The importance of time and place information, and its propensity to change, make airport wayfinding an ideal candidate for digital signage. Basic systems now exist in many departure and arrival lounges, but with the new Heathrow Terminal 5 there was the opportunity to install something more. BAA design director David Bartlett was the man in charge
David Bartlett’s calm, softly spoken demeanour does little to suggest that he has been in the eye of more than one storm. As design director for BAA, he has spent the past four years working on Terminal 5, only to see his hard work eclipsed (temporarily anyway) by its catastrophic opening. And pressure on BAA has been so strong that its stranglehold on UK airports might soon be loosened.
Being in charge of design for BAA wasn’t a job that he could have foreseen. Having studied architecture in London and graduating into the recession of the early 1980s, Bartlett took a holiday in the US. By lucky coincidence, the person seated next to him on the plane was a senior architect in a large practice in California, who gave him a job. He stayed in San Francisco for 18 years, establishing his own practice before joining Gensler as a partner, marrying an American and adopting dual nationality. But his time in the US was broken by a headhunter’s call offering him the BAA job. Initially he refused, citing his lack of experience of airports (he had worked primarily on schools and university projects), but was won round.
When he joined the project, the major infrastructure for T5 had been completed (largely by architect Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners), but not the detailing. ‘The theatre was in place, but not the stages, sets and props,’ is how Bartlett puts it. And these became his responsibility as part of a design team comprising an ‘orchestra’ of 200 design professionals. He compares himself to ‘a conductor directing music written by the architects’.
Some bold interactive elements have not yet seen the light of day, but are still under consideration. For instance, the Human Mosaic, an installation that would allow people to send a message or a picture to people waiting outside in the arrivals hall. ‘It didn’t happen but the site is safeguarded, so it could happen in the future,’ he says. Likewise, the use of RFID (radio frequency identification) technology to enable interactive and personalised wayfinding and travel advice.
However, Heathrow East – the Terminal 2 replacement being designed by Foster & Partners – will, he says, see some interesting developments, such as information (for example, what gate to go to) being beamed to a hand-held device such as your mobile phone.
Issues of reliability, security and cost stand in the way of many of the interactive technologies that are possible, he says, as well the expectations of different kinds of travellers, such as the elderly. ‘But I think we have to be careful when we talk about interactive and intuitive, that we don’t just think in terms of technology,’ he says. He is very proud of the open, ‘clear and intuitive space’ of T5. ‘You can always see the next step of the journey, and you never go back on yourself, which contributes to intuitive wayfinding and lowers people’s anxiety levels, creating a sense of wellbeing,’ he says.
‘Great wayfinding for me is not having any signs because it is so obvious, but with the complexity of our terminals we clearly need signs,’ admits Bartlett. Priestman Goode assisted on the desks and product design, but the main signs were designed in-house. When you see the structures in situ, it is hard to believe they are sometimes three storeys high, and do multiple jobs – including ventilation and hosting signs, call stations and digital media hoardings.
Was that the work of a designer or architect? ‘Neither,’ he says. ‘I see myself more and more as the director of customer experience, using design and architecture to achieve what I want.’ So, in another of his slick phrases, T5 has ‘retail on the way, not in the way’.
It was clearly very painful to see all that hard work end in the debacle when T5 opened (on time and on budget), but with malfunctioning IT and baggage systems, and untrained staff. ‘It was tragic,’ he says quietly. ‘But I have travelled the world looking at airports, and I really think it is up there with the best.’
Bartlett is now off to pastures new – he will shortly join the London 2012 Olympics team as head of design for the Olympic Village. What does that entail? ‘I don’t really know yet,’ Bartlett says coyly. But the Olympic Village will be located in Stratford where he bought his first house. So you can be sure he’ll find his way around.