the new practical realities we all face as we enter the second decade of the 2000s. Viewpoint‘s “New Normal” issue is on newsstands now.