When Beauty and Great Design Went Jumbo

Today marks the last delivery of the Boeing 747. The first true ‘Jumbo Jet’ was also an example of when great service design and product design came together.

It is the end of an era for travellers today as the last of the Boeing 747’s takes to the skies for delivery to Atlas Air, a global transport firm.

This was the first true jumbo jet and is among the most recognizable aircraft in the skies. But the distinctive look and the enormous size were not the only things that made this plane stand out. When we look closer at the development of this plane, we see one of the best case studies in blending service design with product design and engineering.

In today’s episode of The Globalist on Monocle 24, a fitting tribute to the Boeing 747 is given by Christopher Lord, who highlights the many service design innovations tied to the 747’s development. Let’s look at some of these and see if there are lessons we can take from the plane’s 50 years of development.

Form, Function and Fun

You might not know your Airbus A330s from your Boeing 787s or Embraer 190’s, but you know the 747. Its distinctive shape with the bubble at the front and ultra-wide body or tail as tall as a 6-storey building is known worldwide. It’s been romanticized and the subject of pop songs and used as the prototype for international travel.

What made the 747 notable was that it was designed to make air travel more attractive, accessible, and functional. It’s easy to imagine going on an international trip today, but in 1970 when this plane first took to the skies, that were a novel thing. The 747 opened up long-haul travel to the middle class. Not only did it open it up, but it also made it relatively comfortable for people to travel.

It also elevated international travel (literally) for the upper class by introducing in-aircraft lounges, specific business, and first-class cabins.

This is all by design. Extensive research was undertaken to support the development of the 747 and its cabins. It allowed for more space for food preparation, moving around the cabin, and easier boarding (it was one of the first commercial aircraft to be built with an airport jet-bridge in mind). It led airports to innovate and it followed where customers wanted to go.

Distinctiveness and Design

Like most designs, the 747 has adapted and modified itself while retaining its distinctiveness. It’s improved engine efficiency, modified the windows and enabled airlines to introduce new in-cabin features. But ultimately, these were not enough to keep up with the environmental and market demands that twin-engine aircraft introduce.

When I look over what Boeing did in creating the 747 it makes me wonder whether we’ll see something like it again. In 1970, service design wasn’t even a proper term, but great service was. There was also a boldness that came from that era in trying to shape culture through products that excited people, created a sense of desire (to see the world), and introduced affordable luxury simultaneously. It was bold.

We can create things like this now if we want. The 747 was a massive, bold initiative not made by incrementalism and the kind of ‘minimal viable product‘ thinking we see in many product and service designs today. I’d like to see us go back to that.

Fly on.

Image Credits: Nafis Al Sadnan on Unsplash, Isaac Struna on Unsplash, and Justin Hu on Unsplash

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