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 on February 1 at a nursing home in Arvada, Colorado, near Denver. He was 82 years old.
The death was confirmed by his daughter Stephanie McFadden.
Mr. Blackburn’s famous career in design over 40 years has included developing images for clients such as IBM, Mobil and the Museum of Modern Art. But best known for the NASA worm, which has become synonymous with space exploration and the technological concept of the future has become 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,” it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge, but evoked a vintage aerospace sensibility that can be seen in science fiction comics like Buck Rogers. With the eyes of the world suddenly turned on the agency after the moon landing in 1969, NASA wanted to adopt a modern 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.”
In 1975 NASA introduced the worm, a slender string of coiled red letters, and the logo quickly became a tangible symbol of a limitless space age that lay ahead.
“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, several years after the Challenger exploded, NASA dropped the worm and revived the meatball in a decision that was supposed to improve corporate morale.
Mr. Blackburn and other designers complained about the choice. They said, ‘This is a crime. You can’t do that, ”he said. “‘This is a national treasure and you toss it in the trash can.”
“His design sensibility was offended by what happened,” said his daughter. “He found the meatball clumsy and sloppy and not representative of the future.”
In addition to developing the worm, Mr. Blackburn served on another major federal commission in the 1970s creating the symbol for the bicentenary of the American Revolution. Its design – a soft star of red, white, and blue stripes that blended a modern aesthetic with patriotic themes – was ubiquitous in 1976 and appeared on everything from postage stamps to coffee mugs to government buildings.
“They say there are moments in life that are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” he said. “And I have two of them.”
Mr. Blackburn also worked on logos for the US 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, he 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 broker. As a boy, Bruce spent hours painting and drawing in his bedroom. As a teenager he formed a Dixieland band and won state music competitions with French horn.
In 1961 he graduated from the University of Cincinnati with a BS in Design. In the Navy he served as a communications officer.
In the late 1960s, Mr. Blackburn had moved to New York to work for the design company Chermayeff & Geismar and then left to start Danne & Blackburn. He married Tina Harsham in 1979. Mr. Blackburn separated from Mr. Danne in the 1980s and started his own company Blackburn & Associates on Park Avenue.
In addition to his daughter, Mr. 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 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 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 happy to know,” said his daughter, “that his design was finally back in space.”