Bruce Blackburn, designer of ubiquitous NASA logo, dies at 82

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Bruce Blackburn, designer of ubiquitous NASA logo, dies at 82
The NASA logo that is known as the "worm" designed by Bruce Blackburn.

by Alex Vadukul

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Bruce Blackburn, a graphic designer whose modern and minimalist logos became ingrained in the nation’s consciousness, including the four bold red letters for NASA that is known as the “worm,” and the 1976 American Revolution Bicentennial star, died Feb. 1 at a nursing home in Arvada, Colorado, near Denver. He was 82.

The death was confirmed by his daughter, Stephanie McFadden.

Blackburn’s illustrious career in design over 40 years involved developing imagery for clients like IBM, Mobil and the Museum of Modern Art. But he is best known for the NASA worm, which has become synonymous with space exploration and the technological concept of the future itself.

In 1974, his small New York-based design firm, Danne & Blackburn, was barely a year old and eager for a big project when he and his partner, Richard Danne, were approached by the Federal Graphics Improvement Program to rebrand NASA’s classic logo, which depicted a patriotic red chevron soaring across the stars. Known as “the meatball,” it wasn’t exactly cutting edge, instead evoking a vintage sensibility of space travel seen in science-fiction comics like Buck Rogers. With the eyes of the world suddenly upon the agency in 1969 after the moon landing, NASA wanted to embrace a modern image.

“They were totally unprepared for that kind of attention,” Blackburn said in “Blackburn” (2016), a short documentary about him. “Their unpreparedness descended to the level of how they presented themselves to the public.”

In 1975, NASA introduced the worm, a sleek sequence of winding red letters, and the logo quickly became a tangible symbol of a boundless space age that lay ahead.

“We did get what we set out to accomplish,” Blackburn said. “Anybody we showed it to immediately said, ‘Oh I know what that is. I know them. They’re really great. They’re right on the leading edge of everything.’ ”

But in 1992, a few years after the Challenger explosion, NASA dropped the worm and revived the meatball in a decision that was said to be intended to improve company morale.

Blackburn and other designers lamented the choice. “They said, ‘This is a crime. You cannot do this,’” he said. “‘This is a national treasure and you’re throwing it in the trash bin.”

“His design sensibility was offended by what happened,” his daughter said. “He thought the meatball was clumsy and sloppy and not representative of the future.”

In addition to designing the worm, Blackburn worked on another big federal commission in the 1970s, creating the symbol for the American Revolution’s Bicentennial celebration. His design — a soft star composed of red, white, and blue stripes that combined a modern aesthetic with patriotic themes — was ubiquitous by 1976, appearing on everything from stamps to coffee mugs to government buildings.

“They say in life there are moments that are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” he said. “And I got two of them.”

Blackburn also worked on logos for the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers. In the 1990s, he was a finalist in the International Olympic Committee’s design competition for a centennial logo. President Ronald Reagan recognized his work with a Presidential Design Award in 1984. He served as the president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts in the mid-1980s.

In the documentary, he described his style as “programmatic” — design that “fosters imagery in the public’s eye that is permanent.” He added, “The art in design is problem solving and then giving it visual life.”

Bruce Nelson Blackburn was born June 2, 1938, in Dallas and raised in Evansville, Indiana, on the Ohio River. His father, Buford Blackburn, was an electrical engineer. His mother, Ruby (Caraway) Blackburn, was a homemaker and a real estate agent. As a boy, Bruce spent hours painting and drawing in his bedroom, and in his teens, he formed a Dixieland band and won state music competitions playing the French horn.

He graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a B.S. in design in 1961. In the Navy, he served as a communications officer.

By the late 1960s, Blackburn had moved to New York to work for the design firm Chermayeff & Geismar, and later left to found Danne & Blackburn. He married Tina Harsham in 1979. Blackburn parted ways with Danne in the 1980s and started his own firm, Blackburn & Associates, on Park Avenue.

In addition to his daughter, Blackburn is survived by his wife; two sons, David Blackburn and Nick Sontag; a sister, Sandra Beeson; and eight grandchildren.

He moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his wife a decade ago and they settled in Lakewood, Colorado, in 2017. A personal project that became important to him was designing logos for two Episcopal Churches of which he was a longtime congregant, Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Weston, Connecticut, and St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Santa Fe.

Last year, Blackburn was surprised when NASA revived the worm logo to appear on the side of a SpaceX rocket that launched into orbit that spring. The fate of the worm had always remained a tender subject for him.

“I think he was glad to know,” his daughter said, “that his design was finally back in space.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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