THE biggest difference between designing for private and public transport is that people can chose to spend their money on a car, but have no choice in the type of vehicle they travel on when using mass transit. As a result the industrial designer has two very different goals for these two very different means of transport.
A car can be individually tailored to fit a specific market, and yet a compromise has to be reached between creating a feeling of exclusivity, and maximising sales. This is difficult to achieve, because even niche markets must justify the hefty engineering and tooling investments involved.
On the other hand, when designing a commuter or metro train, it is very tempting to do no more than is necessary, because public transport often has captive customers, particularly when the operator is a monopoly as with most large metros. However, the situation is quite different when there is competition between operators, as now happens on an increasing number of inter-city routes in Europe.
Fortunately, industrial designers have some allies to work with in styling rolling stock for monopoly operators, such as image, communication, politics and brand value.
For several years now, politicians have increasingly become involved in public transport matters for several reasons:
• the growth in automobile transport has been reversed in favour of mass transport as a result of growing concerns about the environment and urban congestion
• in some countries such as France, responsibility for procuring and financing regional transport has been transferred from the state to local authorities, thereby giving local politicians a more visible influence over the design of shiny new trains
• the positive public relations that comes from being photographed in front of a striking LRV, and
• the completion of most light rail or metro projects in France is timed to coincide with local elections.
Of course there is no prize for guessing that politicians are more concerned about the styling of LRV front ends and their seats than the vehicle's rate of acceleration or braking.
Apart from these political concerns, operators - even in a monopoly - are now conscious of things such as image and brand value. Safety, cleanliness, and reliability are, of course, objective points to be considered in the brand value of the operator, but, luckily for industrial designers, the look-good-feel-good factor scores highly in the judgment of users.
We recently designed the new interior of the MI 09 double-deck trains that are now entering service in Paris on RER Line A, which is the busiest in Europe. For production scheduling reasons, the interior of the new trains is no more than a revamp of the colours and graphics used in the interior of the MI 2N trains which we designed more than 12 years ago.
Nevertheless, even though passengers are squashed into the new trains they score feel-good customer satisfaction simply because they are fresh and clean and have brightly-coloured fabrics and adhesive graphics.
Finally, a carefully-designed vehicle can demonstrate to its users that the operator values them, which in turn can help to reduce vandalism. It's as simple as that: we show that we are making good use of your money as a taxpayer, and in return you are less prone to destroy the train in some act of revenge against society.
If we take it for granted that industrial design is needed for all the above reasons, how do we as professional designers unlock this feel-good factor?
For a very long time, mass transport was designed by everybody including us as some kind of visual extension of the office or factory: white panels, stainless steel, grey flooring, etc. It took a while for us to understand that this means of daily transport is in fact a link between two worlds: one of them admittedly an office or factory, but the other your own cosy home. We simply forgot that link in the equation. Perhaps in some twisted way we were trying to make people believe that these designs were tough and pleasing to everyone, when in fact they were stark, boring and dull.
So what is the best way to induce feelings of wellbeing, other than simply using the visual codes of the very place where you really feel well, relaxed and comfortable: your home? Obviously there are some restrictions: white wool carpeting, soft leather sofas, and crystal lighting are best avoided for cost and maintenance reasons, but friendly rounded shapes, and colourful graphics should be on the menu.
Taking costs first, I would immediately like to refute the widely-held misconception about the cost of rolling stock design (and I'm not talking about our miserable fees). The cost of interior fittings for a typical metro train - everything that is visible or in direct contact with passengers - can be less than 7% of the total cost of the train: to put things into perspective just think about car bodies, bogies, and electrical equipment.
Let's say that the normal designer's delirium increases the cost of the interior fittings by 10%, which will produce interesting shapes, additional lighting, and attractive graphics and colours. But this will only increase the total cost of the train by 0.7%. Need I say more?
Creating a homely feel-good atmosphere raises many interesting issues such as taste. Be it good or bad, the factory/office look with symphonies of white and grey had the advantage of almost universal blandness. But is your idea of a comfortable and cosy home flat-pack Swedish-designed furniture or antique mahogany? Remember that even though passengers cannot chose the interior of the rail vehicle they travel in, it is still the designer's responsibility to please at least 80% of travellers, and not to repel any of them with over-the-top decoration.
But we have to be very careful, as there is a far greater risk of deterring people with bold modern interiors than with the old grey porridge look. The objective in the old days was not to please, but simply to provide some
kind of neutral transport appliance, treating trains like washing machines. The trouble is you cannot afford to deter passengers from using public transport when public money is at stake: you must be aware of the taxpayer peering over your shoulder, checking to see that you are not wasting his money. Moreover, the more you delve into advanced and bold solutions, the more you increase your exposure to criticism, particularly from operators and passengers.
Then you have to deal with the extra complexity of local cultures. The old factory/office blandness had the advantage of universality all over the world, but venturing into home-like comfort and atmosphere obviously exposes you to a huge range of different tastes and behaviours.
Last but not least, getting closer to tastes in home decor leads to a conflict between current 2012 trends against the 30-year lifespan of the rolling-stock, even if home decoration trends luckily move more slowly than fashion for clothes. Moreover, you will be styling your metro train using 2012 trends even though the train will not be on the tracks until 2015 at best, and will still be running in the 2040s. Once again, the office/factory look was far less risky.
The right solution, as with most things human, is a matter of balance and compromise: 80 or 90% of future travellers will hopefully like your design, but you cannot alienate the remaining 10 or 20%. You must meet 2015 tastes without looking totally out-of-fashion three years later. You must induce feelings of a comfortable home without compromising maintenance constraints and allowing costs to get out of control. You must please Indian or Chinese travellers with their very own feelings of home comfort, which means discovering how they behave and what they like.
This is our job as industrial designers, and if passengers like it and feel better during their daily journey, they can thank the politicians and the operator's brand value and image.