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Your Tax Dollars Delivering Good Design

When one thinks of good graphic design, one pretty much never thinks about the work of the federal government. American graphic designers have long bemoaned the government’s lack of interest in supporting good design (and always always always hold up the Netherlands as the ideal).

I spent 10 days over the holidays on a road trip throughout the American Southwest, with the chief destinations being national parks — Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, and Petrified Forest. Perhaps in another post, I’ll discuss the travels. Here, I’m focusing on something else.

Upon entry of each park, you receive a park brochure. Overtime, you realize there’s a pattern to the brochures — black band across the top with white type, and lush imagery to draw your attention.

NPS Brochures

So, already, we’re seeing the development of a smart graphic system — bold, striking, clear, and engaging. There’s not a visitor to a national park who doesn’t want to immediately open the brochure to see what goodies await them, and the brochures rarely fail to deliver.

The Mesa Verde brochure serves as something of a standard bearer for publication design, so we’ll focus on that. When you first open the brochure, the imagery continues, depicting life when Mesa Verde was inhabited (this is a departure from the other brochures, that utilize photographs):
Mesa Verde brochure, top half

As you continue to open it fully you are given textual information explaining the park.
Mesa Verde brochure
(Click the image for an enlarged view)

Stacy was the Keeper of the Brochures (I tended to be the driver), and what she noticed pretty soon is how the information on the brochure is aligned with the large page’s folds. So, if you can’t have the whole thing open in front of you, you could choose to expose the text:
Mesa Verde Brochure, bottom half

And the same goes for the back side. You can see where the fold separates the text from the map:
Mesa Verde Brochure, back

Obviously, this isn’t happenstance. It’s a precise plan, and a remarkably aware one. While I was pleased to see a government agency capitalize on graphic identity standards such as the black bar and the imagery, I was surprised to realize that a government agency used a design system that afforded greater utility.

It turns out there’s a very good reason for this, which a wee bit of web digging unearthed.

The National Park Service’s Department of Publications has their shit together. As someone who labors to get clients to understand the value of smart, consistent design, I was delighted to click around the Publications mini-site, and see how they communicate their mission and operations.

If you click into the brochures section you see a link to “The Unigrid System”, created by Massimo Vignelli back in 1979, and still used to support good design.

I also love the section on the process by which publications are developed.

If you look at a variety of brochures, you realize that just because they’re based on the same grid system (and have other requirements for color, typography, and imagery) that it doesn’t mean a designer’s creativity is impinged. Look at the Mesa Verde and Death Valley brochures side-by-side:

Mesa Verde and Death Valley brochures, side by side
Click image to enlarge)

The Death Valley brochure is newer, utlizing color photographs as screened-out backgrounds, and playing with the grid a bit to provide a different experience. But it still basically works along the folds, and it’s clear that it’s a cousin to the Mesa Verde display.

The National Park Service faces a monumental task. How do they keep their hundreds of sites in line when it comes to a standard look and feel? Their website shows you how they attempt to manage it. The results are not perfect — across brochures you’ll see inconsistent typography, or just plain mediocre design (I’m looking at you, Grand Canyon) — but considering the scope of the problem, they perform more than admirably.

And it’s clear that they’re willing to have some fun. Typically, at the bottom of a brochure is a black bar. For Death Valley, they let the designers play with that element to communicate some valuable information:

Tale of Two Bottoms
Click to enlarge

Kudos to the National Park Service for providing us an example of a government agency that isn’t afraid of innovative design.


  1. guessed Vignelli from the first photo. He also did the IRS tax forms and the entire NY system (in the 70’s, but most of his work remains). Plus loads of big time logos and the like. For his entire career he’s used only two fonts, Helvetica, and I think Bodoni for his serif. Great stuff working with self imposed limitations. Think it was the NYT Magazine that had a photo of designers desks a few years ago. Vignelli’s was a big class conference style table, with absolutely nothing on it but a pen and pad. Quite a contrast to the creative messes of just about every other designer in the issue and that I’ve met…

  2. The brochures are very nice. They remind me of illustrations from national geographic. The photos let the parks speak for themselves, the illustrations are also great. I work for a local government agency and can say that our graphics/illustration unit is underfunded but still produces some great work. Although, the majority of it is for in house display only.

  3. I’ve been collecting these brochures for years. They are classy, extremely well designed, and extremely useful. They are the best souvenir you can acquire from a National Park.

  4. Some government agencies seem to be becoming more aware of the value of desing. The post office has contracted Carnegie Mellon’s School of Design for an elaborate bunch of work on manuals for um, how to use the post office. (press release)

    I saw some of the process for this, and it had an awful lot to do with understanding how and where the information would be used.

    Elsewhere, things continue to suck. Anyway, thanks a lot for the park brochure example. Nice.

  5. Peter, great topic and excellent writing. I posted a link back here from BrainFuel.

  6. These publications are always informative, and well done. It’s inspiring and refreshing to know that good design can survive. Great discussion on this, Mr. Merholz.

  7. I’m glad to hear your experience of these wonderfully-designed artifacts. Mullet and Sano discussed them as examples of good design in their book Designing Visual Interfaces.

  8. Thank you, I work for the National Parks Publications and your comments made our designers and editors smile. They work very hard and are great people to work with. We thought your comments to be darling, superior and wise.

  9. Can anyone suggest a good way of displaying and preserving these brochures? I’ve collected quite a few of them, but haven’t found a way to hold them. They’re all just in a pile at the moment … :-Can anyone suggest a good way of displaying and preserving these brochures? I’ve collected quite a few of them, but haven’t found a way to hold them. They’re all just in a pile at the moment … :-

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