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An American Evolution - Part I

Drew Letendre

Prologue: This is the first installment of a two-part blog on the re-identification of American Airlines, a topic that will make the blog sphere as jammed as air traffic control on any given Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The first part is gentle admonition to critics, along with some largely favorable personal observations. Part II addresses not so much design as what I take to be some of the underlying brand strategy considerations of this high-profile makeover.

Much will have already been said (well and not so well) about the rebranded American Airlines. And much, if not most of it, will apply to the design per se. So, I won’t go there. As has been famously warned, ‘People who live in glass houses, shouldn’t throw stones.’ And, in my case, I’m not even coming forward with Windex and a squeegee to reverently buff the glass.

I’ll allow myself this: I do miss the stainless steel fuselage. I find the tail wing graphics appealing, and I’m inclined to ‘like’ the new, if subtle, prominence given the name, by diminution of the bold 1968 symbol by Massimo Vignelli. The design is by no means gorgeous or revolutionary. It is ‘inoffensive,’ as one critic put it, by which I don’t intend subtle disparagement. I mean that it deftly avoided extremes. It needs time and time I’ll give it. And so should everybody else.

It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between expressions of subjective taste and ‘learned’ judgments, informed by an awareness of the business-strategic and political contexts that drive design, for better and for worse. Branding and corporate identity people know that ‘logos’ are the products of long and complex gestation. They are often hitched to ‘extraneous’ requirements or compressed under the weight of consensus. This doesn’t always produce the best results, when judged from the perch of the purist.

Much of the ‘criticism’ (laudatory or not) will and has focused on, for example, typographic subtleties like kerning, leading, and beveling; the conformity to or departure from the ‘reigning’ design conventions among airlines; the complex issue of the design’s relation to its visual ancestry — whether or not it departs from it and by ‘how much’. I will say this much: it would be a mistake to judge this work (1) as a logo per se or (2) exclusively on the basis of its manifestation in fleet graphics — the airplane fuselage — tempting as that may be. This is a system that will play across a complex range of applications. At the risk of sounding preachy, let’s wait and see how it performs across that range.

Anyone who ventures a critical opinion in matters of corporate identity and corporate branding have, at the very least, an obligation to acknowledge the existence and power of such parameters, even if they don’t know the specifics. In the case of American Airlines, I don’t.

But, I can imagine some of the weighty considerations that might’ve been addressed. To take just one example, the degree to which a—paradigmatically—American (even, patriotic) brand should be re-rendered in the most literally global of markets. American does not represent the U.S. in the way that British Airways does England or Air France does France, as literally nationalized—government-run—carriers. That aside, there was probably the delicate issue of how far to push or how carefully to render national iconography, to avoid jingoism — how far, to use a common design catchphrase — to dial the ‘Americana’ up or down.

I think this design succeeded beautifully in this regard. What was read positively as ‘strength’ or ‘boldness’ in Vignelli’s eagle in 1968, is more likely to be seen as predatory and imperial today. His eagle descends menacingly, pouncing on visually implied prey. FutureBrand’s re-imaging does away with that. The new symbol — planed down to an aerodynamic abstraction — glides and ascends, by contrast with its ancestor. This ‘softening of the symbol,’ places greater emphasis on the name, as a signature element, which in turn will ‘attract’ focused typographic scrutiny. Again, whether the new American identity succeeds on that score, I can’t say. But what I can say — and I’ll conclude Part I of this reflection on this note — is that redistributing the load onto the name, onto the verbal within the signature, and in that way, affirming it, is a strategy with merit.

Names can ‘go places’ that visual identities, symbols, and logos can’t — ‘namely’ into copy and conversation. Names have a life beyond the designs they ‘reside’ in. They have portability. In this case, it is not only the fact of it being a re-design, but it is the nature of that redesign that is going to keep the ‘American’ name in conversation for a long time to come.

Stay tuned for Part II of this series on the rebranding of American Airlines.