Time for designers to take responsibility for Terminal 5?

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

When Heathrow Airport’s terminal 5 opened it was hailed as a marvel of engineering and design. Now that it’s all descending in to disaster, everyone seems to be blaming British Airways and the British Airport Authority. Why not the designers?

Take a look at this excerpt from The Guardian:

The overnight BA inquest looked at how luggage was loaded on and off the airplanes – one of the biggest failures in Thursday’s fiasco.

According to airport sources, the baggage hold-ups were caused by handling teams being in the wrong place to pick up checked-in bags, which had been delivered down chutes from the main conveyor belts.

If those bags are not picked up and loaded on to planes, the sources added, the chutes become full and the conveyor belt overloads.

If this had been a success you could guarantee that someone somewhere would be hailing the miracle of service design, the technical feat of automated luggage sorting systems and, ooh, doesn’t the ceiling look lovely too?
But now it’s all going pear shaped the role of designers in the mess is being ignored.

Design can’t be selective. It can’t crow about its successes and then vanish in to the night when it falls apart.
No doubt in 50 years time it will crop up in lectures as an example of ‘when design goes wrong’ but that’s too late. It needs to be looked at now as a case study for current designers to learn from.


Having just had my flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow cancelled, the first leg of my trip to New York, I’m not best pleased with this story.

Jeff Howard says it’s system design at fault, not service design and he’s technically right, but it’s really just semantics – I don’t separate systems from services and I’m not convinced you can. Indeed that’s a problem we encounter when trying to teach service design – people come up with great ideas for services but ignore the back-end stuff that makes it worse. I suspect selling service design is rife with the same problem.

The ‘service’ here is checking in your bags. The system supports the service and it’s all part of one big whole.

But Jeff’s right to point out that the problem is exactly the back-end aspect of the service. Seeing the images of all those cases piled up makes you realise that no matter how shiny the terminal building, or how long the conveyor belts, at some point your bag is going to be tossed on top of hundreds of others by guys in overalls.

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