Through this ‘Inside VBAT Medium’ platform I’ve written multiple blog posts covering a wide range of topics from modern and historic graphic design, artists, art movements and art exhibitions, contemporary and historic architecture, local and afar festivals and also as few obscure topics. Of all these blogs I have written, two of my favourite posts fall into this obscure section: ‘The Allure of Graphic Stamps’ and ‘Beautiful Money’.
The reason I like these two posts so much is because they don’t focus on one artist, one event or one exhibition; they focus on the design of particular objects. Writing both posts allowed me to express myself on topics where there isn’t a definitive answer, they made me look and think in order to ascertain my own educated opinion. Because of this, I wanted to write another: the third in the set of this ‘commonplace design’ series. Since each post starts with a story, sitting here alone in London City Airport, it makes sense for me to me to write about the design of travel related ephemera: tickets, passes, passports etc.
Similarly to stamps and cash money they are predominantly paper based and also, their future isn't certain. Travel tickets are becoming more and more digital with ‘top-up-able’ branded plastic cards and apps or just using contactless bank-cards for travel, especially for regular travellers. But for tourists and people who don’t regularly use these services, paper tickets are still a necessity; they are an easy and accessible system to use.
To most, these paper tickets and passes aren’t pieces of design, they are just a piece of paper that proves that they have paid for their journey. The majority are just thrown away; which makes sense as they become effectively useless after the journey for which they were intended. The same somewhat with passports; their main purpose is to be shown when leaving or entering a country (in my experience at least); they aren’t really admired for their design, it’s a quick thing you get out and put back away.
Through this post I want to shine a light on some of these tickets and passports to show that there is something beautiful worth looking at there.
Whilst at college and university I was able to travel and visit some of the big cities in Europe with my friends: London, Paris, Berlin, Barcelona and Amsterdam.
Train and travel tickets are pretty much all the same across these places; usually a single-use paper ticket ‘designed’ to be functional and ‘designed’ by machines similar to that of a how a receipt is produced.
The information on them is never the same as it has to be adaptable to the date, the time, the location and the price: all this needs to be printed almost instantly. However it is these digital typographic details and the pre-printed images on each ticket which makes the design.
As much as they aren’t intended to be beautiful or classic pieces of design, they still have a certain charm to them. It’s interesting to see how different cities and networks have their own unique look, shape and size; from the bank-card sized London Underground ticket to the small strip tickets for the Paris Métro. As someone who hoards and collects any and everything that is printed ephemera, I still have most of these tickets from my travels; they are like a small graphic design memento of the time I spent in that country.
I also like this functional design, the details are not hidden away where they may look nicer or cleaner, they are unavoidable and for reason: ease of use and reading. It makes me think of the Eames quote often used when referencing functional or exposed design: “The details are not the details. They make the design”.
However, something that has been changed by cleaning up the details is the recent re-design of the seemingly ubiquitous UK rail ticket (ubiquitous for my generation at least). Whilst studying at university I gathered a huge stack of these orange tickets as they’re required for every journey as in the UK (we don’t have a top-up card like an OV card). Previously, when collecting your tickets for your journey you were met with a barrage of paper: seat reservation tickets, receipt tickets, blank tickets and void printed tickets with all the information you need (or don’t need as it where).
The re-design of the information on the ticket means the information for each journey has been consolidated onto a single ticket in a clearer and more accessible layout. This makes it easier to understand, especially for people who may not use them frequently.
Perhaps I am attached to the previous design for nostalgic reasons and as much as I liked the digital style on the old design I can understand that the new design is much better for the general public.
One thing that remained the same however was look and feel of the ticket itself, the un-missable mostly orange but also white and green ticket. Perhaps it wasn’t considered to be changed as the orange coloured design is so iconic and recognisable it’s almost ‘impossible’ to replace. I’m undecided.
At the time of writing this, it was announced that following Britain’s democratic decision to leave the European Union it was decided that the British passport cover will be changed from the normal burgundy colour to previous pre-EU colour of navy. Some ‘Brexiteers’ are ecstatic with the idea that they are “getting their blue passports back” (originally introduced in the 1920s and discontinued in 1988), “the first real, tangible victory” of Brexit.
This change of colour is for now the physical representation of the magnitude of consequences of Brexit, too many to go into now. But at least 51.9% people in the UK got the colour of their passports back (amongst other things of course). The new navy passport and how it looks will be an integral part of the identity of the UK post Brexit. It will most likely be the same as the burgundy passport but just navy and without the EUROPEAN UNION text at the top. This comment by a writer at the Guardian sums up whatever the result will be:
“Any national identity imperilled by the colour of its documents must be pretty feeble to begin with: all the more reason for politicians to focus on its real challenges, instead of fixating on symbolism or making cheap gestures. Only a fragile or foolish nation would judge a passport by its cover.”
Predicting that the UK government would make a decision on the colour and design of the British passport post-Brexit, Dezeen ran an unofficial competition for a suggested re-design with entries from over 200 people ranging from 12–83 and from backgrounds as graphic designers, architects and writers.
The video above explains the design rational behind each of the designs in the shortlist with the eventual winner of the competition being Scottish graphic designer Ian Macfarlane for his gradient style design which pre-empted the decision to change the colour from burgundy to navy but in a more refined and considered manner. Instead of just changing from one to the other, his passport is in a state of flux, its in-between the two, it represents both the for and the against in a beautiful and poetic way.
Keeping the burgundy colour and original crest design on the bottom half with the top half a dismissal of any design. Plain gold text replaces any prior acknowledgment of the European Union and the dark navy colour is almost like a heavy cloud overshadowing what we once/will have once had.
This design is a great example of what passports can look if we ditch the stuffy tradition of what passports ‘should be’. In my article on cash money design, I wrote about how Snohetta’s design of the new Norwegian bank notes were totally different from ‘normal’ bank notes and due to this and the great design, images of this money went viral. The same happened for Neue studio’s Norwegian passport design. The design was chosen as the winning entry of the competition for a new passport concept; it features simplified images of Norwegian landscapes of fjords and mountains in pastel colours. The different cover colours are bold and unconventional with various colours denoting different class of people.
Obviously, like money, security features play an important part of the design and process and they can be made an integral part of the design such as Neue’s idea of the landscapes on each page transforming from daytime to nighttime when shone under UV light. Landscapes darken to show the northern lights in the night sky; adding a magical touch to an other-wise functional security feature.
When searching for images of Neue’s passport design I found more entries from the same competition which also reference Norway’s coast, its Viking history and a general contemporary Scandinavian expression which is refreshing to see.
This idea of design-competition is obviously nothing new but perhaps it is something that other countries should look more towards.
The idea of running a competition to allow all people from that nation to submit what they think the design should be.
Not just giving it to one established agency or doing it themselves/in-house in a lazy or easy way; obviously public competitions can’t and don’t always go to plan (the recent New Zealand flag competition for example) but these examples show that it can often bring creative and imaginative results.
In terms of more traditional passport designs though, the Swiss passport is seen as one of the most beautiful for its classically modernist look. According to Richard Hollis, the Swiss passport was the first to have been professionally designed.
It features a bright red cover with de-bossed Swiss crosses; there’s no crests or shields with lions or eagles or any stupid Latin text. It’s simply red and white.
The inside pages are also unusual compared to more traditional designs as they are brightly coloured with more references to the Swiss flag and cross. After all, who would doubt the Swiss having a dull passport.
As serious as passports should be though, I think it’s nice to add something a bit quirky. The Finnish passport has a sense of fun; initially designed as a security feature, the pages have illustrations of a moose which when flipped through quickly act as a flip-book where the moose appears to move. I’m sure this has kept many bored kids at airports entertained to no end.
Of course there are many more beautiful passports and travel tickets across the world, many countries are embracing new ideas and innovating, using security features as an excuse to create something fun and different. As with stamps and money, passports and tickets are inherently paper and that’s why I and many others enjoy them and appreciate their design; their physical and tactile nature.