Article Correctness Is Author's Responsibility: 100 Years of Designing for U.S. National Parks

From the beginning, the history of America’s national parks has been indelibly linked to images. In the 1870s, Thomas Moran painted dramatic views of Yellowstone, prompting Congress to make it the country’s first national park; some 50 years later, Ansel Adams’s photos of Kings Canyon, California, led to the protection of that remote region of the Sierra Nevada. Since then, park maps and brochures have become essential in more quotidian ways—helping visitors navigate the premises, providing valuable safety information, and serving as beloved souvenirs.

The new book Parks ($55; preorders start shipping on September 23) collects a century’s worth of paper National Park Service ephemera, illustrating the outsized role these items have played in people’s experiences of the park system. Viewed together, they also serve as a quirky tour through the past century of American graphic design.

(Standards Manual / Brian Kelley)

Collected and photographed by Brian Kelley and laid out by Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth of the publisher Standards Manual (which previously exhumed classic design manuals for the New York subway system, the Environmental Protection Agency, and NASA), this collection begins with pages from the 1916 National Parks Portfolio. These images, which people could request for free by mail, would have been among the first pictures of the national parks that many Americans saw, and surely the first that most possessed in their homes.

At the time, “graphic design was barely a profession,” Smyth says. “You would be called a commercial artist maybe, but usually a printer or typesetter would be doing a lot of this stuff.” The large black-and-white photos in the Portfolio were accompanied by descriptive formal captions.

(Standards Manual / Brian Kelley)

This treatment remained more or less the norm until the 1950s. Mass car ownership led to an explosion in the parks’ popularity, which meant that most of the brochures, pamphlets, and information cards produced by the National Park Service were for park visitors now, not armchair travelers.

Documents from this era are therefore less likely to include pictures. “You didn’t need the photograph of the thing you were about to see, because it’s right in front of you,” Reed notes.

At the same time, abstract images were becoming more popular, and new technologies made it a lot easier to print in color. Cartoon-y, two-tone silhouettes started to become more common, as did abstract designs. Font style and text placement started to become more experimental, too, with more pamphlets running text from bottom to top.

(Standards Manual / Brian Kelley)

Some of the most unusual designs from this era are not from national parks proper, but from national historic monuments and other, lesser-known sites under the National Park Service’s jurisdiction. A 1963 pamphlet from Vicksburg National Military Park depicts a featureless head of hair and a beard with the word “VICKSBURG” where the eyes should be. In a Theodore Roosevelt National Monument booklet from 1967, the president’s portrait is composed of black and orange pixels, Roy Lichtenstein-style. Needless to say, many images in Parks would look great on vintage t-shirts.

(Standards Manual / Brian Kelley)

The next big historical evolution for national-park graphic design was a 1977 contract with the legendary designers Massimo and Leila Vignelli, who promised to cut printing costs by standardizing all of the NPS printed materials. The Vignellis’ Unigrid system allowed one size of paper to be folded in a number of ways, so the NPS could order paper and print in bulk.

Perhaps most famous for his ultra-stylized New York City subway map, Massimo Vignelli (who died in 2014) had a special place in his heart for his national park brochures. “I think that of all the projects I have worked on during my long career in design, this one has affected more people than any other, and because of this, it is perhaps my favorite,” he wrote of his NPS work in his 2007 book, Vignelli From A to Z.

But the Vignellis’ aesthetic was so deep in the zeitgeist throughout the 1970s that, flipping through Parks, it’s difficult to tell when their contract began. “If you look in the ’70s, everyone used Helvetica,” Smyth said. By this point, many brochure covers featured a solid color adorned only by black or white Helvetica text. Soon after the Vignellis took over, the most common brochure cover featured a black bar with white text occupying about one-fourth of the page, and a color photo occupying the rest.

This design persisted through the end of the 1990s, and the book. “They kind of go full circle,” Smyth says of the images’ evolution from formal and straightforward, to playful and abstract, back to plain and photographic. Over the course of that history, however, “what’s inside doesn’t change very much,” Reed points out. “’You can do this, you can’t do this. Watch out for bears here.’”

That didn’t stop these papers from becoming collectors’ items. Brian Kelley found the majority of brochures on eBay, sometimes in bundles of 50 or more. The sellers had often found them among the belongings of recently deceased relatives, who had kept them as souvenirs of their visits to national parks.

Back then, “You couldn’t post it on Instagram or save it to your Pinterest board,” Reed says. “So people really cared about collecting and saving these particular pieces of that experience.”