Georgia Tech Students Study Design Challenges at the Atlanta Airport

By Matthew Nagel | Posted March 22, 2012

Atlanta, GA

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport strives to provide optimal user experiences for their customers. To get a fresh perspective on some design challenges within their facility, airport officials asked Georgia Tech industrial design students for their ideas and solutions.

The students are part of Associate Professor of Industrial Design Jon Sanford’s universal design class. Sanford, who also serves as the director of the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access, identifies projects for his students to implement universal design principals.  These principals focus the students on finding design solutions that enable everyone to use a physical space, product or interface.

“The focus of the class is in universal design, which is not just about access for people with disabilities,” said Sanford. “Our focus is on making the environment usable for everyone, including those with disabilities. So we looked at these challenges from the broader perspective of all travelers including those that would have limitations in mobility, vision, hearing and cognitive function.”

Sanford worked with airport officials to identify areas – such as ticketing, the transportation mall, gate areas, and food courts – where they had concerns about usability and accessibility for travelers. He then split the class into two groups and let the students choose which areas they were most interested in working on.  

The first group decided to focus on the redesign of the airport’s comprehensive information and way finding system, including how travelers obtain information about the airport, their flight, destination locations (food, restrooms, etc.) and how to navigate from one point to the next.  The second group addressed the design of the food court area in one of the airport’s concourses and the challenges that individuals and groups have when they are using these areas.  The students’ first task was to identify the usability issues in each area for travelers with different functional abilities (e.g., have a disability, carrying luggage, traveling with children, in a hurry, etc.) based on the 7 Principles of Universal Design, a set of guidelines that Sanford helped develop.  The challenge of each project was to develop new designs that were usable by everyone.

“We’re looking at implementing a comprehensive system that will include a mobile app that you can download and use on your personal device, kiosks that will be located throughout the airport that assist travelers with finding their way through the airport as well as locating key areas and a redesign of the signage throughout the airport including the train system, ” said industrial design graduate student Laura Bowers. “All of these systems will be linked together, so as you’re walking or moving throughout the airport you can send and receive signals and determine where you are, where you’re going and how long it will take to get there to really improve the experience of the traveler.”

The group taking on the food court design challenges looked at different design options that would make that area more efficient and user friendly.

“The task we were given was to look at and redesign one of the airport’s food courts,” said Kyla DeWees, an undergraduate industrial design student.  “We looked at how to make the food court experience more enjoyable for the travelers.  We needed to redesign the food court in a way that was more universal, so anybody would feel comfortable and enjoy their experience in the food court.”

The students’ designs ranged from new stools, chairs and tables that were more accommodating for travelers’ luggage to a new modular system for handling trash and recycling that utilized wasted space around the columns.  The new furniture had improvements such as simple hooks on the tables and protective shields on the lower backside of the chairs to help keep luggage secure.

The students were not given a budget for their designs, but did try to keep their recommendations realistic.  Jim Drinkard, Atlanta Airport’s assistant general manager for planning and development, said that the Georgia Tech students provide a valuable perspective.

“For the second consecutive year, we’ve had a group of students come in who have taken a totally fresh look at the airport,” said Drinkard. “These students bring in a perspective not only from a customer viewpoint, but because of their chosen profession, they are really looking for new and innovative ways to improve the customer experience here.”

Drinkard added, “I think it gives the students very real-life, non-textbook opportunities to show their creativity.”

Although the students’ recommendations may not be implemented, students agree that presenting designs to the professional staff at the airport was a great experience.

“It was really neat talking with real professionals in the airport and hear their input on our ideas,” said Bowers.

“It was a really cool experience,” said DeWees.  “You really see the challenges that the airport faces.  You don’t think about it sometimes when you’re in and out and you’re running around, but when you are actually able to go and focus on what’s going on you, realize there are some design problems.  You realize that we need to help them with that. We need to get these people in and out and feeling comfortable and safe as they’re experiencing the airport.”

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