Creating sustainable onboard interiors for a first-class customer experience

Four maritime interior designers talk about what’s necessary to deliver better guest experiences

Creating sustainable onboard interiors for a first-class customer experience

Wasaline M/S Aurora Botina

The more data the shipowner can collect, the easier it is to design great onboard spaces, says Kristoffer Jensen from OSK Design

By Simon Johnson |

Designing high-quality interiors that empower cruise and ferry brands to deliver seamless and unforgettable experiences onboard their ships is a lengthy and challenging process, particularly because passenger expectations are continually evolving, and operators need to adapt quickly to remain competitive and relevant.  

However, as four designers share below, there are several factors that can ensure success: a detailed design brief, data analytics, and constant communication and collaboration between all stakeholders in the project. 

What surprises you the most when designing interiors for passenger ships? 

Kristoffer Jensen, OSK Design: Shipowners sometimes expect passengers to behave in certain ways and ask us to design solutions on that basis without conducting research to confirm it will work. For example, one customer introduced a click-and-collect option for hot beverages on a short ferry route because they’d seen it working well on land, but it wasn’t particularly well received by passengers because they preferred to sit in the café instead. This meant the client had wasted time, resources and space onboard the ship. Technology-driven innovations like this will certainly become a key part of the onboard experience in future, but it’s crucial that shipowners carry out customer research and consider the logistics before introducing them. 

Helena Sawelin, Tillberg Design of Sweden: In some instances, the shipowner does not communicate the design vision to the onboard operations team very well, so we go onboard the vessel and find that spaces have changed since we designed them. For example, the onboard team may move a side table from a bar into a restaurant and this looks odd because it doesn’t fit with overall design scheme or the layout. If we’d been able to speak directly with the operations team about their needs, we could easily have developed a design solution.   

Alan Stewart, SMC Design: Sometimes we ‘over design’, thinking that we need to create a complicated design concept to deliver more value for our clients. Yet they often just want something simple, and it takes a particular skill for designers to know when to hold back. We must take time to read and fully understand clients’ briefs to ensure we can design a solution that fits their expectations. 

Jason West, WDC Creative: It’s surprising how quickly customers’ needs and expectations change, and how difficult it can be for passenger ship owners to keep up. To remain competitive, they must carry out extensive research and gain insights into what their customers want, but also remember that these preferences will likely change quickly. The challenge for us is to be able to design spaces in such a way that will allow them to adapt their onboard offerings easily.   

How important is a detailed design brief and collaboration with clients to the success of a project?  

KJ: If I could send one message to shipowners it would be to develop a good brief to share with designers and architects before we start the project. In my experience, if clients don’t deliver a detailed brief and continually come up with new ideas that they want to incorporate into the design, it can lead to a lot of back and forth between the designer, architect, shipyard and others in the project. 

HS: Every project is different – some clients deliver very detailed briefs whereas others share a vague vision and ask us to advise or surprise them. It’s crucial for designers – and ideally the architects – to talk directly with the client to understand exactly what they’re looking for at the start of the project, then discuss ideas in detail. Most of the issues we face are caused by clients wanting to implement major changes or incorporate new ideas into the design late in the process, which hampers our productivity, is inefficient and costly for everyone. Taking a collaborative approach from the beginning ensures our clients trust that we know what they want and how to deliver it, which usually means they’re satisfied with the result.   

AS: Projects always run more smoothly when a client develops a proper brief and discusses it thoroughly with the interior designers, architects and other necessary stakeholders so we’re all aware of the main project goals and can work together to make their vision a reality. It also helps clients to trust us and makes it less likely that they will change their minds on things during the process.   

JW: Clients often expect to deliver the brief one day and receive the final designs the next, but designers need time to properly interrogate the brief they’ve been given and develop ideas. We need to be able to go back to the client and ask plenty of questions to ensure we understand their aims and expectations. If we do this at the start of the project, everything else should progress smoothly.  

What role will data play in helping designers and passenger ship operators to deliver better customer experiences?  

KJ: All our designs will become data-driven in future – the more data the shipowner can collect about what their customers want, the easier it is for us to design spaces that will facilitate great onboard experiences.  

AS: Often, the shipyard will create general arrangement plans and they’ll simply divide up the vessel into spaces, for example allotting 200 square metres for a lounge and 300 for a restaurant. While we can work within those constraints, we can produce much better designs if we use parametric planning algorithms to calculate how best to optimise onboard space using historical data from previous vessels. Data might show that the restaurant needs to be twice the size to accommodate the typical number of passengers and ensure smooth service. 

HS: Data is very important in helping us to design spaces that will operate well and deliver a good experience for both guests and crew. For example, if we’re designing a buffet venue, we can look at data to analyse where congestion usually occurs and plan the optimal layout for the food counters and the tables and chairs to avoid those issues. 

Are your customers demanding more sustainable interiors and if so, how are you helping them to communicate this to passengers? 

KJ: We’re all concerned about the future of our planet and want to minimise our environmental footprints to protect it, but there has to be a strong business case for sustainability too. We need to help our clients to create stories that showcase how they’re making the interiors of their ships more sustainable so they can use this as a unique selling point to attract environmentally conscious travellers. 

HS: Sustainability has become one of the top priorities for our clients, although they’re not all investing in it to the same degree – some are doing just enough to comply with industry standards and regulations, whereas others want to go far beyond that to track the sustainability credentials of all the materials and products we use for the interiors. Generally, European clients are much further ahead in their sustainability journey than those from the USA but it’s vital to invest in this area because younger generations are especially conscious of their environmental footprints and they’re the passengers of the future.  

AS: Today, it’s very rare that we get a design brief where a client hasn’t mentioned sustainability, which is why we’ve dedicated a whole section of our reference library to environmentally friendly materials and products. However, we’re yet to find an elegant way of communicating the significant efforts they’re making to the guests. It’s easy to create a sustainability story around switching to a less polluting fuel, but how do shipowners convey to guests that the fabrics on the armchairs was the most eco-friendly option available?  

JW: To make sustainable interior design choices more visible to guests, we need to track sustainability at a granular level and demonstrate the full environmental impact of all the elements throughout every stage of their lifecycle. This information would include data on the impact of everything from sourcing the raw materials to manufacturing the products, shipping them to and installing them on the vessel, their daily use, and what happens when they reach the end of useful life. We’re already doing this for interior designs on land, so the passenger shipping industry is a little behind here.  

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2023 issue of Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe to Cruise & Ferry Review for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox or your door.

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