When I was a lot younger, back in the early to late ‘80s, I used to travel abroad a lot with my mum, dad, and sisters. My dad worked abroad, we went to live wherever he was. In about 1986 my mum got me a little book that had an graphical index of aircraft livery. It was my favourite reference book. It was just right to carry about comfortably everywhere. I used to love seeing those pages with the airline tails in a grid, either for a quick dip into or going over again and again on a car journey.

Some people hate air travel. I don‘t. I love it. All those air trips started my love of being at airports - Heathrow especially - glimpsing out as we drove up to the airport, as we walked the terminals, as we were in the plane taxing to take off or when we landed. Being able to spot an airline by the tail of the plane was just the best thing. The boards of flight departures with the codes for airlines were the promise to spot a tail I’d not seen before. Clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack.

I had my favourites tails. The massive maple leaf of Canada Airlines. The simple, striking TWA. The tree for Middle East Airlines. Lufthansa. The white cross on red of Swiss Air. I could go on.

From 1991 to 1994 (aged 15 to 18) I was at boarding school in England. My mum, dad, and sisters lived abroad. I had to go to school somewhere. I went out to see my mum, dad, and sisters for the Easter and summer holidays. I flew through Amsterdam Schiphol airport about four times a year.

Going out, I’d fly from Humberside Airport to Schiphol, where I’d pick up a flight onwards. I always got a few hours at Schiphol. As airports went it was relaxing and fun. There was space to sit and chill (I got a lot of reading done on those journeys). And there were the shops to browse, Ajax tops and Sega Game Gears to faun over.

Schiphol’s a great airport to just roam around. Airports don’t tend to be that. I’d been to a lot in my life. But Schiphol has something about it. As I got older I realised why: It’s got some great, clear signage to guide you around. Walking around looking for new and rare tails when you’ve got an on-going flight is a lot easier, a lot calmer if you can just walk around, knowing where you are, where you could go, how you can get there.

About ten years back, when I was at Brahm, I was reading something - a book, a mag, I can’t remember what - about signage at airports. This was the first time I heard of Paul Mijksenaar. It is also the first time I learnt Paul created the wayfaring signage at Schiphol airport. Armed with this I managed to get a copy of Paul’s Visual Function off Abe Books. (I think. Probably was – I got a few books off there back then.)

I’ve been at GDS today helping with the design careers day. A few of us mentioned “How we got into being a designer”. I didn’t go to a design school so I didn’t study design or designers as part of a course. Over the last 15 years I’ve tried to make up for that. I’ve read books and mags, gone to exhibitions, and worked with designers who know a lot of this stuff and just shared it. (Using the web for designy stuff has only really been something I’ve done in the past five years.)

I guess I too-easily forget I had that book with the airline liveries when I was much younger. I guess I too-easily forget how much I just liked the signage at Amsterdam Schiphol. They have definitely shaped my design education, even if I didn’t know or think it.

After the GDS careers day I hung around for the Gov Design event after work. I’ve wanted to go to one, but just haven’t. At the fourth attempt I managed it. With everything go on the past few weeks with work and the careers day I hadn’t paid too much attention to who was going to be talking. I was just going to sit back and listen.

It took me two minutes of Paul Mijksenaar talking for me to realise it was Paul Mijksenaar talking. It totally made my week. And as Paul shared and unpacked some of his thinking and work (which I know a fair bit about these days), it was still awesome, it still is awesome to see the signage from Schiphol airport. Even now at 41, maybe moreso now I am 41, I realise how much that signage meant and means to me.

  • If you want to learn more about the signage at Amsterdam Schiphol airport, there’s a great case study on the Mijksenaar website.

  • I filled some time at this week’s NHS Digital designers huddle in Leeds with a short talk and discussion based on this post. I slapped the slides together while I had lunch. I didn’t mention airline livery. I have made the slide deck available for everyone as a Google Slides deck.

This post tagged with:
signage, airports, design, graphic design, Schiphol airport, Paul Mijksenaar