Thursday, May 24, 2007

MBA Design Leadership elective - week 5 - Design leadership v design management

In this week's class we hosted Joe Ferry, head of design and service design at Virgin Atlantic, who gave an engaging and inspiring presentation about the role of design at the airline.

Joe's personal story started with his final year student project for his MA in Industrial Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art, which caught the airline’s eye. It was an invention which would become Virgin Atlantic's initial Upper Class Sleeper seat and later a business class standard on most airlines. But Joe's presentation was not just about design - it was about the value of design methods and processes within a difficult commercial context. As an upstart airline challenging the incumbents British Airways and the US carriers, Virgin had to find a way to differentiate itself. The way Virgin Atlantic has gone about this is by giving design a key role.

Having developed his MA project into a seat that was rolled out in the airline (and copied by many others), Joe was then given the challenge of developing the next generation of seating. He lead the team of in-house designers and external design conultants, working closely with engineers, ergonomists and manufacturers, which lead to the £105m investment in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class Cabin, unveiled in late 2003, the winner of many awards. This is the design not just of seating, but of the whole customer experience.

Joe has a team of 15 designers from a range of backgrounds (architects, interiors, textiles, service design, lighting) who - having learned the constraints they must work within in a highly regulated industry - work closely with external design consultancies. They prefer to work with emerging designers rather than established consultancies, Joe said, for several reasons. Firstly, because they know little about the airline industry and ask difficult questions, challenging the assumptions of the in-house team. Secondly, as emerging companies they are keen to prove themselves and make their mark. Thirdly, in smaller agencies, he said, you know who you are going to work with.

Having used design to re-define the transatlantic business class experience, the challenge is now to continue innovating. Under Joe's leadership, design has played a critical part in creating a commercial success in a demanding industry; it will be interesting to see what happens next.

Another issue will be to what extent concerns about climate change will impact on the airline industry: to what extent will designers be quick to respond to constraints (whether imposed by regulators or in response to public opinion) to devise innovative experiences that minimize their envrionmental impact?

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