To Make Flying A Little Less Awful, An Entire Terminal Rebrands Itself

Base Design crafted an identity for JFK’s Terminal 4, showing how spatial branding can improve a harrowing user experience.


Airlines invest a lot of time and money in trying to make travel little bit more bearable–and enjoyable, even–with streamlined booking, tony lounges, and better designed service trays, to name a few. But what about improving the experience of airline terminals?


With long lines, confusing layouts, and a frenzy of harried travelers rushing around for their gate or to get a Starbucks fix, navigating the terminal is easily one of the most stressful parts of a journey. JFKIAT, the operator of JFK’s Terminal 4, hoped that a rebrand could boost customer experience, and enlisted Base Design to hatch a plan.

T4 is the only privately owned airport terminal in North America. While the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is responsible for the rest of JFK, T4 is privately managed by JFKIAT–which meant it likely didn’t have to jump through bureaucratic hoops to green-light the branding project or allocate financing. The problem for the designers at Base was twofold: establishing a distinct identity for the terminal, and communicating JFKIAT’s service philosophy to passengers: T4 should yield excitement, not anxiety.

“They wanted to express their core belief of ‘don’t worry, be happy,'” says Min Lew, a partner at Base.

While T4’s wayfinding has to adhere to Port Authority guidelines and under Base’s purview to change, the firm conceived of complementary graphics that would add a more human touch to offset the austerity. “From the perspective of building the Terminal 4 brand, we’re more in the category of personality,” Lew says. “And if we can delight the passengers along the way, we should . . . The brand essence is about guiding and delighting.”

Base’s team commissioned a custom font that looks like outlined block type. “We wanted to reflect the physical space so it’s open, modern, and light and we wanted the identity to harmonize with that and be a part of that family,” Lew says. (The letterforms also nod to the pattern of airport tarmacs.) The logo–which consists of the letter T and number 4–was born out of the notion that the terminal was “for” its passengers. Base rendered the numeral in a rainbow gradient to show the duality of the terminal’s persona: It’s reliable and provides good service, but does so with a human touch.

The signage celebrates place and aims to excite passengers about the city. Banners feature quotes from famous New Yorkers, facts about the city, and photographs of famous landmarks. The language is conversational. While the mandated Port Authority signs may have an arrow next to a generic icon representing food, Base’s signs say, “Shopping? Dining? This way” and sport whimsical illustrations. Since the terminal is long, other signs offer passengers an estimate of walking time in minutes to reach a specific destination. In the ticketing area, signs bid travelers bon voyage. “These subtle, yet personal, messages make you feel like T4 cares about its passengers,” Lew says. “And a human tone of voice offers an authentic sense of space.”


The project is unique, in part because of T4’s unique status in the airline industry. While individual airlines have kitted out the sections of airline terminals they operate, like JetBlue in Newark and Virgin America in San Francisco, Base’s rebrand is terminal wide. It’s about relaying the service ethos of an entire building consisting of dozens of airlines, not just an individual carrier.

For Base, the visual emblems are only the first step in a continually evolving process–that, one day, could involve branding all kinds of sensory experiences. “How we can make travel more enjoyable is a hot topic and there are so many things we can do,” Lew says. She sees an opportunity to explore scent and sound, two overlooked elements in branding, which might eventually become part of T4’s identity. “As you’re walking through the hall, you’re stressed–could you use sound or smell to tap into the senses [to make it less stressful]? These are active conversations as we evolve the brand and explore how it fits into this core belief of informing and delighting.”

Say you’re at baggage claim. As you wait for your suitcase to careen down the chute and onto the carousel, a plume of soothing lavender essential oils permeates the air, alleviating the anxiety of potentially lost luggage and melting away the tension of being squashed in a too-tight airplane seat. The gentle hum of music drowns out the cries of a screaming infant. Beautiful pictures of the city you’re visiting hint at the sights you’ll see and a sign welcomes you to the metropolis.

That scenario looks, smells, and sounds a heck of a lot nicer than many airports. Branding can yield a better travel experience–and as airlines rush to utilize it, many terminals could stand to embark on their own projects, too.

[All Photos: courtesy Base Design]

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.