The TSA is, "a brand that everyone must experience,” says Jeremy Miller, a master's student at the School of Visual Arts in New York who, along with a few other students, rebranded the TSA experience for a thesis project.

At best, airport security is an inconvenient experience that has travelers juggling bags and laptops in their bare feet. But at its worst, it's fraught with invasion of privacy and a lack of respect.

According to Randy Gregory, a fellow student who worked on the project with Miller, the idea is “to reposition the TSA as an organization devoted to securing our peace of mind, and to present a more transparent view of the scanning and security process to the American public, with the eventual goal of passengers being viewed as helpers in the process."

This manifests in a visual campaign that humanizes the TSA. The messages--printed out in signage, on security bins, and on water bottles--all mean to say, TSA is done being the exasperated warden; now they're a compatriot.

Water bottles handed out to travelers after they've made it security would replace trashed liquids.

Rebranding The TSA To Suck Less

The TSA is one of the most maligned agencies out there. Here's one proposal for helping to assuage the chaos and humiliation that is airport security.

When you fly, you can choose your airline, your departure time, your luggage, and what snacks you buy in the terminal. You do not, however, have a choice when it comes to TSA. "It’s a brand that everyone must experience," says Jeremy Miller, a master's student at the School of Visual Arts in New York who, along with a few other students, rebranded the TSA experience for a thesis project.

At best, airport security is an inconvenient experience that has travelers juggling bags and laptops in their bare feet. But at its worst, it's fraught with invasion of privacy and a lack of respect. A recent Politico story authored by an ex-TSA employee sheds light on the latter; in it, author Jason Edward Harrington chronicles not only the lack of effectiveness of the full-body scanners introduced in 2010, but the crass, behind-the-scenes behavior of TSA officers. "Just as the long-suffering American public waiting on those security lines suspected, jokes about the passengers ran rampant among my TSA colleagues," Harrington writes.

A proposed luggage tag.

As the article shows, the TSA's problems are systemic, and truly improving the TSA-traveler relationship would require a dizzying overhaul of the organization. But in the meantime, what if the TSA projected a friendlier image that could ease at least some of the airport stress? That's the idea behind this thesis proposal. According to Randy Gregory, a fellow student who worked on the project with Miller, the idea is "to reposition the TSA as an organization devoted to securing our peace of mind, and to present a more transparent view of the scanning and security process to the American public, with the eventual goal of passengers being viewed as helpers in the process."

The first step to this proposition, Miller says, is viewing the TSA as a brand, instead of a government organization. And since successful brands empathize with their consumers, the next step is launching a visual campaign that humanizes the TSA. In this reimagined experience, travelers entering the airport would approach wall-sized signs stating: "security is no fun. But it’s what we do. We know. Taking your shoes off slows you down." The plastic bins required for passing bags and laptops through security would have labels reading, "#peaceofmind," in the basin. The tone is reassuring; the signage is in all lowercase letters, as if it's a friend texting you. All of which is to say, TSA is done being the exasperated warden; now they're a compatriot.

New (friendly) water bottles.

The students say the proposal goes beyond just signage and a reassuring tone. They’d also like to see the TSA gamify the process, with an internal scoring system that encourages person-to-person communication; they could hand out a TSA-branded water bottle (the label says, "Thanks.") to replace trashed liquids; an app could let travelers buy a front-of-the-line spot in line (unlike TSA Pre, which requires an interview and registration, this would be akin to paying for a one-time seat upgrade on a flight); to keep agents alert, an iPad-based app with mental exercises would reward the employees with perks.

All of these elements are designed to soothe air travel’s pain points; to assess those, the students rode the Air Train to and from JFK to quiz travelers, and met with a senior advisor to the TSA. "A big issue that we noticed was intrusion of privacy. As in being oblivious to if your bag got searched," says Daniyil Onufrishyn, another student on the project (Bill Vesce is the fourth and final member). "Thus, the inspection tag [that alerts travelers to a bag search] has been redesigned in order to convey a more positive message, as well as politely notify the traveler of their luggage being screened."

This last design touch might best speak to the students goal: If the TSA had agency to comfort travelers, instead of corral them into shoeless lines, could it better accomplish its goal?

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14 Comments

  • The intentions here are obviously good, and they're rooted in the kind of empathy required to really improve TSA experience for travellers. It might help a bit; maybe elicit a smile or two. But as others have noted, the real issues are at the business process and policy level. You can't rebrand yourself out of bad policy.

    I'd love to see how IDEO would redesign the TSA experience.

  • I think the worst thing designers and design writers do for design is think that "put a new dog on the side" fixes things. Much of design before the visual piece is process and understanding the system or the machine. That has to work or you're just putting a nee coat of paint on a rusty, crumbling structure.

  • Love the idea, don't love the execution. I'd love to see a more interesting type choice and color palette to help humanize the TSA and give them a personality. This rebrand feels too sterile and clinical to me.

  • Sommer Gentry

    Disgusting. "Branding" does not make violating people's rights, taking naked pictures of children, or sexually assaulting innocent travelers okay. This is an agency that hires complete strangers to put their hands down our pants. This is an organization that grooms children to accept being touched where their bathing suits cover. There is no "branding" that can fix a bullying police state in full flower. Get these monsters out of our airports forever! Congress needs to take away the money and keep these blueshirt thugs away from decent people.

  • Clive Saffery

    A similar approach has been in effect at Narita for years, "check your samurai swords here" being one of many great signs

  • Narita is far and away the best airport I've ever stepped foot in. The experience they give you makes you feel like you should be happy to go through security for your/others' protection. This is a step in the right direction for TSA, but I don't think it's quite there yet. Security in the US (I don't think) will be perceived for a long time as something that can seem humanistic or weak. People don't want airport security to be friendly, they want it to protect them.

  • If Fast Company is even lending voice to the thought that branding might be an issue with TSA problems (or possible opportunities), it shows: a) how poorly we understand the critical issues that drive the need for the TSA, b) that no one is collecting meanigful data, or if they are, looking at and correctly interpreting the data or any research for that matter into improving the security process - mechanical, people, and image, before they implement tactics. c) that Fast Company has no understanding of the real world of employees - private or public, in security, protection, service, manufacturing, military, call center, health or journalism for that matter. If the did, they would all too often find the same condecension and treatment of consumers, fellow employees and management the same.

    Maybe all is TSA needs is better advertisng publicising every weapon they find and management held to higher accountability on equipment R&D

  • Steve Scanner

    "Good ads for a bad product traditionally just make the company go out of business faster."

    We can only hope. Dump the TSA and let the Airlines protect their own property! They don't make us any safer, just less free!

  • Marc Sill

    This is like the picture of the hamburger on the menu .... vs. the one you REALLY get.

  • Bob Boord

    Am I the only one not reassured by a kinder, gentler TSA? I would like my security tough and professional.

    Without changing the agency itself, the branding would not reflect its true nature so that sooner or later there would be a conflict between the messaging and the various touch points.

    Good ads for a bad product traditionally just make the company go out of business faster.