A few lines, one world: Gary Anderson and the Universal Recycling Symbol
- Josh Baines
- 10 July 2019
22 April 1970 gave us Earth Day, the now annual event that fights for a greener, cleaner planet for all.
Founded by the improbably named environmental activist Gaylord Nelson, it was a direct response to a gigantic oil spill, which had seen an estimated 100,000 barrels of crude oil soak the shores of Santa Barbara, California, the previous year.
Aware of the increasing mobilisation of the US’s ever-growing student population as agents for change, Nelson knew that if he could get them on board with his (for the time) radical views on pollution and the importance of finding environmentally friendly solutions to emerging ecological problems, the nation’s politicians and policy makers would have to pay attention. In theory, at least.
As recent placard-heavy Extinction Rebellion protests have demonstrated, sometimes the best way to get the world’s attention is with a bit of immediately intriguing design.
Enter the Container Corporation of America. Then the biggest manufacturer of corrugated boxes in the US, the CCA was spearheaded by art-loving industrialist Walter Paepcke and had a reputation for being at the forefront of corporate graphic design.
Just months after the first Earth Day, American college campuses found themselves plastered with a poster that asked aspiring designers with an interest in the environment to produce a symbol for future use on products made from recycled paper. Said symbol would be a public domain design, meaning that any company that wished to make it clear that they considered recycling a vital part of their manufacturing process could do so simply, easily and clearly.
Walter and his CCA colleagues had recruited an all-star cast to judge the competition, with the likes of Saul Bass and influential IBM designer Eliot Noyes sifting through the 500 or so entries.
The prize was $2,500 and a fellowship to attend the 1970 International Design Conference at Aspen. The event was marked by strife and protest, with actions being staged by young designers who demanded a greater industry-wide engagement with social, political and environmental issues.
The old guard awarded the prize to a young, relatively unknown urbanist and architect by the name of Gary Anderson.
As immediately recognisable as Warhol’s cans of soup or the five rings of the Olympic Games, Anderson’s winning entry is one of the 20th Century’s most iconic symbols.
With its endlessly looping trio of arrows, the Universal Recycling Symbol comes on like the work of a green-fingered M.C. Escher. Minimal, precise and trippy, it encapsulates a post-hippy visual landscape whilst acting as a brilliant example of how design can be used to hammer home just how important the confluence of form and function can be. Using just a few spare lines, Gary Anderson encapsulated the fundamentals of recycling, producing a logo that ably demonstrates just how vital it is to reuse the finite resources we have at our disposal.
The design process was simple and an interview with the Financial Times saw Anderson admitting: “It didn’t take me long to come up with my design: a day or two.” He added: “When I sat down to enter the competition, I thought back to a field trip in elementary school to a newspaper office where we’d seen how paper was fed over rollers as it was printed. I drew on that image – the three arrows in my final sketch look like strips of folded-over paper.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly considering that Anderson eschewed immediately pursuing a career in corporate graphic design in favour of using his prize money to find a course of study in social science from the University of Stockholm, the now-ubiquitous symbol slipped its designer’s mind. It wasn’t until he deplaned one day in Amsterdam that he was made aware of the global possibilities the Universal Recycling Symbol had.
“It was on a big, igloo-shaped recycling bin,” he recalled back in 2012. “And it was bigger than a beach ball! I was really struck. I hadn’t thought about that symbol for years and here it was hitting me in the face.”
Five decades on, the question is: What has actually been the legacy of this renowned symbol?
Daan Rietbergen: Recycle(d) (Via Two Degrees Creative/Daan Rietbergen)
Joseph Lebus: Recycle(d) (Via Two Degrees Creative/Joseph Lebus)
For Ryan McGill, its legacy has been enormous. Earlier this year, the Glaswegian, London-based designer launched Two Degrees Creative, a collaborative platform for climate change solutions.
Inspired by Anderson, Recycle(d) is an ongoing project set up by Two Degrees, which sees established and up-and-coming creatives submitting contemporary takes on the work the CCA commissioned nearly 50 years ago.
The likes of Supermundane, Joseph Lebus, Adaptive Capacity and DIA have already given environmentalism’s most famous Mobius strip modern re-rubs.
Describing the Anderson logo as “a complete success, in a graphic sense”, Ryan is full of praise for what he sees as “a symbol that is universally recognisable no matter what continent you’re on”. However, he admits that, in all likelihood, it’s only in the last decade or so that its social impact has really been felt in earnest.
The original idea of Two Degrees was to bring together the creative industries to combat climate change. “With creatives being so connected to consumers and brands, the community has the capability to make change in a variety of ways,” he says. “And with collaboration being a common tool at the moment, there was an opportunity to engage the creative community with climate change through open briefs. Which then kicked off the idea for a collaborative platform for climate change solutions.”
Two Degrees was also set up to act as a hub for climate change information in a digestible way, contextualising facts and figures, also connecting the wider community with maps for local initiatives and ways to make a personal impact, Ryan tells us. “There will also be various ways for the creative community to connect and collaborate through the later versions of TDC, not only through a continuation of the open briefs but also larger projects, using collaborative teams of creatives from various fields.”
In a pleasingly cyclical twist, McGill had his interest piqued in the same way as the grandaddy of green logo design. “Weltformat was celebrating its tenth year with a poster competition, Now What?! – about climate change and what’s to come,” he recalls. “I had designed a poor effort of a poster with a half decent idea behind it, showing a rough timeline of what happens when we pass the tipping point. It went absolutely nowhere, but I still felt good about the idea of using design for the benefit of climate change.”
And so he started Two Degrees, calling for submissions via Instagram. A few months in and Ryan’s surprised on a daily basis by the amount of work he’s being sent, and also by how collaborative things are starting to become.
Factor in the fashion business – the second-biggest polluter on Earth after the global oil industry – and it is evident that the creative world causes its fair share of climate-warping problems.
“Many small things can be done to help combat climate change within the creative sector,” says Irish graphic designer Duane Dalton. One of the early respondents to the Two Degrees brief, Duane admits to finding the post-Anderson universe of recycling symbols somewhat confusing. He argues that a similar approach to the “traffic light” system we see in food packaging – a mandatory bit of information-oriented design which indicates the levels of fat, saturates, sugar and salt in everything from potato waffles to cereal bars – would give consumers an easier way of working out what can actually be recycled and how we can go about doing it.
“The reality of commercial design is that we catalyse consumption,” says Mitchell Gillies, a designer at Glasgow-based Warriors Studio. The studio’s submission for Two Degrees was one of the first that McGill received, using the language of Andersonian graphic design to dissect what they describe as “the reality of systemic inconsistencies” inherent to contemporary mass recycling policy in the face of China’s recent refusal to take (and recycle) American waste.
“We’re excited to see how projects like Two Degrees and others galvanise the creative community, and we’re cautiously optimistic about the positive role design could play in building a better world,” Gillies adds.
For New York-based design studio DIA, the kind of collaborative approach to sustainable creativity fostered by McGill’s Anderson-inspired platform represents a step in the right direction for the industry. “We try to partner with clients that want to make a difference. It’s a lofty goal and some may not be as direct as others, but at least we can try to get a sense of their day-to-day operations and attitudes,” says DIA’s Meg Donohoe.
And like pretty much anyone who has spent time considering their own role in the climate crisis, DIA has a few edicts they stick to for the purposes of an individual environmental ethical code: “We do not print out work unless totally necessary. All of our reviews are digital. Instead of going out for coffee we make it here at the studio. Our space is only as big as we need. When it’s sunny we keep the lights off. Plastic water bottles are not allowed. This may seem negligible, but if we all started to think about the small things, we could save a lot.”
Etienne Philippe: Recycle(d) (Via Two Degrees Creative/Etienne Philippe)
Jon Banthorpe: Recycle(d) (Via Two Degrees Creative/Jon Banthorpe)
There is an increasing awareness, and not just amongst the members of the design community who have seen and responded to the Two Degrees brief, that creativity is and will remain a tool of vital importance in the fight to curb rising carbon emissions, temperature levels and other major ecological indicators that things have gone very wrong here on Earth.
As we’ve seen in recent weeks on It’s Nice That, the tool is one that can be handled in a variety of ways, from following bananas across the globe to the crafting of a new material-minded lexicon.
And as a pure distillation of an idea, a concept, or a value system, it doesn’t get more direct than a symbol, and few symbols in history have been as purposeful and arguably important as the one that Gary Anderson put a few hours work into back in the late 1960s.
Considered as a piece of design, Anderson’s logo was, and remains, a success. Devoid of any language, it boils a hugely complex and important concept into its absolute essence, giving everyone around the world an accessible and understandable bit of visual vocabulary.
Of course, recycling is not a one-size-fits-all process. The recycling and reuse of different materials involves vastly different processes and procedures. In turn this means that the name given to the Anderson logo ended up being a slight misnomer. Different industries and different territories have their own logos, many of which bear a striking resemblance to Anderson’s 1970 original – however divergent their uses may be. Even the Coca-Cola Company – which produces around 100 billion plastic bottles a year, if Greenpeace are to be believed – has its own unique, Coke-specific recycling logo.
Despite that, things are getting better, and we’re more aware of the consequences of a collective refusal to take recycling seriously than ever before. In an age of increasing climate literacy, we’re beginning to grasp the fact that recycling is an immediate and easily understood means of engaging with the climate crisis, more aware of how it plays a fundamental role in the need to take individual responsibility for our own actions whilst also pushing for collective culpability on the part of governments and businesses.
So next time you make the effort to put a tin in the right bin at home or the remnants of a climate protest banner in the correct receptacle at the end of another long day of marching, think of Gary Anderson and those few little lines that wanted to change the world forever.
This article is part of Response and Responsibility, a new series of stories about the ongoing climate crisis and what the creative industries can do about it.
All via Two Degrees Creative
About the Author
Josh Baines joined It's Nice That from July 2018 to July 2019 as News Editor, covering new high-profile projects, awards announcements, and everything else in between.