• 01.05.10

What Do Ugly Boarding Passes Say About the Airlines That Print Them?

On one hand, boarding passes don’t have to be so painfully designed, as this proposal proves. On the other, even gorgeous tickets won’t guarantee an on-time departure.

boarding pass

Recently, we covered Dustin Curtis’s funny bit of design activism, where he proposed a redesign of the atrocious American Airlines Web site. Now one of Curtis’s buddies, Tyler Thompson, is taking on the boarding pass. As he writes:


This is the actual boarding pass I got from Delta. It’s a nightmare. Note all the random alignments and spacing issues. This all started on a recent flight aboard a Delta Airlines plane. I
was heading back from New York where I had met up with fellow designer Dustin Curtis. If you are not aware of Dustin’s take on American Airlines, go read this. Anyway, I was inspired by Dustin and his attitude towards shittily designed things, to say the least. I was bored so I started rummaging through my stuff trying to find something to read when I grabbed my boarding pass. So I stared at it for a while. Rubbed my eyes, then stared at it some more.

It was like someone put on a blindfold, drank a fifth of whiskey, spun around 100 times, got kicked in the face by a mule (the person who designed this definitely has a mule living with them inside their house) and then just started puking numbers and letters onto the boarding pass at random (yes, I realize that a human didn’t lay this out, if a human had, judging by the train-wreck of design, they would have surely used papyrus). There was nothing given size or color importance over anything else, it was a mess.

And here’s one of the designs he came up with:

boarding pass

Much improved. (Although colors can’t be rendered on the thermal printers that you find at airport gates).

And come to think of it, receipts in general (which is really what a boarding pass is) are a tremendous wasted opportunity to convey real information, useful to consumers and businesses alike. In fact, Curtis actually tackled this problem, and he points to a solid design by 21-year-old Robert Anderson for Square Up, which makes mobile credit-card readers for iPhones:

boarding pass

As you can see, the receipt contains everything you need for coming back, and adding the business to your lifestream.

It makes you wonder: Shouldn’t every piece of paper that a business gives you be actively encouraging you to do more business with them?

The real bogeyman, I suspect, is corporate attitudes towards design itself. Usually, design is looked at as an expensive luxury rather than something that builds brand value. What’s baffling is that companies will gladly spend money on marketing, since they’re used to the vague returns that promises. Not so much with design. But if you were to actually look at even the airline industry, design has been a key in creating the two most successful start-ups in recent history: Virgin Atlantic and JetBlue.


And then it makes you think: Man, I really hope this design activism thing catches on. The world really could use more input from young, loud-mouthed design geeks.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.