Fly the Formal Skies (BOAC corporate identity 1946-1974)

I first encountered BOAC’s corporate identity aged seven (proving once again that this blog has been in preparation in my subconscious for rather longer than I initially realised), at my grandparents’ house. There, with my sister, I found a Sindy doll dressed in a blue uniform, carrying a blue bag with white “B.O.A.C” lettering (you can see one via this link, third picture down). I was quite entranced. In my defence, 1) Why should I have to defend it anyway? and 2) there was also a Sindy wardrobe and in my mind, the wardrobe was a Tardis and Sindy was the Doctor’s new recently introduced companion, air hostess Tegan Jovanka. I don’t think my sister completely appreciated this appropriation.

I digress.

What I had stumbled upon was one of the greatest British transport corporate identities of all time, a glamorous and suave branding that remains a symbol of all that was once great about British air transport, even if it has long since vanished from the civil aviation industry. Even the full name of BOAC – British Overseas Airways Corporation – evokes a lost era of patrician authority, an imposition of traditional British values on a world that would surely be grateful for such attention.

The first version of BOAC's corporate identity, seen on a VC-10 at London Heathrow Airport in 1964. Photo by Ken Fielding/http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenfielding [CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The first version of BOAC’s corporate identity, seen on a VC-10 at London Heathrow Airport in 1964. Photo by Ken Fielding/http://www.flickr.com/photos/kenfielding [CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Britain, unfortunately, was to be in for a rude shock on that score in the following years. But nobody knew that then.

The brilliance of BOAC’s branding is all the more surprising given that it was borne out of the desperate times just after the end of the Second World War. The company had been formed in 1940 through the merger of Imperial Airways (of Empire Air Terminal fame) and British Airways, to handle wartime air travel needs. BOAC became state-owned as a result. After the war, in 1946, its South American and European operations were demerged to create two other state airline companies, but BOAC in the form we think of it today got the rest of the world.

Britain at this point was shattered; physically, emotionally and economically. The country was essentially bankrupt, kept afloat only by financial aid from America. Yet somehow, amidst this chaos, the new BOAC was not only launched into the modern world, but was launched with immense style and one of the all-time great transport brands. I doubt anyone at BOAC would really have known what a brand or visual identity was; the formalisation of such ideas was years away. Examples of similar initiatives in transport were rare, and even the inter-war London Underground and London Transport brands weren’t really described as such. Chief executive Frank Pick simply felt that the way a transport operation looked was just as important (not more, but not less) as how it operated, if it was to attract the maximum possible custom.

Someone, somewhere at BOAC must have thought the same thing. What’s frustrating is that it’s so difficult at this remove to work out who.

BOAC inherited from Imperial Airways that company’s 1930s Speedbird logo, designed by Theyre Lee-Elliott, which rose from the ashes of the war to act as BOAC’s logo, and adorn its aircraft, publicity and uniforms. The latter were initially supplied with a somewhat militaristic aesthetic by Austen Reid, but later redesigned by British fashion designer Maurice Helman¹. It was those gorgeous later uniforms that Sindy dolls wore, when the job was the epitome of desirability.

Speedbird and the first BOAC wordmark. Image by FraserElliot [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Speedbird and the first BOAC wordmark. Image by FraserElliot [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

The Speedbird was just one part of BOAC’s visual identity. The lettering “B.O.A.C.” was equally important and just as distinctive. Years before it passed into common parlance, the company had invented a “wordmark”, a distinctive way of displaying the company’s initials. Its unusual look comes from its letter shapes, the C and lower part of the B in particular looking as though they are italic letters tipped backwards to the vertical, so the horizontal strokes on the letters rise up, while the vertical strokes remain upright. The result is a wordmark that appears to be yearning to leap into the sky. That said, this was a time when a lot of such work had to be hand-painted, so the wordmark varied in appearance, especially on aircraft though less so in printed publicity.

The BOAC wordmark was applied to the exterior of its aircraft as part of a carefully considered livery featuring white uppers, a dark blue band (edged with gold) along the windows which dipped down to a distinctive widow’s peak at the front of the aircraft, and an eminently practical silver-grey underbelly. The Speedbird was applied to the tailfin, which was generally dark blue with horizontal white stripes (some tailfins had the colours reversed).

BOAC Comet, preserved at Airspace, Duxford. Photo by Diamond Geezer [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
BOAC Comet, preserved at Airspace, Duxford. The BOAC wordmark is slightly flatter than the version more commonly seen in print (note in particular the more horizontal strokes on the C), probably because it was painted by hand. Photo by Diamond Geezer [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

The colours and their layout gave BOAC a formal yet clean and modern image, these latter aspects rather unexpectedly so given that it was a state-owned company in a country struggling to get back on its feet. It was also an image that was thoroughly ready for the incipient jet age. Despite an embarrassing diversion into considering operating the Bristol Brabazon (a lumbering propeller-driven white elephant of an aircraft) BOAC did indeed end up flying the first jet airliner to be put into civilian service, the British designed and made Comet, in 1952 (see here). It was the last time Britain would have the lead in civil aviation, with the arguable exception of the introduction of Concorde, which was a joint project with France, and one the success of which is argued about even now. The Comets were at the cutting edge of contemporary technology and suffered several catastrophic crashes due to metal fatigue issues which were not well understood at the time. Although the problems were eventually resolved, American aircraft companies soon took the lead in the global jet airliner market and achieved a position of dominance which took until the creation of the pan-European Airbus company to be challenged.

This reminder of Britain’s lost place in the world is perhaps one of the reasons that BOAC’s corporate identity has such resonance. Not only is it sumptuously gorgeous, but for us Brits it’s a bittersweet reminder of the leading position we used to hold in air travel. As with so many other areas of technology, we contrived to somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of technological victory, our role relegated to a footnote of history.

Interestingly, BOAC’s colours of blue, grey and white were very similar to those which would later be adopted by British Rail in its mid-1960s rebranding. But in the 1940s and 50s, at the time BOAC was presenting a stylish, modern image of Britain, British Railways was becoming increasingly obsessed by Mediaeval imagery, and London Transport was coasting, resting on the laurels of its pre-war design excellence, but slowly losing its way.

It makes it all the more annoying that it’s difficult to give credit where it’s due. The designer of the Speedbird is well-known, but who came up with BOAC’s wordmark, colour palette and livery layout is much more difficult to ascertain. My friend Andrew, who knows everything there is worth knowing about the golden age of jet airliner travel, couldn’t tell me, and nor could any of the other transport design experts I asked.

BOAC certainly had a design committee, to which designer FHK Henrion was retained as a consultant², and he certainly had a hand of some sort in the creation of its brand (see here). Meanwhile industrial designer Richard Lonsdale-Hands worked for BOAC on its early aircraft interiors³ which also formed part of BOAC’s visual identity. Somewhere in that tangled arrangement is probably the answer, but it seems that to some extent, BOAC’s identity is that rare thing, something beautiful designed by committee.

To go with it were glorious Post-war Modern advertising posters, a match for the inter-war posters of Britain’s railway companies, and many of which were the work of Henrion. This one isn’t, as far as I can tell, but it gives an idea of the 60s (I think) charm such posters displayed.

BOAC poster. Image by MidCentArc [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
BOAC poster. Image by MidCentArc [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via this flickr page

BOAC’s initial visual identity lasted until 1965 when it was revised and simplified, with the blue band no longer lined in gold and a larger blue area at the front of aircraft. The wordmark too was changed, losing the full stops and making the letters larger and bolder. The Speedbird stayed, of course, now in gold on dark blue tailfins.

The second version of the BOAC corporate identity, seen on a Boeing 707. Photo by Bruno Geiger Airplane Pictures and Collection [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
The second version of the BOAC corporate identity, seen on a Boeing 707. Photo by Bruno Geiger Airplane Pictures and Collection [CC BY-NC 2.0] via this flickr page

I know one transport designer who thinks this version of the BOAC corporate identity was an improvement, but I prefer the earlier one. It might have been fussier, but I rather like the fuss. Though it’s not my favourite of the two, I readily admit that even the second version could transform absolutely anything it was applied to into a very stylish and adventurous-looking object indeed. Even a humble double-decker bus…

A BOAC bus. They were used to transport passengers from the Imperial Air Terminal in London to the airport from which they were flying. Photo by By Arriva436 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
A BOAC bus. They were used to transport passengers from the Imperial Air Terminal in London to the airport from which they were flying. Photo by By Arriva436 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

A quick trawl of the internet will also turn up plenty of early artists’ impressions of Concorde bedecked in BOAC colours, which would have been quite something had BOAC lasted that long. However, BOAC’s second corporate identity lasted only nine years before the company was merged with British European Airways, which had got BOAC’s European routes after the war (the South American routes had long since been re-absorbed by BOAC), to form British Airways. That company introduced its own corporate identity, brasher and brighter, though the Speedbird once again survived to be applied towards the front of BA’s aircraft. It later transformed itself into an angled red stripe (called a Speedwing) and then a blue and red ribbon (the Speedmarque) on later revisions of BA’s corporate identities (see here).

The Speedbird has been a great survivor, in fact. It’s still the call-sign of British Airways’ flights when pilots communicate with air traffic control. You’ll also still find Speedbirds nesting in London Underground’s Hatton Cross tube station, the original Piccadilly Line station serving Heathrow Airport before a loop line to the terminals was constructed. Here they can be found as mosaic designs on the walls at platform level.

Mosaic Speedbirds at Hatton Cross London Underground station. Photo by Martin Deutsch [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page
Mosaic Speedbirds at Hatton Cross London Underground station. Photo by Martin Deutsch [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr page

References, Bibliography and Further Reading

Dates of BOAC’s logo changes from Logopedia, here

² Jarvis, Paul (2015), Better by Design: Shaping the British Airways Brand. Stroud: Amberley Publishing

¹ ³ Jarvis, Paul (2014), British Airways: an Illustrated History. Stroud: Amberley Publishing

…and anything else linked to in the text above.

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