Showcasing the world: A century of travel design

Showcasing the world: A century of travel design

Travel inspiration


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Would you buy a flight advertised with the words “See the fräuleins with the big jugs”?

The twentieth century was when the world got smaller. From communication tools like the telephone, through to the internet access being seen as almost a human right; wars impacting and affecting nations from the wealthiest to the poorest; and along with all that, it was the century that brought us mass tourism.

As in many of the great shifts of the twentieth century, it was America that led the way. Or, more accurately, when Americans did things, the rest of the world noticed. Wealthy Brits had been doing The Grand Tour, as it was known, for years.

The railway started to dominate the travelling industry in 1840's and the operators aimed at wealthy people offering tours to cities like Paris, Bologna, Vienna and Geneva in luxurious trains. sellingThe railway dominated the travelling industry in the 1840s and the operators aimed at the wealthy; offering tours through cities like Paris, Bologna, Vienna and Geneva in luxurious trains

It was virtually a rite of passage for the wealthy youth, almost like the number of tedious 19-year-olds from Britain who now take a “gap yah” somewhere in Asia before going to university now.

From 1840 the widespread use of rail travel throughout Europe allowed cities such as Paris, Bologna, Vienna and Geneva to welcome the wealthy youth of Britain. They spent their time learning about art, culture and language. Americans became more adventurous in its travel habits – so the rest of the world had to watch as their wealth and invention created the idea of global travel for fun.

Of course, like any industry, the boom in travel brought a competition to rid people of their money, and so the idea of advertising travel possibilities was born. And not only destinations, but ways to get there as well, the journey being seen as part of the adventure.

It’s strange to think now of long-distance travel ever having been thought of as romantic and thrilling, but that it was. Just imagine boarding a ship in, say, Southampton, finding your cabin, meeting your fellow passengers, dining, playing cards, reading, drinking cocktails and eventually, a week or so later, walking down the gangplank in Australia or Cuba wearing a linen suit and a Panama hat. Sounds good to me.

Long-distance travel used to be considered romantic and thrilling. sellingLong-distance travel used to be considered romantic and thrilling

At this time, travel advertising was in its infancy, so marketers relied less on creating an impact and more on long, lavish descriptions of all the things you could see, as well as sundry other reasons for opting to choose that particular trip. Take this example from Rock Island Railroads in 1915:

“Winter is only a name in Golden California – only a word used to designate a season of the year. Don’t risk the cold weather with its dangers and discomforts. Take the most enjoyable vacation of your whole life and escape the blizzards and the cold. Take the “GOLDEN STATE LIMITED” to the balmy land of sea and sunshine – where mountains merge with meadows – where lakes and lagoons lie sparkling under sapphire skies – where springs flow their crystal waters into splendid streams – where fruits and flowers are abundant the whole year through – and where health and happiness await you with a warm welcome.”

Mmm, catchy.

Aside from their fondness for alliteration (“Mountains merge with meadows,” and so forth), it was also the role of marketers to outdo each other when boasting about how modern and sleek their train or boat was. The United Fruit Company Steamship Service could, in 1914, produce a poster on which a couple gaze out to sea to spot their cruise ship anchored in the bay:

“There she lies, white as a swan – our home for two weeks – and what a home! All the staterooms are outside rooms, de luxe and en suite; there are baths in plenty; spacious decks; meals that tempt the appetite. Courteous service; restful ease.”

All these adverts offered something similar (aside from a pleasingly devil-may-care approach to punctuation); they offered the chance of escape, of taking two weeks or a month to experience somewhere utterly opposite to the noise and bustle of New York or Chicago. The overriding feelings when looking at these posters, with their soft, vaguely impressionist artwork, are those of warmth and relaxation.

Fast-forward to the inter-war period, and a new element comes to the fore – the aeroplane. This bouncy new novelty was trumpeted not only by companies wanting to sell tickets and airline operators, but by the manufacturers themselves.

When flying became widespread in the 1960's, United aired a commercial with housewives urging their hubbies to take them somewhere special — United Airlines sellingWhen flying became widespread in the 1960s, United aired a commercial with housewives urging their hubbies to take them somewhere special — United Airlines

Not only that, but almost any company that could leech off the wonder of this new technology did so. Does your company make aluminium? Produce a poster with a sleek-looking aircraft and some spurious claim about “the future of travel” while shoehorning in a reference to the importance of aluminium to the whole thing, and boom.

While Europe was cleaning up after the devastation of World War II, the US was simply cleaning up. By the time the 1950s rolled around, no people in the history of the world had experienced the level of luxury and ease of living than that of the American middle class.

One, even two cars in every driveway. A television. A refrigerator. The idea that everything would soon be prefixed with the word “atomic”, and that that would undoubtedly be a good thing. And free time.

The futuristic posters created by Intourist’s  featured tours to the Soviet Union and was utterly in keeping with the style used by American designers of the time — Intourist sellingThe futuristic posters created by Intourist’s featured tours to the Soviet Union and were utterly in keeping with the style used by American designers of the time — Intourist

Time was now a selling point. More and more airlines took the chance to promote flying as a good business decision. If you flew, you’d make the deal before the guy taking the train was anywhere close, therefore justifying the higher price.

Flying for business became so widespread that in 1967, United produced a television commercial involving a song-and-dance number called Take Me Along, in which housewives urged hubby dear to wrench them out of their humdrum lives and let them experience the glitz and glamour of air travel.

Let’s step aside for a minute here. I’m not saying that the airline industry was alone in being rampantly sexist in its advertising – in the 60s and 70s it was rife across the board – but it was notable for using the idea of the air hostess as sex object right up until worryingly recently.

There’s something about the idea of an environment in which alpha-male businessmen with huge watches and tiny – ahem – personalities, sit there while being waited on by servile women that strikes me as creepily Victorian and, frankly, sinister.

National Airlines urged customers to Fly Me with a soft-focus shot of one of their cabin crew; American Airlines had a sultry woman in cabin crew uniform with the bizarrely incestuous: “Think of her as your mother,” tagline; and even as recently as 2011, Ryanair tried selling flights to Bavaria using the phrase: “See the fräuleins with the big jugs.” Classy.

Sexism ruled the airline's industry in the 1960's. American Airlines took it to a  bizarrely incestuous level — American Airlines sellingSexism ruled the airline’s industry in the 1960s and 70s. American Airlines took it to a bizarrely incestuous level — American Airlines

One of the interesting things about lots of the adverts, particularly when it came to the ones based more on graphic design rather than photography, was how much the styles were influenced by contemporary artistic movements, rather than anything overridingly political. Intourist’s zippily futuristic posters from the 1950s advertising tours of the Soviet Union were utterly in keeping with the style used by American designers of the time.

As the 1970s became the 1980s, however, photography – and particularly aerial photography – had made huge strides and was quickly becoming the most popular form to use when advertising your airline. If you had a machine as beautiful in flight as Concorde, why would you not show it streaking through the sky? By the same token, if you had a first class cabin that was the height of luxury, it made utter sense to showcase it.

The 80s – in the USA and the UK at least – was a boom time. Reagan and Thatcher were making the pursuit of wealth seem like not only the correct thing to do, but almost your duty as a citizen of a capitalist country in a time of unprecedented wealth.

Ryanair never hesitated to provoke.  The carrier tried selling flights to Bavaria using the phrase “See the fräuleins with the big jugs”. And the Red Hot Faires commercial was even banned by watchdog — sellingRyanair never hesitated to provoke. The carrier tried selling flights to Bavaria using the phrase “See the fräuleins with the big jugs”. The Red Hot Fares commercial was even banned by watchdog —

This vulgarity meant that advertising switched back from the practical and personal touchstones of the 60s and 70s, to the idea of “look what you can get if you flash your credit card”. The Porsche-driving, mobile-phone-wielding stockbrokers of Thatcher’s Britain couldn’t get enough. But even that couldn’t last.

As revolution swept through Europe and the Berlin Wall fell, new markets opened up. The business model that took the greatest advantage of this was a new one: the no-frills, low-cost airline.

As cities such as Prague and Krakow could finally show themselves to the world again in all their glory, so did the chance to take advantage of economies that were in need of Western European money. The idea that there were now businesses that operated planes which you could hop on for a low price at short notice, and in two hours be in a grand European city, was an irresistible one.

As companies like easyJet, Eurowings and Ryanair again brought air travel back to the masses, so did the advertising shift once again to reflect this. No more the glossy photos of things the average person could only dream of; it was now all about clean design, catchy one-or-two-word slogans, and the promise of simplicity at every step.

Quick, easy and reliable were now the watchwords when it came to marketing, and it took lumbering behemoths such as British Airways and Virgin by surprise, who were still boasting about their luxurious transatlantic services.

Nowadays, a large percentage of the advertising you’ll see focusses very much on the idea that the world is shrinking. You can see so much more, with so much less hassle, and for so much less money, than any human at any time has been able to.

From the very beginning, travel advertising and design have stirred within people the desire to explore, to see something different and meet new people. It seems ironic that it’s now easier than ever to do that, yet people are choosing to close their doors. I suppose there’s only so much influence a piece of design can have.

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