All Hands on Tech
Royal Caribbean cruises ahead with its biggest ship ever and an interactive wayfinding system that’s making waves.
The cruise ship industry has come a long way in the last few decades. While retirees dominated the passenger population 40 years ago, today’s cruises are family affairs, with guests from ages 8 to 80 and a strong international quotient. To keep the all-important repeat customers coming back for more, cruise ships are upping the ante with offerings akin to floating amusement parks.
Larger ships and expanded amenities create navigational challenges that can make or break a guest’s experience, so wayfinding plays an important role in ensuring a smooth sail.
“You can test out a signage system on day one,” says Kelly Gonzalez, associate vice president, architectural design for Royal Caribbean International. “If people are walking around dazed and confused, you’ve failed. If people find their way around intuitively and through architecture and wayfinding, you’ve succeeded.”
About six years ago, Royal Caribbean began planning for Oasis of the Seas, its $1.5 billion, 17-deck floating city with five “neighborhoods” that include Central Park, a Boardwalk with carousel, a zip line, mini-golf course, and ice skating rink, in addition to the de rigueur mix of entertainment, food, and retail venues. Among the challenges of building a ship the length of three football fields and with a 6,400-passenger capacity are boarding all those passengers, getting them to their staterooms quickly, and orienting them to the ship’s offerings.
Steering the course
As Royal Caribbean’s go-to wayfinding designers for the last 28 years, TGADesign (Coral Gables, Fla.) knows how to create a comprehensive signage system for cruise ships. “The learning curve is steep, and the speed at which [the cruise ship industry] wants to work can drive some people crazy,” admits Tom Graboski, president.
TGADesign has signed more than 40 cruise ships, but for Oasis, the stakes were higher than ever before. “Royal Caribbean was very concerned about every detail,” Graboski says. “Their worst nightmare was that people would have a bad guest experience. But nobody was about to let that happen on this ship.”
The wayfinding concept was simple: create a signage system that is there when guests need it and transparent when they don’t. Graboski’s team designed approximately 40,000 signs for the ship—identity signs for the ship’s many venues, room identifiers, safety code signs required by a slew of regulatory agencies, and instruction signs for amenities like the zip line. About 3,000 are wayfinding signs, designed to help guests and crew get where they need to go and keep confusion to a minimum.
A major concern for cruise ship signage is durability and longevity. Royal Caribbean has a rigorous maintenance program that requires everything to be wiped down twice daily with a strong disinfectant. As Graboski puts it, “Everything has to be bullet-proof.” So his team specified glass signs screenprinted with heat-set epoxy, polycarbonate signs with subsurface colors and paints, and stainless steel signs that are built for a 10-year (or longer) life span.
Graboski approached the hierarchical wayfinding system with an awareness of the different ways that people navigate. The ship’s four quadrants are color-coded, and those colors appear in artwork, stair towers, on luggage tags, and in the wayfinding signage—all subtly working together to reinforce the location of a passenger’s stateroom. From there, a secondary system uses symbols to identify different “neighborhoods”—for example, entertainment, food/dining, sun decks, the pool area—that then lead to specific destinations, such as the karaoke bar or the disco club.
Key components of the sign system include edge-lighted glass panels in the elevator lobbies and wall-mounted glass directories as guests enter the stateroom corridors. Illuminated pedestal directories—walk-around signs with deck plans topped by cutouts of the ship—have become a signature Royal Caribbean piece and appear intermittently on public venue decks. And about every 50 feet along stateroom corridors, 550mm-diameter discs show the ship’s profile, the deck plan, and a You Are Here dot. On the stateroom doors, a triangular cut in the ring around the three-digit room number points toward the front of the ship.
The most innovative aspect of the wayfinding system, however, is a network of interactive touchscreen directories, including 43 interactive displays in the elevator lobbies. Graboski had been pushing for interactive signage for a decade, and Royal Caribbean had finally included some prototype interactive signage on its Freedom of the Seas cruise ships. But there was room for improvement. For Oasis of the Seas, Four Winds Interactive was brought onboard to create an interactive complement to the static wayfinding system.
Four Winds’ biggest challenge was time. Awarded the job in May 2009, Four Winds had to have signs installed that November. “It was beyond midnight oil,” recalls Heath Burr, Four Winds’ senior program manager. “We were working at full speed to get it done, but there was a sense of pride and ownership that we may never have with a project again.”
According to Burr, the key goals for the interactive system were wayfinding, content management, and elegance—designing a transition-heavy system with a smooth, intuitive interface. Using the touchscreens, guests can get directions to their stateroom, learn about the day’s activities using the Cruise Compass, or gauge restaurant options by accessing menus and real-time occupancy rates Sophisticated data integration allows the directories to access Royal Caribbean’s back-end systems. The screens offer content in six languages to accommodate international guests, and an accessibility option brings navigation buttons down to the lower portion of the screen for disabled passengers.
Adjacent to each bank of elevators, the 46-in., wall-mounted Samsung LCD displays—some placed horizontally and some vertically, as dictated by the ship’s architecture—allow enough space for larger features, such as the ship’s deck plan, and use oversized fonts and buttons. The art direction follows Royal Caribbean’s blue and yellow branding and the Graboski-designed wayfinding system, with built-in flexibility to accommodate frequent changes.
More critical was the signs’ layout and navigation. For example, it was important that guests know which of the ship’s 18 decks they’re on at all times, so the displays feature a You are Here beacon and obvious transitions to the next deck. After a rigorous 17 rounds of revisions, Flash prototypes, user acceptance testing, and a last-minute addition of 96 screens that help guests get on and off the ship at different ports, the interactive system was ready to set sail in November 2009.
Since its maiden voyage, Oasis of the Seas has been a hit with passengers, with occupancy above 6,000 all summer long. And Gonzalez attributes that success in part to a flawless wayfinding system. “We really did have all the right expertise and the right detailed focus to ensure the ship’s success,” she says. “Guests love the intuitive nature of the system.”
The interactive signage has been so successful that Royal Caribbean is implementing an expanded system on Oasis of the Seas’ sister ship, Allure of the Seas, which will be completed in November 2010. And future plans call for increasing functionality, including adding GPS/weather sections (like on an airplane), a webcam, and more animation. Four Winds has also taken over the design of the cruise ships’ kiosks—where guests can print out boarding passes, view departure times, and manage luggage—and is exploring how apps and handheld devices can be incorporated into the network.
The project certainly was a life changer for Four Winds. “We were the sleeper project, but our creative team was able to blow Royal Caribbean out of the water and we became the number-one customer comment on its website,” says Burr. “Customers have called it ‘the world’s largest iPhone’ because it’s transition-centric—things slide in and out—and people feel comfortable using it.”
--By Jenny Reising, segdDESIGN No. 30, 2010
OASIS OF THE SEAS
Client: Royal Caribbean International
Design Team: Tom Graboski (principal in charge); Peter Zorn (project manager); Damian Rakowsky, Cindy Reppert Ault, Keith Oliver, Geoff Rogers, David Stuart, Veronica Martin, Fabian Ospina, Marisally Santiago (designers); Beverly "Bobbie" Doran (office manager)
Fabrication: STX Europe (shipbuilder, Turku, Finland); H. Maharens GmbH (primary sign fabrication and installation, Finland); SFY Architectural Signs (sign fabrication and installation, Miami); Four Winds Interactive (interactive signage); Hangmen Inc. (installation, Miami); Bunting Graphics (guest comment boxes)
Photos: Tom Graboski, Damian Rakowsky (except as noted)