Last updated: May 12, 2012 1:26 am

First Person: Gary Anderson

‘I designed the recycling symbol’

I studied engineering at the University of Southern California at a time when there was a lot of emphasis in the US on training young people to be engineers. It was in the years after Sputnik and the philosophy was that America was in danger of falling behind the Russians in the technical arena. That said, I eventually switched to architecture. I just couldn’t get a grasp on electronics. Architecture was more tangible.

I got my bachelor’s degree in 1971 and stayed on to do a master’s. It was around that time that I saw a poster advertising a design competition being run by the Container Corporation of America. The idea was to create a symbol to represent recycled paper – one of my college requirements had been a graphic design course so I thought I’d give it a go.

It didn’t take me long to come up with my design: a day or two. I almost hate to admit that now. But I’d already done a presentation on recycling waste water and I’d come up with a graphic that described the flow of water: from reservoirs through to consumption, so I already had arrows and arcs and angles in my mind.

The problem with my earlier design was that it seemed flat, two-dimensional. When I sat down to enter the competition, I thought back to a field trip in elementary school to a newspaper office where we’d seen how paper was fed over rollers as it was printed. I drew on that image – the three arrows in my final sketch look like strips of folded-over paper. I drew them in pencil, and then traced over everything in black ink. These days, with computer graphics packages, it’s rare that designs are quite as stark.

I think I found out I won the competition in a letter. Was I excited? Well, yes of course – but not that excited. I guess at that point in life I had an inflated sense of self-importance. It just seemed like, of course I would win! There was a monetary prize, though for the life of me I can’t remember how much it was... about $2,000?

When I finished my studies, I decided I wanted to go into urban planning and I moved to LA. It seems funny, but I really played down the fact that I’d won this competition. I was afraid it would make me look like a graphics guy, rather than an urban designer. I didn’t even mention it on my résumé. Also, the symbol itself languished for a while. I remember seeing it once on a bank statement, but then it disappeared.

Six or seven years after graduating, I was living in Saudi Arabia. I’d got bored and responded on a lark to a teaching job I saw advertised in The New York Times. One summer, I flew to Amsterdam for a holiday. I’ll never forget: when I walked off the plane, I saw my symbol. It was on a big, igloo-shaped recycling bin. And it was bigger than a beach ball! I was really struck. I hadn’t thought about that symbol for years and here it was hitting me in the face.

That was a long time ago. Since then, I’ve received a PhD and worked for a few corporate firms. At the moment, I run the Baltimore branch of a small company that does work for the Department of Defense, which is odd because I was very anti-military when I was young.

With respect to the environmental movement, I’ll admit that most of my career has been more focused on paying the bills. But I got my green design certification; so while I’m not the world’s expert, I do my part. It can get frustrating though, in my work, to come up against environmental regulations. Don’t get me wrong; it’s good that we have them. But as my father used to say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. When things get too codified, it stifles innovation.

I feel much closer to the recycling symbol now than I used to. Maybe this design is a bigger part of my life’s contribution than I had thought but still, I’d hate to think that my life’s work is defined by it. There’s more to me than the recycling symbol.

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