Accept & Proceed: Grace-FO Display
“We try to find the story, the human angle amongst all the data, in every brief that comes through the door,’’ says Matthew Jones, the creative director at London-based agency Accept & Proceed. “We’re constantly asking, how do we find the point of resonance? That’s what we build around. We want the work to go beyond the creative community.”
We meet Matthew and his colleague, Nigel Cottier, a designer, on an unseasonably bright Friday afternoon at their studio, tucked amongst the mechanics’ yards of a scruffy side-street in deepest Hackney. Conversation briefly turns to the recent tragic death of the Opportunity Mars Rover, the vehicle that had spent the past 15 years exploring our closest planetary cousin before finding itself enveloped in an enormous dust storm in June 2018. Opportunity (or “Oppy”) never recovered and his operatives pulled the plug on the mission earlier last month.
“That poor little thing,” says Matthew. “The poor thing. It’s so sad.”
It isn’t every Friday that It’s Nice That finds itself feeling oddly emotional over the demise of an interplanetary probe. But it also isn’t every Friday that we find ourselves sat down with a creative duo that was tasked by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) with developing a typeface to help everyone from school children to senators understand how water moves across the globe.
That typeface – Grace-FO Display – is built from two sets of strokes, each representing one of two satellites, and was created at the behest of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Now, for the uninitiated – which was us until Matthew and Nigel invited us round for a flat white and a gawp at one of the most interesting, engaging and educational projects we’ve been lucky enough to see for quite some time – it’s worth remembering that by and large, Nasa’s day-to-day operations are split in two.
Roughly half of its 18,000 assembled scientists, engineers, and astronauts devote their time to the manned missions, which see a relatively steady stream of human beings being pinged up into the dark, deep purple of outer space. The rest work for the JPL. Nasa describes the JPL as “the leading US center for robotic exploration of the solar system,” noting that its 19 spacecraft and 10 major instruments are “carrying out planetary, Earth science and space-based astronomy missions”.
“They’re out in Pasadena, California,” says Matthew. “That’s where they build the probes that end up on Mars, and the satellites that orbit around the solar system.”
It’s also where the story of 2019’s most intriguing typeface begins.
In 2002, NASA and the German Aerospace Center worked together on a project which aimed to study climate, geology and oceans here on Earth through looking at anomalies in planetary gravity. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), which ran in its first phase until October 2017, saw twin satellites orbit the globe.
Launched in May 2018, Grace-1 and Grace-2 are floating somewhere above someone’s head right this second. Located 137 miles apart, the satellites are constantly pinging one another microwave signals which measure the distance between them. Their mission is simple: As Nasa puts it, the Grace’s exist to monitor “changes in underground water storage, the amount of water in large lakes and rivers, soil moisture, ice sheets and glaciers, and sea level caused by the addition of water to the ocean”.
The information that they gather (which, Nigel is at pains to stress, consists of “a lot of data”) is eventually used by Nasa operatives to generate regular maps that show the Earth’s average gravity field – and these maps allow us to see how masses of water move around the planet.
Droughts can be monitored, flood potential measured, and global groundwater changes tracked with unerring and slightly uncanny accuracy. All thanks to a pair of ungainly looking trapezoidal satellites which zip above our planet chirping away to one another all day, every day.
Accept & Proceed’s typeface, which in the best way possible looks a little like the visions of the near-future that seemed to fill the menu screens of a million PlayStation games in the late 90s, sees the team translating the science behind the mission into a typeface. “We saw the project as us giving Grace her voice,” says Matthew. “We looked at how the two twin satellites would only work when they were in harmony with each other, Grace’s voice had to have this same ‘twin relationship’. We worked on a display font that was made up from two elements shaped like the satellites, both vertical and horizontal – when combined together they formed the typeface, and voice that Grace ‘talks’ with.”
Nigel adds: “The information is only readable through both satellites so therefore we created a font which has two sets of strokes, neither of which is legible independently, but brought together they become the font.”
Incredibly simple but bloody clever — a phrase that fits the Accept & Proceed ethos to a tee — the typeface is being used in perpetuity by Nasa. In addition to being to go-to when it comes to publicising the work that the Grace’s are carrying out via social media, and print collateral, a series of custom built screens housed in the Pasadena complex allow visitors to get a glimpse of the past, present, and future of the mission. Form follows function.
“We worked with them to work out how to show the data,” Nigel says. “Every month they’ll take bits of data and show it on those screens.”
Those screens take the form of replica, scaled-down versions of the satellites, giving visitors to the complex a greater understanding of both how the Grace project works physically and what exactly it is they’re up there to find. All dressed up in that gloriously angular typeface.
The pair worked across timezones – with Matthew stationed in the JPL’s Californian research hub, while Nigel held down the fort in Hackney – to produce a usable font that Nasa can then apply to any and all future visualisations of the information tracked by Grace-FO. It required a few late nights and a necessary dollop of the kind of diplomacy that has to be deployed when your client is one of the most famous and far-reaching governmental agencies in the world.
Depoliticising the project was also central to both Nasa as an organisation and Accept & Proceed as an agency tasked with translating aquifers and ice caps into legible language. The look and feel of the typeface was entirely informed by this approach, with Nigel telling us that, “With the actual design of it, we focused on how we can talk about them as a pair of instruments which talk to each other. Immediately you’re stepping outside of politics. You’re dealing with mechanisms and data, and that is what becomes important.”
For Matthew, staying politically neutral remained a relatively easy task. “It was important that the data was displayed in a clear, but non-political manner, displaying the facts without commenting on the current government’s attitude to climate change. The data will be the data, irrespective of who is in charge.
“It did bring home to us that we weren’t just working with a logo,” Matthew continues. “We were working with incredible people whose life’s work is dedicated to helping the planet for all of humanity. It was incredibly humbling and an amazing thing for us to work on. It has brought a new way of thinking to the studio.”