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Caleb Heidel is a graphic designer at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). In 2018, Heidel was tapped to design new branding for NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission. He shares how he drew inspiration for a design that encapsulates the objectives of the first ever planetary defense test mission.
Part of my work as a graphic designer at APL involves brand design, which is equally creative and strategic. Typically, a designer will meet with stakeholders to gather information, and then set out on a journey to define the essence of their product. The designer will obsess over creating a graphic mark for that product – and determine its voice by selecting colors and fonts.
The initial effort will result in a brand guide, which is a document describing how the fonts, colors and logo variations should be used. By producing a brand guide, the designer ensures a consistent product "voice" across all media. A well-defined brand is especially important for space science missions, where the demand for graphics and media is very high. Not only do we need a set of standards to reference - media organizations also need them to create media about our missions.
There were two details to DART that were iconic to me: the dual asteroid system and the modern technology required for a high-speed, precise impact. These details manifest themselves in the logo design. The DART blue symbolizes the ion propulsion system, the two circles in the icon represent the Didymos system, and the sharp "arrowhead" shape represents the spacecraft on its precise crash course. The angular shapes in the icon and geometric font in the logo are meant to reinforce the modern aesthetic.
The design process can involve hours and hours of drawing very rudimentary sketches. Having the icon and custom 'DART' text appear visually related required many hours to optimize the tiny shapes that make up those elements. While constructing the round icon for the mission was the hardest part, I will say that the easiest part was choosing blue as the mission's accent color – it's iconic.
Another consideration was my own desire to evolve space branding at APL. I wanted to get away from the pictorial and move towards the symbolic. Highly complex illustrations are harder to use across different forms of media. As the first planetary defense test mission, DART will garner a lot of attention. So it's important that this brand not only be impactful and modern, but also easy to use en masse.
Beyond the mere visual design, you have to consider context. Where is this logo going to be used? Printed signs? An app? The side of a rocket? The logo should be created to look like it belongs in the environment it's placed in.
One of the biggest challenges is to avoid replicating the visual language of other space-related brands or media. Many popular designs have already been created in the realm of space exploration. The DART brand had to be a nod to space without causing viewers to be reminded of some other mission.
Solid construction is the most important aspect of creating a logo. The angles and shapes that make up the logo need to be established with tremendous care – there's no room for sloppiness!
My first goal was to tackle the DART logo. I began this task by embarking on a nonstop sketching spree. Typically, after my first meeting with a client to discuss a branding project, I don't really know what the logo will look like ... it's the process of sketching that allows me to discover solutions and refine ideas. For DART, I filled about 10 notebook pages with logo options. After settling on a few good sketches, I digitized two or three concepts and discussed them with the mission team. From there, I narrowed the options to one logo and determined the colors and font. After many hours of refinement, I sent off the final concept and got approval from all the right people.
With the logo established, I completed the project by designing the DART brand guide. Starting with a sketchbook, I was able to create a graphic mark that will go on the side of a rocket – boom!
A visual brand connects a product to the public; this is true for everything from a coffeeshop to a space mission. If we can elevate the way our space technology is branded, I believe people will think of APL when they think of space exploration.
Designing the DART brand was a pleasure. And now, the mission has a relatively consistent voice across all media -- from signs and shirts to websites and presentations, it's been a lot of fun seeing the DART team unify around it! I look forward to the next opportunity to create thoughtful, expressive, thorough brands for APL space missions. They deserve it.