Boeing Future Factory

Finding the Future

In a factory the size of a small city, environmental graphics help boost productivity by connecting the people who build aircraft with those who design them. 

For Seattle-based NBBJ, the task of developing environmental graphics for the Boeing aircraft factory in Everett, Washington, was daunting to say the least. The jet aircraft assembly plant is the world’s largest building by volume: about 472 million cubic feet, with a roof area of 12 acres. Within its walls, about 20,000 employees do the work required to build Boeing’s 747, 767, and 777 airliners as well as its new 787 Dreamliner, constructed primarily of composite materials.

The factory’s gargantuan proportions and visual chaos demanded a wayfinding system that could provide instant clarity on a large scale and detailed information on a small scale, says NBBJ Principal Eric LeVine, who leads the architecture firm’s branding and design studio.

“We had to understand that our work would be viewed from hundreds of feet away as well as up close. And everything had to be installed while the airplanes were being built.” 

Boeing undertook the renovation of the 1968 plant as one of several initiatives to increase workflow and productivity among employees at the Everett facility. The intention was to create a “Future Factory” where office workers could better communicate with their colleagues on the shop floor through visual connections and “collaboration zones” of meeting rooms. 

“Our objective was to bring white collar and blue collar together so there is quicker problem-solving and shorter production times,” explains LeVine.

Natural order

The project started in 2005 with planning workshops aimed at developing agreed-upon design principles. One expressed theme was connection to nature: employees wanted to sense the outdoors while they worked. That request led NBBJ to use daylight and color, rather than directional signage, as organizing devices within the chaotic space. 

LeVine’s epiphany was to consider the bays or “canyons” where the planes are assembled as identifiable units for ordering the wayfinding system. He assigned a full spectrum of colors—blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and violet—to each bay. The colors are applied to the steel columns within the bays as well as to signage mounted on the overhead supports.

To supplement the color-coding, NBBJ assigned alphanumeric designations to the factory’s 238 support columns. In much the same way as a location is pinpointed on a gridded map, the wayfinding system combines numbers for the bays (running in a north-south direction) with letters A through R (east-west). Round markers emblazoned with the number/letter pairs project from the columns like street signs in a city. The result is a comprehensive grid system that provides orientation at any location within the factory.

NBBJ’s system builds on the factory’s original column identifications that were already in place, but had only been stenciled onto the columns in black and were barely noticeable. “There was an order in place, but it wasn’t being used to its full advantage,” says LeVine.

The team chose Helvetica Neue type to be consistent with Boeing’s design standards, using both bold and condensed versions depending on viewing distances. Factory maps at about 60 locations help workers and visitors find specific destinations within the color-coded “neighborhoods.” 

Towering graphics

The color-coding extends to the five-story, steel-framed towers flanking the 350-ft.-wide aircraft assembly areas. These vertical structures house offices, meeting areas, and staff amenities while allowing views of the factory floor through glass partitions and balconies. 

“Our task was to make these existing structures more habitable and comfortable while clearly identifying the conference rooms and other collaborative zones within them,” explains LeVine.

The design team originally envisioned a more sculptural expression for the towers, including staircases, balconies, and kiosks projecting from their enclosures. “Then we discovered the realities of the space and refined our ideas,” LeVine explains. Tower facades were simplified so they wouldn’t interfere with the cranes and gantries transporting airplane parts within the plant. 

Those restrictions led the NBBJ team to a more graphic approach: superscaled “whitewalls” comprised of 65-ft.-tall, perforated-aluminum panels applied to the tower faces.

“They dampen the sound, while acting as screens and identifiers,” says Bart Haynes, sales manager with Trade-Marx Sign and Display (Seattle), the project fabricator. Powdercoated in white, the billboard-like constructions provide visual relief within the busy environment of machinery, equipment, and people. Daylight filtering through from new skylights accentuates their presence and helps employees feel closer to nature. 

Broken into 3.5 ft.-by-6-ft. sections, the screens are perforated to create three degrees of transparency. In some places, they allow for direct views into conference rooms, offices, and the factory floor. Elsewhere, they’re almost opaque to conceal the steel structure of the towers behind them. 

Along the edges of the screens, digitally printed, colored stripes and alphanumeric markers correspond to the column grid on the factory floor. Colors gradually lighten as they rise to the tops of the screens, allowing the letters and numbers at the top to stand out. 

“Now, an engineer on the third level of the tower can call a mechanic on the production floor and invite him to a meeting in a clearly identified location, and they can solve the problem together,” says LeVine. “The needed changes then can happen more quickly.”

Graphic punches

The same color-coding and signage applied to the bays and tower screens are repeated in the office spaces. Wall colors, carpet patterns, upholstery, and artwork in bright hues add graphic punch to the mostly neutral interiors. Entrances are marked with letters and numbers corresponding to the grid, applied to wall-mounted aluminum disks. 

Punctuating the offices are photo murals of nature seen from the air, including red rocks and orchards. The aerial images were digitally printed onto 3M wallpaper material and labeled with the location’s altitude, latitude, and longitude. They are paired with shots of the airplane parts assembled at the Boeing plant. “The juxtaposition of photographs connects the product to the physical and emotional effects of the aircraft on the traveler,” explains LeVine.

Going under

NBBJ extended its colorful alphanumeric wayfinding system to the tunnels below the production bays. These underground spaces are used by employees as both circulation routes and recreational areas for jogging and biking. To ease navigation, letters and numbers stenciled on the concrete floors correspond to the column bays on the upper level. 

A substantial portion of NBBJ’s rainbow-colored vision has been completed, along with upgrades to company cafeterias and other amenities. NBBJ’s informal survey of employees showed they’re pleased with the improvements to their work environment, especially the addition of bold color and natural light, as well as the eased navigation (especially for those who only occasionally work in the plant). And by using environmental graphics to help connect company employees with one another, says LeVine, “Hands-on problem-solving has dramatically increased at the factory.” 

--By Deborah K. Dietsch, segdDESIGN No. 29, 2010  

Jury comments

“Brilliant implementation of clarity in a place of overwhelming visual anarchy.”

“A simple and bold use of color makes these oversized ‘banners’ a striking addition to the space.”


Location:  Everett, Wash.

Client:  The Boeing Company

Design:  NBBJ

Design Team:  Eric LeVine (principal in charge); Stephen Kellogg (lead designer); Robert Murray, Yusuke Ito, Samuel Stubblefield (designers)

Fabrication:  Trade-Marx Sign and Display Corp. 

Consultants:  NBBJ Architecture/Interiors Studios, NBBJ Lighting Studio

Photos:  ©Sean Airhart/NBBJ


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