What's in a colour: Lufthansa yellow

Stockholm via Frankfurt

20 October 2011

Otl Aicher's graphic identity for the German airline Lufthansa is seen as one of the 20th century's most successful and long-lasting corporate rebranding exercises, but Aicher himself never considered the design as "mature".

"Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations", wrote George Orwell in his essay 'Why I Write'. Maybe those were the words that German graphic designer and co-founder of the Hochschule für Gestaltung (HfG) in Ulm, Otl Aicher, considered when he designed the flight timetable for Lufthansa in 1962. 50 years later Tyler Brûlé instructs his followers, on the pages of his air travel fetish bible Monocle, to secure a copy of the German flag carrier's 'Flugplan' the next time they pass through Frankfurt airport.

Since the airline hired Aicher to give the company a new corporate image its visual communication has been easily recognisable and memorable and it's all down to, with some tweaks, Aicher and his student group Entwicklungsgruppe 5 (E5).

When Aicher got the task from Lufthansa in the early 1960s several airlines, such as Swissair and PanAm, had already reinvented themselves graphically, but Lufthansa held on to old and nostalgic elements of their identity that said very little of its aspirations to become a leading airline at the dawn of modern air travel. Without many guidelines Aicher set to work and one of his boldest moves was to focus on the colour yellow. Already part of the graphic identity of the airline, it was seen as an accent to the much more sober blue. Under Aicher's gaze yellow moved to the fore and got a warmer tint. In yellow he saw qualities such as speed, safety, freshness, agility, activity and engineering. Above all he saw an opportunity to corner the market.

No other airline uses yellow in the way that Lufthansa does. Anyone who has entered Frankfurt Airport knows this - it's like stepping into a Lufthansa universe highlighted by swathes of its signature yellow. As David Berringer points out in his essay about the colours of the fast food industry, 'Red and Yellow Kills a Fellow', claiming a colour as your own could be a burden or a stroke of genius. Aicher introduced this way of thinking to Lufthansa and in 1979, no longer under Aicher's direction, the Lufthansa advertising and design department decided to claim RAL 1028 as its own. It is now more commonly known as "Lufthansa yellow".

Despite the celebrated corporate identity that Aicher made for Lufthansa and the longevity that his designs have had, from the introduction of the Helvetica typeface for the logo to the boldness of the yellow colour, he has said afterwards. "Original designs and images can only be developed to full maturity in small to midsize companies. This is a structural problem." Aicher meant that the bureaucracy of Lufthansa got in the way of realising the design's full potential, but one wonders what else he would have added? Aicher himself went on to design the now legendary identity and pictograms of the Munich 1972 Olympics.

The foundations that Aicher laid in the 1960s were put to the ultimate test in the 80s when changes in the airline industry meant that air travel wasn't a privilege only for wealthy business travellers anymore. Lufthansa had to be attractive to the vast majority of customers and then the warm yellow tone played a big role in its accessibility. Lufthansa even unveiled a largely yellow aircraft livery in the late 1980s before reverting back to the more sober blue tailfin emblazoned with the logo of a stylised crane in flight on a yellow circle.

Judging by Tyler Brûlé's continuous fascination with the airline (a Google search for Lufthansa+Tyler Brûlé brings out 40,000+ results) it seems that its target audience is still the well-heeled business traveller with an appreciation for the preciseness of its service and austere but unique visual identity. Here the colour yellow signals exclusivity and daring rather than inclusivity.