The Eskimo and the Fluorescent Noodle

February 3, 2016

IT’S THAT TIME AGAIN. Of the topics I most enjoy/despise blogging about, livery makeovers are second only to airport security issues. Both, for good reasons, are prone to incur my wrath.

Last month, Alaska Airlines became the latest carrier to unveil a new look. It’s a partial redesign rather than a complete makeover, with both good and bad points. Before getting to the particulars, here are a couple of before-and-after pictures…

Alaska Airlines Old

Alaska Airlines New

First, the good.

The most welcome change is to the company typeface. “If you ever try composing the word ‘Alaska’ on an Etch-a-Sketch, this is what you’ll come up with,” is how I once described the jaggedy lettering shown in the top photo (see the livery critique in chapter seven of my book). “We assume the script is intended to look breezy or energetic, but it seems to have been penned by an Eskimo in the throes of electrocution.” This ghastly font is now pleasantly buffed and rounded. It remains distinctive and charismatic, but it’s immeasurably easier on the eyes. Nicely done.

Alaska Airlines Old Typeface

Alaska Airlines New Typeface

The garish fuselage and engine cowling stripes also have been banished. I’m quite fond of traditional-style cheatlines in general, but this one never worked. The segment in the front that connected the nose cone to the big letter “A” was especially ugly and won’t be missed.

And, of course, the tail. He’s still there, and good for that.

And just who is he? Alaska Airlines’ communications department informs us that he is not Old Man Winter, Johnny Cash, an age-enhanced Che Guevara, Mike Huckabee, nor anyone else commonly cited in airline folklore. He is an Eskimo. An Inuit. His visage is believed to be that of a real person, though even the airline isn’t sure which one. They narrow him down to one of two native Alaskans: a reindeer herder from Kotzebue named Chester Seveck, or a man named Oliver Amouak, who appeared in an airline-sponsored “traveling stage show” in the 1950s.

I received an email from somebody who seems almost to know the fellow: “The portrait on the Alaska tail is that of a Inupiaq man from the Kotzebue area, just north of the Arctic Circle on the Chukchi coast,” it was explained to me. Presumably he means Mr. Seveck?

Whoever the tail man is, he’s an iconic mascot and deserves to remain up there, in monochrome and smiling warmly in his parka.

Alaska Airlines Man

Which brings us to the bad part.

For some reason, it was decided to surround the man’s head with a halo of aurora borealis. This weird, blue-and-green garnish then continues at the base of the fin before ribboning its way down the fuselage. What the point of this mess is, or what it’s supposed to evoke, with the possible exception of a migraine headache or an advertisement for laundry detergent, I have no idea. They’ve stuck it on the winglets as well. It’s cheap, lurid, and a non-sequitur to boot, out of synch with the rest of the livery and with the dignity of the Alaska Airlines brand in general.

A simple band of highlighting would have done the trick. Instead, we get yet another GMST (Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing). Woe to the carrier these days that fails to incorporate some needless and overwrought swirly thing into its brand. Somewhere is a vending machine. Airline executives drop in a million dollars worth of consulting coins, and out pops the latest, curvy-swervy variant of the GMST. These arcs and curves are meant to be “modern.” They suggest “movement” and energy and who knows what else. But all they really do is make your airline look downmarket and indistinguishable from everybody else’s. This one is especially tacky, and it all but ruins an otherwise handsome airplane.

Alaska Airlines Mess

You’re wondering, meanwhile, amid all of my relentless complaining on this topic: Is there a livery out there that I actually like?

Not many, truth be told, but I’m fond of a few. Turkish Airlines, Qantas, Emirates, Lufthansa. There are even some GMST-oriented liveries that I like. There’s Thai Airways, for instance. The colors are a little rich and the fuselage bands a trifle overdone, but it works, and Thai’s lotus emblem is a classic. And AeroMexico’s extremely swoosh-centric uniform is among the most attractive in the industry.

Here closer to home, Hawaiian Airlines has what is probably the best-looking paintjob in North America. It’s charming, too, when you consider that Alaska and Hawaiian, representing our outlier 49th and 50th states, both feature not abstract designs or geometric logoshapes, but the faces of people. Name another carrier that does this. There’s our Inupiaq man from Kotzebue, and Hawaiian’s island maiden, looking longingly towards one another across the vast Pacific. Maybe the airlines should merge or something.


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49 Responses to “The Eskimo and the Fluorescent Noodle”
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  1. Lesylee says:

    What are your thoughts NOK Air livery?? Creative or garish?

  2. Marc Erickson says:

    Patrick, how do you feel about the Air Canada livery?

  3. MikeA says:

    Many years ago, I always wondered whether he was an Eskimo or maybe Jack London 😉

  4. Jack says:

    I think the blue/green colors indicate their committment to the Green movement. They has 2 commercial flights that ran on Isobutanol in the last 6 months or so made by a company called Gevo.

    Just a guess though.

  5. Marshall says:

    If you look closely, the Inuit guy is smiling more discernibly. He seems to be “smiling with his eyes” a bit more, too. His chill new facial expression seems to say “dude, nice” instead of “hurry up and take the picture already.” I miss the old font (technically, your pic of the “old” font is the old, OLD font; they softened the font a bit a few years ago). To me, the old scratchy font was basically the same font as the DVD cover of the movie “Dances With Wolves.” A font chiseled into a rocky shore or hewn by hand from an old growth Douglas fir. The new font is hewn from an iMac and a focus group. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, I kind of like the swooshy colors. The green and blues to me suggest translucent seaweed undulating in clear seas. Overall, the change saddens me a bit, as it signals that our “neighborhood” NW airline seeks to appeal to a more national audience.

  6. Levente says:

    Talking about worst names the title MUST go to this Russian airline from Krasnoyarsk with the reassuring name – Krasair.

  7. Tim says:

    Why do you keep calling Thai’s logo a lotus? It looks nothing like a lotus and is definitely not meant to be a lotus. Look at Vietnam Airlines’ logo, now that’s a lotus.

    • Patrick says:

      No it’s not. It’s an octopus in distress.

      As for Thai’s logo, I’m not sure why I got in the habit of calling it a lotus. Is it an orchid?

  8. toughluck says:

    I just spotted the worst airplane livery ever. Should you ever need a reference to the bottom of the scale, look no further than this:

    • Patrick says:

      The livery * is * pretty awful, but the airline’s name is the worst part. “Go2Sky”? Are you kidding me?

      We go to sky now. Welcome on plane. Not crash, us, we fly good.

      • paulie says:

        race to the bottom. Branding is a worn out effort. I want to know how the pitch went to name “Best Buy” AHhhh best friend, you Best Buy! I’ll stop here, no use in going any further.

  9. Ozzie Bracco says:

    The livery is very nice, but I agree the halo should go…

  10. Ben says:

    Alaska is the airline I fly the most often and this makeover certainly pops out a bit brighter then the old one and easier on my eyes. The colors used and especially the (Generic Meaningless Swoosh Thing) actually have a real meaning here for once. I believe they are incorporating the bright Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights that actually look like swooshes across the sky into the livery here. I am glad they kept the Inuit on the tail because that’s most distinctive part of the Airline’s identity. The aurora halo around the head though does look odd and agree with you there, but maybe the aurora halo around it symbolizes the Polar Arctic Alaska is located at and welcoming you to the great white north.

  11. Dave T says:

    The new typeface is a grown up evolution of the former one; more S&P than upstart NASDAQy. That’s progress, I guess. I am glad to see they got rid of that jack-booted ‘k’ giving it to the little ‘a’ right in the business class. It creeped me out. I see the new ‘k’ as a lunking, lumbering Gumby trying to give lil ‘a’ a hug. Cute.

    The addition of the green is peculiar, though. Perhaps its an acknowledgement by the airline of global climate change and it’s contribution to it. The old color scheme reflected the image of Alaska as a cold, wintry, remote, and extreme. With the climate warming, thanks to carbon burners like these, we’re likely to see more green in places like Alaska. It’s a sobering idea.

    • Patrick says:

      “that jack-booted k.” What a great description.

      Who is that in your thumbnail?

      • Dave T says:

        Actually, I probably should have said, “jack-booted, goose-stepping k”.

        Sorry to look ignorant, but I’m not sure to which thumbnail you are referring as I don’t see any nor am sure how to access any from here. However, the choices are pretty limited: it’s probably either me or Pete Rose (in the 1970 All-star Game).

        • Dan Ullman says:

          My favorite description of it is “Kung Fu K”. This was not meant in a “David Carradine” sort of way. 100% Carl Douglas….

  12. JuliaZ says:

    I’m Alaska MVP, and SEA is my home airport. I disagree strongly with you on the Alaska remake. I LOVE it!!

    The new typeface is great, the cheatline is gone (to me, it always made the planes look old, even when they were new), and our beloved mysteriously longing, stern, or smiling (depending on your own mood) Eskimo is still there. But Alaska flies all over the US and to Hawaii now, and they worried (correctly) that he seemed cold and stiff. So they brought in the bright green, which can be interpreted many ways. Seattle Seahawks blue and green (yawn), Aurora Borealis (awesome), or lush tropical Hawaiian green (fine). No matter which explanation you choose, it warms him up and makes him seem friendlier. The addition of this bright green has also moved signage and apps and stuff into the modern era; the old navy blue was dangerously close to stern monochrome.

    Have I convinced you at all yet? Alaska has gotten a lot of positive feedback for these changes, and I can’t think of too many other examples of people loving airline livery changes.

    • Patrick says:

      I’m with you, JZ, on the tyepface and the cheatline, but the green ribbon is hideous. There were other, better ways of bringing in a little warmth and energy. And the glowing nimbus around the Eskimo’s head does not make him look “friendlier.” It makes him look insane.

      • JuliaZ says:

        LOL It’s fun to disagree. 🙂 The good news is, his insanity – if that’s what it is – is not visible inside the plane, and the FAs are still excellent. That, maintenance of the planes, and the skill of the pilots, are what matter the most, and I feel like Alaska does a fantastic job in all those areas.

  13. Siegfried says:

    I feel like I might have a minority opinion here, but I actually quite like the new livery and even the “halo”. It accents the Inuit stronger than even the white tail did and – once they decided to have the whole tail in dark blue – probably was the only option to maintain the outline. Even the GMST does not bother that much as it does with the liveries of other airlines. And the typeface is much more readable while still staying unique and recognizable.

    Yes, of course, the overall concept is not something new (as everyone nowadays seems to need to separate the tail from the plane, at least in colors) but as an implementation of the already existing concept it is well done.

    So overall I would give it an 8 out of 10.

  14. EMG says:

    I think your comments are spot-on. That GMST thing looks like something one would see on a local house painter’s business card. I do like the font, not fussy, stylish and most importantly readable.

    I work in Marketing and I never get what the brand designers are saying…my organization just had a brand re-design and all I can think is “have you ever looked at a color wheel? These colors clash, are garish and thematically they make no sense.”

    But hey, I am not young nor up-and-coming anymore.

  15. Dan Ullman says:

    I would agree with the font and cheatlines. For reasons that are not clear, Alaska managed to the do the cheatlines annoying wrong. Even if that had not come up to the “A” they would still look bad.

    That said, the logo hasn’t been messed with. The swish is pretty much a given at the moment. We are seeing an untouched character.

    When Disney pays for the paint job, less than magical things happen.

  16. Jeff Baldwin says:

    i am surprised you like the new font considering that, to me at least, it looks like a GMST had it’s M taken away. I find the new font to be bland and devoid of any elements that might set it apart. While the old one looked…well, the way it did, it was certainly unique. I love idiosyncrasies…. Saabs will always be my favorite car company, so i guess i am biased against the ordinary.

    • Patrick says:

      I get what you mean about idiosyncrasies, and I agree, but I’m surprised you’re so critical of the font. It’s no less stylish or distinctive than most of the typefaces out there. Many airlines use simple Helvetica or very basic sans-serif styles.

      One test, maybe, is this: would you recognize a given airline’s font if viewed out of context? For example, instead of spelling out “ALASKA” on the side of a jet, those same letters were used to compose a sentence on a blank sheet of paper: “MY HOVERCRAFT IS FULL OF EELS.” Would you recognize the typeface as that of Alaska Airlines? Now try it with other airlines.

      Emirates, by the way, is one of very few airlines (actually, I can’t think of another one) that uses the same typeface in ALL of its corporate products, from its livery to its advertising to its onboard menus. It’s not to everyone’s tastes, and it doesn’t necessarily look good in giant gold letters on the side of an A380, but it’s classy and very distinctive.

      • Richard says:

        Another Monty Python fan! You have impeccable taste (and your father smelled of elderberries).

        • Patrick says:

          I’ll have you know that I was never a fan of the Monty Python movies. The group’s “Flying Circus” television show, on the other hand, I loved. The great Graham Chapman was the funniest of the Python members, and in many the heart and soul of the group, followed by Michael Palin and Eric Idle; it’s a shame that none of those three became as famous as John Cleese, who I always thought was funny but overrated.

      • Jeff Baldwin says:

        Oh yes, there’s no arguing that modern livery fonts tend to be pretty homegenous. What I was upset at was Alaska moving from something 100% unique to just another font that melts into the crowd. For me, it’s like if 20 years ago Saab had suddenly decided to get rid of turbos, torque steer, large instrument panels (BORN FROM JETS!) and center mounted ignition switches. (I’m somehow not going mention GM here.) I mean torque steer sucks, but I wouldn’t take a Saab any other way.

        • Patrick says:

          You say, “What I was upset at was Alaska moving from something 100% unique to just another font that melts into the crowd.”

          I don’t think the font “melts into the crowd” at all. It’s still very distinctive. It’s just not as spastic-looking as it was before.

  17. Kevin Brady says:

    I have no artistic talent and can’t even draw a stick figure, I just know what I like and what I don’t – My first reaction to the AA change was nausea – looks like bad rainbow ice cream – scary thing is my daughter is a brand/design consultant and she loves it????? I don’t get it -I think the AA change is the worst ever in aviation-it even looks cheap like something from a dollar store. I always liked AS with the eskimo and hope they never take him off. Current Hawaiian was maybe the best change in aviation compared to the red.

    For the most part I like the older schemes such as the National Sunburst, most of Eastern’s liveries especially the older golden falcon (I’m really dating myself here). Northwest Orient, UA’s blue/orange (hated the UA gray – that was Stephen Wolf, the CEO’s choice – fit his personality perfectly) – Western, simple and clean with a lot of the metal showing similar to what AA was, also TWA, Pan Am.

    Today JAL crane, KLM prior to recent change, LH, QF and South African I really like, even though the tail is splashy.

    When working in corporate American you were always pressered to change, change change, and more often than not, for the worse. Delta is a good livery as well.

    Sometimes simple and clean works best without a lot of splash and kooky intrutions and colors like today.

    • Patrick says:

      Wait, your daughter loves what? If it’s the new piano-key tail, I can let that go. I kind of like it myself. But, if it’s that disgraceful, tragic, utterly unforgivable logo (the linoleum knife cutting through the shower curtain), then clearly she has chosen the wrong line of work.

      That logo, that … thing … is the saddest corporate emblem in the history of the airline industry. It looks like something you’d see on a bank or a credit card.

      The JAL crane, meanwhile, remains the single best airline logo of all time.

      I’m also partial to the 1970’s-era Eastern.

      • Dave says:

        JAL’s Crane logo is great! I’ve always loved that logo. I also really love American Airlines’ old logo. Massimo Vignelli really hit a home run with that one. The new one looks just… rushed and lazy.

  18. TJ says:

    I was gonna say, it wouldn’t be Alaska Airlines if they got rid of the Che Guevara.

  19. Kevin T says:

    I actually prefer the old. The cheat, the frazzled font, all of it. It looks classic, if not for the face the new one would be completely meaningless.

  20. Anna says:

    Y’know, it’s the halo thing that makes the green too much. If it were just the one stripe it would work — it wouldn’t be great, but it would work.

    • Patrick says:

      I agree about the stripe. Something green to highlight the blue. But a nice, normal green (and paint the winglets the same color). No swirls, no noodles, just a simple accenting stripe.

  21. Speed says:

    The story of the Eskimo: Who is on the tail of Alaska Airlines’ planes?

  22. BigDaddyJ says:

    Patrick, I believe the new lighter color scheme is used to better represent the fact that Alaska has substantial presence in the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii as well. Emerald City and all…

    I’m really curious if they’ll keep the leis on their ETOPS-certified 737s that run to Hawaii.

    • Patrick says:

      The Hawaii thing was, until now, represented by the lei around the Eskimo’s neck on select aircraft — a garnish that always bothered me because, unless you knew and understood this already, it made no sense and looked bizarre: why in the world does that Eskimo have red flowers around his neck? Still not as bad as the fluorescent noodles, however.

      • Tod Davis says:

        The lei around the neck always bothered me because from a distance it looked like blood, which in turn made the whole thing look like a freshly severed head.

  23. Fry says:

    Alaska has a semi-serious write up and video on the tail face. Sadly, no information on how the fellow might have felt about swooshes.

  24. Another Josh says:

    To me, this is an improvement. I must admit that when I saw in the title that Alaska was getting a new livery, I was worried that the face would be removed from the tail, like so many other iconic logos that have been altered beyond recognition. I like seeing his smiling face speeding down the runway.

    The swooshes are a bit much, adding unnecessary curves that detract from the already nice curves of the airplane. They seem somewhat constrained though, just a narrow band on the tail, the winglets, and the engine cowlings, and not splashed down the length of the plane. I think the designers feel they need to add something like that to justify the cost of hiring them.

    As you noted, the typeface is a big improvement, and with keeping the face and resisting the temptation to do more with the swooshes, this seems to be a positive change overall.

    • Patrick says:

      I wish that I could agree with you. This one came close to being a big improvement. But for me there’s no getting past that stupid tangle of fluorescent ribbon.

  25. Rhonda says:

    I looked forward to reading your thoughts on this redesign, and they don’t disappoint. However, I’m surprised that you’re pleased at the cheatline disappearing. That’s the most egregious thing to me – the loss of one of the last livery cheatlines around. The GMST does indeed remind me of laundry detergent or toothpaste.

    • Patrick says:

      I’m very fond of traditional-style cheatlines (fuselage striping) in general, but this one never worked. Maybe if that forward fragment hadn’t been there it would have looked better.