Exploring Nasa and SpaceX’s Launch America graphic identity
We speak to Nasa’s Paul Wizikowski, creative director for Launch America, and Jeff Jetton from design agency Oxcart Assembly about this epic and historic project.
- Jenny Brewer
- 23 June 2020
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
On 30 May, Nasa and SpaceX launched a manned rocket from Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Taking two astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, into orbit to dock at the International Space Station. As the first American flight into orbit since 2011, and the first time American astronauts have gone into space aboard a commercial spaceship (designed and built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX), Launch America (as it has been titled) was a historic event watched by hundreds of millions people worldwide. Behind the brand identity and motion graphics for the broadcast was Nasa executive producer and creative director Paul Wizikowski, who worked closely with agency Oxcart Assembly to build a visual world that celebrated the event’s distinctive importance in spaceflight history.
“The task four months ago was a daunting one,” Wizikowski tells It’s Nice That. “How do you take the history of Nasa and present it for a new generation of viewers, in a new era of spaceflight, in a manner that lets this moment be the ‘bigger than the sum of its parts’ moment that we knew it would be.” Oxcart created what Wizikowski refers to as “a foundation of art” and graphics, then “infused it with all of the history and purpose we could weave into it,” to showcase the mission as “the next ‘first’ in a storied history of firsts”. To add complication, the identity was to be adopted by four different TV production teams, plus a myriad of graphics and comms teams across Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center, Nasa Headquarters in DC and SpaceX in Hawthorne, California. As such, the identity guidelines are comprehensive to say the least, detailing every aspect of how the launch should be represented visually, from the typeface (Estricta) to colour palette (Nasa Meatball red and blue, plus white and grey) to how animations, illustrations, logos, photography, footage, and more should be implemented consistently.
“The aims for the Launch America visuals were to take this existing tag line within Nasa’s Commercial Crew Program and wrap our arms around it,” Wizikowski continues. “The analogy that really helped crystallise what Launch America as a brand would be, is the NFL’s Monday Night Football. Just as the NFL as a brand exists above this MNF branding, so does Nasa. But just like MNF has games or in our case launches that change week to week, this MNF brand still has a place as a brand to help put a button on what the kind of mission is and what the viewer can expect for a broadcast. Nasa’s missions will change from launch to launch… we will have times where SpaceX is our partner and other times in the near future we will have Boeing with their Starliner vehicle as our partner. The common thread then is Launch America. This is the branding that Nasa will use to showcase these crewed missions to the world. I want people to feel the sense of awe and anticipation when they see the Launch America branding as one feels when you know it’s Monday night!”
Jeff Jetton, principal at Oxcart Assembly, describes the huge task at hand when starting this project, and how the team honed the creative direction for the motion design: “Tightening 60-or-so years of not only American History, but really human history and showcasing the extreme limits of human achievement, synthesising that down into 60 seconds, that was a daunting challenge. It was a delicate process of creative and artistic direction where we wanted to bring out a patriotic spirit because it is Launch America, that IS the brand, but we didn't want it to feel cheesy or overly anthemic,” Jetton says, “where it would distract from the deeper meaning of human capability nor from the near-impossible feats that the NASA teams in particular have and continue to pull off.
“That being said, I personally found myself skewing toward a sort of personal pridefulness in the American-ness of the project. Sifting through hundreds of hours of footage of Americans building and engineering and creating these realities and actualising what was, for thousands of years, something that was only dreamt of, it was virtually impossible not to be both inspired and influenced by that American spirit in aesthetic.”
In motion graphics, this manifested in the use of 2.5D Parallax image treatments, which motion designer Erik Loften used to add depth to photos from Nasa’s Apollo era and became a signature element to the branding. Through illustration and animation, Oxcart visually referenced schematics of spacecraft, rockets and other technical objects using line drawings that look like engineer plans. The score for the title sequence was created with Brendan Canty, which Jetton says was “a very important element in retaining that delicate balance of paying respect to the human/American/Nasa achievement,” and created, in himself and the team, “waves of prideful or patriotic, or hopeful emotions”.
Wizikowski picks out some of his highlights as the title sequence, the vertical timeline detailing the step-by-step events up to launch, and the screen saver animation that animates a loop of the Launch America logo (designed in-house at Nasa) to the Nasa Meatball logo to the SpaceX logo.
Another facet to this epic project saw the team (including Jetton’s mum Janice) spending countless hours wading through Nasa archive reels, to understand the history and find assets to thread through the campaign. “It was a lot of work, but also an incredible experience for both of them (and all of us). It's almost unbelievable how much beautiful footage exists and documents the achievements that the people of Nasa have undertaken over the past sixty or so years,” Jetton concludes.