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It’s one of the most recognisable pieces of graphic design in the world, yet the man who created this iconic symbol played down his role in creating the symbol for decades.

Gary Anderson was a twenty-three-year-old architecture graduate when he entered a competition run by the Container Corporation of America to design a graphical symbol that would be used to identify recycled paper.

It was 1970, and environmental concerns were driving innovation and some strands of the public discourse. The creation of the symbol would honour Earth Day on April 22nd, which was celebrated for the first time that year.

Anderson had taken a graphic design course as a requirement for his architecture degree at the University of Southern California and so, after seeing a poster advertising the competition, thought “he’d give it a go”.

He built on some of his existing work – to present a graphic that described the flow of water for a presentation about recycling waste water as part of his university course – incorporating the arrows, arcs and angles and adding in the fold element of the design to represent folded-over paper.

The prize was judged by leaders in graphical and industrial design, including Saul Bass, Herbert Bayer, James Miho, Herbert Pinzke and Eliot Noyes. Anderson was chosen from around 500 entries and won $2,500 prize money for his design.

However, Anderson subsequently played down his win. In 2012, he told the Financial Times, “When I finished my studies, I decided I want 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.

Anderson successfully established himself as an urban designer, working in commercial practice, a local Maryland Department of Community Development, at the University Planning Office of the University of Maryland, and at the School of Architecture and Planning at the King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia.

It wasn’t until he holidayed in Amsterdam that Anderson recognised the impact his design was having. “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,” he later told the Financial Times, “I hadn’t thought about that symbol for years and here it was hitting me in the face.”

Subsequently, Anderson returned to the USA to continue his urban planning and architecture practice, working in commercial practice at STV Inc in Baltimore and teaching at John Hopkins University. In 2001, he was awarded the national Urbahn Prize for Architecture by the Society of American Military Engineers and 2005 became a Fulbright Senior Specialist , teaching urban and regional studies at the Helsinki University of Technology.

Even now, Anderson downplays the impact he has made: “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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