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True Brit

Why does design matter to British Airways?

We feel that design is about getting things right for our customers. It’s about understanding their needs and acting on them. Delivering good design gives our customers a sense that we care about them. It’s not about decoration or styling, instead design is about solving a problem or answering a customer need. So whether that’s for the business or for the customer or whether that’s for both, if we use design effectively to solve complex commercial problems we’ll be a successful airline going forward. This ties in with the wider business world where corporations that really understand design are usually very successful companies.

How is that reflected at board level?
We have a number of stakeholders within each new product programme that we work with and each of those stakeholders will go to a certain level, and everything is signed off at board level. Frank van der Post, our MD of brands and customer experience (under whom design sits) is a director here at BA reporting straight into the CEO.

How much should airlines be looking to invest in design?

I can’t talk about other airlines, but clearly British Airways believes in investing in design. We’ve just introduced [Cooke was interviewed in 2011] a new first class, which is now on 42 out of 76 of our long-haul aircraft. We were also the first airline to deliver full-flat beds in business class – investing in design is something we’ve always believed in as we see a clear need for it, so we continue to innovate while focusing on what we’re doing rather than what everyone else is. Take the new First cabin, which cost over £100 million to develop and introduce during one of the toughest periods the airline industry has every faced. However, we realised we needed to do it now because our customers won’t wait – they know what they want and what they need. And as you come out of recession you have to have your product there for people to choose – and you’ve got to offer the very best when it comes to the front of your aircraft.



Left: BA's new First cabin

What are the secrets of truly effective design management?
The most important thing is right at the beginning isn’t it? It’s about understanding the problem. It is really making sure that you get things right in the beginning, which involves collating all the information, ensuring that you know you’ve got all the right stakeholders involved that they can input into a really clearly effective brief. That’s the most important thing – to understand the problem and be able to articulate that in a clear brief. Then it’s about making sure that you’ve got the right team of people involved. That includes the internal team and the external team. We’re a design management team here at British Airways – we don’t actually design in house. So we’re only as good as the team of external people that you’re able to employ and that’s where our skills lie – in making sure that we’re working with the right people and being committed to delivering the best solution that you can.

It’s also ensuring all the creative ideas have been explored, and taking care not to narrow down or dismiss any possibilities too early in the process. You need to really stretch the boundaries. You also need the unique ability to instinctively know when an idea is right and when an idea is worth pursuing. Having a background in design can be helpful here. It’s all about understanding when it’s better to revolutionise or basically is it just an evolutionary thing? If something is working and if something is right, then don’t try to change it, only innovate if it’s necessary.

Finally it’s about understanding how to deliver the concept that everyone has bought into in the best way – implementation, in other words. You need to see the whole project through so you don’t just show a nice model or visual of what you want, you actually see that project through right to delivery, making sure that all the details and the qualities are correct right until the very day it gets put on board the aircraft or in a lounge or on the ground.

How do you go about selecting a design agency?

There’s no hard and fast rule – we’ll pick any agency that we think is right for the job. It doesn’t matter where they come from – they could be yacht designers or from anywhere within the world of design. We’ll sometimes stick with agencies that we’ve worked with for a long period of time, because we know they are good in specific areas. Some jobs require different skills and if those skill sets cannot be found within one agency, we’ll pair up two different agencies. Ultimately we don’t like to restrict ourselves – so long as the agencies we work with are committed to delivering the best that they can and passionate about the British Airways brand.

Right: BA's Club World product

What are your thoughts on the existing supply base?
The amount of choice certainly narrows down quite a bit after coming up with the concept as to who can then actually manufacture it! But that’s down to the constraints of what you can put on an aircraft. It’s not like designing furniture for your home – we understand those constraints and we know products that go on an aircraft have to go through stringent tests. We accept that and hopefully we’ve worked successfully with the suppliers that are out there.

How do you get the best from suppliers?

You have to understand the constraints and you have to be patient, but you also have to be tenacious when you think something is right and really push the boundaries. The thing with the supply chain in the airline industry is they tend not to innovate themselves because the investment pot they would need to go out and innovate would be huge. They’ll wait for the airline industry to come to them and say ‘we want to do one of these’. So it’s about the airlines moving the parameters forward.

How do you ensure brand and design consistency across such a large fleet?

That is a difficult one – we have so many aircraft types and we have so many initiatives going on it can be quite difficult to ensure brand consistency. We’ve done a lot of work recently in this respect with the new aircraft that we’ve ordered, where there are more constraints regarding the materials and finishes that you can use because these aircraft are more commoditised in terms of their interiors. So for the first time we’ve started to look at our interiors from nose to tail. We’ve done a lot of work consolidating the numbers of materials that we use and the qualities of those materials and how durable and how maintainable they are. This has helped us build a much more holistic brand vision, which is important because it’s about the customer having a premium experience no matter what cabin or sub-brand they’re travelling in.

How important is passenger research?

It’s essential – understanding what the customer wants is the key to any successful design. It’s so easy to go off track and lose direction in a design process where you end up with something that’s quite nice but actually doesn’t solve a particular problem or a customer need. We don’t benchmark competitors either – we don’t go out there and say ‘they’ve got a big TV screen, we need a bigger one’ – we design what we feel is right for our customers. Understanding our passengers’ needs is what keeps us ahead of the competition, rather than chasing after the competition. That’s why research is important to us, but sometimes, you’ve got to be a bit more proactive and design something for the customer before they know they even want it and that’s about being innovative.

However, we’ll always look to do functionality research – making sure that things are working properly and are in the right place. We’ve done sleep trials, with people sleeping on mock-ups of our beds and we do physical mock-up checks all the way through the design process. So wherever we can we’ll bring the customer in and do some qualitative research on every aspect of the product under development.


We also do consumer research on comfort – British Airways has spent a lot of time and effort understanding ergonomics, so when we design a seat, we put a huge amount of effort in designing that seat to be comfortable. I think we do more than most other airlines in that area and we’ve got a huge amount of work that we can look back on.

What are some of the key trends you see for the future?
Technology – the latest consumer electronic devices are going to affect our entertainment products on board as more and more of our customers become increasingly tech-savvy. We’re also going to have to start thinking much more seriously about the environment, and the impact that our products have on the planet. Not just from a fuel burn standpoint, but by also designing products that are more durable and cleanable, so that they don’t have to be rotated quite so often. Personalisation will also be important – the ability to have a two-way conversation with our customers is going to be key. With the advent of smartphones, we have a great opportunity to keep passengers informed and up to date, as well as the ability to understand our customers more clearly. Flexibility is another important trend. There is a need to be more intelligent about understanding our customers’ needs at different times and different stages of their journey and being flexible enough to meet those needs.

What skills do you need to be a good designer in the airline business?
Patience. Design in the airline business moves a lot slower. It takes a lot longer to get things on board an aircraft from start to finish. You also need to be pretty tenacious. If you think you’ve got a good idea then you need to really try to see that through. There are a lot of barriers on the way but you have to just work through them. You also have to understand the limitations. It can be very frustrating but we’re not the car industry and we’re not the consumer goods industry, where design is more central. There are a lot of other factors that come in to play, so you need to understand that it’s about playing a part in a team. You can’t be a prima donna and stamp your feet and say ‘I want this!’ because there are other factors to consider.

What do you look for in new recruits?

Design management is a different animal to design in a way – it’s almost a skill in itself. It’s understanding when to step back – you don’t go in there with a pencil and start sketching, instead you manage the process of design. You bring the right people to the table and you articulate it. So candidates need communication skills, organisation skills – because a lot of it is about administration – making sure things are being done at the right time in the right place. Creativity and being able to instinctively understand what’s right are also important.

Left: BA's product on its all-business-class A318 flights between London City and New York JFK


What are the challenges ahead for airline design teams?
The increasing ‘commoditisation’ of the aircraft interior on next-generation aircraft – where the aircraft manufacturers want to create factory lines of aircraft where they don’t want you to be too different because they want to keep everything rolling. I think that’s going to be difficult – we almost have a catalogue of products that we get to choose from – how do we get a real brand presence in there and how do we differentiate? 


Safety standards are also getting more stringent, which is further restricting the number of materials that you can use on board. But I think without doubt the biggest challenge is going to be the rising cost of fuel – every item on board an aircraft will be considered from a weight standpoint. Personally I think this will be positive and will lead to some great developments. I think you’ll start to see some really interesting partnerships happening within design and with R&D, similar to how Formula 1 technology leads the way for car technology. Anything that happens in Formula 1 usually ends up on a road car in about five years time and I think R&D and development for aircraft will go the same way. We’ll spend a lot of time developing new materials and products to save weight on an aircraft. One of the big challenges will be how to design the right products with the least impact on the environment.

What next?

We’ve got our new A380s and 787s coming – first deliveries start in 2013. I can’t say anything yet about what’s on board – you’ll just have to wait, I’m afraid!

 

2 November 2011

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