Like any large organization, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has an extensive manual of graphic standards to ensure that contractors and employees respect the organization’s branding. And like any US branch of government with lots of contractors and a reasonable understanding of the Freedom of Information Act, they’ve made that graphic standards manual easily available online.
The core visual identity, which only dates back to 2004, is pretty good, although the brandmark (think slogan) of “From the American People” lays it on just a little thick. Likewise the rebrand’s choice of comparisons to McDonald’s golden arches and Nike’s swoosh. Ignore the fact that both the primary and secondary choices of typeface are non-American in their origins: Adobe Gill Sans (from Britain) and Adobe Garamond (from sixteenth-century France).
Interestingly, the brand standards manual leads with a brief history of USAID’s “Brand Heritage.” The story begins long before USAID came into existence in 1961. The first logo was adopted in 1948 for the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan. The ERP, which pumped billions of dollars into the European economy, had slick public relations courtesy of the J. Walter Thompson Company, included some excellent and modern-looking posters. In contrast, the ERP logo was fairly conservative, combining the shield at the heart of the Great Seal of the United States with the slogan “For European Recovery Supplied by the United States of America.”
The expansion of US foreign aid (still an innovation in the early 1950s) to include technical assistance to the developing world (Truman’s inaugural “Point Four,” managed by the Technical Cooperation Administration) led the slogan to change in 1951 to the more overtly anti-communist “Strength for the Free World from the United States of America.”
The next, and larger change, in 1953, comes with a slightly confusing timeline. According to USAID’s brand history, the Mutual Security Agency (which had taken over responsibility for aid to Europe) replaced the slogan with a pair of clasped hands – “a sign of unity, goodwill, and cooperation for centuries” – over the words United States of America. This seems a little odd, because the MSA was dissolved in August 1953, its functions consolidated with those of the TCA in the Foreign Operations Administration. So, if the MSA was responsible for the clasped-hands seal it must have been one of its very last acts.
Continuing the whirl of reorganizations, the Foreign Operations Administration lasted less than two years before it was replaced by the International Cooperation Administration. That agency lasted six years before President John F. Kennedy, as part of a broad revamp of US foreign assistance, created USAID.
The USAID clasped-hand logo was a very conservative choice in an era where modernist design flourished, particularly with the rise of corporate visual identities. Paul Rand delivered his iconic slab serif logotype for IBM in 1956, a circuit-esque W for Westinghouse in 1960, and ABC’s roundel (still in use today!) in 1962 (examples of these, and many more, here). At the Guardian, Steve Rose describes it as a time when:
In 1960s America, the new discipline of corporate identity consultancy used Helvetica like a high-pressure hose, blasting away the preceding decades of cursive scripts, pictorial logos, excitable exclamation marks and general typographical chaos, and leaving in its place a world of cool, factual understatement.
In the meantime, USAID soldiered on with a pair of heavy, thick-lined hands. In fact, the clasped-hand logo outlasted the Cold War, only being replaced in the early 1990s by a practically over-modern combination of globe and US flag.
By the mid-1990s, USAID was back to the shield and hands, this time with USAID above the hands rather than United States of America below. That design, in essence, was what was replaced in the 2004/5 redesign.
USAID was never really a publicity-shy organization, so it’s interesting that they stuck for so long with such an unprepossessing conservative logo. One caveat to the story though: all of this comes from the current USAID brand guide, which is invested in telling a clear and progressive story about USAID branding. Its a basic principle of modern branding to keep things simple and consistent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were quite a lot of designs that were used briefly and locally, then discarded, which the brand guide omits in the interest of keeping the progression towards the new 2004/5 design logical.