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The Schiphol story – ‘Preserve what’s good and improve what’s weak’

The new Schiphol Airport Railway building was designed by Marius Duintjer, in close collaboration with interior architect Kho Liang Ie, who brought graphic designer Benno Wissing of Amsterdam studio Total Design on board to create the signage. Wissing’s point of departure was signage that would stand out sharply – thanks to layout, dimensions and colour – in an airport with a decidedly inconspicuous interior design.

‘Passengers first’ was the designers’ credo, and Kho Liang Ie believed that the diversity of clothing worn by travelers coming and going in all directions (such as passengers in beach apparel leaving for or returning from tropical destinations in the winter) would give the interior all the colour it needed.

Benno Wissing introduced a colour-coded scheme with yellow signs for everything related to arrivals and departures, and green signs indicating all other airport facilities: toilets, banks, baggage lockers and, of course, shops, restaurants and cafés. All signs were in two languages, Dutch and English, and featured clear, often large, black arrows in white circles.
The layout of these signs was reduced to the bare essentials: destination and direction.

The simplicity and straightforwardness were not only new but also immediately successful, so much so that other international airports soon imitated the system either partially or wholly. Examples are Heathrow and Singapore Airports, both of which went on to add so many superfluous elements, however, that only the concept of colour coding survived.

A steady increase in the number of passengers led to a decision, taken in about 1987, to radically expand the then 30-year-old airport with a new terminal, a new pier, parking garages and roads, followed in 1995 by an integral railway station built beneath a covered area known as Schiphol Plaza. Along with an increase in the number of flights was an increase in the need for more shops, restaurants, cafés, and a great many new facilities aimed primarily at providing pleasant activities for transfer passengers. After all, Schiphol had to – and has to – compete with big brothers in London, Paris and Frankfurt: airports that enjoy the advantage of serving many originating and terminating passengers. Schiphol, on the other hand, is largely reliant on transfer passengers and needs to present itself as an attractive international hub.

Fierce international competition soon reduced flexibility with regard to charging landing fees. Schiphol not only had to find other ways to supplement its income (such as parking fees and the rental of space for shops, restaurants, cafés and advertising) but also had to offer pampered passengers the very best in airport amenities. Related to this ambition was ease in moving from place to place without getting lost, which is high on every traveller’s list of priorities.

Source: ‘Megastructure Schiphol. Design in Spectacular Simplicity.’ Order from NAi Booksellers.