Flights of Fancy

How much do you notice the exterior of an airplane? Unless you are an avid plane watcher, the answer is, likely, not much. Yet, airlines around the world shell out good money on elaborate external liveries for their planes, with various degrees of success and acclaim. Qantas Airlines' Wunala Dreaming aircraft is an example of one of the most well-received and stunning liveries. More recently, Dragonair, a regional carrier that operates out of Hong Kong and flies to 22 destinations in China and nine cities in seven other Asian countries, unveiled a specially designed aircraft in celebration of its 20th anniversary. The anniversary livery for the A330-300 is Airbus' most complex livery project to date, taking 14 months to complete.

The Brief

Dragonair's brief was simple: create a compelling livery that would put a smile on the faces of travelers, while enhancing the uniquely modern Chinese brand. Previously the airline had embraced the participation of young design talents of Hong Kong when it redesigned its corporate logo in 1993. At that time, with the assistance of the School of Design at the then Hong Kong Polytechnic, Dragonair unveiled a logo with a red dragon symbol that is, today, instantly associated with the carrier.

To answer the first part of the brief (causing a smile among those who saw the anniversary aircraft), it was initially necessary to address the issue of how to portray the Chinese-ness of the brand. "Multinational companies inside and outside the mainland (China) are turning to local and traditional themes to stand out from the all-too-often bland crowd of international corporate identities," explains Julia Brown, creative director at Hong Kong-based design and communications consultancy Orijen.

"Chinese imagery is slowly gaining more currency within the local branding industry. However, local designers such as Freeman Lau, Kan Tai-Keung, Douglas Young (of G.O.D.) and Alan Chan have long championed this direction," adds independent illustrator Tania Willis, who worked on the design for Dragonair with Orijen. "If you look at the work coming out of the younger Hong Kong cultural scene in fashion, media, and fine art, local imagery and everyday artifacts from the past feature large."

On a national scale, the Brand Hong Kong logo, which features a stylized dragon with the tagline "Asia's World City," and the 2008 Beijing Olympics logo, with its "Dancing Beijing" symbol, resembling a red Chinese seal enclosing a lively dancing figure, bear the statements of Brown and Willis out.

The Inspiration

Appropriate for a brand inspired by the ancient belief that the dragon symbolizes nobility and greatness, the livery design drew inspiration from a legend that links Hong Kong and China, with a dragon at the center of the story. The dragon, as the tale goes, traveled from Northern China to Hong Kong, forming a chain of mountains along the way. From Hong Kong, it continues to gaze back at China today. The dragon's head, which forms Victoria Peak on Hong Kong Island, is believed to protect the city's fortunes.

According to Willis, it is the combination of the modern with traditional elements, such as Chinese folk art, which sets the aircraft apart. Alongside a 35-meter long dragon on one side of the aircraft, there are familiar scenes from modern Hong Kong life such as the Star Ferry (itself a longstanding icon), the renowned I.M. Pei-designed Bank of China building, and Hong Kong's tallest building Two International Finance Center, as well as traditional images like a boy flying a butterfly-shaped kite, the mountainous ranges of Lantau Island, and Chinese clouds and birds.

"In brainstorming, Orijen and I looked at images of celebration -- of acrobats, dragon dances, and fireworks, amongst others," says Willis. On the other side of the aircraft, a dragon is flanked by iconic images from China, such as the mountains of Guilin.

Technical Details

So how does one design for an aircraft livery? "The methodology is similar to that of poster design -- it must have visual impact," explains Willis. "Effectively, the livery is promotional design on a grand scale."

Willis adds, "There were of course technical differences. As a two-dimensional designer, I found it hard to anticipate how my flat design would stretch and contract around a three-dimensional object. How would we keep the design from disappearing over or under the fuselage, for instance?"

What an onlooker sees as the livery is, in fact, an optical illusion. Standing under the plane, certain images look warped, but morph into perfectly proportioned images from a distance. "Eventually, I understood how technical software converts the flat image and 'projects' it onto the plane," says Willis.

From Concept to Livery

From a digital file prepared by Willis, draftsmen generated stencils with pre-defined color specifications, so there was no subsequent artistic interpretation of the livery design. According to Dragonair, Airbus produced a record 466 stencils for the livery, close to double the 250 stencils produced for its previous biggest paint job. Highly-skilled paint shop technicians then used mechanized spray paint equipment to create an exact copy of the work, with traditional hand skills employed to refine many of the details.

Dragonair's 20th anniversary aircraft, which commenced flights in May 2005, serves popular routes including Beijing, Shanghai, Taipei, and Tokyo. The livery will remain on the plane for five years. How long it will remain in the traveler's mind is not yet known.

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