I’ve been traveling a little more than usual these days, so my nerves may have been a little frazzled when I boarded a plane in Denver earlier this month and saw the scene pictured here. As I stepped off the walkway and onto the plane, I noticed a very serious and technical-looking panel of knobs and buttons on which someone had crossed off the word “Auto” and scrawled “No!”
Granted, it was just on the walkway and not on the actual airplane, and you very rarely hear about fatal walkway incidents at airports. Still, it was jarring to see such informal communication here. This is a setting in which you’re hoping the technical equipment doesn’t need to be relabeled on the fly (so to speak). It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if there are parts of the plane held together with duct tape.
So I was a little skeptical when Friend of IBD Phil Broder sent me a link to photos of the airplane pictured above. Just as a matter of principle, the first thing I do whenever Friend of IBD Phil Broder sends me anything is go to snopes.com to see if he’s trying to set me up. Evidently, it’s true that South Africa’s Kulula Airlines has turned the exterior of one of its planes—called Flying 101—into a big typographic comedy routine.
The plane is covered with snarky labels like “front door (our door is always open … unless we’re at 41,000 feet),” “co-captain (the other pilot on the PA system),” “tail (featuring an awesome logo),” and my favorite, “black box (which is actually orange).” You can see detailed photos on Kulula’s website. The plane debuted in February of this year, and this is not the first time it’s been featured in a blog.
On its website, Kulula has this to say about its plane:
Flying 101 has flown around the world several times thanks to the power of email and internet. This plane was designed in-house by our graphic design team as part of our bigger strategy to demystify air travel and explain some of the unknowns around air travel and flying.
This speaks to two important aspects of visual communication: the value of humor and the power of the unexpected. In my experience, all viral internet phenomena can be categorized into three categories: humorous, inspirational, and adorable kittens. (This is why Rupert Murdoch has been trying for years to genetically engineer a humorous, inspirational, adorable kitten; if he ever succeeds, he’ll rule the media world.) The Kulula plane falls into the humor category, but not necessarily because the jokes are the funniest ever written. (And for the record, if they’re trying to demystify flying, I really don’t want to know where the black box is; that does nothing to put me at ease.)
The jokes on Flying 101 range from mildly amusing to chuckle worthy, but I don’t think Kulula is in danger of losing its in-house graphics department to jobs writing for late-night comedy shows. What makes people more likely to laugh at the jokes is their unexpected context. Most of us have never seen a joke written on an airplane, so we’re laughing in part out of surprise. Kulula has generated invaluable free publicity with the online buzz created by a series of jokes that are marginally funny by placing them in an unexpected medium.
The element of surprise is a powerful visual tool, and not just when it comes to humor. For instance, an interpretive exhibit about oak trees might jar its audience with a 10-foot-tall image of an acorn, a technique called scale shift. The use of an unexpected typeface or color, if implemented carefully, can be an effective visual tool. Merely placing part of a sign upside down—a technique called drunken accident—will likely catch the eye of a passerby.
Of course, sometimes the element of surprise is a bad thing—like when you’re starting a week-long trip on three hours of sleep and you realize that the technicians at your hometown airport are communicating to one another with messages written in crayon.