Reviewed December 2017
Craig Fansler, Preservation Librarian
ZSR Library Special Collections & Archives, Wake Forest University
On Board with Design: Passenger Transportation and Graphic Design in the Mid-Twentieth Century is a freely available online exhibition of ephemera from ten transportation companies. Drawn from collections housed in Northwestern University’s Transportation Center, the materials are dated 1954-1979 and represent a selection of airlines, train systems and public transportation. The site was launched on July 26, 2017 to highlight examples of graphic design through the lens of Northwestern’s travel collections.
Using menus, timetables, and annual reports, this exhibition addresses changing tastes in graphic design as the framework for exploration of these materials. The landing page is easy to understand and uses graphic imagery derived from a 1972 Pan Am menu. This visual sets the tone for the entire exhibit, which takes the viewer back to the 1960s and ‘70s. There are ten companies highlighted in this exhibit and information about each is accessible from the landing page via a dropdown menu. In each company listing, there is a brief history of the airline or train system. There is also a visual timeline, created using TimelineJS (a popular Digital Humanities tool), which shows timetables, menus, ticket envelopes and annual reports from the ten companies. This timeline is easy to use and understand, albeit a little sluggish as the user moves through it, due to image loading time. An “Additional Reading” link contains a comprehensive annotated list of books about visual identity and graphic design from the 1950s- 1970s concerning air and train travel.
One of the strong points of this exhibit is its focus on individual designers who created unique and graphically interesting visual identities for air and train travel. There is good discussion of the individual designers who affected the visual identity of airlines, such as Mary Wells Lawrence for Braniff Airlines, Massimo Vignelli for American Airlines and Saul Bass for Continental Airlines. The designers employed by some of the transportation companies created designs which were so unique that they influenced other design fields. For instance, Mary Wells Lawrence hired Emilio Pucci to create Braniff uniforms and architect Alexander Girard to design everything from the ticket to the plane (“the end of the plain plane”). Thus, it could be argued these designers also impacted popular culture beyond transportation. Train systems also used important graphic designers to influence their users, such as Lippincott & Margulies for Amtrak, whose 1972 timetable could be considered an early form of the ‘word cloud.’ Designer Massimo Vignelli designed an internationally influential map of the New York City Transit Authority in 1972. This colorful diagram made a complex system understandable in a fresh, graphic way and is an important inclusion in this exhibit. There are a limited number of items under each transportation company, and this makes it easy to browse this collection without being overwhelmed.
Users of this resource will get a good introduction to visual identity and how it was used to shape travel from 1950-1970. There is a good description of the use of graphic design and well established designers to set each company apart with distinctive design. The images, however, create the feel of this exhibit. They tell the story of changing tastes in travel, the approach of each company to popular design shifts and corporate identity. The exhibit is useful, not only to those interested in the changing visual identity of travel during this time, but to those with a more broad interest in design.