John Tighe believes that today’s confident, empowered designers hold the key to radical change in transport design
Words by David Tarpey
‘I’ve always been passionate about both architecture and cars, and at 18 I was seduced by the possibilities of combining the two and so went on to study transport design. Later I was astonished to see that you could spend up to four years designing one car – and that it would be used by just that one person driving. So although I was a petrol head (and still am), I thought that wouldn’t be interesting enough. I was drawn to the idea of designing open spaces, where lots of people are doing many different things involving lots of legislative and material challenges. So I came to aviation, a blend of all my passions that involves constant movement and a big cultural element. And it meant working with manufacturers and the airlines themselves. Each airline represents a country, so with each project you learn about a new culture.
I worked a lot with engineers, and discovered that a designer learns very early on if they are going to sink or swim as the ‘creative’ in a very technical environment.
It was a baptism of fire, but it was a very useful few years; I learned a lot about how things are put together in the first place, and what you can or can’t do with materials. Then after joining JDA, I went to work in Bahrain with Gulf Air as head of product. Working in the Middle East was amazing as it makes you realise how blinkered a view we have on many things in the West. But I returned home after two years. The Arab uprising was a factor in that decision. My next client was Singapore Airlines, which I joined in 2011, and that was a very challenging job in a short period of time. I was overseeing the launch of its next generation business-class cabins, and I really learned how an airline works. As design director I had to become familiar with its many priorities such as predicting demand, route strategy, ticketing and policies of when and where to land. A huge amount of effort goes into getting the aircraft into the sky, but all these other elements give you the context. Only a small bit is actually about the brand experience. But I had to work within the constraints of a seven-page business case, so each decision had to be justified and explained. It was a good discipline. Singapore Airlines is very focused on being the best, so that’s great for a designer. Being in charge of a big team means making the effort to build relationships so that everyone feels aligned and excited.
I oversaw the design of everything from seats, galleys and bars to cabin floors. A big priority for cabin carpets is that they should be as lightweight as possible to aid fuel saving. As a general rule, lightweight and recyclable materials are extremely important for us.
When we design airport terminals, we’re acutely aware of the anxiety that some passengers will feel there. Questions such as will I get to the plane on time, will I get food on board or is this a good place to wait are common. Floors are the biggest area of material that we specify and have a big impact on the airport experience. Considerations of how light and noise bounce around and what makes people feel calm are really important. So we split the flooring up into segments within the terminal and our designers specify appropriate flooring for different zones. We use a palette of floors, as sticking to just one material or design would be too monotonous. We use carpets where possible to create a quieter, calmer area. But practicality dictates everything as flooring can be a huge cost to an airport. When it goes wrong, the visible joins between different materials can create a bad impression. A lot of airports don’t have coherent control over the terminals’ design, and over time you can end up with a mishmash of fonts on signage, confusing waymarking and carpets that don’t work as the airport moves away from the original design vision. Bahrain, for instance, has a very loud flooring design. The best example of an airport would be Singapore, as it has a great sense of space and openness and so is very calm and relaxing. It has fountains, a butterfly garden and even night-time safaris from the airport for those stopping over for six hours. The airport has great signage and sightlines where nothing is in the way.
More generally on design, I think that over the past 30 years perception of what designers contribute has rocketed. These days the designer has much more recognition and power. In the past, projects were focused on the engineering side with a thin veneer of design. Now, designers are on a much higher platform and many more want to get into design, which means it has become more competitive. Generally, I think designers are idealistic people who are less interested in money and more in making people’s lives easier and more fulfilling.
My fantasy floor would have a seamless appearance at all its junctions where you meet a new zone. It would go right up to the walls and doors, blend in seamlessly and be a much easier space to inhabit. It might also be selfcleaning and have ‘self-healing’ abilities. These already exist, so that if, for example, the stone is chipped, it will gradually fill out again. It would include discreet lighting so that subtle waymarking is possible. I’m also excited by the possibilities offered by increasing automation.
The next 20 to 30 years will see a dramatic change in how things work and we want to be part of this. We want to use our expertise in design to help change people’s lives in areas such as automated cars. I recently gave a talk to the automotive industry on different future scenarios regarding how automated vehicles might affect life, which would require traditional industries such as car manufacturing to transform themselves into something much more. The implications for service stations, food delivery and airports alone are fascinating. So, I’m excited to be working again with the automotive industry. It feels like I’ve come full circle!’