Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Making The Point Beautifully

One of the most absorbing and stimulating blogs around is The Beauty of Transport, written by freelance transport writer Daniel Wright.

In it, he highlights the role of design and architecture in the world of transport, and the relationship between transport and culture.

His articles typically feature detailed descriptions of big transport projects of architectural significance, or analysis of particular examples of art and design - or the artists themselves - and their influence on the world of transport.

It's the best kind of blog, where you head there planning to have a quick look at whatever's new this week and then find yourself clicking on another title that looks interesting, and another, and another, and hours later realise you've been completely absorbed and totally failed to do whatever it was you were planning to do before you decided to just spend a couple of minutes in front of the computer.

That's one of the reasons why I'm a little late bringing you this post.  I've been meaning to do it for a while, but each time I sit down to write it I end up reading more of his older articles and then find I've run out of time.

But two months ago Daniel wrote one article in particular that I want to highlight.  It explains in as clear a fashion as I've ever seen, why good design and branding are important in creating successful, attractive transport systems, and why those of us involved in providing transport should aspire to high standards of design in all that we do, and not settle for bland, mundane, unappealing design that will simply turn off potential users.

You can find the article here.

Daniel highlights a particular point about which I feel really passionate, which is the frustration of being made to feel guilty about wanting to embrace good quality design, as though this is something to be ashamed of.

Cynics tell us that people don't care what colour their bus is, as long as it runs on time, and that time, effort and - yes - money, spent on good design and branding is just a waste.  Or even worse, they claim that time and energy spent on such matters is actually to the detriment of running the buses on time.  In other words, you either have good design or you have punctual buses.

The point that Daniel makes far more eloquently than I can, but which I passionately endorse, is that you have to have both.

In order to create a successful transport system that is attractive to potential users, of course it has to be reliable and punctual, but it also has to be visually appealing, easy to navigate and the kind of environment in which people feel comfortable and safe and positively happy to spend what can amount to several hours of their day.

Delivering the basic service in accordance with the timetable is exactly that - the basic requirement that people should almost be able to take for granted.  It's not something to boast about or be proud of - it's the basic thing that we know we have to deliver when we get our Operator's Licence or win a train franchise or whatever.  That's not to say that we always achieve it - and I don't know a single operator who thinks they offer the perfect service and doesn't strive to do better - simply that when we do achieve it, we have only fulfilled the user's most basic expectations and hardly deserve a round of applause.

Instead, good quality design and branding must go hand in hand with the task of delivering the basic service.   Not only can good design actually make it easier for us to deliver the service in the first place, it is the thing that transforms the experience of using the service from being a functional, mundane chore into something that our customers positively enjoy, want to come back for more and are happy to recommend to their friends - the ingredients that we need to grow patronage and build successful businesses.

Far from being mutually exclusive as some might wish to believe, the basics of reliable operation and the need for good design are as closely related as can be, and to have one without the other is to guarantee failure.  If you run a good service but it's not attractive to use, comfortable or safe, people will pretty quickly look for alternatives.  If you run a poor service but try to gloss over it with superficial design attributes, customers will see straight through it and vote with their feet.

So when someone tells you that good design and branding either don't matter or, even worse, represent time and money wasted that could be better spent getting the buses to run on time, they are missing the point.  Of course we have to run the buses on time, but we also have to design the service, the vehicle and the branding well.  It's not either/or, it has to be both.  And there's no better starting point to help educate people as to why that's important, than Daniel's superb article.


  1. Good article Phil. But i disagree on certain points. The general travelling public will travel on something that is reliable and value for money. Looks are not everything. Including the old adage the money to pay for it comes from somewhere. That rings very true.

  2. Many thanks.

    I completely agree that looks are not everything. Indeed I think I said as much quite clearly. They are part of a package.

    I accept your comment about value for money. Reliability should be a given, and if it's not we have much deeper problems. But generally speaking (and it is a generalisation), if you want growth and to attract new users you have to do more than simply run it well.

    You are quite right in asserting that it is possible to construct a perfectly valid business model where value for money is a deliberate part of that model, and people are encouraged to buy accordingly. It becomes a matter of pride that money is not wasted on fripperies and staff and customers embrace that approach. Magic Bus in Manchester springs to mind. That will work fine in some markets, but not all.

    My grievance is with those who regard all expenditure on good design as being a waste of money, and see it as being an alternative to the provision of reliable services. I am simply arguing that in lots of markets, in order to grow business and attract new users you have to invest in good design and branding as well as running a good standard of service - the two are linked rather than being alternatives.

    Which makes the answer to your last point very simple. The money should come from the additional business generated. Marketing should not be seen as an expense, but an investment. You invest for a return. So if the response from the market doesn't pay back the investment and more besides, then you have a problem.

    Of course you then get into the whole debate about how you measure that return and over what time period. How do you value the additional business generated by the extra mile gone by a member of staff proud to be associated with a good brand, for example?

    But I absolutely stand by the principle!

  3. A very interesting read as ever Phil, and a view I very much agree with.

    The bus industry has sadly become seen as the 'cattle class' mode of transport by many in recent years. Certainly not helped by Mrs Thatcher's comments suggesting a correlation between success and bus use!

    There are, however, a number of operators, big and small, who will inevitably endorse this view with the way in which they present their vehicles.

    There are people in the United Kingdom for whom the bus is the only method of transport they can use for school, work or leisure. This group will use the bus regardless of the state of the vehicle that shows up, the convenience of the service of the reliability as they have no alternative.

    That group is shrinking; car ownership is on the increase. This is often the excuse given for the decrease in bus ridership, which is fair to an extent. However if an operator is contempt with providing a service that only appeals to that group then they only have themselves to blame.

    Recent data shows that Brighton, Reading and Nottingham have a far higher number of bus journeys per population than other major cities. And guess what. NCT, Reading Buses, Brighton and Hove and Trent Barton all care about their presentation. They're also frequently on the shortlist for industry awards. That's too big a coincidence to ignore.

    To me, it seems fairly clear that presentation convinces those who have a choice as to which form of transport to use, to at least try the bus. If the industry is to turn around its downward trend, then it is these people that it needs to appeal to.

    So, if as a company, you're contempt with "managing decline" then yes, presentation is unimportant. If you can see the potential that the industry has to grow and appeal to a much larger target audience, then presentation is crucial. Let's hope that we see a greater appreciation for it in the future.