In the last six months, I've clocked up more air miles than usual, for work and play, and so the endless fascination with airports and airlines continues. If ever experience design made any sense as a concept, it's here; this kind of service design has been a part of thinking around airlines for years. Hence acquisition of books like Airline: Identity, Design and Culture and the likes of m'colleague Greenfield discussing the coming and going of any US domestic carriers who attempt to raise the bar. I'd witnessed some fairly lazy attempts at low-cost but thought-through budget airlines in Australia (don't bother to get up, Virgin Blue and Jetstar)
Probably the best person in the world to talk to about this kind of thing is Tyler Brulé, and I had the pleasure of doing just that at Aula recently. His company Wink have worked with several airlines, essentially doing experience design under the guise of branding work - from specifying the chairs in the ticket office through to stationery, crew uniforms, cabin interiors and livery, through to recognising the value of the pilot's reassuring tone of voice on British Airways flights. In his recent FT column, Brulé points to a genuinely interesting attempt - from Japan, perhaps inevitably - to create a domestic airline which seems to do the basics incredibly well.
Starflyer is Japan's newest domestic airline and, according to Brulé's report, sounds like the kind of airline we all imagined might be around in 2006 - chic black-and-white planes, with "all-black- and-white check-in area", "skinny black suits" for the staff, and a security system which is at once efficient and safe and yet possible to "breeze through" ...
"On board, Starflyer's management and branding consultant Tatsuya Matsui have done their best to challenge every convention that makes civil aviation such a soul- destroying experience. Where most carriers would never dream of using black in the cabin, Starflyer's gone for all-black leather seats in its A320 with a generous seat pitch and have added touches that include adjustable foot massagers on the leg-rest, seat-back TVs as standard in its single-class configuration and a cocktail table you can fold down if the middle seat is empty. On the trolley there's organic apple juice, beer, coffee from Tully's, petit-fours from Carré de Chocolat and absolutely no meal service."
"As for the pricing structure, Starflyer has positioned itself as a lower-cost carrier by doing away with galley space and wardrobes and staffing its aircraft with only three flight attendants. Given that food retailers in Japan's airports offer up bento boxes stuffed with every delicacy imaginable, a meal service isn't really necessary and the lack of food is more than compensated for by crew who keep pouring juice and pass out blankets and headphones as part of the pre-flight service." ['An aviation experience that really couldn't be more civil', Financial Times, 1 July 2006. Read before it disappears into the FT's paid-for archive. Note: anyone who puts the word 'barrier' in their URL could also learn a bit about experience design.]
Starflyer sounds good eh? Below a kind of photo-essay in the form of screengrabs from Starflyer's website (there be wallpapers and movies too). There may be a touch of orientalism in my delight at phrases like 'Mother Comet', 'Maximum Comfort', 'Sleepless Airport' and 'hospitality to our customers through profession and selfless love' and so on. If so, I apologise in advance, though I do find it genuinely delightful, in the best sense of the word. Essentially because it is imbued with a sense of care, attention to detail and pride in implementation, combined with affordable fares. Surely a good thing.
Whilst on airlines, airports and attention-to-detail, my delight with David Winner's idiosyncratic book on Dutch football and its relationship to Dutch culture continued to the end (right through extra time and penalties.) I'd used much of it in a previous post on 'Design. Architecture. Football', though there's also a great chapter on the design of Schiphol airport and its relationship to the Dutch teams shaped by Louis van Gaal. Yes really. Architects Jan Benthem and Mels Crouwel (yes, a relation of) were given the job of enlarging and improving Schiphol. Winner always has an ear for the analogue in football, as you'll see, but there's a lot in here about design, and even adaptive design, in general.
"Instead of using separate buildings (or parts of buildings) for separate functions (arrivals, departures, shopping, etc.), the architects insisted on just one sleek grey-white steel and concrete building, in which everything was integrated ... 'Normally, everything is split up and problems are solved separately,' says Jan Benthem, the airport's chief architect since 1985. 'That makes individual problems easy to solve, but the connections between the problems become very complicated and something simple ends up in a ral mess. If you integrate it in the first place, that turns out to be the most simple solution ... 'You have to think ahead,' he says, 'And you must always expect the unexpected.' "
"Schipol's integrated structure allows huge volumes of freight and passengers to circulate at high speed and with remarkable precision. The simplicity and flexibility of its basic grid design (the grid is even visible on the airport's floor-tiles) means different elements in the building can be switched around constantly to meet ever-changing needs. The complex and huge flows of people and cargo are shifting constantly. Even small changes in one area will ripple consequences through the entire system. For example, if fewer passengers use one 'finger' of the site, the customs desks, shops or bus station all have to be modified. The key to solving these problems is a mixture of quick thinking and careful preparation: 'You must have a plan, but you also have to be ready to change it at the last minute or to make a decisive, sudden completely unexpected movement to arrive at the place you want.' A rigid approach would be doomed. 'You must never say: "I've done my work in advance and nothing will keep me from my path." ... We tried to make Schiphol so flexible that you can always change course. You need a simple system where, if something goes wrong, you always have a second, a third, or a fourth solution at hand. For example, we always insist the buildings have strong floors. When you build an area you must always expect that it will be used for something else.' ... (Benthem) does not see himself as an architectural artist but as the director or facilitator of an architectural 'process' whose task is simply to solve problems." [From Brilliant Orange, by David Winner]
There are echoes of the systems and discourse of Cruyff, Michels and van Gaal there (read the book for more.) Yet there are also many echoes of adaptive design in Benthem discussing the importance of permanence and strength at the structural layer - those load-bearing floors - with fluidity of space plan on the layers above, as well as describing the designer's responsibility to have a constant engagement with the problem-solving, as a "facilitator", rather than an architect who is on to the next project as soon as the plans are in the hands of the contractor.
Related: I had the pleasure of hearing the great Dutch signage designer Paul Mijksenaar speak a couple of years ago. His firm, Bureau Mijksenaar, are responsible for the excellent wayfinding solution in Schiphol, as well as countless other solutions. He related a story of Foster & Partners 'leaving' the Stansted project, upon completion of the main airport buildings and infrastructure, having neglected to talk much about signage throughout the process. They actively declined to talk about signage. Apparently, the architects were sure that the airport would essentially implicitly convey the wayfinding solutions without the need for much in the way of signage. Mijksenaar reported that since Foster & Partners left the building, approximately 4300 signs have been added to the Stansted terminals.
[My notes on Paul Mijksenaar talk - click for larger images]