In the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art is a design also available in unlimited supply for free at the visitor center of any National Park in the United States. The standard foldable one-sheet map and guide––the one that you mindlessly grab from the rack and stick in the pocket of your jacket––is so perfectly simple and functional that it feels almost undesigned, when in fact it was a breakthrough design achievement in 1977 by the Italian modernist Massimo Vignelli.

Petrified Forests of Yellowstone Pamphlet
Petrified Forests of Yellowstone Pamphlet.

In the time between the creation of the United States National Park Service in 1912, and Vignelli’s entry in 1977, the number of parks and the number of visitors had increased dramatically, with various parks producing various different types of maps, brochures, and guidebooks. By the mid-1970s, the NPS needed a design solution that would address several growing challenges: a cohesive visual identity, a template that would be easily adaptable across various parks and monuments, and a format that would be both simple to understand and cheap to produce. To put it in other words, Vignelli was tasked to create a design framework that could encapsulate all of the geography and key information of any National Park or National Monument in the country and fit it into a single elegant page that the NPS could print cheaply enough to give out for free.

Unigrid Pamphlet
Unigrid pamphlet.

Vignelli’s solution, the single-page folding map and guide template, became known as the Unigrid. When folded, the cover panel is simply a photograph from the park with the park name in white Helvetica text on a plain black header––a design sibling to Vignelli’s work for the New York City subway system. When unfolded, the Unigrid becomes a full press sheet size guide of photographs, graphics, and text encapsulating the key aspects of the park, with a full size park map on the reverse side. Its design guidelines––general layout, font sizes, measurements of panels, colors, etc.––are rigid enough to ensure uniformity across parks and allow straightforward customization for each park, yet flexible enough to adapt to the varying presentation needs of a diverse and constantly growing amount of National Parks and Monuments.

Massimo Vignelli MTA
Massimo Vignelli. Also the graphic designer behind NYC's Subway System.

The effectiveness of the Unigrid’s simplicity is not only the reason that it’s still in use by the NPS today, but also why it is now equally at home in the MoMA as it is in your jacket pocket. It wasn’t designed to spend the day looking at its beauty. It was designed so that you spend the whole day in the beauty of the park.