The Art of Flying with Matthias Hühne

21 March, 2017

What’s more inspiring than advertising for a dream destination or a new way of travelling? The airline industry is rich in great and innovative design, which contributed to the growth of nationalism in the 20th century. We recently spoke with Matthias Hühne, author of Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975, and an expert in the industry’s design history. Here, he tells us about some of his favorite game-changers in an industry that’s still evolving.

The history of the commercial airline industry is really interesting. Can you give us a bit of background?

In the '30s, flying was still a very, very exclusive affair. It wasn't really until after WWII that flying really became democratized and available to more people, with the large technological advancements driven by the war, like large aircraft that resolved out of bombers. In 1945, after the war, there was a significant increase in passenger volume. The advertising and graphic design became much more professional. It was no longer just one target group of very wealthy people that traveled in the ’30s. It was all kinds of different groups that had to be targeted. All of a sudden you had enough space to offer more than just first class. You could offer an economy class. In the ’60s and ’70s, jets like the 747 offered a huge increase in capacity. Since then, aircraft haven't really become much bigger, except for the A380.

Would you say the ’30s were the golden age for advertising?

For sure. I would also say it was an experimental stage for advertisers and designers in the airline industry. It was such a relatively new form of transportation and there were so many areas that weren’t fully understood. The concept of flying was such a huge step for mankind. Today everyone knows it, but back then, a lot of people were still afraid to get on an aircraft, and in fact, it was much riskier than it is today.

Were there airlines that led the vanguard there?

If you look at Pan Am in the thirties, it was an exception. All very well organized and actually quite amazing. If you look at Air France and British Airways in the ’30s, they weren’t bad. From today's point of view, they introduced a few beautiful images and tried to get people comfortable with flying, and there were some really outstanding designers and individual designs. There wasn’t a holistic approach yet, though. That became clear in advertising when the volume of the industry increased a little later.

After World War II?

Yes. If you look at United Airlines or American Airlines before WWII, their advertisements weren’t bad but certainly not as good as some other more established industries. You could tell that the advertising industry was still struggling to some extent with the whole concept of flying back then, for example compared to the well established railway or shipping industries. Also, the airlines were profitable, but the absolute numbers were not huge. It was still a relatively small industry. Of course they didn't have the same funds to invest in advertisements as railway or shipping companies. The only company that was different in this sense was Pan Am.

Right. Was there competition between railway, shipping, and airlines back then? Would airline posters say 'faster' and then shipping advertising would say 'safer'?

Initially shipping and railways didn't take the airline industry very seriously, because it was so small. If you look back at how people viewed airlines in, let's say the late ’20s and throughout the ’30s, a lot of people thought that airlines would remain a niche form of transportation reserved for people with lots of money who had little time. And after WWII, because it was such a big jump in technology for aircraft, it became clear very quickly and didn't have to be advertised that much, that the airlines would be a superior means of transportation. So this competition in advertising, in my observation, between the different forms of travel, was not very intense.

Let’s talk a bit more about Pan Am. It was the first truly global airline, the first democratic airline company. How would you describe the evolution of their design?

Pan Am from the very beginning had a really exceptional combination of entrepreneurship with design and advertisement. They used the leverage provided by good design and put it into their business model. Pan Am’s design was very good, but always fairly conservative with perhaps the exception of the famous blue globe introduced in the late ’50s, which was pretty advanced design at the time. But overall, their approach was fairly conservative, which made a lot of sense. As one of the airline pioneers, they wanted to look trustworthy.

To sound as sure as a railway company.

Yes exactly. They wanted to provide their early customers with an environment they were familiar with, so they would feel comfortable and wouldn't be scared, so it was important to look conservative. Just from a design point of view, much, much later in the ’60s and ’70s and so on, other airlines were much more progressive, but of course by then, flying had already taken a totally different turn.

Could you tell us more about Pan Am’s globe logo from 1956? It feels like such an iconic design, speaking to progress. How did they come up with that?

It is absolutely an iconic design. It was designed by Edward Barnes and Charles Forberg, two architects. Pan Am wanted a new design for the jet they had just ordered. They wanted to make the jets look special. Barnes and Forberg went one step further and introduced an overall corporate design. The Pan Am globe and all the other designs that came with it were really one of the first examples of a very integrated corporate design in the airline industry where everything from the logo to the ticket offices and all the other items were more or less designed according to a certain unified standard. So this made it special, but the design itself is special, too. They were able to capture the atmosphere of the jet age. It must've been very impressive to look at compared to other airlines. None of the other American or European airlines, with the exception of Swissair, had this sort of foresight.

The logo is such an important thing for airlines because it's on the fin of the plane. It's such an important trademark to master. You mentioned Swissair. Their design reflect tranquility, safety, and cleanliness. Here we can see design as a symbol for a service. Do you agree?

Yes. They were able to combine this service-oriented philosophy with a very progressive, very modern, and very unique design. They were able to identify the key aspects of what the company stood for and wanted to stand for and they were able to translate that quite perfectly into design, including the association with all the positive stereotypes of Switzerland as their home country.

Tell us about Lufthansa. They had quite a holistic approach to design in the late ’60s, didn’t they?

Before they hired Otl Aicher in 1962, they had terrible design. But being from a progressive school of very modern design with a very comprehensive approach, Aicher gave them the right direction. To some extent, it’s still almost unchanged today, just modified a little bit here and there. It was a very, very progressive design, one of the earliest in the airline industry, implemented over a period of several years. So it was more like 1966 or 1967 before it was fully implemented, but the ideas are all from 1962. It's quite a good design, and I'm not saying that because I'm German.

(laughs) At the time, all of these airlines were government owned, yes?

Yes, the airlines in the '50s and '60s outside of the U.S. (the U.S. being the exception) were mostly government-owned. Many people don't remember because they’ve been privatized for a long, long time now. One of their jobs was to represent and market their home countries in their appearance and their advertising. These “patriotic” design associations were not as strong in Germany’s Lufthansa because of the war history of course. Air France, British Airways, etc. clearly associated their visual identities with their home countries. The privately owned American airline companies

Let’s talk a little bit about Braniff. Design here is more used as a provocation or as a statement, in order to be a game-changer. Would you agree?

Absolutely… and game-changer is really the right word to use. It's really the first time that an airline tried to use design in such an extreme way to say, “hello, here I am, please look at me.” They did it very successfully and very professionally.

Although it was quite short-lived.

Well, yes, people say that, but Braniff wasn’t the only airline that didn't survive deregulation. So this is difficult to analyze. People say that all of this design hype was part of the reason for the later failure. My own assessment is that it led to a lot of positive growth. The design was obviously so strong and so spectacular, it actually did contribute to the company’s success. Growing quickly has its own problems. And deregulation had such a big impact on so many other airlines at the time. If you look at the many airlines that disappeared, names that no one even talks about today, Braniff would've been one of those if they hadn't done this amazing design in 1965.

They collaborated with fashion designers like Emilio Pucci. Was this common in airlines?

No, isn't that amazing? As far as I can see, they were really the first ones to try to do that. To really combine design superstars from different backgrounds to create one whole overall design, all coordinated by Mary Wells and Alexander Girard. They added other people, other designers to this team and at the time, this was pioneering work in the airline industry.

Zac Posen is about to launch a collection for Delta Airlines. It's an interesting way to take the flying experience out of the airplane.

Air France also did it [with Christian Lacroix], but not in a bombastic way like Braniff. It was more natural, just like the French always like good design so that's just how they do it. They didn't make a big fuss of it.

Now that we’re talking about Air France, their use of design was maybe a bit more aspirational, to show flying as a privileged access to culture and art. To spark a desire for the “exotic.”

They had a very unique approach, a high degree of attention to design from management in an institutionalized way. They wanted to be involved in design decisions. It was all weighed very carefully, and other airlines didn't do it this way. Most other airlines had one design in place. The management was involved in let's say, the introduction of an important new design, and then once it was introduced, they let it go for a long time until it was outdated and then they said, “oh, we're starting to look outdated and we have to do something new.” At Air France, the management was always focused on design so it wasn't just every five or 10 years that they really got involved. They really were involved all the time, even in surprisingly small decisions.

There was no holistic strategy like Swissair or Lufthansa, more like an aggregation of postcards from all around the world made by colorful or inspired artists.

The sum of the many postcards were to some extent, also a holistic approach. If that's their strategy and you do it all the time, it's also a sort of holistic approach, you can argue.

What about United Airlines and Saul Bass’s use of stripes?

Saul Bass did the United Airlines redesign in 1973 at a fairly late stage, after most of the potential ways to deal with an aircraft or corporate design for an airline had already been experimented with. Being anintelligent designer, he first looked back at how things worked in the past, what worked, what didn't work, why people did what they did, and he analyzed this very carefully. Then he was able to translate his analysis into what I think is really one of the outstanding designs in a very competitive environment in the ’70s. It gave United Airlines, which had a rather outdated image before, a really nice new look and positive impact.

Let’s talk a little bit about Virgin. Which of our early airlines would you say Virgin looks like the most in terms of branding strategy?

It's not as extreme as Braniff, but certainly is a very unique, very strong identity, different from all of the other airlines. Maybe it’s because of Richard Branson, his very open approach to things, and his personality. He founded this airline company when he already had many other businesses; none of the other large airlines had this sort of history or could apply it to aircraft.

How do you see the history of airline advertising in the 20th century impacting something like space travel in the 21st?

Today, if you look at the airline industry, it's really an industry with image problems, because people mostly judge their own experience and say, “oh I was in this crowded aircraft.” They don't appreciate that they only paid $300 to fly from Paris to New York. Space travel is quite exciting, but it’s also super small. Who can afford it? I don't think they’ll necessarily need to do huge campaigns, because the few multi-millionaires who can afford space travel, who really want to do that and are fit enough to do it, probably don't need a lot of convincing. But if technology advances to make it safe and available to many more people, yes absolutely.

We’ve been looking at airline branding mostly in print. Do you think airline identities translate well to TV? Which airline would you say has done the best job in broadcast?

Another very good question! My book included print materials because until the mid ’70s, it was an important way to communicate with the public. Since the ’60s, TV became increasingly important, and print, accordingly, less and less so. I couldn't say which airline did the best job for TV ads, it varied over time. In the late 70s, TV advertising coincided with deregulation, when it became all about price, price, price. So I can't tell you who did the best job. But most likely, an airline that is still successful today. Who would be considered the long-term winner? Is it British Airways? Is it American Airlines? It's difficult to say. They’ve all had so many ups and downs.

Let’s talk a bit about the cultural impact of airline advertising. Pan Am’s logo appears in many movies. Do you think it helps these airlines operate as cultural vehicles as well?

Pan Am, more than any other airline, was very important, culturally. It had a big impact on how America was seen around the world. It depends on who you talk to. If you talk to people in Germany, they remember Pan Am extremely well, because it was the airline that connected West-Berlin with West Germany during the cold war. So Pan Am is a symbol of freedom here in Germany, and in other parts of the world also. It was more than just an airline company: it was a cultural ambassador of the United States.

Words by The Editors. All photos scanned from Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975 (courtesy of the author), except bottom photo, still from Catch Me if You Can (c).

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