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PRISM: Scary Program, Unlikely Logo

What the NSA owes Pink Floyd

There's been lots of justifiable concern about the NSA's newly disclosed PRISM program, which allows the government to conduct electronic surveillance on users of Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and other internet companies. But here's something you may not have thought much about: the PRISM logo, which can be seen on the slides that were published last week by The Washington Post and The Guardian.

There are several unusual aspects to this logo. For example:

1. It doesn't look like a typical government logo. Most logos and seals associated with the federal government, including the logo for PRISM's parent agency, the NSA, are circular. Of course, PRISM isn't an agency or a department—it's just a program. Still, the logo's abstract shape marks it as an outlier in the world of U.S. government design.

2. Someone at the NSA is a Pink Floyd fan. If you have even the slightest grounding in late-20th-century pop culture, the PRISM logo probably reminds you of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album, which seems like a suitable reference point for a dark, highly classified program. Maybe it's just a coincidence—after all, any depiction of light refracting through a prism is probably going to end up looking at least somewhat Dark Side-esque. Or maybe someone at the NSA was giving a shout-out to his favorite band.

3. The logo's background image comes from an unlikely source. Independent journalist Matthew Keys appears to have been the first to note that the PRISM logo is based on a stock image of a prism. Then Gawker writer Max Read identified a British media figure named Adam Hart-Davis as the stock image's creator. The image is available for free download on Davis' website, and some rudimentary Googling reveals that it's been used all over the internet, as you can see here, here, here, here, here, and on literally scores of additional web pages. There's nothing wrong with this per se, since Hart-Davis made the image available for free, but it's surprising that the government would base a logo on a publicly available stock image instead of commissioning something unique.


If you're one of those who think PRISM might be a hoax, then these oddities regarding the logo will probably just confirm your skepticism. But let's assume for now that PRISM and the logo are the real deal. Once you get past the Pink Floyd echoes, how does this logo stack up aesthetically?

The feeling here is that it's a very weak design. The abstract shape lacks gravitas and looks vaguely sci-fi-ish, like a spaceship. The type treatment is nondescript, and the whole thing feels like it was slapped together in about 10 minutes. It looks like the logo for a secret program in an espionage movie, not for a real-world program. A better image would have been the creepy "all-seeing pyramid eye" that appears on the back of a $1 bill, but that one was already taken. (So many spying bureaucracies, so little time to create good logos for them.)

Meanwhile, here's an interesting sidebar to all this: Max Read, the Gawker writer, decided to conduct a little experiment by selling PRISM logo T-shirts via Zazzle, an on-demand retail site. But his Zazzle shop was quickly shut down. Apparently, the site received a takedown notice regarding the t-shirt's possible intellectual-property violations. This may say more about PRISM than its logo ever will.

Do you know of a product, service, design, or phenomenon that deserves a closer look? Send tips, samples, press releases, and best intentions here, and follow One-Man Focus Group on Twitter.

Paul Lukas specializes in writing about small, overlooked details. His media projects include Uni Watch, which covers the world of sports uniforms and logos; Permanent Record, which is about the stories behind found objects; Show and Tell,  which is just like you remember it from second grade.