A sense of Africa in the air

Leading global travel and transport design consultancy Priestmangoode has designed a new interior identity for South African Airways.

How did the project come about?

We had known the team at South African Airways for some time. The purchase of a new fleet of A320 aircraft gave them an opportunity to invest in a new cabin design, as up until then, there was little continuity throughout their interior product. The Brand Union had been appointed as 'brand guardians' for the airline. Our expertise in the aviation industry made us the ideal partner for the project.

How did you interpret the client brief of 80% South African; 20% African?

Following a research visit Priestmangoode and The Brand Union distilled a plethora of details – from colours to materials, traditional crafts, local fashion and trends, and inspiring interiors – into a concise visual story, portraying expressive pattern, warm tones, and textured surfaces.

A well-proportioned colour palette of gold and anthracite with lively details was selected. Inspired by the country’s people and wealth of history, the palette contrasts the dark anthracite of contemporary South African architecture and cityscapes with the rich saturated golden tones of winter sun and natural landscapes. Highlight colours such as burnt red and blues signify the ethnic colour burst of civilisation within the landscape. This offers vibrant, yet subtle notes of colour in the cabin through reveal details, brand panels and feature stitching.

How would you describe the visual language/story that you create?

The designs are an elegant representation of contemporary South African art and culture, and a skilled exercise in 3D brand application in cabin interiors.

The design uses three different patterns. Can you tell us about the distinct patterns, what inspired them and how they are applied in the design?

Our in-house Colour, Materials and Finishes specialists designed the key patterns throughout the cabin. A geometric woven diamond pattern and a linear weave design were inspired by African crafts and created for application on curtains and wall foils. Magazine racks and headrests include a pattern reminiscent of traditional African printed fabrics. This was a particularly important element to the seat. It adds an element of surprise. Sitting just beneath the main leather headrest, it adds a distinct identity to the cabin interior, unique to South African Airways.

Visual branding (colour palette and application, pattern and texture) can have a profound influence on passengers’ psychological state. How did you take this into account? 

Our aim is to create a comfortable passenger experience. Elegant, neutral palettes work best for larger items in the cabins, such as seats, so that passengers get an overall impression of calm and serenity. Details are then added to provide a sense of culture and place. In today’s globalised world, a lot of design looks generic, standardised. We value local and national identities and think they should be celebrated. And in a saturated market such as aviation, it’s a great way to add identity to cabin interiors and create an offering that stands out from your competitors.

What are some of the other design factors need to be considered specifically when designing an aircraft interior?

We have a great team of Colour, Materials and Finishes designers who develop the colour palettes, materials, textures and patterns for application onboard the aircraft. They work closely with airlines’ marketing, engineering and maintenance teams.

It’s important that our designs not only reflect local culture, but that they also reflect a brand’s existing identity. With South African Airways for instance, one of the ways in which we were able to do this was by incorporating the arrow shape from the airline’s logo and reflect it on seats through stitching patterns for example. It’s about subtle application that creates a holistic brand experience.

Maintenance is a particular point of focus, as planes need to spend as little time on the ground as possible, so making sure fabrics and textures are easy to clean and are hardwearing is crucial.

But perhaps most importantly is to ensure a great passenger experience, selecting the right textures for seat fabrics, armrests, curtains. Passengers interact with their onboard environment predominantly through touch, so the tactility of materials is at the heart of creating a comfortable environment.

What are some of the challenges and limitations you encountered in designing the aircraft interior?

Time! This project had a particularly fast turnaround time, with only about 15 months from start to finish. It’s absolutely to SAA’s credit that they turned to specialist consultants The Brand Union and ourselves. Given so little time, most companies would’ve gone for an off-the-shelf product.

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