Design Gadfly Strikes Again, All You Can Jet Pass in Hand

The young man who torched American Airlines' Web design embarks on an exhaustive new experiment: Hearing the stories of strangers on a plane.

<a href=Dustin Curtis" width="620" height="335" />

The last time we heard from Dustin Curtis, he was leveling a decimating critique of the Web design over at American Airlines—complete with his own suggestion of how the site should look. That effort got at least one AA designer fired. Curtis is back at it, in the airline industry. But this time, in a far different capacity: They're going to fly to every Jet Blue airport in the span of 30 days, documenting their trip and the stories they hear along the way.The project kicks off September 8, and ends October 8.

Wow—that's a pretty gonzo bit of reporting. It's being enabled by a 30-day All You Can Jet Pass; it was inspired by a chance encounter that Curtis had aboard a JetBlue flight with a former finance employee, who was flying to take a new job in San Francisco—having spent all her money on the flight, with none left over for a place to stay or food to eat.

This sort of mammoth reporting experiment has some legendary precursors. For example, Walker Evans famously documented the Great Depression for the Farm Security Administration. Today, his photographs are the signature images from the era. Today, rural farms maybe indicate a lot less about our country at large, an airplane is now probably the best place to find a broad swathe of backgrounds and stories.

But is this thing just a massive viral marketing stunt for JetBlue? Curtis wants to kick it off with a coffee—on him—with JetBlue's CEO, David Barger. Smells fishy.

But if it is a PR stunt, does that really take away from the project? The days of the WPA and the Farm Security Administration—and even, high quality, exhaustive newspaper reporting—are dead. Who else can pay for projects like this, except corporations?

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  • Jaycob Burns

    I'm working on a project with the All You Can Jet Pass also. We are traveling for 31 days straight visiting as many American Cities as possible. Interviewing individuals on video camera and taking still pictures trying to capture a "snapshot of the USA". You can follow our blog at http://www.twelvehoursinacity.... or interact with us via twitter or

    I e-mailed Dustin, I'm interested in meeting up with him for a leg if we have the chance.


  • Cliff Kuang

    @Jim---Thanks for reading and writing. To address a couple of your points:

    The designer fired was the one that responded to Curtis's complaints was the one who wrote in to him, and agreed with his assessment. So it wasn't about getting the bad guys fired--it was about how a design-inept organization manages to ensure its own mediocrity.

    I'm not sure what you're getting at with your last point. It's not that funding design critics is a replacement for critical journalism. That's not what I was writing about. Rather, Curtis's experiment is about flying around the country and reporting on the conversations he has--this isn't a critical experiment. It's a storytelling experiment. And where newspapers and the WPA used to fund those types of things, they don't. But maybe corporations can. That doesn't really have anything to do with whether or not "independent responsible journalism and critique are dead." Though, FWIW, independent reporting is seriously on the ropes due to a collapsing business model--that's pretty hard to deny. Critique? We'll never have too little of it---after all, as the journalism adage goes, sensibility is cheap. Reporting is expensive.

  • Jim Meredith

    Cliff, a couple of considerations –

    * I am not sure that design critique should have as its object, or celebrate as an effect, the firing of another designer. I'd rather that AA, as a result of Dustin's review and other customer input, look at the way it commissions and controls design efforts and engages talent, and see what a new workplace environment might produce.

    * Deep immersion into a client's business, including all of its points of contact with customers, ought to be part of any of its design commissions.

    * Design commissions based on in-flight serendipitous conversations with Jet Blue's CEO are legend. Other CEO's ought to study this approach. (BTW, did the AA website designer meet the AA CEO in a casual conversation on a long flight in First Class?)

    * Are you really saying that corporate largesse, extended to design critics, is an acceptable alternative to good critical journalism? In other words, is the expectation that Dustin's expense of a cup of coffee (effectively) in return for a CEO-attentive around-the-world tour of Jet Blue facilities will result in credible criticism? Is FC behind you on this approach, declaring that independent responsible journalism and critique are dead? Really?