Despite there not being much interest in my past posts about airline visual design, it’s one of my favorite things to write about. These posts also take much more time to write than my normal posts, which is why I’ve been fairly quite for a little while (well, that and laziness). However, airline design is in the news this week now that Lufthansa has rolled out not only a new livery, but an entirely new visual identity.
The reaction to it has been pretty negative, although if there’s one guarantee in commercial aviation, it’s that a new livery will never be universally well-received. People have a strong emotional attachment to airlines and what they represent, and changes threaten to sever that attachment by making the airline unrecognizable. The more drastic a change, the more polarizing a new design becomes, and I can think of none more drastic in recent memory than American Airlines. I’ll get back to Lufthansa in a minute, but the reception of American’s identity has some interesting parallels. From a graphic design perspective, I don’t totally hate American’s new livery, although it has some major problems… and of course, I detest the new logo.
Most of the hate for American’s new logo was around the abandonment of the eagle, which had been an iconic symbol of the brand since the very early days. However, what most people don’t mention is that Mossimo Vignelli, who created the previous logo, wanted to ditch the eagle all the way back in the 1960s. I’ve read a lot of commentary lamenting AA’s current management junking a visual identity produced by one of the great corporate design gurus of all time, but to Vignelli the eagle was an anachronistic holdover from the days when flight was a novelty, and it went against the streamlined modernity he wanted to project. It was only after employees rebelled against the new logo that American’s management figured out away to shoehorn a stylized version the eagle between the two “A’s” (without Vignelli’s approval), and when you view it in this context, the eagle does look fairly out of place in the AA logo. Vignelli also would have found it especially objectionable that the new eagle was often used on its own, since he intended the simple “AA” to be the universal symbol of the brand.
Given the history, the abandonment of the eagle may have been overdue, although the fact that there was another huge uproar from both the public and American’s own employees suggests that, just like last time, people weren’t ready to let it go entirely. Management paid lip service to the old design by allowing employees to vote on a version of the new livery that preserved the old logo, but the option presented looked ridiculous with its two mismatched fonts and competing logos. The old logo is incompatible with the new design, so keeping it on the tail made no sense. Would they honestly have gone with this livery if the employees had voted for it? Maintaining two separate logos is just weird, so I’m at least glad they committed to the new design for better or worse.
The bummer of it all isn’t that the eagle is gone, it’s that the eagle beak logo just looks so boring. If there’s one trend I hate in airline visual design, it’s these limp-looking shapes that are supposed to be suggestive of motion or adventure but instead look like nothing at all. Air France is guilty of this, as is Iberia and a host of others. The worst in my opinion is British Airways, who for many years had one of the all-time best logos – the Speedbird. I mean, the Speedbird was so closely intertwined with BA’s identity (and BOAC before the merger) that it’s still used today as their ATC callsign. However, the demands of modernity for some reason convinced their management that they needed to junk the iconic symbol and instead fart out the wet noodle they call the “Speedmarque.” Blegh. (I should note that the Speedmarque was originally pointy and was an attempt to evoke both the Speedbird of old as well as the Union Jack, which was a component of BEA’s shitty logo at the time of the merger. Its current iteration is as bland as bland can be, and it’s all the more tragic given the excellent logo pedigree of both BOAC and pre-1970s BEA.)
American went the same direction, and what they came up with is softer, less evocative, and it pays homage to their history so wanly I’m surprised they even bothered. It’s not quite an eagle and not quite an “A,” but it’s definitely a boring slanted shape. Air France eat your heart out.
Okay, so getting back to Lufthansa. First of all, they kept the crane logo! Huge sigh of relief. Given the state of airline design refreshes lately, that alone is reason to cheer. The Lufthansa crane has more or less maintained its form since 1918, and it’s worth celebrating that they didn’t go down the road of so many others and ditch a truly iconic symbol for some dumb blob or swoosh. Ditto the font. Lufthansa’s identity has always communicated German precision, and the bold sans-serif font (Helvetica Black) was a major part of that. (Not for nothing, Helvetica was also the main component of Vignelli’s identity for American, so it tracks that along with his logo, American would ditch that font altogether in favor of something weaker and more generic. Thankfully, Lufthansa didn’t mess with something timeless just for the sake of it.)
The two most striking changes they did make was to extend the blue color of the tail onto the fuselage, like so many other airlines have done. I’ve seen it pointed out that they basically “copied” Qantas, but Qantas is far from the only airline to use the tail-onto-body visual convention. In fact, I’d say that tail-onto-body has become the cheat-line of the current era.
There are differences in exactly how the tail merges with the body in these examples, but it’s more or less the same concept across all the airlines that use it. I’m sure there are plenty more examples that I’m not thinking of, too.
So Lufthansa caught up with the times by adopting the most of-its-time visual convention. It’s not great, but to be honest, Lufthansa has never been an airline to adopt cutting-edge identities. It’s last big refresh was by Otl Aicher (another of the titans in the history of corporate design), and although the new identity introduced a timeless aesthetic for Lufthansa, it more or less brought them up to date with competitors like Swissair and Pan Am who had implemented modern corporate identity programs years earlier.
I don’t think Lufthansa would consider the newest design a failure for being too safe. In fact, it’s likely the opposite, and they’re happy that they now have a clean and current looking design that puts the focus on their two most recognizable features – the crane logo and the no-nonsense wordmark. American could have taken a page from their book instead of putting that jarring piano-key thing on the tail, completely overwhelming their new logo. I’ve seen a number of comments about how Lufthansa had the chance to break new ground and become a design leader with this design refresh, but that’s not how I see them as a company. Dating back to the Aicher visual identity, the focus is on simple, effective, precise communication, and that’s exactly where the new livery lives as well.
There’s also something to be said for the comprehensiveness of the new design. One of the most remarkable things about the original Aicher identity was how rigorously it was studied, and how exhaustively it was documented and then applied throughout their network. And again today, they have issued a comprehensive set of guidelines that touches everything from planes to boarding passes. This is a lot more than a new livery, and it speaks to the deliberateness and technical precision that Lufthansa has always touted.
The second big change is the abandonment of yellow as a component of the livery (except for some nearly invisible iconography on the doors). It does make Lufthansa oddly monochromatic, and it’s kind of interesting that they’re reaffirming their commitment to yellow via signage, boarding passes, and other printed materials while mostly removing it from the plane itself. It’s hard to argue that customers associate a certain color with your brand if you don’t use that color as a key component of the livery.
Here again, though, there are some echoes with Lufthansa’s past. All the way back in the 1960’s, Aicher identified yellow as an important color to highlight as well, given that blue was a fairly common color in airline liveries. He proposed a few designs that featured yellow very prominently, and Lufthansa’s management rejected all of them. As Lufthansa tweaked the design over the next 25 years, design teams continued to propose using more yellow in the livery, and management never approved it. Here are some photos from a couple books I have about Lufthansa that show what might have been:
Just like AA being ambivalent about the eagle, Lufthansa has a history of resisting yellow. In that historical context, it doesn’t altogether surprise me that they went with a two-color livery.
So here’s my confession: I like Lufthansa’s new livery. I’m pretty objective, given that I’ve only flown them one time (great flight, BTW), and I don’t have a personal attachment to the old livery or the company itself. If I did, I’m sure I’d be right there alongside everyone else who hates the new design. And I agree that it’s derivative of Qantas and others. Stripped of context, though, I think the mostly solid dark blue triangle cuts a dramatic profile (I prefer it to the Qantas red), and I like the bold choice to keep the lines perfectly straight, rather than curving them toward the bottom of the fuselage like you see on most of the others that use this basic design.
And finally, I appreciate that Lufthansa isn’t just painting some planes and then walking away. While the livery is obviously the most visible aspect of an airline’s identity, Lufthansa set a benchmark almost sixty years ago for how to implement a corporate visual identity from the top down, and they’re continuing in that tradition today.
If you’re interested in this stuff, you should check out the book Lufthansa + Graphic Design, published by Lars Müller. It has tons of photos of Lufthansa’s planes and other corporate materials through the ages. And I know I’ve mentioned it many times before, but Matthias Hühne’s Airline Visual Identity may just be the best book ever published on any subject. Lastly, for some neat reproductions of Aicher’s design manual for Lufthansa, check out Manuals Volume 1, published by Unit Editions.
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