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Observation: US Airways, American Airlines and Vignelli's AA logo

Posting in Design

US Airways may acquire a bankrupt American Airlines. The corporate merger could destroy one of Modernism's most enduring logos.

This morning, US Airways took a tentative first step to acquire American Airlines, which is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and has experienced financial turmoil -- like most U.S. carriers -- for some time.

I must admit, my first reaction was unusual. I didn't raise a fist to the sky and curse the gods for the escalating ticket prices in recent years; I didn't sigh and lament the poor service that domestic carriers offer; I didn't scratch my head and wonder why America's commercial aviation industry can't get it together.

I furrowed my brow and worried. Because Massimo Vignelli's legendary 1967 corporate identity work for American could theoretically be on the chopping block.

My concern is not unfounded: when United and Continental merged earlier this year, the resulting design language left a lot to be desired. The new carrier took United's name but Continental's livery, colors and design. What resulted was a bipolar logo that tried to please everyone but ended up pleasing no one, at least among the folks who care about these things. It was vaguely familiar, yes -- but contradictory. (What, exactly, does a globe have to do with the word "united"?)

I'm a big believer in the power of heritage, and Continental always had it: it had a rocky past, as most old-guard airlines did, but there was something magical about the name: it harkened to an era when new continents weren't a click away, and stepping on a plane really meant something special. (Though nostalgia can cut both ways.)

American Airlines was founded the same year as Continental, in 1934. But American's design language was far more consistent than its rival. Milan-born Massimo Vignelli is among the best-known stewards of the Modernist tradition, and he's responsible for -- among other things -- the New York subway system's easy-to-read signage and Bloomingdale's big brown bags, both which still exist today. Many of his early projects sought to unify disjointed design language for infrastructure that was inconsistent and confusing. You may not like the sleek, impersonal lines of Modernism, but you can't fault its simplicity and consistency, with the typeface Helvetica as its most prominent visual.

Vignelli's work endures in all sorts of places -- for example, did you know that his 1976 "Unigrid System" is still used for the creation of park brochures in the U.S.? -- but nowhere more prominently than American Airlines' logo. Red, blue, symmetrical and (of course) in Helvetica -- it is, in many ways, a perfect distillation of Vignelli's Modernist approach. There's a reason that logo has seen more air miles than any other: it may not be to everyone's taste, but it's an uncompromising example of its era that has influenced countless corporate logos thereafter.

You can imagine my worry, then, after hearing the merger news. True, not everything from the late 1960s ages so gracefully -- if you want to hear me rail against the era, ask me about New York's Penn Station -- but Vignelli's logo could very well be compromised by...well, corporate compromise. Executives are usually keen to please everyone at the bargaining table when entire companies are in play, even at the detriment of a coherent corporate identity moving forward. (For example, US Airways' existing livery incorporates colors from each of the four airlines that preceded it. That's not to say it isn't any good, but if that's how you begin your design process, you're flirting with disaster.)

Will Vignelli's uncompromising AA logo be compromised? Executives are mum on the subject; it's still far too early in the process to discuss such things. But historical precedent suggests that its potential replacement will be about as coherent as a corporate conference call.

"The life of a designer is a life of fight; fight against the ugliness," Vignelli said in the documentary Helvetica. Let's hope that the 81-year-old designer still has a bit of fight left in him.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure