National Science Foundation

Creating brand principles for stronger storytelling


Providing valuable science information to the American public

The National Science Foundation (NSF) was created in 1950 to promote the progress of science; advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; and secure the national defense. It is the only federal agency that supports fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering, from mathematics and the geosciences to the biological, behavioral and computer sciences, and more.

Although NSF is well known among the science community it supports, the agency wanted to do a better job conveying useful information and the value of NSF to other key stakeholders, especially the American public. NSF also wanted to make sure that its visual and content identities reflected its organizational values and the innovative research it supports.


Using research and iteration to inform design

We began by conducting research with internal stakeholders. Our goal was to find out how stakeholders view NSF, how they’d like to view NSF, and what they felt was important to communicate about the organization. We used the findings from this research to plan a two-day, onsite design workshop with the NSF team. At the workshop, our teams reached consensus on how NSF would like to present itself. The group also wrote draft brand principles and discussed the traits that are critical to a new visual direction.

Outcomes from the workshop informed our visual and content design decisions. We translated stakeholders’ visions of the new NSF into formal brand principles, voice and tone guidance, and multiple visual design directions. After each round of iteration, we gathered feedback from the NSF team, incorporating their suggestions into subsequent designs. By the end of the project, we’d delivered the following:

  • Brand principles that communicate NSF’s core values and that are championed by designers, program directors, and senior management.
  • A new visual direction that captures NSF’s legacy, spirit of innovation, and commitment to diversity and accessibility.
  • Updated content guidance that allows writers to scale NSF’s voice and choose context-appropriate tones.
  • Implementation guidance that allowed the NSF team to easily roll out the new principles and design concepts.

The design tools we created not only convey the essence of NSF’s unique brand, but are easy for designers and non-designers alike to use. Based on the success of this engagement, NSF extended its contract with 18F to implement the new design direction and create a customized design system.