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Resistance is futile. The Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing will conquer all.

Published July 18, 2005 7:30PM (EDT)

There was a time, not all that long ago, when the logo of Pan American World Airways stood as one of the most widely recognized commercial trademarks in the world. There was nothing particularly attractive about the symbol -- a fissured, blue and white globe reminiscent of a basketball -- but it worked. Only the frilly script of Coca-Cola was better known across the planet.

The globe first appeared in the 1950s and endured for almost half a century, right until Pam Am's final breath in December 1991. The uniforms of Pan Am's aircraft certainly changed over the years -- in the 1980s, for example, the vintage nose-to-tail fuselage stripe was swapped for a look that presaged the "billboard" concept now commonly employed by many carriers -- but through it all, the blue ball remained on the tail. Had Pan Am survived, one wonders, would the globe have made it too? Looking around at the evolution -- perhaps "devolution" is the better word -- of air carrier logos, it's hard to tell.

Since the dawn of civil aviation, airlines have been devising and revising what they believe to be meaningful identities. As pointed out by author Keith Lovegrove in his superb volume "Airline: Identity, Design, and Culture," the logo represents only a small fragment of the overall branding process, which takes place on a score of fronts, from cabin interiors to crew attire to the color of maintenance vehicles. But it's the logo that encapsulates identity in a single aesthetic mark.

Often, if predictably, these insignia incorporate national symbols or cultural associations. The shamrock of Aer Lingus; the Qantas kangaroo; the green cedar of MEA (Lebanon); the Pharaonic bust of EgyptAir -- there are literally hundreds to choose from. Subtler adaptations include Malaysia Airlines' indigenous kite design, and the calligraphic brush stroke of Hong Kong's airline, Cathay Pacific.

Others are more arbitrary. What is Air-India attempting to communicate through use of the centaur, the man-horse of Greek mythology? Lufthansa can trace its logo to 1919, when one of the airline's predecessors, an outfit called Deutsche Luft Reederie, came up with a flying-crane motif for its planes. Is there anything endemically German about cranes?

Does there need to be? After all, commercial iconography is full of simple, wholly invented emblems. The birdlike colophon worn by Imperial Airways and BOAC (later British Airways) comes to mind, or the eagled AA of American Airlines, but they needn't be overtly suggestive or hearken to any flight-related theme. The four-petaled "U" of United is but an abstraction of the airline's name. Generic you could say, but generic in a good way, able to cultivate recognition the world over.

Even the name alone can do the trick. There's nothing terribly recondite about the typefaces worn by Virgin Atlantic (inherited from Sir Richard's earlier enterprises) or SAS (Scandinavian Airlines System), yet they're expressive enough to have become iconic logos all their own, instantly distinguishable to millions of people (Coca-Cola here too).

The famous Pan Am globe was an obvious-enough symbol, but any one of them, even the ugly or seemingly senseless ones, has (or had) the capacity to become a timeless fingerprint.

Though hardly an aesthetic masterpiece, Pan Am's logo was a classic. And it wasn't the only one. I'll give you three more that were, or could have been, similarly successful (and we'll be borrowing a bit from a pair of previous columns, in which we critiqued and graded the best and worst of airliner paint jobs).

First is the old circular logo of Japan Airlines. For decades every JAL aircraft featured this stylized depiction of the crane, lifting its wings into the circular suggestion of a rising sun. Everything about it worked: It was proud, ageless, unmistakable. As a bonus it also was -- unlike the stodgy Pan Am globe -- stunningly attractive.

Next have a look at the trademark recently retired by Northwest Airlines. Unveiled in 1989, this was the brainchild of Landor Associates, one of the industry's most powerful identity overhaulers. The mark is genius: It's an N, it's a W, it's a compass pointing toward the northwest. It was all of those things at once, and boldly handsome to boot.

And lastly is the three-cornered, so-called widget of Delta Air Lines. Clunky perhaps, but modest and unequivocal. It says one thing and says it without a hint of fuss or pretension: Delta.

In the words of June Fraser, president of the Society of Industrial Artists and Designers: "National airlines change their identities at their own peril." She's right, and yet they do.

JAL's elegant crane has been phased out and replaced by something so awful that every JAL plane deserves to be concealed under a black tarp: a giant, blood red "rising splotch" oozing across the tailfin.

Over at Northwest it's almost as bad. Landor's brilliant NW has been bastardized into a lazy, meaningless circle. Compared to the one it replaces, this new device is so brutally reductive that it's almost painful to gaze upon.

Down in Atlanta the news is slightly better. When the powers at Delta instituted a makeover about five years ago, the widget was given a rather unfortunate tweak, morphed into a kind of frumpy, half-melted triangle. It's seldom that a company will revert to a prior scheme, but that's just what happened at the world's second-largest airline. After protests against the widget's needless overhaul, the old one has returned.

Well done, but Delta's problem isn't its trademark widget. Instead, it's the tail. Use of the word "problem" here is maybe a curious one, as admittedly the tricolor banner -- something of a cross between a shower curtain and the flag of Luxembourg -- is colorful, innovative and frankly a real eye catcher. But that's just it: it's all show and no substance -- fancy for the sake of being fancy.

Although the tail could be much, much worse, it's symptomatic of an industry-wide scourge. The application of textures, complex patterns, and other quirky novelties is becoming excessive. They tend to be very nice, in and of themselves, but ultimately there's no true conveyance of identity. It's easy to marvel at the furl and flow of the Delta shower curtain, but there's something about it that screams temporary. Ten years from now, it's bound to be replaced by an entirely different palette, and the drive for recognition must begin all over again.

Consider the new styling of Avianca, revealed as part of the airline's emergence from bankruptcy earlier this year. Colombia's national carrier is one of the three oldest airlines in existence. But what, exactly, is evoked by this? Nothing, best anybody can tell, beyond the possible self-satisfaction of the artists.

Likewise, here's the latest rendition of Portugal's national airline, TAP Portugal. The acronym stands for Transportes Aéreos Portugueses, and thus the full and formal name translates loosely to "Portuguese Air Transport Portugal." I'd be willing to grant the carrier a nonsense name if only it hadn't simultaneously insisted on this revolting new mishmash of a livery. How to say this exactly, but every TAP airplane now looks like a flying department store.

Of course, a department store is one thing. I'd like to know why Air Canada chose to abandon its classy colors in order to paint up its aircraft in the pallid blue tiling of an airport men's room.

Importantly though, and showing something akin to Delta's good sense, Air Canada at least had the presence of mind to hang on to its encircled maple leaf logo, visible in the preceding photograph on the forward fuselage above the windows. Aeroflot gets a mention here too. Overall, the Russian carrier's newest paint job displays a hideous overuse of colors and motion, but scores major points for retaining its winged hammer and sickle, virtually unchanged since the 1940s.

With the widget in mind, retooling a heretofore well-known trademark is best done judiciously. Delta's old competitor, Eastern Airlines, was one carrier whose tinkering with tradition proved successful. Eastern's final logo, which at first glance looked to be little more than a winking blue and white circle, was an adaptation of the carrier's decades-old falcon mascot -- and, in a modernist sort of way, a beauty.

Opposite case in point, United Parcel Service. The venerable UPS logo was the work of Paul Rand, a legendary design guru who also did work for Westinghouse and IBM. Click here to behold its transformation. Sadly departed is the bow-tied box, which to me was a wonderful, heart-and-soul manifestation of the company's core mission: delivering packages. What we get instead is yet more ultra-slick corporate anonymity. If we didn't know better, UPS could be a bank or insurance company.

"I call that the Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing," says Amanda Collier, a 10-year graphic design veteran who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif. "The GMST is what happens when any corporation gathers senior management, their internal creative department, and a design agency in order to develop a new logo. The managers will talk about wanting something that shows their company is 'forward thinking' and 'in motion,' and no fewer than three of them will reference Nike, inventors of the original swoosh. The creative types smile, nod, secretly stab themselves with their X-Acto knives, and shit out variations on a motion theme until everyone gets tired of arguing about it. It's the lowest common denominator of commercial design."

We presume Air-India relies on that centaur to suggest movement, speed and strength. But it's a two-step process: You instantly recognize the virtues of the centaur, but you also have to ask yourself why he's there and not somebody -- or something -- else. Collier's GMST does the thinking for you. Why bother with some complex symbolism when a simple brush command in Photoshop can take care of it?

Collier also points out the madly overwrought logo of Milwaukee-based Midwest Airlines (formerly Midwest Express). Note those motion lines -- and I think I see a touch of art deco in there somewhere. I also see what might be either a bronze boomerang or perhaps a gob of Wisconsin cheddar. How very, um, regional, though it's definitely better than a decal of an overweight Packers fan in denim shorts.

Not unexpectedly, what we find in the end is a state of constant change. And while it's easy to be disappointed by the latest rash of poorly rendered ideas, it's foolish to advocate we cling to every timeworn trademark. The shame is having lost a few of the best when they still maintained dignity and freshness. Logos evolve, and well they should. The trick is allowing the age to speak to its aesthetic, and not vice versa. In other words, don't go messing with it because you think you're supposed to.

"That's the horrible thing," Collier adds. "Exactly when a given design begins to fix itself properly in the public consciousness, it will be revised!"

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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