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American Airlines Design From 35,000 Feet – Part II

By Drew Letendre

This is part II in a series exploring the rebranding of American Airlines.

Prologue: In part I, I fired a shot across the bow of would-be critics to observe some of the ‘proper etiquette’ often missing from ‘posts’ in the design blog sphere. I also began to record some of my own positive observations about this watershed brand event. I wish to resume, simply noting that my ‘critique’ is not formalist, assessing design in isolation, but rather speculating on and assessing the nexus between it and strategic considerations, pursuing that line beyond design in the narrow sense.

Design’s Debt to Context
What interests me most about this rebrand — apart from any plenary aesthetic judgments of the design or ‘micro-focused’ aspects thereof — are: (1) the choice to make the ‘secondary’ fuselage graphics (prominently on the tail wing) heroic both in scale and visual flamboyance; and (2) the decision to diminish the scale of/emphasis on the time-honored 1968 symbol, dropping the A’s and diminishing it to a relatively abstract accent mark at the end of the name — thus making the name newly prominent (forget the choice of font).

I think the transformation of the eagle, from its predatory rendering in Vignelli’s image — whatever its artistic merits — is the right design strategy for quieting the potentially imperial or jingoistic connotations of American symbolism (to say nothing of the frankly remarkable fact that Vignelli’s eagle is descending!). And, shifting the site of graphic boldness to the tail wing—and from the Eagle to the more abstract geometry and symbolism of the national flag—are steps in the same (‘right’) direction. Whatever one’s pronouncements on the typography, its decreased weight contribute to the effect of lightness and lift and, again, a quieter utterance of the name — and word — ‘American’. To me it appears now ‘spoken more quietly,’ but with no less confidence.

Modern Airline, Modern Brand
If the idea was — and it was — to parallel and herald the modernization of AA and its new fleet with a proportionally modern brand, then American succeeded. And, they did not need to do it spectacularly, with disruptive visual panache. A business that has been in continuous operation for as long as American and has been under the same emblematic identity for the better part of that long history, should have a brand which — for all of its newness and futurity — reflect its ‘ancestral’ equities.

‘Infrequent Flyer Miles’: Points for Courage
Again, whatever one’s aesthetic judgments, one has to give American credit for the courage to radically re-design an almost half-century old icon (if I may use that loaded term). If there is any doubt about that, compare it to United’s disappointingly safe, wholesale appropriation of Continental’s staid — literally cartographic — global imagery. Though the underlying drivers of identity change were different in the two cases, each was a valuable opportunity to make new beginnings. While I won’t say United missed its opportunity, I will say American made much more of theirs.