My definition of good Design



I think this post may  interest both the Designers and Non-Designers to understand what the Designers role is.

It all started when I was decluttering and I came across photos of some of my first projects, and looking at them after 25 years I am proud to say that the products I designed then (and still do now), really conveyed what my definition of good Design is.  Not being boastful in any way, (for those of you that know me will know quite well that this is not my type), but allow me to take you through the design thinking/approach to this particular project.

As far as I recall, there were several briefs to choose from, some of my colleagues designed coffee makers, fax machines and so on, but the idea of the Aircraft Trolley appealed to me since at the time, I was studying Design in London and my family were living in Holland so getting on and off a plane became a norm for me throughout  the course of my College years.

Analysing existing Food trolleys

During many of these flights I began to analyse the Aircraft Food trolleys that were so awkward to use, just by observing the air-hostesses difficulty and repeated movements to get a tray out of the trolley, bending over, more and more as the trays would be lower to reach each time. There were other features that to my mind did not work, and considered “poor Design”. By this I mean, any product, small or big, that is not easy, accessible, ecologically sound and user-friendly is not a “Good example of Design”.

Let me explain. The Food Trolleys many of us have seen,  and most likely not given much thought, hold a very important task. They have to carry hot and cold food, for hundreds of passengers, they have to be higienically-sound, easy to maneuver, as light as possible, yet at the same time, robust to widthstand the powerful hoses used to wash them down.

The Design challenges – strict mandatory safety requirements 

Apart from all the other obvious characteristics that we know, an Aircraft Trolley must follow very strict mandatory safety requirements, norms and regulations in its making, its materials, as well as have to  go through extensive tests.  They have to withstand high altitudes and the compression when they decend to low altitudes, they have to be no bigger than the norms stipulate, otherwise they will not fit into their alocated position ( photo 1, below) where they have to be securely fixed on take off and landing and/or  if going through turbulence.

trolley station2

Its dimensions are strict, there can be no lose parts, that can get caught when circulating on the narrow aisle, where far too often the existing trolley hits the passengers arms!  With all these things in mind I decided this would be my challenge, as I love a good challenge. But as soon as I held the envelope on my hands with the legislation and the strict norms for an aircraft trolley, thinking they were the Yellow Pages Directory!

Nevertheless, I set up interviews with the users of the Trolleys, (air stewardesses) as well as a meeting with a Technical Engineer from British Airwasys who kindly explained the entire preparation process the trolleys haVE to go through before getting onto the Aeroplane. I was overwhelmed by what seemed like infinite steps!  Afterall we are talking about a Trolley, not a Nasa Spaceship!

I will not go into all the details as I cannot recall them  exactly, but I do  remember that it was something like: the trolleys are parked in a special warehouse/ in the airport, they are emptied and due to the 24 hour demand, they are constantly being desinfected, cleaned, dried, taken to another area where they are locked and sealed and taken to the designated area where someone responsible, vigilates them for security measures, before they are filled with the food, and taken inside the Aeroplane.

Meanwhile in the Kitchens, the food is being prepared, packed and sealed, before going onto the plane. The hot food is kept separate from the cold for obvious reasons, and the trolleys only go onboard just before taking off.  They are placed inside them, and when its time to serve the meals, the air-stewardesses have to break the seals, and heat up all the food and place them back into each tray. The cold desserts etc are kept in a refrigerated area, and again only placed into the trays before serving.

 existing _food _trolleyProblems existing trolleys have

A normal Food trolley is like a rectangular box, 40cm in width, 120cm in length, by 100cm height.  (photo of blue trolley )

They have 4 wheels, there is a break pedal on the right wheel  and a release pedal on the left. The 120cm measure it to allow for two sets of trays to be stacked one in front of the other and they are operated by 2 people, one on each end. On either end the Air stewardesses opens a single door to access the trays. Each tray is on runners and as they serve the top trays, they have to bend down more and more until they get to the last tray which is approximately 15cm from the floor.

Now doing this a couple of times is doable, but if this is your job, and  you have to do it all day, the risks of back problems, are increased exponencially. This I was told when I interviewed the air stewardesses, they all complaint about the same thing, so to me, this had to be the most important feature of my design, as the amount of sick leave due to back problems was at the top of the list.

At the time of the project, trolleys were made of stainless steel profiles to withstand the knocks, altitudes, etc. with sheet metal sides. (photo 3 below) . 

To access the trays you open one single door, that usually flapped around, hitting the Air stewardesses legs and/or the passengers arms as the trolley was wheeled along the aisle. The trays are made of P.V.C plastic,  either A4 size for smaller flights or a normal tray size (A3). The Food is placed in individual plastic bowls and plates along with the plastic cuttley and sealed.

self_stacking_trays The problems I saw straight away were that something had to be invented to allow users to get the trays from the top of the trolley and not have to bend over each time. So I designed a system that worked with the pedal and moved all the trays up one at a time or 3 at a time, (depending on size of the plane and number of seats per row). In order for this to work all the runners were removed from the inside of the existing trolleys and a metal plate linked to the sides of the trolley  moved by cogs and stainless steel cables, all at a press of the pedal, this plate would rise, and the trays would appear at to top at an ergonomically sound height for the Air-stewardesses to work. designed self-stacking trays, (photo 4 on left) which not only kept food hot or cold,  but It also meant that all the food was contained within the stacking trays, as these had 5cm sides so there would be less chance of food being spilt or fall out of the trays as with the existing trays used on planes.



Secondly, the single door was too large and getting in the way, so instead of a single door, my design had two narrower doors on each end (see photo 5, left). The  doors in my Design had a magnet inserted inside the profile so that when you openned them they would secure to the sides of the trolley , thus keeping out of the way. (in the photo they are not clipped back).

My Design had several challenges, the materials I used had to widthstand the high altitudes, pressure and the compression on landing. the use of pistons were out of the question, as I tried to use one in the mechanism to drive the trays to the top, but after a lot of thinking and research I designed an inner mechanism that would be concelled withing the walls of the trolley, using cables and cogs, I was guaranteed by an engineer that we could calculate and make the mechanism  lift one tray, 3 or 4 trays at a time.   This meant that the trays would come out at the top, at an optimum height for the user, thus reducing time off work from health complaints, which were so common with the existing Trolley design.



The other challenge was what to do with the lids of the trolley? There were two lids that were used to close the trolley and manintain the food warm and clean.  If these bandejashad to be removed in order to access the trays from the top, then you could not have lose parts of the trolley lying around. So after some thinking, I came up with a solution. The lids pivotted in the middle and they slide inside the trolley (in between the trays). (Photo 6, left). There is always a 5cm that stick out so that you can pull to close again, so this resolved that problem.

But we still had one other problem to solve.  My question was why did each Airline have their own Trolleys, instead of only having one supplier of a well designed trolley that served them all? So after investigating and interviewing the Head of British Airways, he explained that each Trolley had the Airline on it, the number of the flight, as each flight would have different menus, (vegetarian, vegan food and so on).  I originally thought about using a magnetic strip which each airline would apply on the trolley, however for security reasons, this could not be something you can just apply and take off without a key of some sort. So I developed a groove all along the top edge of the my Trolley design where the Airline Name would go on. It could only be inserted or removed when the latteral doors were unlocked.  As such, this solved this problem. Each Air- stewardess would get their allocated key and they would have to take their branding and insert it before boarding the plane. My proposal would be to mass produce these trolleys and use them for all Airlines, thus reducing productions costs which in turn reduce final price of trolleys and hopefully the price of the tickets too.

Its all too good to think that our Designs are fault-free, but they are not, I had to think of a way to get into the trays, should the mechanism fail. But having two doors with a lock this facilitated everything.  So in the event of a failure in the elevation system, the trays could be accessed via the doors, and taken out and put back in manually,  as in the existing trolleys.

The aesthetics of the final product is, to my mind, somewhat more appealing, however subtle. Both the sides of the trays and the sides of the trolleys have a “wave” form (larger photo above) to give it a less “box-look”, I designed them this way, so as to create an impact when the trays come rise to the surface.

My Trolley Prototype was exhibited at the VIP Meeting room at the T.A.P. (Transportes Aéreos de Portugal) Airport in Lisbon,  where an American Airline company took interest in it. They had several meetings with me, but at the time, I didnt want to sell the project,  but be part of development stage, however we didnt reach an agreement… I did want to go to the USA soon after this to check whether they had stolen my design, but unfortunately, at 22 years old,  I didnt have money for the ticket and to persue this.

I hope that next time you fly, you will look at the trolleys in a different light. Think about the work of the team of Designers, Engineers, and all the prototypes, extensive tests they need to go through,  before being used on flights.