A Lasting Impression

Communications design at the National Park Service is based on the Unigrid concept, a design program whose benefits have gone far beyond the cost savings and corporate identity goals that launched it more than twenty years ago.

Good design has legs. It lasts. For proof, one need look no further than a Braun coffee maker, a building designed by Louis Kahn, or a brochure from the National Park Service (NPS). Each remains as fresh - and as functional - today as it was when originally designed.

More than 20 years have passed since Vincent Gleason, former Chief of Publications for the NPS, asked Massimo Vignelli to work with the NPS design staff to develop the graphics program that revolutionized the NPS's entire approach to publications. How the Unigrid program, as it has come to be called, has expanded and evolved is indeed the stuff of good design stories and winning business strategies.

At the heart of the Unigrid program's longevity is the fact that it is an open framework, not a fixed formula. There is room for creativity on the part of the many designers, both in-house and contract, who work with it. This is essential for an organization as content- driven as the National Park Service, whose goal is to communicate not just superficial facts about a site, but to "excavate the invisible truth."

With Unigrid, the Publications Division's design and editorial staff can focus on working with park interpreters to identify the real essence of a site by recreating scenes from a prior time or depicting life forms, concepts or relationships not readily apparent to park visitors. It is information enriched by insight. The NPS wants people to understand why a site is special, where it fits in our natural, political or social history, why it is worthy of preservation. These goals constitute the mission of every NPS employee, of every map, brochure, wayside exhibit, video and visitor center. The Unigrid system fosters this mission.

Changes to the program over two decades have been surprisingly limited. Type sizes have become larger to accommodate the growing number of senior citizens. Quality has improved, due in part to changes in production and print technology that permit better color reproduction and registration in maps, photos and artwork. Beyond that, Unigrid has helped the Publications Division clarify its mission and focus on improving content, organization and overall quality. While today's brochures may look much like their predecessors at first glance, close examination uncovers a brochure that uses text, graphic elements and maps to communicate more and communicate it in a more dynamic and compelling way.

Cost savings and other benefits
The use of a strong standardized design program also has allowed the NPS to realize two other significant benefits: financial savings and a unified organizational image. Cost savings have been substantial. Economies of scale are made possible by standardized sizes and production methods, efficient use of paper, and purchasing paper in bulk. These factors coupled with the huge production quantities involved - nearly 28 million copies of folders were printed in 1995 - suggest an extremely efficient print production process.

NPS publications have a shelf life of 10-20 years, so only in the past few years has the full impact of the Unigrid program been realized. Because of the standardization of both design and print production, aided tremendously by the computer and electronic publishing, revisions can be made much more quickly and economically than before. This has been crucial in light of recent budget cuts and staff reductions.

Design serves the Publications Division in another critical way. Design has become a management tool. A strong design ethic and clear design standards have made it possible to outsource design and still achieve a unified look that meets NPS standards. Like most corporations and organizations, the Park Service is no stranger to downsizing. The media divisions are located in the Interpretive Design Center (IDC) in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. From a peak of 272, staff here is down to 168 and will be reduced further by the close of the century.

In the same way that the Unigrid program allows the IDC to outsource design, it has made it possible for parks to produce additional, coordinated materials on their own. This has proved an important benefit, as each park has many topics, issues and short-term events that require smaller publications to complement the approximately 400 official NPS folders, handbooks and posters now in print.

A compatible system of site bulletins, based on Unigrid concepts but adapted to one- and two-color work on photocopiers or for quick-print production, was developed, along with courses to teach park interpreters how to produce supplementary publications on their own and how to work with outside designers and printers. Instructors have included Division designers, editors and map makers, all of whom have raised design consciousness throughout the system.

The past twenty years also have seen the expansion of the Unigrid concept to NPS wayside exhibits posted along trails and next to important sites of natural and cultural features. Clear design principles regarding type, colors, materials and content have reduced production costs, while bringing a unified corporate identity to this signage. Recognition of NPS signage in remote areas may in turn raise awareness and protection of conservation and cultural heritage areas.

How Unigrid began
When Vince Gleason first talked to Massimo Vignelli about working with the NPS in 1976, he had little idea just how far-reaching the program would be. Gleason, credited with spearheading and shepherding the Park Service's revolutionary design program, came to the NPS in the 1960's. His first steps focused on reducing the Service's massive print production budget by moving to single-color covers and smaller sizes. He then turned to Vignelli for help in finding a way to allow designers to focus more on content, not reinvent the wheel with each piece. The result was Unigrid.

The impact was immediate. Standardization of sizes and production techniques cut per-unit folder costs. The new and highly distinctive look began to be recognized and applauded by park visitors and NPS employees. Originally focused on brochures, the program was soon expanded to encompass guide books. The NPS has 369 separate park sites as "customers," each with its own unique message to promote and, at times, an understandably chauvinistic desire to have its publications be distinctive. Bringing unity, consistency and a corporate identity to such a divergent base was, and remains today, no small achievement.

The Unigrid program has received numerous awards. It was among the honorees in first Presidential Awards for Design Excellence in 1984. It has been featured in publications and included in design and mapping exhibits here and abroad. Statue of Liberty Centennial publications won a Federal Design Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988, and the NPS won an American Institute of Graphic Arts Design Leadership Award in 1990.

Lessons as well as awards
These awards are well deserved. The program's achievements have continued and broadened over time. In retrospect, they also communicate important lessons and messages. First, design can make an immediate impact, but don't discredit it by calling it a quick fix. The benefits of good design are ongoing and, in most cases, design yields a return that outpaces the initial investment.

Second, good design requires continued support. The NPS was fortunate that the core group of designers, editors and cartographers remained on board through the program's early years. A number of the IDC's managers today are designers who have worked with Unigrid program since its inception.

The NPS program brings a third message to organizations with substantial communication programs. Good design can bring down production costs and keep them under control. It is the only way to produce many pieces involving many designers and maintain any degree of consistency or adherence to design standards. At a time when staffs have been, and continue to be reduced, design indeed makes it possible to do more with less.

Today, as in 1976, the Unigrid program continues to generate both cost savings and the creative energy to imbue its communications with visual and intellectual appeal. The design framework has enabled the NPS to focus on a story and tell it with impact. Design has brought a recognized and respected look to the world's largest park system. It has allowed the Publications Division at the IDC to maintain quality in the face of downsizing. With the extension of the program to Wayside Exhibits, the Unigrid program has, through its emphasis on design as a communication and management tool, helped broaden awareness of conservation and cultural heritage areas. The design program begun a quarter century ago has obviously made a lasting impression on the NPS communications process and on our own understanding and enjoyment of the natural and historic sites that are our heritage.