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.
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.
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?