The "uninvited redesign" has become a fixture on the Internet over the past few years. It perpetuates the perfect symbiotic relationship between designer and audience: People love seeing what Wikipedia or Microsoft might look like in the hands of a genius, and designers love stretching their legs without the burden of a real client or brief.
It’s even become a way for established agencies to secure work. In 2011, Boulder ad agency Victors & Spoils did a hypothetical rebrand for Harley Davidson that helped them nab the actual gig. And this spring, upon news that American Airlines would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they reached out to AA’s CEO Thomas Horton in much the same way. "We’ve decided to act as if we’re working together already," wrote CEO John Windsor. "We’ve put this brief to our crowd of 6,000+ creatives—offering $10,000 of our own toward the ideas we think can best help American Airlines become a more nimble airline."
The invitation has spurred dozens of redesigns. One of the best came from Cyprus-based designer Anna Kövecses, whose no-nonsense, vaguely retro aesthetic lends itself to the company’s historic brand. The concept won the young designer $1,000 from Victors & Spoils, along with valuable media exposure. "My aim was to strip down the AA identity to the core and this meant building down the whole design to match this core as well," Kövecses says over email. "For me, this core expectation has turned out to be safety. I wanted to design something that makes people feel safe because it visually meets up to the extremely high technology of aviation, the security and flawless on and off board services provided, and reflects the great history and experience behind American Airlines." In muted greys and blues, set off by a wood grain highlight texture, the boarding pass and website exude a quiet calm. Simple, readable Helvetica signage and subtle nods to AA’s post-War heyday round out the identity.
But Kövecses explains that her vision comes from a deeper consideration of AA’s brand. "I tried to look at the whole problem from a Dieter Rams-inspired point of view and find out what this company is about, what people expect from this company," she explains over email. "Then visualize exactly that expectation, not less, not more." It’s no secret that AA is at its worst where customer experience is concerned, a problem they’ve misguidedly tried to solve by launching a series of bizarre standalone sites that target women, African Americans, and other minority groups. Kövecses reinvented the website by improving the UI, but also by including a robust user-generated travel blog where customers can swap tips and stories in return for AA bonus points. Travelers can take ownership over the site by registering as a blogger, and connect with friends and fellow tourists. Buying a trip you’ve read about on the blog is the obvious, but not overbearing, end goal. By incentivizing sharing with frequent flier points, AA could cultivate a socially oriented rewards site.
As BuzzFeed’s Russell Brandom pointed out last week, uninvited redesigns are "the frenemies of the web." And they’re everywhere. But mocking up a slick-looking homepage only takes a few hours. Implementing a design strategy across a sprawling, multi-organization corporation? Not so easy.
That doesn’t mean that such exercises are meritless, of course. Redesigning a big brand is a way to fill out your portfolio, and as Victors & Spoils have demonstrated, a way to grab the attention (and business) of companies that would normally hire elsewhere. What seems troubling, in the grand scheme of things, is how these redesigns are being consumed. In the ecology of the Internet, aesthetics frequently trump content—designers looking for attention in the form of clicks will shoot for something that looks good, rather than something that might solve a more complicated, organization-wide problem.
Such behavior was demonstrated by another young would-be American Airlines designer, who published a public missive against AA that called out their "hideous" site for causing him "horrific displeasure." To his surprise, a designer within AA reached out to him, hoping to give a little insight into how a multi-armed organization handles their web presence. It was a fascinating, insightful response. "You want a redesign? I’ve got six of them in my archives," said the mysterious source. "It only takes a few hours to put together a really good-looking one, as you demonstrated in your post. But doing the design isn’t the hard part, and I think that’s what a lot of outsiders don’t really get, probably because many of them actually do belong to small, just-get-it-done organizations." Unsurprisingly, he was soon fired from his post at AA. On his blog, the designer labeled the AA employee’s response "a cop-out."
Kövecses’s reimagining does address the company in a deeper way, making it much more successful (and interesting) than some of the other more superficial concepts out there. And unlike many of her peers, she doesn’t have outspoken ambitions to work for AA—for now, she says, it’s simply a chance to show her chops.