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How Gary Anderson Designed the Recycling Symbol
by J. C. Dyer, MLS

As you celebrate America Recycles Day each year in November, and Earth Day in April, look around and notice how many times you see the recycling symbol displayed. With its twisting arrows design, this symbol is recognized worldwide as the designation for recycled and recyclable materials. It easily has the recognition factor of Coca-Cola, Nike, and McDonald's, but do you have any idea where it came from, or who actually designed` it?

Because the recycling symbol is so familiar and ubiquitous, we tend to take it for granted, not realizing that it was designed by a real live, honest-to-goodness person who, even today, is still concerned with the environment.

Here's the little-known story behind the recycling symbol:

In April 1970, the very first Earth Day was held, coinciding with an emerging environmental consciousness as the environmental movement began to gain momentum.

One person who participated in this first Earth Day was a student at the University of Southern California named Gary Dean Anderson, who designed the recycling symbol later that same year. Like thousands of other college students across the country, Anderson attended an Earth Day rally and environmental teach-in at his university, which was held outdoors on a beautiful day with lots of rock music and a mellow atmosphere.

Still, Anderson says there was "definitely something in the air, in the academic community and elsewhere, that was beginning to color everyone's image of the earth and its resources. Neither, people were beginning to realize, was infinite." This awareness of the earth's finite resources and the need to conserve and renew them for future generations continues each year as we celebrate Earth Day.

Also that spring in 1970, Container Corporation of America, a paperboard company, sponsored a nationwide contest for environmentally-concerned art and design students to create a design that would symbolize the paper recycling process.

The new recycling symbol was to be used to identify packages made from recycled and recyclable fibers, and to call attention to paper recycling as an effective method of conservation of our natural resources. CCA sought to promote greater awareness of the recyclable nature of paper fibers, and to emphasize the contribution of recycling to improving environmental quality.

At that time, CCA (now Smurfit-Stone Container Corporation) was the largest user of recycled fiber in the U.S., and easily could have had its own corporate designers come up with the symbol, but decided that the younger generation of students, as inheritors of the earth, would be the best source for the new design.

More than 500 talented students submitted their entries, which were judged by a distinguished panel of judges at the International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado. The theme of the conference was "Environment by Design". The first place winner was Gary Dean Anderson, a graduate student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The second prize winner was Mike Norcia of New York, and third prize went to Janet McElmurry of the University of Georgia. There were also twenty Awards of Excellence presented.

Gary Anderson had just graduated from USC's 5-year architecture program, and was completing one additional year for a master's of urban design. His prize for the winning entry was a $2,500 tuition grant for further study at any college or university in the world. After receiving his master's degree in urban design from USC, Anderson chose the University of Stockholm's graduate program in social science for English-speaking students, where he studied the relationship between social interaction and physical space, and earned a diplom in social science (roughly equivalent to a master's degree) there in 1972. He also had the opportunity to learn the Swedish language through the university's intensive instruction program for languages.

Gary Anderson grew up in North Las Vegas, Nevada, in the 1950s. In keeping with the times following the Great Depression and World War II, his family practiced a general frugality that involved re-using and recycling as much as possible, long before the recycling movement as we know it today had begun. His family reused newspapers, paper and plastic bags from the grocery store, and his father either made or refinished and reupholstered much of the furniture in their home.

As a child, this future architect built everything from cottages to skyscrapers with his sets of plastic American Bricks and wooden Lincoln Logs. Every Christmas, it was his job to construct a stable out of his Lincoln Logs for the Nativity Scene under his family's Christmas tree. He also liked making all kinds of things out of paper - pinwheels, paper airplanes, paper chains, you name it. An avid reader and library user, he discovered origami in a book from his school library, and did not stop until he had made every origami design in it at least once.

He excelled at both math and English in elementary school, but liked history and geography best. According to Anderson, spelling was his worst subject in those early school years. However, he especially enjoyed penmanship, which was taught by the Palmer method, and his handwriting today still retains the Palmer style. He liked the idea that even a complicated chain of letters was really made up of just a few basic lines and curves, each of which could be made with a simple stroke.

Later in his schooling, Gary Anderson began to study foreign languages, art, graphic layout, and typography. He did well in art all through school, but he noticed that there were other students who were better at drawing realistically and spontaneously. Some of them seemed to have "a bionic connection between their eye and their hand that enabled them to reproduce exactly what they saw." He adds that when drawing by hand, "I've always had to develop my image with many tentative lines drawn one on top of the other, until I get something to look more-or-less as I want it. By the time I'm finished, it kind of looks soft and furry or hairy, even when the object isn't that way at all."

From a young age, Gary Anderson was intrigued by the idea of the Möbius strip, the single-sided construction formed by gluing together the ends of a strip of paper that have been given a twist. The Möbius loop was discovered in 1858 by August Ferdinand Möbius, a German mathematician and astronomer. Anderson also enjoyed the art of the Dutch artist M. C. Escher, who produced a series of drawings based on the Möbius strip, one of which (above left) portrays ants crawling over the folded and twisted strip of paper.

When Anderson began designing his three entries for the contest, he drew upon the concept of the Möbius strip as a combination of the finite and the infinite, "a finite object, but its one surface is infinite in a way." He also tried to incorporate the concept of ambiguity, since the symbol is "kind of round, but also kind of angular. It's flat, but it seems to enclose a space ... kind of hexagonal and kind of triangular, and kind of circular ... sort of static and sort of dynamic."

In his original design, which CCA modified slightly to make it appear more stable, the symbol rested on one of its short sides, implying a much more dynamic motion and instability than the versions we see today.

Anderson drew the symbol entirely by hand with pen and ink, without the benefit of the computer-aided design software available to designers these days. In those days, computer graphics was a very new field, largely experimental, and computer-aided drafting and design (CADD) was only in the developmental stages. And of course, no one had personal computers either, and the computer classes offered in college were all taught using mainframe computers and punch cards.

Graphic design at this point was essentially limited to arrangements of different combinations of alphanumeric characters distributed across a tractor-fed page. Anderson says that, "If we were writing a program - and you had to write a program to create a computer generated image - you had to leave a stack of punched cards off at the computer center at night, and pick up the output the following day. Every time you did this, you hoped you had finally gotten all the bugs out of your program, and that what you got back from the computer center was what you actually wanted."

The design process for the recycling symbol went quickly for Anderson, especially since he had been mulling over this type of image for some time, and had experimented with several different configurations for class projects in architecture school. He worked out his clean and simple series of designs over a period of only two to three days. Looking back, he feels that his designs were influenced not only by M. C. Escher's art and the Möbius strip, but also by the wool symbol, reminiscent of spinning fibers, and the concept of the mandala as a symbol of the universe in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions.

The one (and only) sketch of his recycling symbol that survives (shown above) is the most complicated of the three designs Anderson submitted for the contest. This working sketch of the recycling symbol design appears in a letter home from college to his mother. Note that this design is resting on one of the arrows, in contrast to the version modified by CCA. The design picked by the judges as the winner was the simplest and plainest of the three, with no words or shading on it, and his third entry was something in between. Container Corporation of America did not trademark the symbol, thus leaving it in the public domain. For this reason, many permutations of the original design have been developed over the years for a wide range of purposes.

Interestingly, it took a number of years for the recycling symbol to catch on and become widely used in the United States and elsewhere. In fact, Gary Anderson had seen it only rarely before seeing it prominently displayed on recycling bins in Amsterdam while travelling in Europe some ten years after he had won the contest.

More than thirty years later, Anderson is still involved with environmental issues. As the winner of the recycling symbol contest, he could easily have pursued a career in graphics design, but his career goal remained urban planning and design. Over the years, he has been employed in various capacities as an architect and planner, and has won numerous academic and professional awards for his projects. He has authored many professional reports, technical reports, and conference papers.

After receiving his doctorate in geography and environmental engineering from The Johns Hopkins University in 1985, he joined the firm of STV Inc. in Baltimore, Maryland, where he served as Vice President and Technical Manager of the twelve-member Planning Department.

In March 2004, after 18 years at STV Inc., Gary Anderson took a position as vice president at TEC Inc. (The Environmental Company) in Annapolis, Maryland. TEC Inc. provides architect/engineering environmental consulting to public and private sector clients.

A self-described "dreamer, doodler, and putterer," Gary Anderson is also goal-oriented, enabling him to move ahead and complete real projects. He enjoys his frequent travels abroad for his work, having had planning projects in England, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Turkey, where he often teams up with local companies to work on joint projects. Over the years, he has been a guest lecturer at workshops and seminars in Turkey and Italy, and has authored numerous professional technical reports and conference papers.

In addition, he has taught architecture and planning courses in Saudi Arabia, and currently teaches a course at The Johns Hopkins University. He is active in his local civic and neighborhood improvement associations, and is a member of several Baltimore museums. He sits on the board of directors of 1,000 Friends of Maryland, a managed-growth advocacy group.

[All photos courtesy of Gary D. Anderson, and used by permission.]