Leaders Wearing Design Lenses – Part 1: Learning from Airports

You hear the term “good design” when applied to devices like an IPhone, a cool startup’s eclectic open floor plan, or even the latest BMW. But does that term really come to mind when you’re pumping gas, checking in at a hotel, walking through a park, or ordering sushi? Most likely not. The more commoditized and routine the part of our day, the less we commit our brain to interpreting how it came to be. As a leader of a product-centric business, learning to see what others chose to ignore is certainly time well spent. We’re going to help dissect a series of commonplace anecdotal scenarios, environments, and/or products to help you see design that surrounds you, learn from it, and finally use these new design-lenses to influence your product strategies moving forward.

Study 1: The Airport

Traveling, especially on the holidays, can be arduous. Layovers, delays, making connections in unknown cities or countries with unfamiliar languages. But airports, at least international airports, are here to speak a universal language of design. Helping the traveler quickly absorb their surroundings, acclimate, navigate and ultimately find their destination. But all of this happens typically without us noticing – which is in and of itself an indicator of truly good design.


This is the one obvious design element that you can easily isolate. If you couldn’t read, could you decipher where to go? Accessibility is typically the requirement at all international airports, and universally recognized iconography can help navigate travelers through the maze with clear markers. Most critical are obviously gate numbers – they need to correspond with the the terminal you’re currently in. Ever notice you rarely ever need a ‘you are here’ map at an airport? It’s because gates should numerically light the way. But take a moment on your next trip to observe where people tend to congregate, looking aimlessly for the next signage indicator. It’s often a connection point – like a tram to another terminal, or a gap between departure displays.


Slightly less obvious, color hues and tone are used to to convey different moods, modes of travel, levels of risk, etc. Every time you leave the terminal to ground transportation, you’ll see red – alerting you that you cannot return from that point on. Obvious, right?
Ever wonder why you often see yellow for Baggage Claim and Green for Ground Transportation? Think about that for a minute. Then think about a stop light.


Lighting is used to naturally guide traffic toward certain destinations, as well as highlight signage and set a more relaxed mood in stationary zones. For example, on a recent trip through Mexico City (MEX), I noticed they struggled to use lighting appropriately in the main terminal to highlight primary traffic paths through security off to the separate concourses. These paths were lit exactly the same as their airline ticket counters, making them indistinguishable at a distance. Signage was elevated, out of line of sight. So you’d look around the terminal and see foreign travelers just like me walking around trying to interpret for minutes at a time. When simple lighting was the primary culprit.


You may simply think an interior decorator came through to pick carpet and wallpaper like they would for your home. But the space is designed with a great deal of analysis to help influence traffic flow. Wall pattern, ceiling baffling, natural surfaces, etc.. everything is used with a purpose. For example, take a look at the flooring. Slick, hard, polished flooring is used in high traffic areas to encourage movement. Carpeting, for example at gates, is used in spaces for seating and waiting. This is because flow is critical to an airport…simple cues like this help travelers immediately understand where to move, where to sit and stand.


Have you noticed in most high traffic connecting spaces in the terminal that the ceiling is usually at its highest point? But as the concourse spreads its branches out, the ceiling drops lower and lower? First of all, it helps dampen sound as travelers are progressively funneling down the branches. The more congested central points in the terminal create louder noise levels as they want to push travelers down the branches away from the sound. Secondly, primary attention should be on the gate numbers. A lost traveler creates looping traffic and customer support issues, lowered ceilings draw more attention to signage and destinations. Even elevated trams will typically be hidden from sight, to keep the focus on the gate numbers.

This goes on and on and on. From how the taxi runway is designed to queue heavy traffic at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, to the functional purpose of the water sculptures at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

Good design, bad design – it’s is all around you. Taking the time to observe and learn from it will help you be better prepared for designing your business, your product, your life.

In the next study, we’ll look at design in the food we eat.

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