Monday, November 10, 2008

Why so blue?

Colors have a wide array of meanings and symbolism – they become very versatile in the realms of art, design, and marketing. This allows for flexibility when it comes to branding and identity. For instance, Southwest Airlines is branded by primary colors, and Continental Airlines uses blue primarily. While there may be room for diversity, in color combinations among airlines, the opposite is true when it comes to major American airports. The majority of airports use the color blue in varied hues as a part of their logo. Sometimes airports will pair yellow and light neutrals (like gray and white) with the cool color. I aim to explore why many airport logos incorporate blue and if other colors might work in blue’s place.

At first thought, it appears easy why airports such as Dallas Ft. Worth, San Francisco International, and Austin Bergstrom would choose the color blue to dominate their logos and brandings. We can look to the sky and see the answer there; the message of the airport bringing its travelers across the skies is clear. Matt Coldwell, Austin Bergstrom’s art coordinator, believes that the colors of the airport logo were “easily identifiable with flying.” Still, we can go further than that and think about what other connotations the color blue has. There are two methods of studying color. Color symbolism is the study of colors and what physical things they may represent. Color psychology is the study of how colors affect feelings, emotions, and health. In color symbolism, blue represents air, water, and the earth as a whole; the latter seems to make sense with the earth’s nickname as the “Blue Planet.” With air travel, people cross over bodies of water and go from one point of the globe to the other. Perhaps using blue dominantly best informs the public about what the airport’s primary purpose is – a hub for air travel. When airports combine the color blue with yellow, like George Bush Intercontinental or John F. Kennedy, the connection to the skies become clearer since yellow also relates back to the air and the earth. More importantly, yellow also signifies the sun. If blue is also paired with white and grays, then the symbols of air, purity, and lightness increases. Whether the logo uses blue singularly or with two other air-related colors, it works despite becoming somewhat predictable.

The decision by designers and airports to use blue as the chief color in identity graphics may also have a psychological effect, too. While blue can represent air, lightness, water, and the earth, various shades of blue can affect people in different ways. According to ColorMatters, a quick reference to color theory on the web, and Pantone’s Color Think Tank, lighter shades of blue have a more tranquil effect on people’s mood. The calmness that stems from experiencing blue color can also be a sort of escape which then corresponds well with an airport’s message of travel, sometimes to go on a vacation. When someone looks at an airport logo that incorporates blue, they get the two main messages: air travel and tranquil escape. Blues can also impart the feeling of technology, trust, and security, three important ideas for airports of today to consider. Technology for better and faster aircrafts with trust and security for today’s heightened awareness for terrorist attacks.

Though there are many airports that use blue as their identity’s foremost color, there are several who incorporate other hues into their logos (other than yellow, white, or gray). El Paso International Airport uses the compliment of blue – orange. Passengers can refer to happiness and energy when they think of orange. Here, the clear connection of airport and the sky is lost. However, orange may provide a better indicator of where the airport is and its environment. Orange, to an extent, symbolizes the city of El Paso because of the city’s warm hues reflected in the El Paso Mountains. It’s hard to say what works better; had blue been used, then the airport would have related better to its function. Since orange was used as the prominent color, visitors and travelers will find that the airport relates well to its locale. Two examples of airports not using blue to brand their logos are Washington D.C.’s Dulles International and Reagan National Airport. The airport system uses red-violet as the sole color. Again, the ties to the skies are severed. With the help of color theory, it seems to make sense that the nation’s capital’s airport would choose a hybrid of red and purple – red-violet – to serve as the dominant color for its identity. Red has the meaning of strength and vitality while purple has royal, dignified, and leadership associations.

Austin’s new South Terminal has a reason why it includes the color green in its logo with common blue hues. The building itself is a vibrant green, and the wavy bar of green is a nod to it. The bright green exterior of the terminal attracts attention from a distance, and the other reasons, according to a press release from the terminal’s website, were because “AIB One LLC, the partnership running the terminal under agreement with the city of Austin, wanted a ‘culturally sensitive’ color … Which culture? Well, Mexico presumably, given the initial destinations and airline. This shade of green is also the color of a hybrid locomotive sold by GE, one of the partners in AIB One…” In color symbolism, green represents nature and the earth, so to use blue and green together really symbolizes the globe. This color combination may also be more “true” to an airport as a hub since green symbolizes the land and blue symbolizes air and water. The airport itself is anchored to the ground, but it is a transitional place for air travel at the same time, through the sky and at points, over sea. Other airports across the nation seem to be following this idea, too. Seattle-Tacoma International, Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport, Fort Wayne International, and the Killeen Municipal Airport are among the hubs that use green in their logos.

Though there are airports like the ones above who stray from using blue as a dominant or sole color, the fact remains that many airports continue to look alike. Imagine seeing a stream of airport logos. What we would see is a flow of blues interjected with occasional spots of yellow, greens, oranges, and reds. The overuse of blue makes airport logos seem monotonous, lacking in originality. With numerous airports nationally, of course it would be hard to have unique colors and color combinations for logos. However, there would be far more variation and difference between each airport’s identity. Travelers already know what an airport is for and what is commonly associated with it; planes, travel, the sky. With that knowledge in mind, perhaps an airport’s color use in branding can speak more about its actual identity, involving its surrounding culture and environment like El Paso Airport. For example, Austin Bergstrom could use a mixture of burnt oranges and forest greens to display nature and connect the airport to the idea of how people associate the capital with the University of Texas. Incoming travelers or outgoing travelers seeing the airport’s logo might then have a better understanding about the place they are about to arrive at or depart from. JFK in New York might be effective in using the color red to relate to the city’s renowned vitality. Red can also symbolize the “Big Apple” or the hearts in the “I Love New York” t-shirts.

This idea of replacing blue with other colors for airports to tie in with their cities lessens the hubs’ relationship to the sky in a way. However, airports are not actually the vessels that transport passengers across the sky; they are just the centers of arrivals and departures, firmly rooted to the earth by their architecture. It would make more sense for airlines and their jets to use blues repeatedly to send off the vibes of lightness and air. Using other colors for airport branding has more potential in helping people distinguish between different airports and creating a sense of unique place. If we were to be in El Paso’s airport where things are branded in orange, we will realize that we are in El Paso and that it has a warm-toned environment. On the other hand, if we travelled to Washington D.C. and were met with the red-violet colors of the airport logo, we can easily understand that we are looking at the nation’s capital and not at El Paso.

It may seem like a stretch that colors in airport logos can totally inform us about the place, but using colors that relate to the airport’s locale does more than using blue continuously. Simply using various shades of blue as an airport logo’s main color only reinforces what we know about the airport’s function instead of what we could know about when it comes to where and who the airport serves. The latter information personalizes the airport’s identity and makes it much more memorable.


"Airports of the World." World Airport Directory. November 2, 2008.

"Austin's new low-cost carrier housed in a little green box." South Terminal Austin: News. October 26, 2008.

Coldwell, Matt. E-mail Interview. November 3, 2008.

"Color Think Tank - the psychology of color." Pantone /Color Think Tank. November 1, 2008.

Gill, Robbie. "Airport Branding - Airport International." Airport International. October 30, 2008.

Morton, J.L. "Color Matters - Business, Marketing and Trends." ColorMatters. November 1, 2008.

"Psychology of Color." Precision Intermedia. November 2, 2008.

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