Designing an Airline From the Name Up

Before it can start flying, the new Northern Pacific Airways needed a name, a color and visual identity for its planes. Brand designer Edmond Huot explains how it's done.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
5 min read
Northern Pacific Airways aircraft

Northern Pacific, coming to a sky near you.

Forward Media

An airline's planes are more than just the means for flying paying passengers to somewhere else. Clad in an array of colors and with tails emblazoned in everything from shamrocks to kangaroos, they're also billboards to promote a carrier's identity. Making them recognizable and memorable, whether they're soaring above or parked at an airport gate, is the whole point.

It's a mission that Edmond Huot knows well. As the chief creative officer of Forward Media, a New York-based digital marketing agency, he's developed corporate branding for more than 25 years. His latest project was to build one for Northern Pacific Airways, a new airline that will start service between the US and Asia later this year. The work included not just designing Northern Pacific's livery (the paint scheme for its airliner fleet), but also its passenger cabin interior and even its name. It's a big job, and for Huot it starts with developing different design elements that will come together to work as a whole. 

"All they had was a concept for an airline that was going to have a certain route, and it was for us to bring the entire brand to life," he says. "I think of design as a kit of parts. There's a modular nature to the vocabulary that allows you to go in different directions."

There's no shortage of successful liveries throughout airline history. Pan Am's blue-and-white logo remains iconic 30 years after the airline stopped flying, and few people would associate a maple leaf with anything other than Air Canada. But even storied airlines can have a bumpy flight. The British Airways "World Tails" campaign of 1997 was supposed to update the carrier's image to be more global and inclusive. But complaints that it diluted BA's brand as the UK's flag carrier – former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was not a fan – forced the airline to halt the project after only two years.

Northern Pacific Airways livery

Spots of turquoise on the wingtips and in the small N on the tail contrast sharply with the black and white fuselage. 

Northern Pacific

Making a livery 

Charting a livery's direction can be done conspicuously, like the stylized national flag of Philippine Airlines and the eagle or red, white and blue colors of American. Or you can be more subtle, like the United Airlines globe, to denote the carrier's worldwide service. Airborne animals, such as the winged seahorse of Air France or the Japan Airlines crane, are another common choice. (Frontier, meanwhile, paints its planes with a full menagerie.) 

Huot based Northern Pacific's livery on the airline's home state of Alaska, where it will use Anchorage as a hub. His goal was to use Alaskan-inspired images while avoiding obvious or possibly offensive stereotypes or anything too close to the smiling, fur-hooded man of Alaska Airlines. Reflecting its planned destinations in Japan and Korea also was a goal. 


Edmond Huot

Forward Media

"I wanted it to have something that, from an identity point of view, resonated with the people of Alaska," he said. "We also did a lot of thinking around Asian sensibility and culture."

Themes like the aurora, ice and snow, the frontier (Alaska's nickname is The Last Frontier) and navigation all went into a collage, which Huot and his team used for inspiration. The resulting livery is striking. A largely white fuselage is offset by a rich black that also covers the engine cowlings and borders the cockpit windows. On the tail a wavy pattern of lines sits below a small turquoise N. The bright blue hue also shows up on the winglets. 

Each design element comes from a specific place.

"The white personifies the snow, the black is inspired by the sheer scale and brute force of the [Alaskan] mountains," Huot said. "The soft greys speak to the wind and the ice, and the turquoise and hits of color really speak to the Northern Lights."

On the front of the fuselage, just aft of the first set of doors, the Northern Pacific name is set over a big grey N. Its typeface is a free Google font called Oxanium, which Huot says reflects Northern Pacific's accessibility as a low-cost airline. He also wanted a font without serifs for what he describes as a cleaner and less conservative look. Meanwhile, the points on the end of the background N are meant to suggest movement and transformation. 

Huot also considered how the livery would look on the long, thin fuselage of the Boeing 757, which will make up Northern Pacific's fleet. 

"I had a very strong point of view on that aircraft, because there's a lot of features that I think make it look quite beautiful," he said. "There's the way the front fuselage hangs so far over the nose wheel and the black mask around cockpit windows … so it's a very nice looking aircraft."

We also talked about some of his favorite liveries in the sky today. He says Lufthansa, SAS and Finnair have modernized the typically dull eurowhite scheme, a trend that has dominated livery design since the demise of the cheatline (a stripe through the windows along the fuselage) in the 1990s. And outside of ANA's Star Wars-themed airliners, he's not a fan of overly busy schemes like Southwest's state flag-branded planes.

"It's just so easy to go hog wild on these planes, and I've seen lots of bad examples," he said. "But the Star Wars aircraft, I think, are pretty genius. It's a good example of where someone took more care with applying an idea to a dimensional aircraft."

What's in a name?

Just as important as designing the livery was giving Northern Pacific its name. Besides choosing something that reflected the 49th state and the airline's route network, he wanted to steer clear of anything that was too cheeky, a trend that other low-cost airlines like Wizz Air, Easyjet and Wow Air have eagerly followed. 

"If we start with a wacky name, we can't elevate the brand at any point in time. But if you start at a more professional, elevated level, you can offshoot it if you need to," he said. "I think a lot of people when flying a low-cost airline think, 'Oh, God, what am I going to get crammed into?' I wanted to try to balance out that assumption with something that was a little bit atypical." 

Northern Airways was an early idea, but the name is already taken (as is Northern Airlines). More discussion eventually led the team to Northern Pacific, which Huot says, when paired with the livery, captured everything he was looking for.

"It was the perfect contrast between a slick modern aircraft, and then a name that was grounded in something that had esteem and history," he said. "When that plane pulls up to the terminal, it looks like a private jet. It's pretty sexy looking."