The space industry is expanding massively and globally. Naturally, the money pouring in from venture capitalists, governments, and wealthy explorer-types has mostly gone toward engineers’ salaries, parts purchasing, and liquid propellant. Branding has been of secondary concern. Still, it matters. The NASA Graphics Standards Manual by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn is one of the hot gifts this Christmas for a reason: Beautifully rendered ambition resonates across decades and demographics. If space companies have succeeded at making America look up again, they have failed to craft a message so beautifully that it moves people.

Andrew Sloan wants to change that.

A designer by trade, Sloan is now the founder of Cosma Schema, a firm built to offer branding services specifically to space companies and organizations. Appropriately, this is a bit of a moonshot, but there’s startlingly little competition and he’s operating in a growing, potentially world-beating market so he’s confident about his chances to create memorable work.

Inverse spoke with Sloan to learn more about Cosma Schema and how exactly someone goes about infusing life into space brands.

Can you start out by telling me the origin story behind Cosma Schema?

I was working in design for the last six or so years, and I left a full-time job as a creative directive this year. I was kind of looking around and thinking about where I could take my career. I’ve been a space fan forever, as long as I could remember. I’ve always looked up at the stars, and I’ve always known all the constellations, and I’ve been looking through telescopes. I follow space news closely. It’s a passion of mine. Well, what if I could rope my interest in science, my interest in space into my design practice? Essentially focus my design work specifically on space?

I have this website, Explain.Space, that began as an effort to explain these really simple common space-related phenomena in a beautiful way that would make them really easy to digest. I just really try and break these concepts down, and then make them gorgeous. I was doing a bunch of research and trying to figure out how people had explained these simple space phenomena, like sunsets, moon phases, and simple eclipses — things that people see semi-regularly — and everything just looked terrible. There are so many infographics out there that are just overloaded with information and all of these different organizations out there trying their best to explain this stuff. I had to sift through just mountains of terrible graphics that all looked like they had been designed in Microsoft paint, like from 1995. It was just terrible stuff.

In that moment that I kind of got a bigger idea: ‘What if I can take this pet project, and really roll that into a service that I can offer to others?’

explain.space
How Explain.space explains lunar eclipses. 

What were some of the biggest obstacles you were running into when developing Cosma Schema?

I realized soon on that I can Google and research all day long, but until I actually talk to some real deal rocket scientists, and some real deal people that are in the field, I’m never going to know whether or not there’s a need for this. I tapped a colleague of mine and got a press pass to the New Space conference in Seattle. That conference is awesome. It’s a really great time there. I whipped up a business card that said Cosma Schema on it. I bought the domain, and I kind of went there hoping to shake some hands and just have conversations, and really gauge interest.

What were those conversations like?

Conversations would start like, ‘Hey, what do you do? Why are you here?’ People will say, ‘I’m a rocket scientist,’ or ‘I’m an asteroid miner,’ or ‘I’m a launch services provider.’ They give me their spiel, and then they turn to me and say, ‘Well, what do you do? Why are you here?’

I say, ‘I’m a designer.’ They say, ‘Like a rocket designer?’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no. Like aesthetic, like art. Like writing, imagery, identity.’

They’d say, ‘Oh shit. We need you. We need your help. We’re a team of engineers. We’re a team of business people. We don’t have any communications, marketing, or visual people on our team, and we need it. I’m so glad you’re here.’

That was a really eye-opening. Through that, I got the confidence to build Cosma Schema, and reach out to a lot of those contacts I made at that conference, and at the International Aeronautical Congress in Guadalajara. I have a couple clients under my belt. I’ve got a couple signed contracts. I’m working on my second visual identity revamp under the Cosma Schema name.

Cosma Schema doesn't have a uniform aesthetic beyond momentum.
Cosma Schema doesn't have a uniform aesthetic beyond momentum.

In other words, you’ve built a functioning business by finding demand. Does that mean Cosma Schema keeps moving forward or that it expands? What’s the vector now?

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The status of Cosma Schema right now is that we’ve been validated. I began this project not really knowing whether or not I could successfully marry my love for space and my passion and skills with design, because there was no one out there doing it. I couldn’t find an example of anyone doing what I was doing, or what I wanted to do, and to me that’s not necessarily a good sign. If no one’s doing it, maybe there’s a reason no one’s doing it.

As these private space companies grow and start marketing to the consumer, start marketing themselves to other businesses, they’re going to need to pay more attention to their aesthetic, their voice, their message, their brand. I intend to be at the forefront of that conversation and ideally the one, or at least one of the people that they’re going to when they seek out those services, because I do have this specialization.

Clyde Space design isn't subtle, but the point stands. Sloan considers this an example of good space branding.
Clyde Space design isn't subtle, but the point stands. Sloan considers this an example of good space branding.

What else is going on with your company right now? What specific projects are you working on, and what kinds of clients?

The project that I’m most excited about — and probably the only one I can talk about right now — is a rebrand for World Space Week. They were actually founded by the United Nations. It happens once a year in October, and participants from all over the world hold events in an effort to get people all over the world thinking about an organized concerted effort.

The problem with World Space Week right now is that their brand is really outdated. It looks super rinkydink. It needs help. They need to build a little bit more trust in their brand to garner a larger participation worldwide, so they hired me to have a look at their brand, do an overhaul, and use my branding expertise to lend an effort to helping them grow.

I’m really excited about that one. It lines up perfectly with their vision to create greater understanding and accessibility and excitement about outer space using beautiful design and simple communication strategies. It’s really a good partnership.

cosma schema tender loving empire
Cosma Schema designed the art for the new compilation record from Portland-based record label, Tender Loving Empire.

What are the biggest challenges in trying to sell services like these to other companies? How do you go about pitching Cosma Schema to the space industry?

I think you have to be honest. These companies are paying more attention to their aesthetic, and their mass appeal, but there’s definitely an element of resistance to that type of change. A lot of these companies and my potential clients are led by engineers. They are led by strict business people that haven’t really spent much time on aesthetics. They haven’t really spent much time on voice. As I have some of these conversations, people say, ‘Hey, that’s cool. We would love to do something like that, but …’ They throw in that ‘but’ and they say, ‘But our budget’s too tight. We’re not really there right now.’”

What that means to me is not that their budget is too tight. I mean, they have a ton of R&D money. It’s just they’re choosing not to allocate those resources to marketing, and to aesthetics right now.

That will likely be more of a priority when some of these companies become more consumer-facing or have to engage in public conversations about tax incentives right?

If I’m talking to a space start-up or even a more established space company, and they’re talking to me and saying, ‘Why?’ I think the first thing that comes to mind is trust. Humans are visual people. They see a visual identity and they immediately connect with it. They make associations depending on the decisions that were made with that visual identity. If it looks outdated, if it looks clunky, if it’s messy, if it’s confusing, it’s a turnoff, and it makes your brand seem rinky-dink. It makes your brand seem untrustworthy, and like you haven’t put the necessary energy towards developing a concrete brand that you should have.

If you have a beautiful logo and beautiful messaging and careful color choice and consistent language, people will be able to relate to your message, and will continually come back to your company, and they’ll see your marketing out on the wires and say, ‘Oh, I know that company. That’s brand XYZ, and they do this, and I know that.’ It’s really just about that recognition and that trust that you can build in your customers, and for anyone starting any company ever, to me that is the most important thing no matter how you slice it.

Yeah, I'd go to that conference.
Yeah, I'd go to that conference.

But you’re the only guy in the game! Do you think you’ll have competitors soon?

I would love to see more people focusing on space branding, and more people entering the market, because I think the more that’s out there, the more that it will be validated as a course of action that companies should take. I want to see other people’s take on this problem. I want to encourage other people that are interested in this to participate, to jump in there and do the same thing I did. Have some conversations, and get out there and try to see what the needs of these companies are and these organizations are, because it’s lonely right now, and it’s early right now. It’s hard work, but I think if this small industry that I’m trying to sniff out is successful, then space stands to look a lot more beautiful in the decades to come.

Photos via Explain.space, Cosma Schema, Clyde Space, Andrew Sloan/Cosma Schema

Neel is a science and tech journalist from New York City, reporting on everything from brain-eating amoebas to space lasers used to zap debris out of orbit, for places like Popular Science and WIRED. He's addicted to black coffee, old pinball machines, and terrible dive bars. Email him at neel@inverse.com.