Lufthansa and Graphic Design

When I was a child I loved airports. Primarily because, as I think with most children, they were associated with adventure, the thrill of flight and holidays. But for me there was something else: the ambience of vast departure halls, the brilliant white lighting, the huge windows looking out to the planes waiting for takeoff.

Of those planes I can still remember the gold and blue Lufthansa 747s, labelled with that stark, clear typeface I now know to be Helvetica. I used to think then that in the future all type would be set in that face: it seemed to be the typeface of airports and space stations, of science fiction. And I remember the simple logo: a stylised crane in a circle.

As Iranian designer Majid Abbasi writes, in lyrical terms:

Ever since childhood I have found this logo intriguingly mysterious. I used to ask myself: where does this strange bird come from? Why does it look the way it does? Where is it going to? … Why is the soaring horned bird so simple? It looked as if it wanted to fly over all the mountains and jump over all the seas and oceans in the world as it travelled from city to city.

That quote appeared in a little book I discovered last week, Lufthansa + Graphic Design, a visual history of the Lufthansa brand. It tells the story of how the airline developed a powerful visual identity that has been applied consistently with only minor adjustments since the early 1960s, and has shaped the aesthetics of the entire air industry.

The Lufthansa brand's founding text is a design manual compiled in 1963 based on study the previous year by the German designer Otl Aicher and his student group at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm. Lufthansa + Graphic Design reproduces elements of the Ulm study and manual, which forcefully express and rigorously apply modernist graphic design principles. The heraldic symbols that had lingered in one form or other in the company's diffuse range of branding devices were to be replaced with the simple logo still in use today: the circled crane. All illustrations were to be replaced with photography. Colours were to be pared back to just two: yellow and blue. And there would be just one typeface, the then ultra contemporary sans serif Helvetica.

Making the most of a limited design palette

The disciplined application of these simple visual elements over subsequent decades helped Lufthansa become one of the world's most immediately recognisable brands. As a web designer I found it rather inspiring to learn just how basic the building blocks in the Lufthansa visual identity are: simple but evidently extraordinarily flexible. One of the big issues facing web designers today is the question of how to preserve some distinctive branding for our clients under the pressure of designing simple, streamlined, fast loading sites that will work on mobile browsing devices. In this regard I particularly liked what the Ulm study had to say about the importance of a distinctive colour scheme as the fundamental element in a design aesthetic:

Company colors are more important to a company's recognition and identity than any other element. Word and image logos [logotypes], on the other hand, must merely facilitate a one-time learning process - in this case linking the colour combination with a certain company. As long as they are sufficiently identified with the company colours in isolation are sufficient to make the company visually present: they are its clearest and most quickly recognised symbol. This means that company colours tend to dominate in terms of quantity, with the word and image logos used only to ensure the learning process. Placing too many firm-designating elements coequally side by side is detrimental to the visual aesthetic's impact. That is why we decided to foreground the company colours and to keep the word and image logos in the background, with the aesthetic carried primarily by the company colours.

Colour is a design element that can be deployed just as easily on a mobile screen as on traditional desktop, and involves no additional bandwidth. The same goes for deployment of a simple logo, and consistent typography - although I appreciate that there may be font embedding issues for certain mobiles if the typeface needs to be downloaded from a service such as Typekit.

Those three design elements give us something to work with, helping establish an immediate brand recognition in the absence of the big graphics and widescreen photography that it's possible to send to desktops. They've certainly worked for Lufthansa.

Image: Toyotaboy95 at en.wikipedia

Lufthansa + Graphic Design is available from Lars Müller, one in the publisher's A5 series that seeks to archive important documents and episodes in the history of graphic design.