Images courtesy of Air Canada

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How to Redesign an Airline

Images courtesy of Air Canada
How to Redesign an Airline
Published April 4, 2017 by Richard Morgan

Look up and you'll know: Air Canada is in the black.

Black bellies are part of its bold, sharp brand-wide redesign by Winkreative, one both granular (the most gorgeous route map in the biz) and grand (its iconic 1962 rondelle is back). The shop, headed by Tyler Brûlé, has become something of an airline agency. Having renovated Bombardier, Porter Airlines, André Balazs' StndAir, and Swiss International Airlines, Winkreative is currently tackling Air Canada and its 300-plus fleet of aircraft as Canada's flag carrier celebrates its 80th anniversary. We spoke with Maurus Fraser, their creative director, about what goes into redesigning an airline.


The color black is used throughout the airline's design color scheme, which is rare for airlines.

What stands out immediately about the Air Canada redesign is the unexpected stark black component. Can you talk about how that came into the mix and how you decided to get out of the red and white colors that Air Canada has been in for a long time?

The opportunity that we saw was to really celebrate the rondelle. Air Canada had a mark designed in 1963 by Hans Kleefeld, the famous Canadian graphic designer, and they had this icon which companies would die for, and they've had this for so long. To not have that on the tail of the plane kind of felt like a missed opportunity. Maple leaves are quite used in Canada—you get a maple leaf in the middle of the golden arches of the McDonald’s. They put them on many things.

How did you pick the black color?

We had several versions of black: How black is black? Is it cold black? Is it warm black? When we were looking at the tones that we could use on the plane we had to work with Boeing, with the Boeing colors and they've got quite a small palette. Well, they've got sort of a wide palette, but it’s limited when you're in certain color ranges. There was this jet black, which was just perfect for what we wanted.


Black is heavy on the eye, but it's also literally heavy in an engineering standpoint. In an industry that wants lightness, weightlessness, was that a tough decision to make?

Black is a pigment and actually it's not heavier than a white, as long as you have an opaque color painted on a plane. You could argue that maybe black absorbs a little bit more heat, but even in those circumstances the aircraft has been designed so powerfully, like most vehicles, that they're designed to handle these kinds of heats and it doesn't necessarily get absorbed that much. So we've been assured that it's no heavier in all practicality. There's a slight metallic fleck that gives it a pearlescent effect, which is actually slightly heavy and going to the clean, just the clean white, not overlaying too many colors, does actually make it much more efficient.

So you're right. This is at the forefront of all the airlines minds, when the paint's being painted the engineers are testing the depth of the paint; it can't be painted at too much depth and the use of black on planes is incredibly rare. You don't see it. There's Air New Zealand, and there's a great airline in Japan called StarFlyer, which is very cool, using black. But no one's really been using it in this way that we're doing.

It's interesting that you mention New Zealand because they just did that flag redesign attempt that kind of went nowhere, but they had that Māori fern design. This black, white and red combination palette can be very tribal; it's the same sort of color palette that you see on a lot of Pacific Northwest, British Columbia, totem poles.

We've definitely been looking at those influences, especially when you look at the nose mask that we've designed. We looked at, and studied the shapes of, an indigenous bird, a common loon, that has a red eye. The nose mask is a symbol of confidence and the use of black is charming because it has a bit of personality celebrating the cockpit. The pilot is a key part of this experience and nobody today really celebrates the cockpit and the pilot.

An airline redesign is not just object design or industrial design. It's also fashion, interior decoration, and architecture. How did you address that breadth?

One of the things we were careful of is rondelle fever. You shouldn't have rondelles everywhere. It's scaling things down. Sometimes, you can get to a point where you have a successful symbol and you use it on everything. Then before you know it, you've got 10 of them on one application and you're just scratching your head.

Did Winkreative have an all hands on deck approach? Or did you bring in any extra staff?

We directed a team based in Canada called Mosaic for the launch event. When it comes to illustration, we've been working with a Japanese illustrator. Working alongside our designers and art directors, we have a team of art buyers that help us find illustrators, photographers, film makers, and animators. When we're working on identities, we're very careful that we don't want things to be repetitive. If we're working with one collaborator on one project, it's not necessarily the best person to be working with on another. 

The Air Canada redesign included the attire, too.

Did you have lessons that you brought over from being in the airline redesign business, lessons you didn't realize you had learned until you were unconsciously, subconsciously applying them to the Air Canada project?

Yes. When we were designing Swiss International Airlines In 2002, there was a lot of experimentation happening in airline design. British Airways was doing all these different art techniques from different countries. It was very exciting from a design perspective. From a branding perspective, however, it was too much of a compromise for British Airways, because they had planes flying through air that people didn't ultimately recognize were from British Airways.

When an entity like Air Canada acts as an unofficial ambassador for how their country is perceived around the world, how do you take that responsibility and apply it to tastefully redesigning something like the seat pocket sick bags?

We're still in the process of working on those pieces, but there's a series of elements that we're working on for the brand where we exaggerate a little bit of that character and charm. 

One of my favorite redesigns is the worldwide flight path map on that red graphing paper. It's very clean, linear, with a circuit board kind of look. Very 70s or 80s, in a good way. How'd that happen?

It goes back to the golden age of travel and the things that inspired us when we go on a plane. Everything was so sharp. All the touchpoints were so well designed. When you look at most airlines, their route maps, it's a photograph or some sort of image of the world. And then there's these huge kind of lines that always overlap, and you can't tell which line is going where. You know its gotten to a point where airlines don't care.

We drew Air Canada’s route map in-house, probably spending far too much time pouring over each of those routes and angles. It’s a strong moment and opportunity for an airline to communicate to their customers. The moment you get to the pages in the in-flight magazines and you see the route map, that's when you're inspired to go somewhere and realize how convenient and simple it is to go there. Air Canada is really enabling you to do that.

Your design will reach a wide range of people, from those traveling to Canada for the first time to the road warriors for whom the plane has become as familiar as an office cubicle. What impact do you hope the design has across the spectrum of flyers?

To ultimately improve people's lives. That's an ambition that I think most designers share. If design can make your everyday life just that much bit better, then why not right?

There are some design similarities to Delta's new branding. To what degree is that coincidental, or was Winkreative inspired by things Delta did?

Delta is a very different design and not something that influenced our work. Our use of red, white and black, the introduction of the mask, placing the rondelle back on the tail— after 24 years—and the distinctive rondelle on the belly, are not something we have seen before. 

More about Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, New York , The New York Daily News, The New York Post, and The New York Observer. He lives in New York and is the author of Born in Bedlam.

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