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Earth Notes: Virgil Carrell, Designer Of The Forest Service Sign

U.S. Forest Service

Across the country, iconic signs mark the trails, campgrounds and other features on nearly 200 million acres of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

The signs were the brainchild of long-time Forest Service employee, Virgil Carrell. ‘Bus’, as he was commonly known, wasn’t a professional designer, but he was a professional forest ranger. He started his career in the West, and worked nearly every job expected of a ranger in the 1940s and ‘50s.

He was transferred to the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. in the early ‘60s, about the time the Forest Service decided it needed to replace a hodgepodge of signage with a consistent, uniform image. 

Bus Carrell and Forest Service artist Rudy Wendelin, who popularized the Smokey Bear symbol, presented the idea of trapezoidal signs—crafted of wood, with retro typeface, and standard brown and yellow colors. The agency accepted their design, known as the Family of Shapes concept, and now the signs are posted throughout U.S. Forest Service areas.

Carrell stated his simple philosophy: “A sign is good when its function is achieved without calling attention to itself.”  The style is part of the official Sign and Poster Guidelines for the Forest Service.

Virgil Carrell retired to Arizona, where he lived until his death in 2014, just shy of 100-years-old. The signs he created are still immediately recognizable to travelers throughout the country.