Design Inspiration

How JetBlue’s Time Travel Experiment Cracked 1960s Graphic Design

Simon Martin By Simon Martin December 8, 2016
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It was a chilly November morning in New York City—one of the last days that would see brilliant red, orange, and yellow leaves hanging from the trees. On Wooster Street, in SoHo, a small gathering of travel agents shuffled their way across the cobblestone road bundled under hats and heavy jackets.

Once inside their storefront, the agency workers warmed their hands with hot coffee and began the work day by seating themselves at their typewriters. The agents had one goal and one goal only for the day: entice cold New Yorkers with $66 flights to fabulous Palm Springs, California; the land of swimming pools, cocktail parties, and plenty of warm desert sunshine.

The funny thing is, this wasn’t 1966—this was November 11th, 2016; opening day of the JetBlue Time Travel Agency.

JetBlue Time Travel Agency

What’s Old is Blue Again

Created as an experiential marketing campaign to celebrate their newly launched direct flight service from New York City to the mid-century modern design mecca that is Palm Springs, the two-day 1960s-inspired Time Travel Agency was just one piece out of many that the company used to tell their RetroJet livery story centered around embracing 1960s nostalgia and more specifically, the Golden Age of Travel.

While SoHo shoppers were just feet away from the Apple Store and Starbucks, when they entered the Time Travel Agency, they were taken to an entirely different time and place, thanks to the level of detail put into this one-of-a-kind experience.

“At the Time Travel Agency, people could step back in time to experience an era (and way of booking flights) that’s synonymous with 1960s Palm Springs,” explains Amy Ferguson, VP, Creative Director at MullenLowe, who worked closely with the JetBlue design and marketing teams to bring the concept to life. “Everything inside the Time Travel Agency reflected the era: the employee’s mannerisms and dialect, the office supplies, even the $66 fares Agency employees provided to customers. The only thing that didn’t was the travel agents’ uncanny knowledge of Greater Palm Springs attractions of 2016.”

But how does a brand that is younger than most millennials—JetBlue first took flight in 2000—even begin to envision who or what they would have been if they had existed in the 1960s? Where does an airline so heavily invested in the future of air travel begin to look back and rewrite history?

For the JetBlue design team, it started by taking a long hard look at the DNA that already made them who they were.

JetBlue Time Travel Agency

The Cool Airline Brand

From the state-of-the-art T5 terminal at New York’s JFK airport to years of innovative advertising campaigns (including a recent edible newspaper ad to promote their all-you-eat in-flight snack service), JetBlue is no stranger to veering off into unknown territories. Although the airline is only 16 years old, their unique ability to remain “cool” while balancing user experience and cost has proven to be a disruptive lightning rod through the passenger airline industry.

Unsurprisingly, the brand’s bold approach to marketing has also made them especially popular with the millennial generation. Between their glittery millennial-friendly social media presence on Instagram and Snapchat to their commitment to creating a treasure trove of delicious share-worthy content, the brand’s marketing strategy is one that others—airline or not—may want to start looking at more closely.

“We’ve only been around 16 years, making JetBlue very young in the airline industry,” says Jamie Perry, JetBlue’s VP of Marketing, from the company’s Long Island City, New York office. The office, which is located just a few miles from the airline’s flagship T5 terminal, is also designed to resemble a futuristic travel hub. “(But) we’ve put JetBlue on the map making every part of the travel experience as simple and pleasant as possible, by providing a higher quality product at a lower cost to customers. ’Fun’ is definitely one of the most tangible values and what our customers remember about us and keep coming back to us for, in addition to the unparalleled customer service. It’s those ‘surprise and delight’ moments that allow us to engage with our customers and help tell our story in a genuine way.”

And in today’s always-on, always-sharing world, few methods of telling a story are as effective as a carefully curated experience. While the concept of experiential marketing is nothing new, today’s brands are rewriting the formula to create truly immersive experiences that won’t soon be forgotten.

JetBlue Time Travel Agency

For JetBlue’s design and marketing teams, the first step towards rewriting history and creating an immersive experience started at the epicenter of mid-century modern graphic design: The Herb Lubalin Study Center of Design & Typography at the Cooper Union in New York City.

There, along with the Center’s head design curator Alexander Tochilovsky, JetBlue designers spent days poring through original advertisements, graphics, images and typography styles from the 1960s. The team particularly looked towards common themes and design elements that made up the objects as a whole rather than simply just the way they looked. As Tochilovsky explains, JetBlue’s Golden Age of Travel branding overhaul was a multi-angled approach that went well beyond simply looking at what 1960s graphic design looked like: how could the brand stay true to the conceptual aspects of the time while maintaining the very authenticity they were after?


Welcome to the Time Travel Agency

From the finished RetroJet aircraft down to the playing cards, the final JetBlue RetroJet livery design direction and Time Travel Agency tells a story so believable, it may as well just have been true physics-bending time travel for those that got to experience it.

“Everything inside the Time Travel Agency was a nod to the 60s,” says Ferguson. “From printed collateral to desk décor, New Yorkers stepped off the SoHo sidewalk and back in time. While waiting for their meeting with an in-character travel agent, customers enjoyed the sights of Palm Springs through a vintage Viewmaster, flipped through the pages of TIME magazines from the 1960s and even read a custom-printed Wooster Street Journal telling the Time Travel Agency story and featuring horoscopes for the weekend of Nov. 11. For customers sharing their real-time #TimeTravelAgency experience on social media, a custom Snapchat geofilter was live around the storefront featuring a retro lens.”

JetBlue Time Travel Agency

Further, those on the actual inaugural flight from NYC to Palm Springs in the newly-painted Retrojet plane were given an even deeper 1960s experience.


“The aircraft’s inaugural JFK to Palm Springs flight featured JetBlue crew members in retro-style uniforms designed by Stan Herman and specially designed fascinator-style hats by Patricia Underwood,” adds Perry. “All customers in-flight also received limited-edition amenity kits including playing cards, luggage tag, postcards and a commemorative pin.”

But despite the brand’s successful bold step into experiential marketing territory, just how well did the design team capture 1960s graphic design while maintaining authenticity?


A Path to Effective Storytelling

Experiential marketing isn’t necessarily new, but the formula for staying effective and capturing audience attention is becoming increasingly more refined. And while smart companies like JetBlue prioritize design above all else, at the heart of every great experience is great storytelling.

From their 1960s-inspired radio ad played on Spotify and their $66 airline fares, to the Time Travel Agency experience and—for the lucky few at least—a trip to Palm Springs on the RetroJet, JetBlue opened the pages to their multi-sensory story and let the people jump inside.

Ultimately, this was a perfect exercise in holistic brand storytelling—from terminals to flight attendants to booking tickets—that the company strives for every single day in 2016.

JetBlue Travel Agency

“The foundation of (design and storytelling) is present in everything JetBlue touches, and our crew members are empowered to live them,” says Perry. “Harnessing this energy from crew members is essential to authentically communicating and showcasing the brand’s story. It is one thing to have brand values on paper and a stylebook to guide design, but it’s another to have them work together and for you on the brand’s front lines each day.“

JetBlue Retrojet

So while the 1960s might have only existed again for a short 48 hours on a cobblestone street in New York City, the Time Travel Agency experience—and subsequently, its lesson in great storytelling—won’t soon be forgotten.

“Perhaps the best decision that the designers made in making the experience both authentic and effective was to immerse themselves fully in the source material to really feel what it meant to be a user,” adds Tochilovsky. “Once you internalize the material, you can’t not be affected when creating entirely new experiences.”


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