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It’s Only Natural

by Jennifer Kabat

Twenty-year-old designer Gary Anderson with a CCA rep

Looking back to the forgotten origins of the recycling logo

Planet Green, a new cable channel dedicated entirely to eco concerns, was launched in the US last week. We’ve certainly come a long way since the green movement’s origins some 38 years ago, back when the recycling logo was launched on the first ever ‘Earth Day’.

To coincide with Earth Day 1970 (initially intended as a one-off event), Container Corporation of America sponsored a student competition to design a recycling logo. CCA was one of those liberal-minded corporate behemoths that no longer exist; they believed in good design and even sponsored the International Design Conference in Aspen. The corporation also happened to be the biggest manufacturer of recycled cardboard in the country.

‘For the love of the earth,’ as CCA president H.G. Van der Eb put it, the company asked for ‘a symbol that would remind concerned citizens that recycling or reuse of materials extends the life of our natural resources.’ The logo would go on packaging made from recycled materials to advertise that they were recycled – though it wasn’t intended to show people what might be recyclable, as happens today. The competition had few rules. The logo had to be reducible to two inches, and the winner would get US$2,500 with which to further his or her education as well as relinquish all rights to their design. CCA was forward-thinking enough to realize that a recycling logo would be of much use in the public domain.

Twenty-year-old Gary Anderson won the competition. Anderson wasn’t even a design student, though that’s not to say he wasn’t visually savvy – he studied architecture and planning at the University of Southern California, and says he entered the competition because it was something he could do on his own, not requiring an entire team as a building does.

The competition was judged at the 1970 Aspen Design Conference, the theme for which –  ‘Environment By Design’ – attracted both designers and radicals, and, sometimes, radical designers. It was a moment of culture clash: people with long hair and bushy sideburns versus those still sporting short-back-and-sides. Design historian Alice Twemlow explains: ‘Ant Farm [a radical architecture collective] was there with busloads of Berkeley activists. The entire idea of a speaker on stage talking down to a passive audience was outmoded in the age of protests and teach-ins. So, you had Eliot Noyes and Saul Bass sitting down with these protestors who were talking about alienation, and poor Saul Bass was saying, ‘we just want to do a design conference here.’’

Anderson – a modest, softly-spoken architecture student – stumbled into the middle of this, and didn’t quite relate. ‘Around me all these people were talking about their conflict joining big companies and making logos that would further the military industrial complex,’ he recently remembered. 

The logo’s press launch was held at CCA in September of the same year. There, one of the company’s designers bitterly told Anderson that they had only picked his logo because every other one had been so bad. Imagine saying that about a design that has since been printed, embossed and molded onto more things than anything else in history. Now Anderson himself talks about feeling distant from his design, almost divorced from it, as the logo has taken on a life of its own.

To create it, he combined a Möbius strip with M.C. Escher, who was increasingly popular at the time. But Anderson claimed that his design was also a reaction against the era’s discontent: ‘Angela Davis had just shot up the courthouse and the Manson murders had just happened. I wanted to move away from that, from the Haight-Ashbury poster art with its amorphous organic shapes to create something simpler and cleaner.’ He did just that with his circling arrows signifying interconnectedness. He also cites the recently launched wool trademark as an inspiration.

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Anderson’s design has now been transformed and adopted in countless ways. ‘It’s been around so long, I’ve just gotten used to it like everyone has,’ he says in his understated way: ‘I like to see the variations in it. Some are smart and elegant and beautiful, the way they turn the design and you still recognize it.’

Unfortunately Planet Green’s logo, a large green dot, is not one of these designs. I doubt we’ll be talking about it in 40 years.

About the author

  • Jennifer Kabat's photo

    Jennifer Kabat is a design critic based in New York.