Aircraft interior design as a medium of communication

Wednesday, 6 August 2014 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Creating a cabin interior design that is unique to a culture can be most exciting but it is also challenging since there is only so much space one can work with to express their creativity. While each aircraft is different and each culture is unique, majority of the designs are as individual as the airlines itself. Although cabin design is currently the point of emphasis for the industry, it picked up momentum only recently where airlines have realised the potential it has to highlight to its target audience, its profile and branding. To explore this creative field of design, the Daily FT met up with Ludeke Design Zurich Principal Christine Ludeke who was in town last week to finalise samples to be used in the new A350 fleet of SriLankan Airlines. Ludeke together with her design experts are in the midst of conceptualising the interior design for the new fleet of national carrier, due to arrive mid 2016, that will not only communicate to those flying the culture and heritage of Sri Lanka, but also the brand and promise of SriLankan Airlines. Ludeke shared with the Daily FT her area of work, how it has evolved over the years, challenges faced and the importance of using aircraft interior design as a medium of communication. Following are the excerpts of the interview: By Shabiya Ali Ahlam Q: What is the purpose of your visit to Sri Lanka? A: We are in the process finalising the cabin design for the new A350 that is due to arrive in mid 2016. Part of the process is that every time there is a new sample we need to confirm it and make choices that are defined for the airbus. My visit was to attend the coordination meeting for the final sample selection, definition and communication. Q: In brief could you explain the area of work you are involved in? A: I have a studio in Zurich and our main area of work is design for aircraft interiors. That entails the whole cabin design such as trim and finish, colour and textiles, and we also design the actual seats, plate ware, phones and all products that go inside the aircraft. So we are a team of product designer and fabric colour, trim, and finish designers. Q: Would you be able to share who your current clients are? A: I will not be able to at this point of time. We also develop projects independent of airlines. For example we are in the midst of creating a new aircraft seating that involves knitting instead of cushioning. In this industry we cannot really say much until the actual launch. Q: Over the years there has been vast improvement in cabin interior. Since when did airlines start paying attention to the whole interior design concept? A: From my personal experience I would say for the last 20 years or so. It kicked off when British Airways started with the first-class concept where they had specific seats. It was the first project in the industry that was in the early 90s where an Airline had a marketing department who said specifically that they wanted to find a new product for their passengers. Until then the whole innovation and competitiveness with airlines was on a technical level. But in the last 20 years all airlines have had access to technical innovation and soon after they could no longer profile and distinguish themselves as an airline just by what they could offer. Marketing and design became much more important therefore establishing a brand identity and emphasising the interior profile became necessary.  This soon became interesting for design companies. Earlier when studying design there were no projects done with airlines. Now however it is much more common for schools to work with the aircraft industry. Q: It is the first class and business class that has received great focus in terms of interior design. What about the economy class? It has seen very little improvement in that regard? A: Interior design for economy class is coming around and it is something designers are interested in as well since a lot of people are still flying economy especially if they are not working. It is clear that as a design office you do a lot work in business class and first class and then wonder what happens to economy. The latter is challenging since that is the one that generates least revenue therefore is allocated the least money available. However, in the last couple of years the industry has developed greatly in the seat area since there are a lot more seat options. Not only is there an aim to make it lighter and more maintenance friendly but also to make it comfortable. In economy there is a certain fixed space so the design challenge is how to make it much more comfortable. That is something airlines are much more conscious of. I think the industry is requesting it and there is also a financial shift as more and more business passengers are flying economy. It is definitely becoming more interesting and companies are realising more benefits from it since change happens when someone is making profit. But how much that will end up really defining the industry is yet to be seen since economy class has a different revenue set up altogether comparing to business or first class. Q: Trends change so very often in the area of design so what is the revamping cycle like for aircraft interior? A: It depends on the model the airlines use. Revamping can be keeping the structure and just changing the cushioning. There are certain airlines that have a five to seven year cycle where they change the interior visually and not always the products. One of the reasons for the slow change is that when a product is re-developed it needs to be re-certified. The certification costs a lot of money. There are different options on dealing with the revamping and it is not necessary to purchase a new aircraft for an upgrade. For airlines it is important to have an up to date market impression, and seven years tend to be cycle for soft furnishing. But that depends on the philosophy of the airline. Q: How important is it to emphasise on the interior design of an aircraft? A: On one hand it is very important. If you look at studies and passengers feedback a lot of times people don’t specifically say on how much they like the colours of the cabin but it does affect how people experience the whole ambience. It is important since it establishes the identity of an airline and how they feel about themselves and the product they want to offer to the clients. Just because it is a subconscious doesn’t mean it is less important. On some level a passenger will have a good feeling about their onboard experience. If it is bad passengers will remember it, if it is good they tend not to remember it, but if it works then the passenger will have a homogenous experience. Q: What are the new trends in this area? A: Now the trend is to use more earth colours and that has been there for some time. It took a while for the airlines to realise that they don’t have to take their corporate identity colours and translate them into cabin design colours. There are a lot of cabin interiors worldwide that are blue and grey and that is changing. Materials are becoming increasingly smart. There is more certification of new materials so we can mix a bit more. Becoming more realisable now is to use a combination to give a more home feeling, so the interior of the cabin is more of an ambiance expression over a brand expression.  An ongoing trend that is hard to beat is leather on seats. This is something that gives an immediate association to corporate. Sri Lankan Airlines also use leather for their business class for that reason. But now designers are using more interesting combinations of colours and patterns to give it a high end hotel feeling. Q: Aircraft interior design means working with limited space so what are the challenges faced while being creative? A: That depends how creativity is defined. To work in this industry one has to be a bit of a ‘masochist’ and enjoy the framework they are in. The challenges are in two folds. One is on how the patterns, design and philosophy can be interpreted into a visual image. The other is working within the frame without it being restrictive. If the frame is the space it is about being clever with physical solutions. In terms of physical finish the frame is what is certifiable. Now aircraft manufactures are making a thing more standard, which makes it easier for them. So the challenge is how to work with catalogue items and still create a unique branding for the airline. In the end it is how you combine things and make sure the passenger doesn’t feel the constraint. Q: What new feel will you bring to SriLankan Airlines? A: New is working with someone outside the culture. It is interesting as a designer to bring in a view point. For Sri Lankan it is about communicating a cultural image but at the same time, in a way that is accessible in a global area. So I think we are looking at colour and pattern combination to bring out the Sri Lankan identity. Q: Where does SriLankan Airlines stand in this regard? How would you rate it? A: I find it very sympathetic. I think there are elements that are very Sri Lankan and interestingly enough some are not. I think the patterns in business and economy both convey a Sri Lankan spirit. May be with the colours and ambiance the focus is on what Sri Lankan is known for, which is a vacation identity, and that is most welcoming when going in that direction. Q: Which airlines have got their interior just right? An interior that communicates their true identity. A: I would say Singapore Airlines. They communicate their message just right. They do cater to a specific market, it is not always innovative, but they have got the blend right. Virgin Atlantic is another that likes to project itself as young and hip, and this they communicate well by using vibrant colours. They break all the rules in terms of colours, but it expresses their philosophy and it hasn’t hurt the people who fly with them.