Round and Round We Go

Hosts Brian Balogh and Peter Onuf call up Gary Anderson, who designed the iconic recycling symbol back when he was in college.

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

PETER: Now when we heard Bart mention the recycling logo, it got us wondering where that logo came from. So we did some digging, and here’s what we found. The symbol was designed by a college student at the University of Southern California.


BRIAN: Gary Anderson was at USC in 1970 when he saw a poster announcing a design contest for a recycling symbol. The competition was sponsored by, you guessed it, a big manufacturer. Not a manufacturer of soda, but one that produced cardboard products. It was called the Container Corporation of America.


The contest was open only to high school and college kids. As the company put it, “the inheritors of the earth.”


PETER: Anderson submitted three designs, one of which took the grand prize of some $2,000. His design is the one you still see everywhere– three flat arrows each with a sharp turn in the middle forming sort of an infinite loop of environmental responsibility.


We gave Anderson a call and he told us he was inspired by the idea of the Mobius strip, that continuous one sided surface you get when you twist a strip of paper and join both ends together. He said it had fascinated him since childhood.


GARY ANDERSON: When I was still in grade school, I read this little book of scientific rhymes or limericks, and they were all very clever. And one of them was, “Hickory dockery dick, a mouse on a Mobius strip. The strip revolved, the mouse dissolved in a chronodimensional skip.” And for some reason that–


PETER: Wow! [LAUGHS] That stuck!


GARY ANDERSON: Little poem just stuck with me. And the more I learned about it, the more I was fascinated by this idea of a strip with an infinite dimension.


PETER: Gary, designing a logo is about the coolest thing you could possibly do in the modern world of brands.




PETER: Were you a glamorous character? Did you brag about this logo?


BRIAN: Yeah, did people say hey, that’s that guy who did the recycling logo?


PETER: Whoa!


GARY ANDERSON: They do that more now than they did back then.


PETER: [LAUGHS] Well, why is that?


GARY ANDERSON: Well for one reason, it wasn’t widely used right after the competition ended.




GARY ANDERSON: I guess there were a couple reasons for that. One was although I recall that on that poster that I responded to it said that the symbol would be turned over to the public domain, the company actually charged a very small fee to use the symbol.




BRIAN: Did you get a percentage of that?


PETER: Yeah. Royalties, right?






GARY ANDERSON: That was the one rule on the poster that I do know was followed.




BRIAN: So you gave up your rights, but they didn’t give up their rights.


GARY ANDERSON: Apparently not. I’m really not very clear on this, because I was over in Saudi Arabia for a number of years teaching. And I guess a lot happened during that time.


BRIAN: And what year are we now?


GARY ANDERSON: I think this must have been in the late ’70s or very early ’80s.


PETER: Well, so you came back from your Rip Van Winkle phase of life. [LAUGHS]


GARY ANDERSON: Right. Right.


PETER: And discovered that you were a star.


GARY ANDERSON: Yeah. Coming back from Saudi Arabia, I stopped in Amsterdam for a week or so. And I came across these big igloo shaped recycling bins. Really large. I mean, they were taller than I was and brightly colored, and with the logo, my logo on it.


PETER: Whoa.


GARY ANDERSON: About the size of a beach ball.


PETER: So Gary, when you designed this logo, the idea of infinity, of capturing everything, recycling it, and a perpetual motion planet would go on forever. Beautiful idea. Does it seem plausible to you now?


GARY ANDERSON: [LAUGHS] It’s a tough question. I’m sure I’m more cynical in some ways than I was back then too.


PETER: Yeah.


GARY ANDERSON: Although I was not a totally naive young person.


PETER: Right.


GARY ANDERSON: I guess people don’t like to say they’re proud of things anymore. They say that they’re humbled. And I don’t know what that means.




GARY ANDERSON: When you’ve accomplished something, to say that you’re humbled. But I am. I’m proud and I’m gratified.


I think people are very much aware of the environment and ecology. And I would like to think that the symbol has helped to remind people frequently that those concerns are out there.


PETER: Hey Gary, great fun. Thanks for joining us.


BRIAN: Thanks so much, Gary.


GARY ANDERSON: Well, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you all.


PETER: Gary Anderson is an architect and planner in northern Virginia, and the recycling symbol he created is being featured right now at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It’s part of an exhibit called, “This is For Everyone: Design Experiments for the Common Good.”