Fly with a Happy Face

Something a little happier than infections for a change.

I just realized that since it’s 2013, the Eskimo on Alaska Airlines planes is forty years old. In honor of that birthday, I thought I’d share with you the back story of how he came to be.

golden nugget service (Custom)I started working as an art director for Alaska Airlines’ ad agency in 1967. For some time, the airline image had been based on the idea of “Golden Nugget Jets,” and it was sort of a Klondike dance hall look. In 1970, they got permission to fly into Russian Siberia from Alaska, and this was looked at as the way of their future. We designed a new image based on the airline’s concept: Golden Samovar Service. The Russian connection turned out not to be the way after all. They flew a few semi-charter vacation flights to Irkutsk, but the Cold War was still hot, and Americans weren’t too keen about an airline with a Russian style.

The first time the Eskimo art was used was in a large newspaper ad promoting Arctic Tours. It was the early 70s, and the art style known as black drop-out was popular then. Essentially, you made all the dark tones black and all the light tones dropped out and became white. Since it was a newspaper ad, the initial appearance of the Eskimo was as a large, strong black image. The marketing director at Alaska hated it, even though the ad performed well. He really disliked it and told us again and again. For a while, he was mad at me for even thinking of it!

A few months later, we were given the assignment to create a new corporate image for the airline, and since I was now creative director, the job fell on my desk. At this time the airline had a jet fleet of just nine 727s. They only flew from Seattle to Alaska and within Alaska. They had recently moved their headquarters from Anchorage to Seattle and were taking a lot of political flak for abandoning Alaska. Our direction from the airline was to “create something very distinctive and modern, yet totally Alaskan.”

In retrospect, it sounds easy, but I worked for three months on every kind of jet design I could think of. When you’re working for an airline, the first order of business is the planes. They’re the biggest, and possibly the hardest, items to design in the company catalog. I looked at rainbow colored planes, striped planes, black planes. After one particularly frustrating day, the airline’s account executive was sitting with me in my office. He was at wit’s end—we just couldn’t solve the problem. He stood up and stomped out of the room, shouting, “Oh, to hell with it! You might as well put that damned Eskimo on the tails!” Ta-daaaaaa!

four alaska airlines planes (Custom)I simplified him and made him a nice blue, which mollified the marketing director. It was the “black blob” which he had disliked so much. But Eskimos signify ice and snow, and the airline wanted to encourage tourists to fly to Alaska and not be afraid of the weather. So I looked at the history and culture of Alaska and came up with four designs—blue Eskimo, red gold miner, green Indian totem, and purple Russian onion dome. And for three or four years, when you went to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, you never knew if you would be flying with a totem or a sourdough. But it shortly became evident that the Eskimo was the most popular image. And it was expensive to use all those different designs, so the other three left.

When I first designed him I copied the stern, proud look on his face. A few years later, the airline wanted him to be a little friendlier, and I hired an illustrator in Seattle to make minor modifications to his mouth and eyes to give him the smile he has today.

Back in 1973, when I designed the Eskimo, an elderly Eskimo gentleman in Kotzebue was working as a greeter for the airline on its Arctic Tours. You got off the plane in Kotzebue and he was one of the folks who came up and helped you into a fur-trimmed parka to protect you from the cold. It was sort of an Eskimo version of the Hawaiian lei.

eskimo (Custom)We had photos of him and others during the welcoming procedure. I used one of those photos as the basis for the art. His name was Chester Seveck Downey. Surprisingly, lots of rumors have announced that the art was based on all sorts of people, including Richard Nixon. Once, I heard a story that he was really Bob Marley!

During the 1980s, the airline started flying to California and Mexico, and they felt their image was confusing people. So they decided to have a new corporate image designed. Whoever did it came up with the idea of creating a logo that was an “A” that looked like a mountain. When word got out that the Eskimo was being replaced, I’m happy to say that there was a great hue and cry over the loss. People in Alaska loved it, and they didn’t want it changed. The Alaska State Legislature even issued a proclamation that it should remain. I was interviewed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and both logos were shown in the newspaper article. My position was that if the airline’s image was confusing, it was because of the name Alaska Airlines, not the Eskimo logo. If they wanted to be a more amorphous regional carrier they should change their name to a version in the Air West mold or, at any rate, something less specific than Alaska. In the end, they decided the name and the Eskimo were both worth keeping. They had the type and color treatment modernized and that’s how it looks today.

eskimo with lei (Custom)It’s still the proudest achievement of my extensive graphic design career. And I still see him turning heads whenever I’m at an airport. (By the way, that’s where the name of my design firm, Turning Heads, came from.) I live in San Diego now, but even in Hawaii, I’m happy to see him wearing a lei as he flies to and from the islands.

All the best,

Vic Warren









13 Responses to Fly with a Happy Face

  • Trish says:

    You should send this to the newspapers for the 40th anniversary — Seattle and Alaska especially. I’m up at Pam’s helping them with their move into a big ass new (to them) house in Lafayette. The “village” here is really sweet and unapologetcally totally yuppie. I love it! Got a BART station and all.

  • Jane says:

    Great “backstory” on this highly recognizable icon. Thanks for sharing the highs and lows of the effort to create and maintain the AA Eskimo!

  • Vincent J. Patti says:

    Every logo has it’s own evolution but few have a raconteur to tell it like you do.

  • Great story!!

    Great story!!

  • Great story!!

  • great story!

  • Keith D Carpenter says:

    Thank for solving the mystery!

  • Eric Morgensen says:

    Hi Vic, I just read your start about the Alaska Airlines eskimo and I was curious if you had some more information about the actual art. Did you ever work with another artist on this? I assume by what I read that was the case as I know of the black and white art of the time that was used by an artist who said he had painted the original eskimo and miner in that style and that then they were changed slightly like you described. I’m just trying to figure out this. Would love to speak more with you about it if you do have more info. Thanks so much.

  • Peter Riley says:

    I found myself thousands of miles from my UK home at Victoria BC airport (YYJ). I watched a couple of Dash-8s coming and going but despite the obvious clues in the airline name, thought to myself, what is the link between Alaska and Bob Marley? Today’s earthquake in Ancourage (hope everyone is safe) lead me thro’ various searches to your site. Every day is a learning day.

  • Wow! That is so cool! thank you.

  • Lynn Della says:

    Hi. Great article!

    I came across it due to a link posted in a comment to an Alaska Airlines blog post on the subject ( I’m guessing that your story hasn’t been formally brought to the attention of the author (or perhaps someone in Alaska’s archives department), but it sure ought to be!

  • Lilly E Frankson says:

    thank you for this, I know now this is my amau (great great grandfather) picture on ak airlines, he is the father of my grandmother *Elaine Downey Frankson

  • Pearl Hood says:

    I think you are talking about my Grandpa. His name is Chester Seveck Downey, lived in Kotzebue and worked as a tour guide. We were always told it was him on the tail of the Alaska planes.

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Vic Warren is an award winning Art Director, credited with creating the "Eskimo portrait" as the aircraft tail logo for Alaska Airlines. If you need help in designing your book cover, check out these designs.

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