The 1960s and '70s were a golden age for the iconography of airport design. In 1975, Adrian Frutiger completed his now-classic eponymous typeface for Charles de Gaulle Airport, basing it on wide kerning and simple geometries that could be read at high speeds and odd angles. Meanwhile, Benno Wissing’s 1967 designs for Schiphol Airport were bold, loud, and completely unique.
So what happened? As Alice Rawsthorn explains in the New York Times this week, stringent regulations (plus shrinking budgets and timelines) put an end to the practice of hiring graphic designers to create unique signage for every airport, and an era of “identikit” signage began. “Other airports have tried to achieve the same lucidity,” she opines, “but have generally settled for less sophisticated designs, which have produced indistinguishably bland signs that make it hard to tell one airport from another.”
Thankfully, Rawsthorn does more than mourn the passing of a great era. She brings word of a new project designed by Atelier Intégral Ruedi Baur, the Paris and Zürich studio behind an overhaul of signage of the Vienna Airport. Baur was commissioned to give the airport its own unique identity in 2004, with the goal of distinguishing Vienna from the “non-places" of typical international travel hubs. Since they were unveiled earlier this year, the studio’s controversial designs have received equal parts praise and criticism.
Based on a Fedra Sans typeface, Baur’s signs are intentionally blurred, giving the letters the illusion of graceful motion--an effect that has also been called “illegible” by visually impaired travelers. Other elements of his design are subtle to the point of ambiguity, too: Gate numbers are printed on pieces of glass that turn from opaque to translucent, muddling the numbers into an undeniably elegant study in greys and whites. A huge, milky white marquee maps arrivals and departures across a wide entranceway, which apparently has confused some visitors.
He believes that these 'subtle, playful effects’ give the airport a distinctive character, together with the choice of typeface, Fedra Sans, which he commissioned from the Slovakian designer Peter Bil’ak for a previous project and contains all of the Central European accents, making it very apt for use in the Austrian capital.
Some of the glass panels have proved too subtle for people with impaired vision, who have complained that they are not clear enough. Mr. Baur says the problem was caused by the late changes to the architectural program, which left some of the panels inadequately lit. He and his team are now trying to rectify that.
But he is less optimistic about the chances of persuading the airport to reinstate two lost components of his original scheme: a panel by the baggage carousels welcoming passengers to Vienna with Austrian-German greetings and his pièce de résistance, a giant LED screen that would have traced the progress of flights as they approached the airport.
Does his grand plan work without them? I can’t pretend to have spotted explicit references to Vienna on the airport signs, but they were discernibly different to the “identikit” variety: definitely odd, but agreeably so.
The typeface doesn’t seem particularly difficult to read. Then again, I’m not running through an airport trying to find my gate. Baur’s signage isn’t really about evoking a specific place so much as a brand. The grey-on-grey, subtle fogs, and monochromatic gradients seem to say less about Vienna itself and more about its citizens’ good taste in design.
Read Rawsthorn’s full article here.