Head of the design team at Virgin Atlantic, designer Luke Miles’ real focus is on the whole service experience, which has recently produced the relaunched Upper Class cabin and the JFK lounge, reports Johnny Tucker
Though he trained as a product designer, Luke Miles, head of design at Virgin Atlantic, doesn't really design things - artifacts, as he calls them - anymore. It's not a case that as you move higher up the command chain you move further away from the design nitty gritty - he does try to be very hands on. But what Miles is concerned with now is the whole service experience, which can include everything from the recently relaunched Upper Class cabin and seat and JFK lounge (this year VA is launching new looks in which it's invested £100m) to the way the staff interact with customers, to the internal culture of the airline.
The product 'is incredibly important' and Miles says his design team prides itself on a 'high degree of finesse and craftsmanship', but it's only one element in the whole design narrative. 'We are moving towards people and service being the really important element - that's the glue that connects all the parts of the journey. Its service culture and designing an interaction between people can be as complex as designing a new seat,' he says with a quick grin that often plays across his face.
They say you should never go back, but Miles has, now enjoying his second stint with Virgin Atlantic. He first came to the airline in 2000, pretty fresh from a BSc in product design at the University of Central Lancashire. He'd gained some real-world product design experience with Lego after the company saw his degree show. On a freelance basis he did some conceptual design on Lego blocks that played tunes, altering as you joined them together.
After the Lego project he started at VA: 'I joined as a designer and then moved into being a senior designer. I did a lot of in-flight entertainment work, working with people like Panasonic and delivering some of the interface work and the actual product. I also did some work for Premium Economy, taking care of some seating programmes. The big thing before I left was the Upper Class suite and bar, which was a major project and I worked with some good agencies, helping to steer it and being involved in the detail.
'Once I had completed that I spread my wings and went to Nokia. I was keen to have a change of scale.'
Joining Nokia in 2004 saw him concentrating on developing a global design strategy and working on the N-Series - 'its kind of highbrow product' - before becoming design manager of the phone company's Xpress Music range. He went on to design its thinnest music phone and its first bioproduct - corn-based and biodegradable. The role was strongly strategic, looking at how people engaged with the product.
After four years with Nokia he moved to LG Electronics Europe to set up the European Design Studio, to help the company get a clear perspective on what the European market wanted across its product portfolio, from fridges to TVs. It was during this time that he began to develop his strategic approach to design, which he explains as being based around 'three experience factors': 'You have what I call a brand handshake. In the distance you might see something and you are invited in for a conversation, whether it's with an object or a person; it's a kind of relationship. Then you get into the sense of secondary investigation, and ultimately you want those elements to surprise you and to be able to enjoy them over time, as you would with any relationship. It's about understanding the customers' emotional needs at any point in this journey.' He returned to VA in April 2010, heading up a design team of some 30 people.
He has discovered just how important it is to actually watch the end-user and how they use the products they are designing or developing strategies for: 'One thing we constantly try and do is observe people's attitudes and behaviour. So before the JFK Lounge we did a study looking at the way people use these spaces - what sort of props they have around them, how they curate their own sense of their space and what we perceive to be important to them in terms of lifestyle. Getting out there and away from the screen is important because it makes you so contextually aware. Then suddenly you've got something very rich to build on.'
Collaboration is very important to Miles, both within the company and with other design consultancies and architects. Recent projects have seen strong collaborations with Pengelly Design (Upper Class seat), architect VW+BS (Upper Class onboard bar and cabin elements) and New York's Slade Architecture (JFK Upper Class lounge). Miles also worked with Checkland Kindleysides on revamping the reception as part of an overhaul of the VA HQ at Gatwick. Of his own volition, Miles enthuses about the reception's hand-drawn mural: 'It's so nice because it is conceptually very strong. Rather than diving straight into a signature piece of a beautiful sculpted object, this was created - there's more breadth there. Lots of people can design physical objects, but this sums up a broader view of the company.'
And that's what he looks for, among other things, when using outside agencies - just how will they engage with the brand and then go on to surprise him: 'We expect our agencies to share our values and I think they have to be prepared to push us as much as we're going to push them...I think that sometimes it can be quite intimidating working for a brand like us.'
You get the feeling that this challenging nature was a key factor in bringing him back to VA and integral to that is the non-hierarchical structure and can-do attitude that seems a good fit with his own easy-going manner.
'You can have a conversation with the CEO and he will chat. There's a real sense that it is more about what we want to try and achieve externally than who's running what. So it's adventurous and pioneering. With great companies like VA, like Apple, the product is just an output of clarity of direction and culture internally. It's an expression of that. I don't think it's something being generally talked about enough within the design community.'
This article was first published in fx Magazine.