Bruce Blackburn, a graphic designer whose modern and minimalist logos were anchored in the nation’s consciousness, including the four bold red letters for NASA known as “Worm” and the bicentennial star of the 1976 American Revolution, died in Arvada on February 1 , Colorado. near Denver. He was 82 years old.
The death in a nursing home was confirmed by his daughter Stephanie McFadden.
In a more than 40 year design career, Mr. Blackburn has developed branded images for clients such as 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 concept of the technological future itself .
In 1974, his little New York design company, Danne & Blackburn, was barely a year old and eager for a big project when he and partner Richard Danne of the Federal Graphics Improvement Program were approached to rename the classic NASA logo. which depicted a patriotic red chevron hovering over the stars.
Known as “The Meatball,” the original logo wasn’t exactly modern and instead inspired a vintage Buck Rogers aerospace sensibility. After the world’s eyes suddenly turned to the agency after the moon landing in 1969, NASA looked for a more forward-looking image.
“You were completely unprepared for that kind of attention,” said Blackburn in Blackburn (2016), a short documentary about him. “Their unpreparedness fell back to the level at which they presented themselves to the public.”
NASA introduced the worm in 1975. As a slender series of winding red letters, it quickly became the symbol of a limitless space age that lay before us.
“We got what we wanted,” said Blackburn. Everyone we showed it to immediately said, ‘Oh, I know what this is. I know you. You are really great. You are at the forefront 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 supposed to improve authorities’ morale.
Mr. Blackburn and other designers complained about the choice. “They said, ‘This is a crime, you cannot do that,” he said. “‘ This is national treasure and you are throwing it in the trash. ‘”
“His design sensibility was offended by what happened,” said his daughter. “He found the meatball clumsy and sloppy and not representative of the future.”
Creating the symbol of the bicentenary of the American Revolution was another major federal commission for the Blackburn Company in the 1970s. The result was a soft red, white, and blue star that gave patriotic themes a modern aesthetic. In 1976 the logo appeared on all stamps, from postage stamps to coffee mugs to government buildings.
“They say there are moments in life that are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” said Blackburn. “And I have two of them.”
He also worked on logos for the 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 centenary logo. President Ronald Reagan recognized his work with a Presidential Design Award in 1984. In the mid-1980s he was President of the American Institute of Graphic Arts.
In the documentary, Mr. Blackburn described his style as “programmatic” – design that “encourages public images that are permanent”. He added, “The art in design is to solve problems and then give them visual life.”
Bruce Nelson Blackburn was born on June 2, 1938 in Dallas and grew up in Evansville, Indiana, on the Ohio River. His father, Buford Blackburn, was an electrical engineer. His mother, Ruby (Caraway) Blackburn, was a housewife and real estate agent. As a boy, Bruce spent hours painting and drawing in his bedroom. In his youth he formed a Dixieland band and won state music competitions with French horn.
He graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in design and served in the Navy as a communications officer.
In the late 1960s, Mr. Blackburn had moved to New York to work for the Chermayeff & Geismar design firm. He later left to start Danne & Blackburn. In the 1980s he separated from Mr. Danne and started his own company Blackburn & Associates on Park Avenue. He married Tina Harsham in 1979.
In addition to his daughter, Mrs. McFadden, Mr. Blackburn is survived by his wife; two sons, David Blackburn and Nick Sontag; a sister, Sandra Beeson; and eight grandchildren.
He and his wife moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico a decade ago and settled in Lakewood, Colorado in 2017. An important project for him was the design of logos for two episcopal churches of which he was a longtime parishioner: Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Weston, Connecticut, and St. Bedes Episcopal Church in Santa Fe.
Last year, Mr Blackburn was surprised when NASA revived the worm logo and placed it on the side of a SpaceX rocket that was launched into orbit that spring. The fate of the worm had always remained a tender subject for him.
“I think he was happy to know that his design was finally back in space,” said his daughter.