How Bad Design Potentially Cost the EPA Millions

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In 1970, Richard Nixon created the United States Environmental Protection Agency, whose mission was to work for “a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people.” It consolidated many of the federal government’s environmental responsibilities under one agency.

That year in his State of the Union address, Nixon said: “Restoring nature to its natural state is a cause beyond party and beyond factions. It has become a common cause of all the people of this country.”

A year later, Nixon sent a memo directed to the heads of federal agencies and departments, inquiring about how the arts could be used to benefit their needs. There was an overwhelming response to overhaul offices and graphics.

“I believe that we all can find that the arts have a great deal more to contribute to what we in government are seeking to accomplish—and that this will be good for the arts and good for the country,” read Nixon’s memo.

So in 1972, Nancy Hanks, then-Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, began the Federal Design Improvement program, which included the Federal Architecture Project and the Federal Graphics Improvement Program. The latter was active from 1972-1981, and consisted of a panel of lauded graphic designers critiquing the existing design language for federal agencies, and in some cases completely revamping that.

Under this mandate, the U.S. Postal Service and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration underwent a complete overhaul under the wing of designers like Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn. NASA’s 1975 graphics standards manual was even re-released in 2015, when Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed of Standards Manual launched a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to re-issue the book.

Now, Smyth and Reed are back with a new rendition of the 1977 EPA graphics standards manual, originally designed by the firm Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv. They launched a Kickstarter campaign that is already halfway towards it’s $158,000 goal. And this time, they’ve partnered with AIGA, the world’s oldest professional association for design, and Earthjustice, the nation’s largest nonprofit environmental law organization.

In the likelihood that the campaign is fully funded and the book goes to publication, portions of every book sold will go towards both organizations. But what’s interesting about the reprinting of the EPA manual isn’t just the current buzz around the agency’s fate, but rather the reason the graphics weren’t implemented to the best of the agency’s ability.

We interviewed Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth of Standards Manual about this new project. They explained why CGH’s designs weren’t utilized to their fullest potential, and how good design could literally have saved the agency millions of dollars over the years.

You guys have done the NASA Graphics Standards Manual before. What spurred the choice to go with the EPA Standards Manual?

Hamish Smyth: We loved the idea of design for government programs—design for the greater good, so to speak. The EPA is a great organization and when we met with Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv, the firm who designed the EPA manual, we had a look at a bunch of manuals they’ve done over the years.

The EPA just stood out to us—it’s a really interesting manual from a graphic standpoint. It struck us as a great example design for the government and public. And obviously right now the EPA is in people’s minds at the moment, so we thought it was timely to do it.

Sustainability and environmentalism are more relevant in the current geopolitical paradigm, but it seems there’s always been a disconnect between those two things and good design. With this book, and some brands that we feature, it seems like they’re coming together in a new way.

HS: I think what’s funny with the EPA is that, and you mentioned that good design and environmental things don’t really go hand in hand, I would agree with that, mostly because the EPA manual was really not implemented well. The lady who was in charge of design didn’t like the stationery, and she said “I want my baby back,” referring to the old logo. According to the designer at the time, that sort of derailed the project a little bit and messed up the implementation.

Jesse Reed: And I would add that the EPA manual was part of the Federal Graphics Improvement program. The initiative of that program was exactly that, to bring design against the lens to federal programs that weren’t given the same attention before. This is another reason why we wanted to publish this manual, because it was part of that program, and it adds a lot of really great design features to the old system that we had never seen before, and that we think most designers aren’t aware of.

Who was the administrator of the EPA at the time? 

HS: Funnily enough, it was Anne Gorsuch [the wife of Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch]. You can do some research on her, but it is eerily similar to what’s happening today. She came in and she slashed the budget by nearly a quarter. I read a Washington Post story about how she boasted about reducing the thickness of clean water regulations from six inches to half an inch, like the administration is trying to do now.

JR: It’s an example of a personal decision getting in the way of the thought process that went into developing a system like this. One person says they don’t like it, and then it affects the entire organization, and the promising work that could have been an outcome.

Designer Sagi Haviv is quoted as saying this system feels like a time capsule in a way, “especially in a time when the role of competence of government in general is called into question.” What feelings does this relic evoke in the post-Trump era? 

HS: Obviously, the EPA is in the news right now for the wrong reasons, and without being too political, it seems like people at the EPA are not too happy, and this document just reminds people of a different time.

JR: I think again, it’s all revolving somewhat around the programs that were in the Federal Graphics Improvement Program. But the focus and the tensions of these sorts of initiatives was strong. The government was showing a real interest in each of these programs—whether it was the national parks, the Department of Labor, EPA, or NASA.

And now I think there’s a lack of interest or care that goes into showing that these things aren’t foreign, everyone should care about them, and we’re kind of all in this together. You just don’t see this type of attention and quality given to federal programs. It’s kind of a lost era.

This particular graphics standards manual could actually improve efficiency and sustainability in a way, by communicating more with less. So, using less ink and also just solving time efficiencies by making things look more streamlined. 

HS: That’s always been one of the hidden benefits of graphic design. Back then everything was on paper, so you’d be printing brochures and reports all the time. And EPA, they hired a freelance designer each time they had to design a report—and so were a lot of government agencies— but there’s tons of waste there, tons of wasted time and money. But just by standardizing paper type and sizes, you can actually save tons and tons of money, because you can buy paper in bulk instead of just each brochure being on a different paper stock each time.

So I could say to a paper company: “Hey, we’ve got to print everything on this one paper from now on, what are the bulk rates you can give us? We’re going to buy tons and tons of paper from you.” All those sorts of things can add up, and there’s no way to put a number on it, but you could easily say that it could have saved millions and millions of dollars over the years if it had been implemented correctly.

Do you think part of that is the minimal direction may have been ahead of its time? The design language speaks to now, but maybe not really the late ’70s or early ’80s.

JR: Yeah. I guess one could say that. And I think what we notice about this manual, and other sort of manuals from this period, is about how minimal they are. And I think for minimalism, a lot of people look at as an aesthetic choice and a philosophy of design that is done just to be minimalist. But I think in the function of a manual, it was really done to cut out decision-making, so you knew that there was going to be only two weights of typography.

There was going to be one image. There was a grid that was the foundation of whatever format you were working with, and in turn those things became overly simplified. And I think some people could look at that as not being “enough,” but in fact it was really streamlining the decision-making and the cost of having to hire more people and more resources. We think is just really beautiful design and things that are only there to communicate the necessary message.

What challenges arise when designing for the EPA as opposed to other government agencies?

JR: I think a good contrast to the EPA Manual and system would be something like NASA, where that identity and that manual was very strong, very authoritative, and there was a clear path that everything was unified under a more limited visual language. Whereas the EPA, they had nine different categories that they were dealing with, and so obviously they all need to be recognized as under the EPA. But they also need to be differentiated from one another.

What Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv did is establish this system of a color and pattern, and those two things could be combined to represent each category. You could also combine illustration and photography, and if they included one or a combination of both of those components, it almost gave those categories their own unique identity. It’s arguable that maybe some people thought it was too much, but I think it was a really smart way of bringing in consistency and variability to the entire system. But of course again, it kind of falls apart if the core foundation of that identity isn’t implemented correctly, and that’s unfortunately what happened with the administrator.

HS: I would add maybe it stretched too far ahead of its time, because there were other great designers doing groundbreaking stuff.  And maybe it was too complicated to a fault. If you gave this manual to a designer at the EPA, it would quite daunting. To have these nine categories of things, patterns, and colors—and having to do everything by hand back then was a lot slower and much, much more difficult than it is now.

For this particular release, Standards Manual is partnering not just with CGH and AIGA, but also Earthjustice. What prompted with this non-profit beyond the other similar non-profits?

HS: We wanted to give something back, and we wanted to do more than just plant a tree. So we did some research and we found this organization called Earthjustice, who are a bunch of lawyers who use their skills and expertise to protect the environment. So it seemed like a really practical outfit.

There’s an efficiency rating for charities that examines each dollar that you give. Some charities squander it a lot on operation costs, but Earthjustice is rated very high on efficiency for that. So, we thought they were good blokes to work with.

There’s a bit of irony in looking at the standards manual and the EPA’s goal of “working for a cleaner, healthier environment for the American people,” because the visual language of the manual perfectly aligns with that, in terms of creating a cleaner environment and promoting that goal.

JR: Yeah, it does. I mean, I think it’s just unfortunate that a lot of this, that language didn’t get implemented as well as it could. Because I think there was a real goal of establishing the problem and then providing these solutions in a lot of the literature that they were trying to define. I just don’t think that it was carried through properly.

The EPA Graphics Standards Manual Kickstarter campaign runs through May 26.

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