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National Park Service Visitor Guides: A Brief History

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A case could be made that the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrates today its 105th anniversary, would not have existed without the National Park Portfolio. In the early years, park rangers and guides were enough to provide guidance to the small number of visitors. However, as the visitation grew and visitors became more autonomous, another type of publication grew in importance: the visitor guide. The National Park Portfolio was the foundational publication of NPS, however, the map and visitor guides have become its most defining publications.

The first thing handed at the entrance station, it explains how to use the park, as well as telling its story. Beyond its utility, mirroring the place, it served as a physical embodiment of the park, a memento of visits to many. There is much to be learned about the history of the parks in studying older visitor guides, as exemplified by the evolution of our attitudes towards bears. In this article, I will insead focus on the evolution of the designs. So that you have a baseline to compare cover designs, this will be illustrated with visitor guides of two national parks, Yosemite and Grand Canyon.

Like the National Park Portfolio fascicules, the first national park visitor guides issued by the NPS were stapled booklets of the size of the common book format of the era, 6×9 inches, sometimes referred to as “octavo”. Initially, there was one for each of the 9 parks included in the Portfolio, plus Wind Cave National Park and Hot Springs Reservation. The covers were designed conservatively, with serifed type, centered and laid out symmetrically. The information on the cover, beyond the name of the park and its state, included additional details such as the names of the U.S. Secretary of the Interior and NPS director, caption and credit for the cover photo, the opening season for the park, and the year of the booklet. Besides minor variations in the information included and in wording (“General Information”, “Rules and Regulations”, “Circular of General Information”), the design remained basically the same for more than a decade. The booklet was stapled in a curious way, with the staples placed 1/8″ from the spine from the first page to the last, and then a cover page of a glossy stock with photos glued over the spine.

By the end of the 1920s, the number of national parks had grown to 21, and the number of visitor guides to 17. Starting from 1933, all subsequent booklets were stapled through the spine. From 1933 to 1942, the NPS reduced the amount of information on the booklet covers, eventually dropping all the additional details beyond the name of the park and the state from the cover. The number of pages decreased, with the most bureaucratic contents being dropped to make room for more practical visitor information. At the same time, the amount of design increased, with each year (except 1935 and 1936) bringing a new cover design adopted uniformly through all the national parks. Some years even saw more than one design. The effort to improve the booklets in such a directed way reflected the new considerable means acquired by the NPS as the result of the New Deal and the 1933 reorganization.

No new visitor guides were issued during the war, and after it ended, in the free-wheeling post-war years, uniform design standards were relaxed (much more so than is apparent from our two examples). In 1946, out of the 26 national park visitor guides, 12 were 6×9 booklets and 14 had a narrower 4×9 format. By the mid-1960s, all had transitioned to a fold-out brochure with the narrower format. Not only it was more practical to carry, but also, once unfolded, it allowed for a larger map. However, the way the brochures was not uniform way. Some folded both ways onto a single sheet, others folded only along one direction, usually along two panels, with staples holding spreads together.

1966 marked the completion of the “Mission 66” project that focused on park infrastructure – much of each still the backbone of many parks – the only time besides the New Deal years when the NPS was fully funded. The mid-60s saw not only the introduction of color on the visitor guide covers, but also, for some parks, they featured for the first time graphic design rather than photographs. Others continued to use photography, but often in a more abstract way, featuring a close-up rather than a wide landscape. This was the period with the most creative diversity in design among the covers.

Maybe as a reaction to that kaleidoscopic approach, in the late 60s, a new design standard, nicknamed “pocket guides” or “minifolders” emerged for most parks (35 of them) – although not adopted by all of them. The cover consisted of a colored plain background. Reflecting the slowing rate of economic growth and the increase in park visitation, the brochures were more spare and economical. They folded both ways to an unprecedented small format of 3 1/4″ x 5 5/8″ and most of them opened to a size 10 1/4″ x 16 1/4″ map once unfolded, leaving relatively little room for information on the other side. For some parks such as Yosemite, the pocket guides design lasted until the 1980s, when all the visitor guides transitioned to the “Unigrid” standard described next. Other parks such as the Grand Canyon experimented with a return to a larger format, now folded both ways, in order to accommodate more information. Thus visitor guides continued to reflect the spread-out nature of the park system.

This started to change in 1977, when renowned designer Massimo Vignelli introduced the Unigrid standard. The most visible characteristic was the black band at the top with large white sans-serif type (initially Helvetica) for the park name that today remains one of the main “branding” elements of the NPS. But more important was the grid itself, based on the 8 1/4″ x 4″ panel corresponding to fold lines that could flexibly be used in single-width or double-width combinations and repeated up to six times in height. Standardized among all NPS units, the new system not only contributed to a unified visual identity but also allowed for a cost-effective way to mass-produce an array of brochures of different extents, making it possible to carry an amount of information as comprehensive as needed for a particular park. The first unigrids appeared in 1979, and by 1996, all the national parks had fully transitioned to the new system. Although Vignelli made many other contributions that affected our everyday life, he recognized that

… of all the projects I have worked on during my long career in design, this one has affected more people than any other …
With its consistency and effectiveness, the Unigrid came to embody the mission of the NPS to make the parks accessible to the people.

I have been collecting NPS visitor guides with an eye towards compiling a combined history of the NPS and of graphic design. My 28 years of travel to the national parks has resulted in a voluminous collection, but since I started in 1993, I was missing the pre-unigrid visitor guides. Unlike books, they are ephemera that were given away, not cataloged, and overall quite elusive. If you have some for which you’d like to find a good home, especially from those NPS units that are currently designated national parks, I’d appreciate it if you let me know!

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