Virgin Atlantic Terminal at Heathrow Airport

Virgin Territory

One of Britain’s biggest brands turned to museum wayfinding to improve its airline customers’ experience at Heathrow Airport.

The airline created by Richard Branson has made an art form out of its cheeky brand. But when it came to making sure that passengers traveling out of its refurbished Heathrow Airport terminal had the best experience possible, Virgin Atlantic Airways knew branding wasn’t enough.

It was a museum that helped the airline see the light.

While visiting London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, Virgin Atlantic Senior Design Manager Bill Gosbee was so impressed with the museum’s wayfinding system that he contacted Holmes Wood, the London-based design consultancy responsible for the system, to tell them so. Had they ever done any work for airports, Gosbee wondered? Holmes Wood principal Lucy Holmes answered no, they hadn’t. Brilliant, he replied. Can you come see us?

That conversation eventually led Virgin to ask Holmes Wood not only to develop a comprehensive wayfinding program for its portion of Heathrow’s Terminal 3, but to deconstruct the entire passenger experience, “From Booking to Boarding.”

“Their marketing is obviously quite powerful,” says Alex Wood, Holmes Wood principal. “But when you arrived at Terminal 3, it was all about the brand and the clever twists of words and the Virgin red, but nothing to do with the information customers needed to get through the terminal.”

Part of the British Airport Authority’s £1 billion investment plan for Terminal 3 over 10 years, the terminal refurbishment and expansion was designed by Foster + Partners Architects in conjunction with the Virgin Atlantic in-house design team. Virgin’s terminal-within-a-terminal includes a spectacular 26,000-sq.-ft. upper-class passenger lounge (designed by Softroom Architects) with a bar, restaurant, and spa with sauna and hydrotherapy pool. “The lounge has been very popular and customer feedback on the actual flight experience was high at all levels,” says Wood. “But from booking to getting on the plane was not so great.”

When he visited the V&A, Gosbee saw the parallels between managing the flow of people through a large and complex museum space and an airport terminal. “The V&A scheme was very intuitive and I thought that if we could apply that principle to airport check-in, it would make the process easier for passengers.”

Holmes Wood’s approach was to test every aspect of the passenger experience with an eye toward making it “calm, practical, warm, and human in scale and emotion,” says Holmes. “We also needed to ensure the experience matched and supported the Virgin Atlantic brand.”

Back to basics

Holmes Wood started with a comprehensive inventory of all the ways customers could book a Virgin ticket and analyzed how Virgin communicated with them throughout the experience. This included pre-airport communications as well as all the steps required to actually board the plane.

Pre-arrival, they discovered a few holes in the basic communication plan. First, in text messages and emails to ticketed travelers, they noticed Virgin was not telling customers that their flight would leave from Terminal 3, Zone A—only that they were leaving from Heathrow. “Essentially they were relying on BAA [British Airport Authority] to get people where they needed to go,” says Wood. “We recommended they take control of that piece of information first off.”

They also suggested that Virgin redesign its e-ticket (which passengers are encouraged to print before they arrive at the airport) so that it actually looked like a ticket. A small detail, but Wood said they learned many travelers weren’t bothering to bring their printed boarding pass with them because it didn’t look important.

Smoothing the flow

At the terminal, Virgin was eager to let passengers know they had arrived and provide them a uniquely Virgin experience. Holmes Wood proposed branding the outside of the terminal with a giant sculpture or super-scaled projected images, but ultimately, Virgin approved a 7-meter-high by 11.5-meter-long entry sign featuring its familiar red tailfin and internally illuminated letters mounted inside the terminal’s glass façade.

Working off plans and elevations as construction crews made improvements at night (the terminal stayed open during construction), Holmes Wood created a footfall map that followed travelers’ paths from outside Terminal 3 to check-in and bag drop, then through to security and departure lounges. They focused wayfinding efforts on eight primary routes and passenger types.

Most passengers enter the Virgin terminal zone through a relatively small doorway into an open glass concourse and need to be funneled along a narrow space to check in at one of 21 economy, 8 premium economy, or 2 upper-class kiosks. Because Virgin is introducing a kiosk-only check-in process at Heathrow, directing passengers to the appropriate kiosks first and then on to bag drop and security (in the correct order) was key.

To ensure that passengers saw the kiosks immediately on entering the terminal area, Holmes Wood used stainless steel-sheathed support columns as beacons, mounting fret-cut, stove-enameled aluminum letters to them to identify the classes. Scales beside each kiosk alert passengers if their bags exceed weight limits. The firm also designed and scripted the kiosk’s on-screen graphics, introducing a step-by-step process that smoothes the flow from check-in to boarding and reinforces the warm/human attributes of the Virgin brand. The language and steps are consistent whether passengers check in off-site or at the airport.

Beyond check-in, Holmes Wood’s key wayfinding recommendations included a first for Virgin, the addition of pictograms to aid non-English speaking passengers. The designers also created a new circulation map using the pictograms and wayfinding language. Customized according to the passengers’ travel class, it guides them from their individual check-in points to the gate, and can be printed out with their tickets off-site.

Translating brand-speak

While Virgin is known for its branding savvy—particularly its witty voice and signature red—Holmes Wood found instances where the brand message was actually getting in the way of the wayfinding communication. “They were way overusing the red,” explains Wood, “and there were signs everywhere using this trendy Virgin-speak, like ‘Whiz through.’”

Holmes Wood suggested that Virgin be more selective with the red, making it easier for passengers to see the difference between economy (red) and upper class services (purple).

They advised Virgin not to make glib promises they couldn’t keep (like “Whiz through”). “We told them there’s nothing worse than standing in a queue looking at a sign that says ‘Express Service’ or ‘Fast Check-in.’”

Holmes Wood convinced their client that in an airport terminal, clear wayfinding cues would actually support the Virgin brand better than clever repartee. “We came up with this line they quite liked,” says Wood. “Not brand messages—information graphics, on brand.”

--By Pat Matson Knapp, segdDESIGN No. 24, 2009



Location:  London

Client:  Virgin Atlantic Airways

Client Team:  Bill Gosbee (senior design manager), Lynne Isted (studio manager), Jeremy Brown (designer), Charlotte Childs (project manager)

Wayfinding and Information Graphics Design:  Holmes Wood

Design Team:  Lucy Holmes (creative director), Alexandra Wood (wayfinding director), Ali McConnachie (senior designer), Erica Schumacher (designer)

Architects:  Foster + Partners Architects (terminal renovation), Softroom Architects (Virgin Lounge)

Fabrication:  Rivermeade Signs (primary fabricator), JC Decaux (Virgin entry sign)

Photos:  Phil Sayer (except as noted)



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