History meets high-tech security in passport redesigns

Next time you find yourself in an airport, consider that it’s so much more than terminals, duty-free shops, and (increasingly decent) to-go food options—you’re in the middle of a paean to graphic design. With millions of people traveling to destinations far and wide, often to places where language and cultural barriers inhibit verbal communication, we find solace and clarity in the signs, colors, typography, and layout of airport design.

Roman Mars further explored the idea of airport design, and the crucial component of “wayfinding” in an episode of his hit design podcast 99% Invisible. “As a traveler, you’ll have to find your way as you’re being bombarded with all sorts of images that compete with the wayfinding,” explained Mars. “And so the key here is to make the signage stand out by being drab and plain, so you can tune out all the glitz.”

But there’s a smaller, slimmer, and bespoke way that design directs your travel in an unexpected way—your passport. More and more, countries are responding to increasing security concerns, innovations in technology, and the changing way people travel by introducing new passports that take these concerns as a fascinating set of design challenges.

The utility of a passport lies within its dualistic role as both a document that’s deeply personal (a symbol of the bearer, which allows one access to the world at large) and universal (held by all denizens of a country reflecting a common national identity).

It says something about the power of the aesthetic—something Norway took into consideration two years ago, when its design competition chose Oslo-based agency Neue to redesign the country’s passports with the agency’s signature “Scandinavian cool” designs. The resulting passport is a gorgeous mix of clean lines, graphic landscapes, and bold colors that range from turquoise, orange, or white, depending on immigration status.

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For a country that falls somewhere between Sweden and Iceland on the scale of folkloric whimsy, Neue’s vision has been described as “deeply rooted in Norwegian culture,” by both the jury that selected Neue, as well as by the agency itself. Neue’s Gørill Kvamme told The Guardian how “all Norwegians are so connected to nature, it’s a very strong part of our history and defines us as a country.” The passport’s distinctive touches, like the hidden Northern Lights that are activated by UV lights, speak to this heritage.

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On the opposite side of the world, Mt. Fuji is the focus of the stamp pages of Japan’s new passport design, revealed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry last spring. Based on a series of 18th century woodblock prints, the country’s first update to the document since the WWII-era is a serene nod to the past that incorporates a very modern concern—updating security features. Like Norway, Japan is still currently working with officials to integrate the necessary updates, but the latter country plans to put the new passports into circulation in time for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Similar security concerns led the Philippines to introduce a fraud proof passport last April, bolstered by a sophisticated intaglio printing system some have called “the world’s most secure passport.”

Of course, safety isn’t the only thing that illustrates how design reflects a changing world. For example, despite releasing a new design dubbed “Creative United Kingdom,” featuring images of cultural landmarks like the Globe Theater and the London Eye less than a year ago, June’s Brexit vote means another redesign in the near future is likely.

Here in the states, officials have joined the trend, working hard on a new design of the U.S. passport that they plan on unveiling in 2017. According to Mike Holly, Senior Advisor for International Affairs in the State Department’s passport office, updated features from commercial vendors—including a polycarbonate data page, laser engraving, and a reverse thermal transfer process (which involves printing on a laminate)—will make the new U.S. passport more secure than ever before.

Striking the balance between high-end functional technology and artistic achievement fell to document designer Michelle Wilson, who oversaw the design process and worked with the State Department, as well as the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, who was responsible for most of the artwork. “The biographical page is a great example of art and functionality,” says Wilson. “When you’re working with laser engraving on a polycarbonate, you can only use a certain amount of ink, because otherwise it could interfere with how the card laminates.”

“There’s a pride of artistry in secure design. We wanted to make something that is bold and stands out, that is distinctly American, but yet make sure it really works.”

If this trend indicates anything, perhaps it’s that in an increasingly sophisticated globalized world, the ways we represent ourselves while we travel have become surprisingly personal. It’s a paradigm that mirrors the relationship of form and function that passport designers are marrying all over the world, illustrating that sometimes, something as simple as the documents that define us end up feeling like home.