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“Mad Men” Meets Airlines – Book Covers Airline Branding and Ads

airline branding

The cover of “Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975”

If you read enough about the airline industry, you can bet that someone – on any given day of the week – will harrumph about the current state of air travel.

“In my day,” says the harrumpher, who probably wears a monocle, “we wore our Sunday best to board an airplane. It was an occasion.

What this person never mentions that their Sunday best reeked of smoke after a flight, and they probably could only afford to fly every once in a great while.

By now, you’re getting the idea that I don’t think much of the so-called Golden Age of air travel; I’m not even sure how to define the Golden Age. I think the general opinion is that it started with the beginning of the Jet Age, and ended immediately at deregulation.

airline branding

Korean Air – no need to change this very distinctive identity.

There is one thing that airlines did better back in the ol’ days than they could possibly do now: They crafted their identity.

The craft of these identities is the subject of Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975 by M.C. Höhne. The book is a weighty tome of 430-some pages that traces the design histories of iconic airlines. It sells for about $358 US.

So who’s going to spend that much on a book about airline branding? Air travel nerds are the obvious audience. But graphic designers and anyone involved in branding, take note. This era was a never-ending stream of outstanding branding and advertising. People still realized that pilots were more than glorified bus drivers (though I imagine most still viewed flight attendants as eye candy). They appreciated the ability to fly at 38,000 feet at hundreds of miles per hour.

airlines branding

Hawaiian Airlines has preserved an identity that matches its mission.

The status symbol element of air travel was clear in airline branding, from advertising to liveries. Air travel was exciting, not tedious. The aircraft themselves were industrial art – absolutely no aircraft manufacturer of the era would’ve called their product “Airbus.”

The airlines were also careful in the statements inherent in their names, their logos, their colors, their paint schemes. There is again absolutely no way an airline named Wizz Air would’ve happened back then … not even if it was painted bright yellow. And exactly what the hell is behind a name like S7 Airlines?

airline branding

Airline branding amateur hour, from the name to the design.

You can see the power in these older brands. Eastern Airlines has been resurrected with its very cool original livery. And even PSA, America West and Piedmont Airlines live on in the form of special liveries on US Airways aircraft: If these old brands didn’t have power and panache, why in the world would US Airways keep them around? Contrast this to the newer brands, where you’re not even sure what they look like at any given time. And even timeless classics like the brushed aluminum of American Airlines are getting revamped (I’m not saying the new look is terrible, just that it’s not likely to become a classic with staying power).

So designers, creatives and branding enthusiasts, give Airline Visual Identity 1945-1975 a look. You’ll get a lot to think about – and maybe a few ideas for how the pros once crafted identities that suit their industry, and how they wanted the public to perceive them. No matter what industry you work in, chances are there are some inspiring ideas here.

If you’re interested in airlines, design and/or branding, what modern airlines do you think do it well? And if you want to read more about airline branding, check out this post by Patrick Smith.

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