Aviation Innovators: Craig Barnett, Scheme Designers

For nearly 20 years, Craig Barnett's company, Scheme Designers, has been creating unique paint schemes (and, more recently, vinyl designs) for aircraft. There are now more than 11,500 airplanes flying throughout the world with paint and vinyl schemes his company devised.


As part of AVweb’s series on aviation innovators, we spoke with Craig Barnett, who created the company, Scheme Designers. For nearly 20 years, Craig and Scheme Designers, have been creating unique paint schemes (and, more recently, vinyl designs) for aircraft. There are now more than 11,500 airplanes flying throughout the world with paint and vinyl schemes his company devised—as well as a few copyright violators sporting copy-cat paint jobs.

His designs, ranging from astonishingly subtle to in-your-face bold are even available as options from a number of aircraft manufacturers.

In addition to creating striking paint schemes for general aviation aircraft, Barnett has been a pioneer in the technology available to transfer a paint scheme from a two-dimensional drawing into three-dimensional displays so a customer can see precisely how the airplane will look and then to provide templates to paint shops so the result matches the drawings and saves time and labor for the shop.

What is your background in aviation?

I’m a civil engineer, believe it or not. I started learning to fly when I was a kid—my first logbook entry was when I was 14. I was lucky enough to come from an aviation family. My father used a Piper Aztec for his business and he also had a Spitfire. I grew up around really interesting aircraft. My father had rebuilt aircraft, so when it was time for me to begin learning to fly he picked up two crashed Cessna 150s. From those two, he built one 1964 Cessna 150E. He then proceeded to teach my sister and me to fly.

I was one of those lucky people to get my pilot’s license before I got my driver’s license; which was a bit of a problem as I had to drive illegally to get to the airport. In South Africa, where I grew up, you couldn’t get your driver’s license until you were 18, but you could fly and carry passengers when you were 17—logic I can’t explain to this day.

When I came to the U.S. after graduating from university I went into the Internet business before there was an Internet. I also bought my first airplane, a Cessna Cardinal RG in dire need of paint.

So a lousy paint job got you into the design business?

Yes. The first week I had the Cardinal, sheets of paint came off the top of the wing, exposing another layer of paint. I spent a happy couple of months composing paint schemes for the airplane, I must have gone through over 100 designs before I was satisfied with one. Then, being an engineer, I prepared detailed engineering drawings for the paint scheme. When I arrived at the paint shop and they asked what I wanted on the airplane, I said, “Here’s the package, guys, have at it.”

And the paint shop said, “Wow, we’ve never seen anything like this before.”

When I picked up the airplane at the shop—KD Aviation, or Reese Aircraft, in New Jersey—the owner, Ken Reese, said to me, “That was so easy. It was so detailed. It would be really nice, if you have time and you could help some of our clients.”

I told him that I didn’t know that much about it and wouldn’t know what to draw. He said that they’d bought a paint software package that was so complex they couldn’t use it and he’d send it to me.

A year later, after I’d sold my company and was looking for something to do, a box of software arrived. It was from Ken Reese. I pulled it out and played with it for a few weeks. About then, Ken called and said he had a customer with a Cessna 210 who needed help designing a paint scheme. I had no idea what to charge or what was involved. I worked with the software—something that takes me a few minutes now took five hours then. I worked with the client and he was very happy with the result. From that things started to grow—more and more clients were coming in and different people were hearing about me.

Initially, I was working at home, doing a few projects each month. I never thought that it could turn into a business. It was something I was doing on the side while looking for the next opportunity.

About that time a friend who parked his airplane near mine did an article about what I was doing for General Aviation News—and they put me on the cover. As an aviation enthusiast, I thought it was amazing. But what happened next was even more amazing. Someone at Piper had read the article and called me. They were just launching the Meridian. They put the design of the Meridian paint scheme in my hands. That’s what got me started as a business.

Still, it was many years before it was a business that could support me and many more years before it could support an office. It’s grown into a business that now employs eight people.

How do you view what it is you do?

The business has made an interesting mark on aviation. It doesn’t make anything go faster. It doesn’t make your avionics better or cause your engine to live longer. But what it does do is make people look and makes the ramps of our GA airports look prettier. It’s really satisfying today to fly around the country and when I land I almost always see one my client’s airplanes there—or if not one of my clients, someone who has ripped me off by copying something I’ve done. Everywhere I go, I see the results of my work.

What products and services does Scheme Designers offer?

We do a number of things having to do with the look and feel of the aircraft. Our primary, core product is still expertise and knowledge in designing the exterior look of an aircraft—the paint scheme or vinyl design. What I’ve developed over my years of doing this is a fairly clear set of rules in my mind as to what makes a good paint scheme—tricks to use to effectuate elegant, sexy lines on aircraft and to make them easy and efficient to implement in a paint shop. It’s also necessary to arrive at a balanced look for an aircraft. It’s very easy to make a plane look tail heavy or nose heavy just using paint. I’ve developed a good methodology of balance so every plane is in good visual weight and balance.

I’ve developed a design staff that’s well trained in those nuances, and they don’t just do designs in my style, they bring additional styles to the table. That enables us to address a wide variety of tastes.

We design a paint or vinyl scheme. The key is to engineer it down to 1/8 of an inch or one millimeter, depending on where the scheme is being painted, and being able to fully document that engineering effort to the paint shop. We have really learned to talk to the guy with tape.

What’s key is that when you look at the rendering we draw and then you look at the end product, they’re identical. It’s extremely important to give paint shops the raw materials that are accurate, such as window lines on the drawing where they really are on the airplane, cowlings shaped the way they really are or that the drawing takes into account that the plane has been modified. Paint shops complain that they so often get drawings that are just plain wrong and thus it’s up to the guy with the tape to try in interpret what was intended and the owner doesn’t wind up happy. That’s why we engineer the material we give a paint shop so carefully.

We also do a lot of factory paint schemes and we’re often given a very free hand to explore completely new ideas. Those ideas come out on new airplanes and those airplanes are featured in the aviation magazines. People see them and they influence how people see airplanes and visualize their own airplanes. That causes our ideas to set trends in the industry.

What trends have you set?

The primary one has been to get away from completely straight lines. From the early days of the company I looked at a paint scheme as representing airflow over an aircraft. Airflow isn’t straight—that’s reflected in the paint schemes we’ve designed.

Paint shops were initially negative about the curves and said they’d never be popular. Yet, here we are 20 years later, and the trend still exists. It’s hard to find a manufacturer who just puts a couple of straight lines on a new aircraft.

What else does Scheme Designers offer?

For clients who were interested in vinyl rather than paint, we design the vinyl and easy to install vinyl packages for those who want to install vinyl. That goes hand-in-hand with supplying kits of pre-cut vinyl masks. The vinyl masks create what is essentially a negative of the paint scheme. The masks are installed and the shop just paints between the lines and then removes the masks.

Laying out the masks on an airplane takes less than a day as opposed to the normal three days it takes to tape an airplane of the same size for painting. It’s a matter of positioning the masks on the airplane, then peeling and painting. It’s not our innovation, it’s a product we’ve become good at providing and we do so in partnership with Moody Aero-Graphics in Florida—an established company in the vinyl industry.

Using vinyl masks the customer sees a better outcome because all of the curves are perfectly built into the mask—no one is hand laying in complex curves. The price is about the same as hand layout. However, for the paint shop, there’s a benefit because the saving of a few days for vinyl mask versus hand layout means that the shop has the space and capability to do a few more projects in the course of a year.

We also do a lot of branding for the aircraft industry. That ranges from designing a logo for a single company airplane through entire paint schemes for new airlines around the world.

Another, newer service we offer is an efficient mechanism for developing photo-realistic renderings in a full 3-D display so clients can see how the paint scheme for their airplane is truly going to look. For many manufacturers every design we do for them includes a 3-D component.

What do you see for the future of your business?

I can’t give away any trade secrets, but I can say that ever since the beginning, we’ve done everything on a flat-fee basis. As an aircraft owner, this is very important to me. I’m always very careful when I’m buying something; I want to understand what it costs. One of the traumas in aviation is that when your airplane goes behind the hangar doors for maintenance, you never know what’s going to come out the other end on the bill—whether it’s three hours or 30 hours or 100 hours to repair what it is you took it there for. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen for our clients. We do not charge an hourly rate for design. We charge a flat fee for all of the work, so an owner knows, going in, what the price will be for the design of his paint scheme. It doesn’t matter how many times the owner comes back to us to make changes. Sometimes we lose big on a project, but overall it balances out. We’ve sustained the flat fee model for nearly 20 years and we think clients appreciate it. We want owners to know that whether they have a Cessna 150 or Global Express, they can use us for a fee that they know up front what they are going to spend.

I think our philosophy has proved effective. We’ve finished over 11,500 unique designs in 140 countries, as best as I can count. We think that’s because of our pricing, the manner in which we work and our intent to provide the highest level of customer service possible for a small company. We endeavor to be as responsive as we can at all times.

The future is streamlining what we do, making it even better. We’re always working with the paint manufacturers and the vinyl industry to look at new products, to come up with new innovations. As a sample, a lot of the carbon fiber aircraft have a lot of limitations on how you can and can’t paint them. We’re responding with a methodology and design to make sure paints remain compliant and we’re working closely with the big paint manufacturers who are working to come up with new products that are thermodynamically attuned to not transfer heat to the airframe when in the sun so that they can paint whatever colors they want on the airplanes. It’s one of the most interesting things we’re working on at the moment—to give owners of such airplanes as Cirrus and Diamond more artistic freedom as they design their paint schemes.

Rick Durden is the Features Editor of AVweb and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols 1 & 2.