The tale of a tail and a squiggle

Lynda Relph-Knight follows the evolution of BA’s new identity and evaluates the result. Although BA’s investment and belief in design is commendable, perhaps the identity doesn’t go far enough in creating a strong visual language, she says

What makes the new British Airways identity such hot property? The national press has been pushing for months to get sight of it, and early revelations in The Sunday Times prompted an over-cautious BA to deny it a strong art content.

What many have missed in their rush for a scoop is the real significance of this identity shift – or “visual promise”, as BA chief executive Bob Ayling calls it – and the example it might usefully set to other UK companies.

It is costing a packet – 2m for design and imagery and 60m for implementation – and is backed by a 6bn three-year programme of investment in new services, products and facilities. But if Ayling is proved right, it will reposition his company for the next ten or so years, making it a serious global player in a highly competitive market. BA’s aim is also to make itself more accessible to people off on holiday, as well as to retain and build its business custom. How many other companies put that much faith in design?

For design there’s a bigger story – the way the identity programme has been run. BA is rare in that several of its senior people, outside its design management team, are trained in design, though, says management head Chris Holt, that doesn’t necessarily make his job easier.

The conversation about this latest identity started in 1992, when BA was getting involved in global alliances with other airlines. The old identity, devised by Landor in 1984 to take it through privatisation, wasn’t appropriate, though Holt is insistent that “it’s been excellent for BA”.

BA was becoming a world brand, with 60 per cent of its customers based outside the UK, and it wanted to capture a bigger share of the leisure market, Holt says. “The new mission was to be the undisputed leader in world travel and to add value at both ends of the airline journey,” he says.

Research showed that promise wasn’t being delivered by the Landor identity, which incorporated the Union Jack. Holt and his colleagues therefore went to the BA board in autumn 1994 suggesting a review of the identity.

Newell and Sorrell was appointed the following August, after BA design manager Michael Crump had completed a “credentials tour” of some 50 design groups. Newell and Sorrell, Landor, Sampson Tyrrell and Cato Design in Australia in alliance with Wickens Tutt Southgate were given a preliminary brief before the final choice was made.

Holt says the appointment was made because Ayling and others believed that Newell and Sorrell “understood the brief fully, its strategic view was spot on and its creative ideas were excellent”.

Throughout the project, Newell and Sorrell has worked very closely with Holt’s staff and other design consultancies. “It’s one team,” Holt is keen to stress. “Everyone is interested in one thing – making it better.”

Consultation has been key to the process, with various research and briefing exercises carried out since Newell and Sorrell’s appointment, among BA staff, customers, rostered design groups and others.

By the same token, implementation has been well thought through. The cost of grounding aircraft, for example, prevents an overnight livery change for the whole fleet, so planes have been given an “interim livery” as they’ve needed refurbishing over the past two years. This will make the change over the next three years much easier, says Holt.

The art programme will develop over the same period, with a further 35 artists from across the world due to be commissioned to add to the current stable of 15. The photographic library of people from different nations for use on print and signing material continues to grow.

Meanwhile, new BA brands are being developed, not least the World Traveller class due for launch next year with interiors group Davies Baron, among others, looking at how to apply the new identity. English & Pockett is designing the in-flight graphics and there is scope for other spin-offs – merchandising and publishing are mentioned by John Sorrell.

According to Crump, in all this the 10 June launch “is only the start. It’s a statement of intent for the next ten years.” So what do we make of that statement? While coy about revealing details of the new identity to the press ahead of the launch, in line with good identity practice, Newell and Sorrell did see fit to show it to a few friends in design.

Design leaders such as Design Business Association chairman Jonathan Sands and Design Council design director Sean Blair predictably and politely describe the result as “brilliant” and “marvellous”. But top-flight creatives who’ve glimpsed it are less enthralled. They might single out the overall vision, cultural content of the art programme or exemplary design management process for praise, but temper their comments on the logo.

This has been described as “indifferent” or even “bad” by some, who would prefer a stronger typeface and a more distinctive device than the “squiggle” or “speedmarque” that accompanies the logotype.

But why is it necessary at all? If mobile phone giant Orange can invoke the idea of quality and first rate service with a single colour, why can’t a strong art programme alone create an international language for BA? One day, maybe.

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