The New York Times is reporting that Scott Pruitt has ordered the redesign of the Environmental Protection Agency’s swag, including the so-called challenge coin — a souvenir token handed out by the agency. And he’s insisting that the redesigned products not display the EPA’s official seal, because he thinks the logo looks like a marijuana leaf. In fact, it’s a daisy — modified, to be sure, but definitely a daisy — and it’s there by dint of a stubborn Ronald Reagan appointee named Anne Gorsuch, whose surname may ring a bell if you care about the composition of the Supreme Court.
When it opened its doors in 1970, under President Nixon, the agency’s first seal — its official round logo — was much like the one you see above. It was usually rendered in greens and blues, and it was, for a government agency created by a Republican administration, a little bit cute. After a few years, the agency’s rather hit-or-miss internal design work came under review. At the time, many government agencies, under an initiative called the Federal Design Improvement Program, were waking up to the possibilities of better graphics, and their employees were getting less-drab offices and better letterheads and such. NASA got its “worm” logo, and several other Cabinet departments’ materials were redesigned as well.
In 1976, it was the EPA’s turn, and its administrators hired Chermayeff & Geismar, the great design firm behind every logo from Chase to Mobil to NBC, to carry out the job. A young guy named Steff Geissbuhler did most of the work, and what he produced was a streamlined set of graphics. His (correct) instinct was to dump the busy little daisy seal in favor of a much flatter logo. He retained the leaves and the rising sun and sea, but the flower was gone. “It was a very weak thing,” he recalled to me for an essay in the recent reprinting of the EPA’s Graphic Standards Manual. “We felt that it had come out of the ’60s, with hippies putting flowers in the rifle barrels of soldiers, and we said, What you really need is something stronger, because this is an agency that is not without authority. They can stop and fine people and corporations. It’s a law-enforcement agency. And the symbol did not seem to do that justice.”
Geissbuhler’s new system of graphics was much cleaner, dependent mostly on the Swiss typeface called Univers — and his redesigned logo was itself less playful, more corporate, toughened-up. (His team had proposed dumping the entire botanical construction, but they were told that some continuity with the old logo was required.) The daisy was banished. The inventive system, affecting everything from stationery to posters to brochures, was put into place around the start of the Carter administration.
And barely outlasted it. In 1981, after his election, Ronald Reagan installed a new head of the EPA. Anne Gorsuch, like Pruitt today, held a stance basically hostile to much of the EPA’s mission. She cheerily oversaw heavy budget-cutting in her own agency, and did away with more than her share of clean-water regulations. In the process, she alienated a great many people inside and outside her realm. As her predecessor, William Ruckelshaus, put it, she “treated a lot of people in the agency as the enemy, and they weren’t. But within a week, they were.” She very quickly became unpopular, and a year or so later, when she got snared in a scandal over the allocation of some Superfund money, she was left twisting in the wind by the Department of Justice. She was gone after 22 months.
As she had carved away at the agency, one thing she got rid of was that graphics program that Geissbuhler had so painstakingly built. And although the logo he had drawn was kept in some settings, Anne Gorsuch insisted that the old seal, despite its awkward and vaguely countercultural appearance, be retained as well. “I don’t like the stationery — I want my daisy back” is how she reportedly put it. Oddly enough, the Reaganite had chosen the hippie logo over the tough corporate one. One suspects that the Euro-cosmopolitanism of the clean Swiss lines and Univers type were not her preferred aesthetic.
Gorsuch — she divorced and remarried once, becoming Anne Gorsuch Burford, before her death in 2004 — had three children, and one of them grew up to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Neil Gorsuch, whether you like him or not, is clearly excellent at the machinations of the Washington game, and he is said to have learned from his mother’s rough experience. He survived and endured. As does the EPA seal that his mother insisted upon, the one that Geissbuhler, to this day, refers to as “that stupid little daisy.” No wonder Scott Pruitt felt the need to stomp on it.