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Roll Out the Old Cliché: Monthly Design Perspective January 2010

Posted by: Dyfed "Fred" Richards on January 01, 2010

All designers start in the same place… experimenting with obvious solutions. Looking to the language of the market and category examples for inspiration is part and parcel of initial design exploration. Sometimes you simply have to go through the motions to discard the expected and clichéd.

A cliché is what it is....something expected, boring and lacking original thought. Sadly, however, some of these old chestnuts remain on the drafting table and make it all the way through the critique process to final execution – to the detriment of the client and the agency. Designers should always consider the unexpected, the big idea, the WOW factor. They have a responsibility to understand and respect the language of the client’s market but also to seek out opportunities to send a vibrant, new message via a breakthrough idea that best represents the offering.

There are many examples of clichéd ideas out there, particularly in the international airline industry. I will refrain from attacking airline service; that I will leave in the capable hands of stand-up comedians. (For those of us lucky enough to turn left rather than right when entering the cabin, the “service” there is, frankly, over-promised and under-delivered.) However, I feel qualified and compelled to critique airlines’ use of clichéd design.

On a recent trip to Asia a colleague pointed out how many airlines use birds as icons. Tragically, he was correct. Are designers so jaded (or lazy) that their “best” idea when developing an airline’s identity is to use stylized birds or wings? Would we ever consider a piggy bank logo for a financial institution? You would be laughed out of the presentation, your reputation in tatters.

Why do so many airlines opt for this expected and obvious design? Granted, they would have a right to adopt an avian look if the country’s national bird is easily recognizable and synonymous with the nation it represents. That is the case with American Airlines’ use of the eagle as its logo, which was designed by the great Massion Vignelli in 1967 and still used today. However, I cannot think of any other such example. Sadly, some countries do not have a symbolic bird so the airlines use the designated national animal and simply place wings on the poor beast. This must be the second-laziest design crime. (Qantas airlines actually did the opposite, removing the wings from its original kangaroo, which was designed in 1968.)

In recent years, airlines have simplified and streamlined the wing graphic into an elegant sweeping ribbon or wave device. British Airways started the trend and the rest of the international pack soon followed. Nonetheless, the resulting shape – no matter how elegant – is still a clichéd bird in flight. How disappointing.

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