Fifteen Years of Flying United
In 1996, Pentagram began working on a series of design projects with United Airlines that eventually touched nearly every aspect of the way the company is experienced by their customers. This year, United will consummate a merger with Continental Airlines, and with this change the new combined carrier begins a new chapter. Here’s a look back at the fifteen years that the Pentagram team, led from beginning to end by London partner Daniel Weil and New York partner Michael Bierut, spent working with this amazing company.
We were given an open brief when we began working with United, but we made one decision shortly after we began: we elected to retain the remarkable logo created for them in 1973 by Saul Bass. The symbol, unofficially but universally referred to as the “tulip,” was a deft rendering of the company’s monogram as well as a skillful modernization of the various shields used by United as emblems since shortly after its founding in 1931.
After an initial period of study, we proposed to begin the rejuvenation of the brand by putting two elements at the center of its graphic program. The first was the United name, which we thought—and still think—is the best in the business: simple, confident, and expressive of so much about the world of air travel. The second was Bass’s symbol, which we decided to not merely keep, but to celebrate. The United mark would be used in a bigger, bolder, more expressive way across the brand’s communications, often sweeping out of frame to emphasize the magic of flight.
The change to the new look was incremental, with airport signage and printed, easily changed items converting first. The typefaces selected were Bodoni and Helvetica. We refined the company’s color palette and simplified the carrier’s naming system. For instance, “Connoisseur Class by United” became the more straightforward “United Business.”
A big part of the air travel experience is the time spent on the plane. There, your attention is focused on the immediate surroundings; every small detail of shape or texture can be important. Over the years, Pentagram designed a wide range of on-board items, including glassware, tableware, amenity kits, blankets, and even socks. This meant working with a wide range of stakeholders, from flight attendants and chefs to maintenance crews and purchasing experts.
As airport operations became more automated, we became involved in launching United’s electronic ticketing system, naming the product, designing the equipment, and creating the on-screen user interface. We also designed the screens for departure boards and gate information displays.
One of the most exciting projects in our history with United was the opportunity to create a new airline. In 2003, the company decided to launch a low cost carrier that would fly under as separate name to leisure destinations and appeal to budget-conscious travelers. We were asked to come up with a new name, identity, livery scheme and design standards for the new carrier. After considering hundreds of names, we discovered one right before our eyes: Ted. By using the last three letters of its parent’s name, Ted was able to signal just the right balance of informality and friendliness, with a built-in connection to the umbrella brand. (Note the customized T from the United wordmark, evidence of the brand’s parentage.)
Pentagram collaborated on the launch of Ted with the company’s agency, Fallon Worldwide, who created this tongue-in-cheek launch commercial.
Because it can be a costly and time-consuming enterprise, United delayed repainting planes to the new standard until 2004. The carrier’s gray-and-dark blue livery was replaced by a brighter, stronger color scheme, with the confident use of the symbol on the tail and the wordmark in simple black-on-white on the body. Bass’s original logo was juxtaposed with the wordmark.
In 2007, we worked with a multidisciplinary team to transform United’s premium transcontinental product. The centerpiece of this effort was the design of seats that converted to lay-flat beds for long-haul flights. We also selected finishes, fabrics and new on-board amenities, consulting on every aspect of the customer experience.
United agency Barrie D’Rozario Murphy created a film featuring Pentagram’s Daniel Weil to launch the new premium seats.
Three years ago, we were commissioned to create a plan to update United’s system of airport lounges. What we proposed was a cleaner, more comtempoary aesthetic, but much more. The design is, in fact, a response to the way today’s travelers actually use these spaces: not as stuffy gentlemen’s clubs, but as places to recharge, reconnect and relax. Areas for work are varied and abundant, with no shortage of electrical outlets and access to refreshments. As Weil says, “Every seat is a good seat.”
When United consummates its merger with Continental this year, much will change. One notable change—and one of the most controversial, at least in design circles—is the loss of the Saul Bass tulip, which will disappear for good when the United symbol is replaced with Continental’s. Also ending, for now at least, is the airline’s partnership with Pentagram.
The United name, however, will live on. And so will the respect and affection we feel for the literally hundreds of United people we worked with across the company over the past 15 years. It has been a terrific journey, and we are honored that they invited us to join them. Thanks for a great ride.
Project Team: Daniel Weil and Michael Bierut, partners in charge.