Airlines are in the news again, mainly for terror prevention and full-body scanners, which are none of my concern. Today I am more concerned with that clumsy-but-necessary chunk of ink and paper, the boarding pass.

First, let’s examine the work of Tyler Thompson, who was inspired by Dustin Curtis to redesign the boarding pass, the very object that caused him so much frustration during his travels. Thompson’s approaches are novel, making good use of whitespace, modern typography, and subtle branding of each airline.

Thompson's first pass
A plain-jane, monochrome version with airline logo

Thompson's second pass
Delta-branded pass

Thompson's third pass
jetBlue-branded pass

Thompson's fourth pass
Alternative approach using a map. For domestic use only, apparently.

While the design is lovely, there are several impractical elements. First, the choice of type will never work for anything that needs to be viewed by so many lay people. Without going into a very scientific explanation of typographic recognition, tastes, eyesight, Asian education systems, and the artistic open-mindedness of middle America, I think in this case we’re better off using a bold, simple face like Din or Helvetica. There are typefaces designs for legibility and quick reference, just as there are those designed for viewing signage at fast speeds.

In general, printing colour would be a hassle, especially where branded passes is concerned. I have found myself in those rare situations where the flight is cancelled and I am forced to board with another carrier — and I don’t even fly that much. If this required me to carry an off-brand boarding pass, it would just be one more thing for the airlines to screw up.

And Thompson clearly didn’t think of the international travelers, writing the date, time, and name in the American-style, non-metric format. It might be a good idea to have numerals that look distinctly different from letters, perhaps with a strike through the 7 and the 0.

But I wasn’t the open one to say “well done, but let me take it from here.” Timoni Grone has taken a stab at it too, launching from the already stoic layout of present boarding passes. Her design uses a similar tactic of using big letters to draw the eye immediately to the important info.

Timoni's attempt
Another approach to the same problem

While the OCR-esque typeface is perfectly readable, it does look much better set in Helvetica. At least the larger type. But who says you can’t have two typefaces on a single boarding pass.

Timoni's attempt
Helvetica saves the day

I’m afraid that at the time of writing, I don’t have an alternative of my own. My instinct would be to produce something midway between the two. Yes, it will have to be sterile and machine-readable, but it will also need to get the info across in the easiest and fastest ways possible. In my opinion, all information is equal except the gate number and boarding time, which are the two points of information that one usually doesn’t have before arriving at the airport, and can often forget in the critical minutes leading up to boarding. And the info should be grouped into relevant areas: passenger info, date and time, destination(s), seat and boarding info, etc. should all be grouped. And what about QR codes? Are those not ready for prime time on boarding passes? I’ll give it a shot when I can…