‘Parks’ Shows the Design History of Our National Parks
‘Parks’ chronicles the evolution of the visual identity of the national park system through its maps, pamphlets, and other informational ephemera
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In 2017, photographer and archivist Brian Kelley found a Grand Canyon National Park brochure from 1964 on eBay. The geometric illustration of warm-hued cliffs was unlike any national park literature he’d seen, prompting him to keep digging for other surprising designs. In the following months, Kelley amassed 600 maps, pamphlets, and other informational ephemera from national parks, monuments, seashores, and battlefields. The materials date back 100 years and range in style from romantic Ansel Adams–esque photography to colorful modernist illustrations.
Design-focused publisher Standards Manual, which previously worked with Kelley on a photo book of New York City Subway miscellany called New York City Transit Authority: Objects, preserved his new collection in Parks ($55). The book chronicles how the graphic identity of the national park system’s materials—often produced by anonymous, government-employed artists—has evolved over the years. “It’s a powerful visual audit of design styles throughout the past 100 years,” says graphic designer and Standard Manual co-owner Jesse Reed. “It’s interesting to watch how the interpretations of a park change over time.” The independent publisher has already sold out its first run of orders and is now taking pre-orders for shipment in March 2020.
Artists and conservationists have used visuals to preserve and protect federal lands since before the Park Service was founded in 1916. Parks opens with one of Thomas Moran’s ethereal paintings of Yellowstone, which helped convince Congress to make a decree that set aside those lands “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” creating our first national park in 1872. The book then moves chronologically through the wildly artistic, nonbureaucratic chaos that ruled Park Service documents for most of the 20th century. It concludes with brochures designed with the now familiar template implemented in the 1970s: a heavy black border with white sans serif text above a large, glossy photograph. This design standard was created by renowned Italian modernist Massimo Vignelli to accommodate a huge postwar upswing in visitorship and a corresponding increase in the need for educational materials. “The ability to communicate with absolute clarity became the mission of each printed map and brochure,” Reed says. “Not individual expression.”
But while these items were increasingly made for function, the book displays a stunning and diverse collection of design—the kind you want to frame and hang on your wall. They show vistas that are timeless, despite all that has changed around them in the past century. A 1916 brochure featuring a photograph of Rocky Mountain National Park, the park I grew up in, looks just like home. I’ve marveled at those peaks a thousand times; I swear I’ve stood under that tree.