Color, crane, font: For the first time in 30 years, Lufthansa is giving itself a new look. A tough task for the team of brand specialists: How do you modernize a design icon – and at the same time preserve its timelessness?
The clock ticks. The room is small, maybe 15 square meters in size, and all of the windows are sealed shut. Beside the door, there’s a trolley labeled “Big ideas start with a sketch,” and on it, there’s a black bar with red numbers: 54:13:30:53. These denote the days, hours, minutes and seconds remaining until the day when the big ideas that have been conceived here, will finally see the light of day.
Until that day, only a handful of people are authorized to enter this conference room at the Lufthansa Aviation Center because this is where the nerve center of a top-secret project is located, the greatest further development of the Lufthansa visual identity for 30 years. “Could you please turn the clock around,” says Lufthansa designer Ronald Wild as we take our seats around the table. He prefers not to have it under his nose just now.
The scale is amazing: Few industries have so many – and such different – things requiring design: aircraft, tableware, uniforms, counters, seats, menus, tickets… and that’s why it was airlines like Lufthansa which basically invented the principle of corporate design. The Lufthansa visual image developed in the 1960s by Otl Aicher at the Ulm School of Design has been a defining influence on the new style.
Mr. Wild, what makes the crane such a successful icon?
Ronald Wild: Quite simply, it’s a pleasing image: a bird, graphically simplified, yet full of grace. You can see that it flowed from a pen, that it wasn’t designed on a computer. And then there’s the aspect that in 1962, Aicher placed it inside a circle. That is what really turned it into a logo: The basic geometrical shape made it readily memorable.
A design classic. And yet Lufthansa is now giving itself a new brand image…
The corporate identity has to be timeless. But it must also suit the times – and there’s the challenge. The world, our society, the media have all changed – and so has Lufthansa. That’s why we are not just modernizing our visual identity, but the entire brand.
It’s a tremendous effort and expense. Why now?
Because the crane celebrates its 100th birthday this year! It was simply the perfect time to consider questions like: How does Lufthansa look? Not in the design manuals, but outside at the airports? Many variations have come up over time – like a house that’s constantly having new extensions added. We haven’t changed our logo, font or colors for 30 years; and now we’re tying up the loose ends.
Countless colored stickers line the project wall. “Testgate MUC” they say, “in-flight entertainment” and “accessories (uniform).” There’s a schedule for the painting of aircraft here that extends right into the year 2025 – and that’s how long it will take until all of the aircraft have their new livery. On the table, beside the paint samples, lies the book containing all liveries, a 100-page compilation of aircraft design drafts. Also, there’s an original-size baggage drop-off pillar with the words printed in the new font.
For the very first time, Lufthansa is giving itself an instantly recognizable corporate font, a font that’s more distinctive, more precise and less rounded. Or as Wild puts it: with more curve tension. “It’s has a discreet look,” he says, “it’s not the star of the rock band.”
Nevertheless, each pixel was a struggle. Somewhere along the way, there was a version of the “u” that “we pretty much fell in love with.” A lovely, minimalist “u” with no spur. It looked good in the Lufthansa logo and also perfectly met all requirements. But when the designers spelled out “Menu” and “Honolulu,” they were forced to admit that at the end of a word, it simply didn’t work. “We tried everything. But it was too soft, had no standing.”
With his agency, Martin et Karczinski, designer and corporate design expert Peter Martin was involved in the redesign right from the start. “We stand there with a smile on our face every single day,” says Martin, when we visit him in Munich, “no matter how tired we may sometimes be.” The place is buzzing, on the screens of all the closely spaced workstations, the same images are repeated: Lufthansa – counters, livery, tickets and cranes. One woman is busy designing T-shirts that play with the “a” of the new typeface. This merchandise is not necessarily for aviation fans, it’s for design freaks.
Who is the design ultimately meant to please?
Peter Martin: Good design is not just pleasing, it always serves a purpose. A new attitude, a new self-image has evolved at Lufthansa. We want to give that change a face – we are bringing the inside out onto the outside, so to speak.
But there’s also a great deal of continuity in the new design …
If we had come up with a completely new crane, what would that have said? That Lufthansa is a different company now? Wrong signal! There are so many great aspects we can work with.
Isn’t the legacy also a burden?
It’s not as though we hadn’t been given an entirely free hand. This work has been one of the greatest explorations I have ever been a part of: We created 500 aircraft designs, 50 versions of the crane – a whole symphony of possibilities!
How do you know when you’ve got it right?
You just feel it. Suddenly, a calm descends on the room. Then you can be sure that it’s right.
We had huge posters full of designs printed and marked our favorites with green adhesive dots. Where should the emphasis be placed – at the tail end as before or at the nose? Or should we perhaps go for full-body paint this time? Only one thing was clear from the start: The dominant color would be blue. “With the old contrasting yellow and blue, you soon created an all-too colorful feeling,” says Martin, “that doesn’t always suggest quality.” That’s why the yellow now has a function: It stands for interaction and orientation. And it’s the color of small gestures. “Precisely because the yellow is no longer always present, it takes on a special meaning.”
The new blue is supposed to communicate sophistication and depth, but on a large surface, color can often appear different, and plus, the material can also alter the effect. That’s why a Boeing tailplane was brought for paint testing to a hangar near Norwich, in England – well away from any plane spotters. Every day, we followed the same ritual: Spray on the paint, let it dry, take it out into the daylight and then back into the hangar and off with the paint again. The designers used a shoot-out method to decide which paint worked best, so each side of the tailplane was given a different blue – the one they liked, they kept, the one they didn’t was stripped off again.
It’s not enough, though, for the blue to look good on the metal. A lovely deep blue soon flips over into black on screens. Thirty years ago, when Lufthansa last gave itself a makeover, hardly anyone knew what a hyperlink was – these days, the quality of a font is measured chiefly by its digital functionality.
Overly precise specifications, such as those laid down in old design manuals, do not allow sufficient scope for all of these different demands. That’s why the designers tended to focus more on general propositions, such as: Blue predominates; or: The crane can stand alone, without the logo. “Guidelines are important, otherwise things just get too random,” says Alexander Schlaubitz, Head of Marketing at Lufthansa. But once the field has been marked out, play can of course begin. “We started by calibrating ourselves: What are the trends? Where do our strengths lie? How great is the desire for change? And then we felt our way forward, step by step.” At the same time, even tiny details led to adjustments in general rules.
There are countless things requiring decisions. How did you reach those decisions?
Alexander Schlaubitz: We had a system of coordinates, but the difficult part was deciding on their application. It’s fairly easy to agree on abstracts, but when it comes to the design specifics of sometimes banal elements, you have to readjust.
The curse and blessing of this brand is that we have an almost endless number of contact points. It’s an integral system – like a gigantic mobile, where even the slightest movement sets the entire thing in motion.
How do clear your head for new ideas?
We moved into different categories: What if Lufthansa were in the fashion industry? Or the other way around: How would a Coca-Cola or a Harley-Davidson aircraft look? Taking a playful approach helps you to shake your routine mindset. And it also relieves pressure. This brand almost has cultural-heritage status, so we were guided by humility and caution.
When Ronald Wild joined Lufthansa 18 years ago, some people who had been there in the days of Otl Aicher were still working for the company – along with all of the myths surrounding their design. Wild also had to start by learning to let go: He took his time, hung up draft designs in his kitchen at home, and observed how they affected him. On February 7, when the clock comes round to zero, all customers and members of the Lufthansa family will be introduced to the new design. Some will consider it radical, others will feel it doesn’t go far enough. “But we created it for everyone who is wholeheartedly committed to Lufthansa,” says Wild.