INTERVIEW: Tim Martin shares why airport interior design should be intuitive and adaptable

Tim Martin is the director of aviation and transport at Perkins+Will architecture firm.

What are the key tenets of airport interior design?

Airports are multi-faceted places, where passengers want to have a hassle-free experience and get through as efficiently and quickly as they possibly can. Our job as interior designers is to aid that process by giving them easy intuitive wayfinding gestures to find their next pulse point.

Over eight million people pass through the airports every day. While airports come in different forms and scales, the design and build programmes for them take place over a long period of time, therefore the interior design needs to be timeless and be able to adapt to the changing needs of the passenger and operator even during the design and planning stages.

From the passenger point of view, airports can be very stressful, so the interiors should be clutter-free. We suggest a large gesture or moment in the design with smaller repeating gestures around the airport to make the space recognisable, and memorable for that Instagram moment. Once a passenger is past a favourable first impression, they will start to understand the rhythm of the airport and the connections between the repeated smaller gestures.

How has it changed over the years? Can you cite some examples from the region?

The aviation industry has grown massively over the last 30 years or so, and continues to do so year on year with passenger numbers going up. The industry is adapting well, but it’s also more process driven now. As technology improves, there needs to be a wide variety, but not too much to avoid confusion. Some people are happy to just grab a coffee and a croissant, while others expect a fine dining experience. There are different types of passengers; some want to buy a certain watch, and know where to find it, while some spend their time browsing. Retail needs to evolve to enhance this experience. We’re starting to see a 360-degree trend appearing where technology advances are allowing the overall airport experience to become more socially-conducive, and better integrate with the local community.

We’re currently working on the refurbishment and expansion of an airport in Saudi Arabia (confidential at the moment). The iconic airport was built in the ‘60s and opened in the ‘70s. Back then, it was a real destination for the locals, and for those travelling to and from there. Families would drive to the airport to have tea or coffee and marvel at the oasis in the desert and the gateway to their city. But as the airport grew and security was increased, rightly so, it also meant that the airport ceased to be a community spot; it became a less inviting place. As part of this refurbishment and expansion programme, our brief is to get some of the social aspects back into the place, and get people and families together.

People, who are leaving on a long trip, or emigrating, want to be able to spend the last few minutes before their journey with family and friends. This, of course, also has the added benefit for the operators because of revenue generation, and for the owners because their airports become more dominant flying hub in the region.


Executive aviation firm Jetex called upon Perkins+Will to design the private lounge.

What are the main spatial design elements in airport design?

As with pretty much all interior design and architecture projects, the understanding of the flow in the initial stages of planning is important. For airports, particular focus should be placed on the unseen, the back of the house areas, which are the veins of the airport, ensuring smooth running of the operational areas such as catering and baggage handling systems. Airports are demanding on the people who work there. To use the old adage, if the employees are happy, then your customers (passengers, in this case) are more likely to be. We carefully study the spaces to ensure that proportionate space is given to the back of the house areas and the passenger spaces.

We are also mindful that airports are businesses and they should be profitable. Retail is a big success factor in this with some airports being able to generate over 40% of their profits through retail. Couple this with other pay per use items such as lounges, and this number increases. However, it again comes back to encouraging passengers to spend in the retail area by ensuring through intuitive design that they complete the required procedures in time. Even in any mega aerotropolis, we believe that passengers should not have to walk more than 250m without assistance or a point of interest. Keep them interested, keep them focused and happy. A 2016 research by Rutgers Business School states customers in a state of stress are far less willing to spend than those who are in a positive state of mind.

What are the design features which help optimise guest flow?

As designers, we need to take the lead in coordinating all the requirements of the operator, MEP guidelines and security, and build them into the design. Give passengers a very clear indication of where they need to head, what they need to do at that point, and what they should expect afterwards. We call them pulse points, which depend on the overall scheme of the airport, such as wall panelling and inset LED lighting. We also try to align pulse points with stress points in the passenger journey, so as to provide a simple direction.

In one of our current projects in the region, we have taken the architectural form to create a geometric pattern that we’ve included in the floor and wall design, so that interior is in sync with the architecture, but the strong gestures give the passengers a clear route to follow, similar to a trail of breadcrumbs.

Along the journey and at key pulse points, we enlarge or change the colour of the pattern so the passenger intuitively knows that this is a decision point and they’re clearly made aware of the options they have. At these points, we also have breakaway spaces such as seating, pop-ups, retail and food and beverage options. All of this is in alignment with the regulatory wayfinding requirements of an airport. While there is generally a lot of space and repetition in airports, you can’t introduce design features that are unnecessary. Designing a simple space should not be underestimated.

What kind of new spaces are being incorporated into airport design, and what are the main challenges in integrating them with the core functions of a passenger terminal?

With airports continuing to have higher usage, we’re finding more pressure is being put on using every inch of available space. With many types of passengers, operators and owners alike are trying to make airports more appealing. Green spaces are becoming more popular within airports — research shows passengers are more relaxed in these types of spaces, which can be multi-faceted and flexible. Concepts such as art gardens and children’s play areas are also being incorporated.

In this region, the aviation industry is focused on transit passengers, who may have an hour or six to spend in the airport. While there should be some fixed spaces such as retail, which provides the return on investment and familiarity, for regular passengers, there should be supplementary spaces such as pop-up stands, exhibitions and relaxation zones, which can be changed or rotated regularly to enhance the experience.

We’re also seeing a demand to include exercise areas such as running tracks, climbing walls and even well-equipped gymnasiums. Even as snooze cubes and hotels become more commonplace, a lot of people want to stretch their legs during long layovers, hence the popularity of fitness concepts.

What are the biggest challenges involved in designing passenger airport terminals which experience heavy traffic, such as Dubai International Airport?

The space needs to breathe with the peaks and troughs of passenger numbers throughout the day, as much as it needs to adapt with the flow. Arriving in a busy airport can be chaotic, but people tend to follow others. So when a space is at its quietest, people often question, whether they are in the right place.

A good example of this is the airport check-in experience: a large airport is designed to keep pace with peak time traffic, and a cuing system should be able to automatically change, based on live data picked up from arriving footfall at the entrance to give direction-specific messages. Technology is being advanced to enable this.

On the other hand, during quiet times, check-in counters should be centrally located with adaptive wayfinding to let passengers know that they are heading in the right direction. The same logic applies to security as well.

While airports are designed for the maximum numbers, we do have to question what happens to the extra space when it’s not being used. Is there a way that this can be utilised alternatively to give operators a further return? The backbone and infrastructure is in place, so why can’t a flexible space be made more versatile in its function, such as a meeting point, or a get together area for the community?

Administrative centre in San Francisco International Airport shows a consolidated back of the house areas

An airport is also representative of the city it’s housed in. How important is it to establish a brand identity which links it to its location?

This is subjective. One school of thought is that the airport is a large faceless processor, whose sole purpose is to be functional and efficient. Hence it should just be a shell with minimal fuss inside. Yet others see their airports as the country’s or city’s business cards. However, this is sometimes taken too literally, and can become gimmicky or themed architecture. We’re often involved during conceptual stage in debating this with the project teams.

Recently, a large airport that was under expansion and was preparing for a large sporting event in the city, asked us to revisit their interior concept. Our point of view is that every airport should have an essence of the city or the country it’s located in. It should be in the form of an identity which can evolve with the country and community it is set in. To address this, we’ve to ask two questions during this process: “How does the world see this place, and more importantly, how do you want the world to see this place?”

What are the new technologies being used in airport design and what benefits do they add?

In addition to the obvious advancement in technologies in areas such as screening, security, biometrics and self check-in, there are more quirky ones such as the “help me” robots and autonomous vehicles. In the retail sector, augmented reality and wearable technology are increasingly gaining ground. One of our favourite technologies is holographic virtual assistant (HVA), which are easily adaptive and programmable to guide passengers along their journey.

This goes back to the earlier point I made about managing cues in peak times. At a recent industry conference, one of the manufacturers explained how some airports are using famous sportspersons or well-known local personalities to record the messages, as passengers are more likely to listen to them than a generic face.

On a more serious note, passenger interactive technology should be adopted more to enhance the journey for travellers. However, an airport’s internal spaces, interior architecture and wayfinding should always be able to operate in its original state, in case of the very rare event of a power cut or system hack.

A version of this article first appeared in the May issue of  Commercial Interior Design under the headline, Have a nice flight.

Watch designMENA in conversation with Perkins+Will presented by OFIS

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