From Etihad and Iberia to Spirit and Southwest, Several Airlines Have Unveiled New Looks. The Report Card is Very, Very Bleak.
SO A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO I’m at Kennedy Airport. From the corner of my eye I see something blue. I like the color blue, but not this one. It’s a soapy, anemic blue accented with gray. And the rest of the design — all swoopy and swirly and annoying. Oh no, it’s the new livery of Aerolineas Argentinas, splashed across the side of an Airbus A340. What an overwrought mess. And look what they’ve done to the Andean condor up there on the tail. A proud and graceful logo has become a cartoonish abstraction (those white flash lines are particularly distracting and tacky). Aerolineas’s prior livery was a little dry, but it wasn’t crying out for change. Did they need to do this?
Not to be outdone, the Spanish airline Iberia has a new look too. The “IB” is gone from the tail after several decades, replaced by — take a guess now — a swishy-swoopy-curvy thing that is so godawfully boring that it almost brings tears to the eyes. Sure, Iberia’s bulky fuselage striping needed an overhaul, but you don’t toss out a logo as well-known as the IB. Tweak it if you want, but you do not get rid of it entirely. And to replace it with something so uninspired is a tragedy. The typeface is ugly too. The trashing of the “IB” is almost as bad as the trashing of American’s famous “AA,” and it shows us that nothing is sacred. No trademark, no matter how iconic, is safe from the hacks that have taken over the airline branding world, with their endless catalog of “in-motion” themes.
Next in line, Etihad Airways. This is a commemorative thing for the carrier’s double-decker A380s. It’s not as unpardonable as what Malaysia Airlines has done (see next entry), but it’s pretty bad. It’s tough to make an Airbus A380 even uglier than it already is, but Etihad figured out a way. The tail is especially unattractive. Is that random assemblage of triangles supposed to evoke some kind of Arabesque? Well, it doesn’t. A gimmicky mish-mash of gold and coffee-colored triangles, it looks like a bunch of cardboard boxes caught up in the wind. Yet another example of designers trying to prove how clever and crafty they can be, instead of using their skills to establish some genuine brand identity. The Etihad falcon emblem, meanwhile, looks like a crest that you’d see on an Arabian colonel’s hat, while the typeface is just plain ugly.
Moving on. I know, I know, its paintjob is the least of Malaysia Airlines’ worries right now, but while I hate to pile on, they deserve it for screwing up one of the more dignified and handsome looks out there. Malaysia was one of the last carriers hanging on to a “cheatline” — that classic nose-to-tail striping along the windows. Straight lines are verboten these days, and so the red and blue cheat has been twisted up into a pair of awkward, ribbony flares. It looks like something a third-grader would have drawn, and it’s a great example of not leaving well enough alone! Though at least they’ve kept the Wau, the indigenous kite design on the tail. Malaysia has a “special” livery for its A380 aircraft — an swirly blue fever-dream that is too ugly to be described. Is there such a thing as an F-minus?
Closer to home, several U.S. carriers have reinvented themselves as well, with similarly poor results.
Southwest’s heretofore livery made its 737s look like an amusement park ride, or an overly rich dessert concocted by a starving child. A month or so ago the carrier announced a redesign, and sadly it’s no different. It’s garish, syrupy, and so bright that it’s painful to look at. I confess to being fond of Southwest’s heart emblem, however. They should feature it more prominently. There’s no excuse for it not being on the tail, in place of that hideous tricolor swoop.
Oh my god, it’s a giant bumble bee from another galaxy! It’s a Manhattan taxicab taken to the air! It’s a roadsign warning drivers of danger! It’s the Yellow Pages! Nope, calm down, it’s just Spirit Airlines, at it again. Poor Spirit has had a tough time of things. If I’m counting right, they’ve gone through four different looks in the past ten years, all of them awful. There’s not much to say about this latest one. It’s only fitting that the country’s most downmarket carrier wear the most downmarket livery. There’s certainly no mistaking it. It’s actually an improvement on the previous scheme, which turned every plane into a box of laundry detergent. The least offensive of Spirit’s attempts, which isn’t saying much, was probably the peculiar, jaggedy black-on-silver motif of a few years ago. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that board meeting. “Now, how can we get our planes to look more like ash trays?”
Finally we have Frontier Airlines. Today’s Frontier is no relation to the original Frontier, which ceased operations in 1986, but they’ve gone and resurrected the stylized “F” that was part of the first carrier’s Saul Bass-designed look of the 1970s. It’s a good move, and I like the arrow as well (though not the chunky rectangular part in the back). The animals-on-the-tail thing, though, is getting tired. Put the “F” up there, the way Saul had it.
Not an impressive report card, is it? But the uglification of airline branding shows no signs of relenting.
And I am not, as one reader puts it, merely “an old fogey resistent to change.” I’m 48, which isn’t quite fogey territory yet, and I have no problem with change. I’m just opposed to shitty liveries, and with the relentless fixation designers seem to have nowadays with the “in-motion” theme — i.e. curves and swooshes (not just the aforementioned Malaysia or Iberia debacles, but see El Al, Taca, Avianca, PIA, et al. Stop trying to be clever. An effective corporate brand isn’t about cleverness or some abstract “meaning.” Meanwhile there are plenty of liveries out there that I like, and that are improvements over the prior schemes: Delta, Thai, Turkish, AeroMexico, etc. And some of those incorporate swooshes, even! There’s change for the better and change for the worse.
On a popular airline message board, one person actually describes the new Etihad look as “elegant.” No, I’m sorry. The JAL crane is “elegant.” Those triangles are showy and nonsensical. Simplicity, people. As has been noted in this space before, a truly iconic logo or livery is one that a child can replicate by hand, from memory, with a pencil. It relies not on color or texture, but on shape, and it is always something simple. Think Lufthansa; the Pan Am globe; the forsaken “AA” emblem, etc.
If you’ll allow us to switch realms here for a minute, here’s one of the finest examples you’ll ever see…
A few of you probably recognize it. It’s the logo for the MBTA here in Boston, our mass transit system. The “T” as we call it. I was riding the subway out to Logan the other day and it struck me what a classy and elegant mark that is: an unadorned Helvetica character ringed by a simple circle. It’s perfect. T for timeless. You’ll see it in different variations, sometimes set in a black square.
The circular T logo has been with us since the 1950s. It’s just a matter of time, maybe, before somebody gets the bright idea to jazz it up with some curves and swooshes. Fingers crossed.
See chapter seven of Cockpit Confidential for an in-depth and funny essay on airline branding and identity.
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