A Brief History of the Unigrid

Clara Barton Unigrid with red background

From atomic bombs to zooplankton, from Ice Age migrations to 21st-century immigration, Unigrids are on the front lines of storytelling in the NPS.

For almost as long as there have been national parks, there have been park brochures. As the National Park System grew—along with the need for publications—the wide variety of formats, fonts, and folding methods made it increasingly difficult to keep up with demand. In 1977 Publications chief Vincent Gleason sought a more efficient and cost-effective approach. He enlisted the expertise of modernist designer Massimo Vignelli, who had recently won acclaim for New York subway signage and maps, and Unigrid was born.

The Unigrid is not just another template. It is a comprehensive graphic design system that standardizes formatting and production, allowing the designers, writers, and cartographers to focus on content and creativity while conveying a strong visual identity for the agency.

Unigrid Fun Facts

  • The basic building blocks are 4- by 8.25-inch panels (sections created by the fold lines).
  • Pages can be one or two panels wide (“A” and “B” formats) and up to six panels long, allowing for a variety of shapes and sizes. These measurements are calculated to get the most out of a standard-sized 25- by 38-inch press sheet, minimizing waste.
  • Prepress, paper, ink, and printing are all industry standard, allowing the government to buy in bulk from a single contract printer.
  • The original typefaces were Helvetica and Times Roman. Today’s standard faces are Frutiger and NPS Rawlinson.
  • The NPS arrowhead first appeared in the black band in 1999.
  • The “imprint” in tiny type shows both the year of printing and the year of origin or major updates.
New Shenandoah Unigrid

The underlying grid sets physical boundaries for individual elements yet allows for a great deal of flexibility. Two brochures of the same size and shape, even if they’re designed by the same person, will usually look completely different. Early designs stressed the “grid.” As the program evolves, designs are favoring the “uni,” unifying images, text, and maps into cohesive stories.

The Unigrid has been an agency institution for so long, we forget that it was the disruptor of its time. In 1985 the Unigrid Program received one of the first Presidential Design Awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, who noted that “The program fulfills the primary objective of a design system, reducing routine decisions so that effort can be concentrated on quality. The implementation of the program demonstrates sensitivity to the wide variety of subject matter and attention to the finest detail. It is an example to others and has already achieved international recognition.”

Once a new Unigrid is developed, it is generally reprinted every year or two with changes as needed. Over the 10- to 20-year lifespan of a typical brochure, individual copies average just a few cents each. The Publications office at Harpers Ferry Center prints 24 to 28 million copies a year. Laid end-to-end, they would stretch across the continental United States, passing by many of the 400-plus national park areas that distribute them.

Last updated: November 14, 2018