We recently caught up with Edmond Huot, Chief Creative Officer of Forward Studio, to talk about airline design and branding. And some other stuff, too.
Aside from airlines, Huot has spent more than 30 years helping shape the creative outlook for a wide range of B2B brands. In 2012, he rose to become a founding partner and creative head of a New York City-based holding company representing more than 20 advertising, design, and public relations firms whose clients have included renowned brands including Honda, Expedia, Singapore Airlines, Microsoft Tableau, and Kenneth Cole Fashions.
In 2016, Huot and his business partner Peter Clark shifted their focus and revisited a shared passion for aviation, helping to build a more specialized practice area in the airline branding and PR space. This includes recent work for Northern Pacific Airways, a newly-formed long haul airline launching routes to points in Asia.
Over the course of our conversations Huot talks about what drew him to airline branding, building one from scratch, what drew him to the segment, his take on the expansion of AI, and more.
What’s been keeping you busy lately?
I am currently working on a new start-up airline in Europe focused on servicing traffic from the mainland to the island. Unfortunately, the project is still confidential; however, I can say it represents a real departure from my most recent assignments.
Additionally, I have been focused on completing my certification and membership to the RGD – The Association of Registered Graphic Designers. The RGD is one of the largest professional associations for graphic designers and is dedicated to promoting the principles and practices of accessible design.
Since my firm works with airport authorities on brand-related assignments, the need for accessible design is a critical factor that deserves more attention.
What first drew you to designing an airline brand?
I’m a self-described AvGeek with a deep, personal interest in everything ‘travel and airliner.’
As a creative director whose job involves imagining comprehensive brand storytelling and design expression, I have definitely aspired to work in the aviation space. Any business where there is a deep historical context and legacy combined with a diverse public fascination is fertile ground for creative exploration.
Previously, you said of building an airline brand from scratch, “There’s a modular nature to the vocabulary that allows you to go in different directions.” Tell us more about that and the ground-up process.
Gone are the days when identity and brand design followed an ‘identity as identical’ philosophy, where a logo mark and its strict design palette set one-dimensional rules whose enforcement and policing made the day-to-day use and application of the mark and its subsequent brand both difficult and underwhelming.
Today’s 21st-century view on branding recognizes a more multidimensional approach. I prefer to create a more robust, interconnected, and organic kit of parts that gives my clients more freedom and flexibility. I also believe that companies and their respective brand elements start with people, where function, interpretation, and imagination play a daily role in how better decisions are made.
“I would like to see more innovation and creativity in livery design so that we move a bit further away from the rather commodified look of the ‘Eurowhite’ design schemes so many airlines appear to be adopting.”
The trick really is to ensure that any robust brand vocabulary can be linked back to the core storytelling ethos of the brand. Additionally, every design decision must somehow reconcile against a simple set of important attributes whose values and characteristics support everything from font choice and iconography to color palettes and imagery.
Once we have agreement on this foundational platform, subsequent design applications can evolve more easily.
Creatives in this field are a relatively small circle. Where did you turn for inspiration and guidance in developing your creative vision for Northern Pacific Airways?
A lot of my inspiration for the Northern Pacific Airways brand and livery design came from the research and benchmarking process. Diving deep into both Alaska’s and Asia’s cultural and historical contexts informed key themes and visual approaches.
“Any business where there is a deep historical context and legacy combined with a diverse public fascination is fertile ground for creative exploration.”
I also spent time learning about the early pioneers and explorers who risked their lives to journey into unknown and rugged territories. I looked for themes that I could move forward into a more modern context in order to drive greater interest, relevance, and meaning.
What are some creative campaigns you’ve worked on over your career that you are most proud of?
I worked on a branding project for a payroll company where their master brand identity consisted of a simple, dimensional circle graphic. This rather ubiquitous mark perfectly symbolized the 24/7 nature of their business while at the same time supporting notions of collaboration and community.
Considering how conservative this client and their customers were, I was definitely taking a chance. However, the CEO to whom I reported directly was incredibly supportive and confident regarding both my thought process and overall design journey. I’m proud of that work and very grateful to have worked with such a supportive client who respected my craft.
As part of the work we undertook for Northern Pacific Airways, I was the lead producer and creative director in charge of imagining, designing, and executing the launch event for the airline’s newly painted aircraft.
Debuting in San Bernardino, California, in January 2022, this was the first large-scale event I had ever accepted. A range of factors—including timing, remote coordination, and logistics (I work in NYC), as well as COVID—added a further layer of pressure and difficulty.
The project included an entire brand concept and campaign titled ‘Next Era,’ designed to drive interest and excitement for a range of attendees who were coming in from all over the world for an entire weekend. The campaign creative was translated onto a range of touch points including pre-launch check-in, dinners, and media events.
Of course, the evening of the aircraft’s physical reveal was the star attraction and included a pre-launch video and hosted conservation with the airline’s CEO against a 50-foot LED backdrop. With a custom-scored soundtrack and lightshow, the hangar doors began to open on cue as the freshly painted Boeing 757 rolled into the hangar. It was an incredibly visceral experience to be so close to such a large aircraft. It was definitely an exciting project to be a part of. I’m very thankful (and relieved!).
As it’s a popular topic, what’s your take on AI and the path you see it taking as it expands its presence in the creative industry?
I’m skeptically optimistic. As an artist at heart, I believe in the human condition in terms of ideation, expression, and problem solving. While AI seems great at creating efficiencies, I don’t believe that great work and working experiences happen without some degree of friction and human interaction.
“Today’s 21st-century view on branding recognizes a more multidimensional approach. I prefer to create a more robust, interconnected, and organic kit of parts that gives my clients more freedom and flexibility.”
Certainly, there will always be a need for innovation, progress, and adaptation. And while change is never easy, it is nonetheless inevitable and ultimately rewarding, if not rejuvenating. I think the industry will again need to be carefully managed through this current fascination with automation and robotics so that man and machine can find some degree of harmony and symbiosis moving forward.
What creative trends in the airline industry do you see (or would like to see) in 2023?
I would like to see more innovation and creativity in livery design so that we move a bit further away from the rather commodified look of the ‘Eurowhite’ design schemes so many airlines appear to be adopting. Vintage minimalism and experimental fonts are two interesting trends in graphic design that may find their way into the world of airline livery design.
I would also like to see more focus on design and innovation within the cabin and on product design for economy class. I get that First and Business are attractive, high-margin lines of business for airlines, but those of us who find ourselves in row 37 deserve some attention and respect too. Let’s make traveling more human—if not a bit more glamorous—for the masses as opposed to just for the elites.
I think Air New Zealand has been doing a great job turning its design attention to the world of economy and premium economy.