We're giving people something whimsical," says Fiona Morrisson, JetBlue's director of brand and advertising. "Whimsy is a very important human need."
Whimsy hasn't been part of the air-travel conversation since the "Coffee, tea, or me?" days of the 1960s. Even then, it has rarely been associated with those sterile, uninviting, utterly forgettable way stations commonly known as airport terminals. As in, terminally dull. As in, your mood's prognosis is terminal when you're stuck in one.
Until you visit JetBlue's Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York. You want to linger. The airy, white main concourse evokes a modern museum. A colorful ring of flat-screen displays is suspended from the ceiling by cables that echo New York's suspension bridges. The movable Italian seats—red, blue, green, and yellow wedges—in the lounge give travelers a rare sense of control.
And then there are the stands. In the middle of the food area are a pair of ministages, one 2 feet high, the other 4 feet high. To an engineer's eye, these elevated islands are impractical; they interrupt traffic flow. But to Morrisson, they're critical. "They tap into this human need to experience things differently, not to be a bunch of drones marching across this vast expanse to the gates," she says. People sit at the tables atop the platforms and lounge on the stairs below as though they're at the Spanish Steps in Rome.
During the terminal's construction a couple of years ago, those stands were being second-guessed by airport authorities and some other suits, so Morrisson conducted one of her design interventions, which she and TJ McCormick, JetBlue's general manager of brand design, half-jokingly call her "soapbox moments." In this case, the name couldn't be more appropriate. She climbed atop a metaphorical stand to defend the actual stands. And she won.
Morrisson, 48, is not a designer in the traditional sense. In fact, the self-effacing Aussie wouldn't dare call herself one ("That's TJ," she says). But she holds an even more important role inside her company: design champion and strategist. Morrisson promotes human-centered design in an operationally demanding business in which humans often get short shrift, fusing design into JetBlue's corporate identity to such a degree that she has erased the line between design and brand management. "I don't see any difference," the loquacious redhead says. "Everything is design these days. It's not just about the sparkly bits."
Other airlines may copy some of JetBlue's frills, such as satellite TV in the seatbacks, but they can't match Morrisson's passion. "She's constantly keeping [design] forward in their minds when they make big and small decisions," says Connie Birdsall, creative director at the international design-branding firm Lippincott and chair of the AIGA committee that gave JetBlue a corporate leadership award for design last year. "Oftentimes," Birdsall says, "we put people in these camps—business and design—but ideally there's a balance between the two. [Morrisson] has that."
And lo and behold, customers like it. This year, J.D. Power and Associates named JetBlue the highest-rated low-cost carrier for customer satisfaction for the fifth consecutive year. It also notched the highest satisfaction marks of any airline. The company, which offers more than 600 daily flights in 60-plus cities and generates well over $3 billion a year in revenue, reported its most profitable quarter yet in July.
Still, Morrisson is restless to keep the JetBlue experience fresh. Terminal 5, which opened in 2008, was the most elaborate and expensive ($743 million) embodiment of the brand, but now the airline is undertaking a radical top-to-bottom redesign—including the interiors of the planes, its crew members' uniforms, its in-flight experience, a new ad campaign, and a new headquarters in Queens, New York. "When a company gets to be a certain size, it's easy to just let things happen," Morrisson says. "You have to constantly craft and nurture a brand. You can't just let it be or it'll fritter away to mediocrity."
"I just got a chill!"
It's a scorcher in early July, and McCormick and Morrisson, wearing one of her Hermès scarves that are nearly as colorful as her personality, are visiting legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser's Manhattan studio. As part of the deal to keep JetBlue in New York beyond its current lease (which expires in 2012), the state gave the airline the rights to incorporate Glaser's I ♥ NY in its marketing for the next 10 years. Despite $30 million in tax breaks and other incentives, Morrisson was most excited about working with Glaser's iconic logo.
Still, applying it is tricky. Simply coloring the red heart a JetBlue shade of blue, as some suggested, "would be the height of obviousness," Morrisson says. She and McCormick want to mimic how the airline went about renovating the terminal at JFK, with the new structure complementing the historic Eero Saarinen TWA terminal instead of dwarfing it. Similarly, the ad campaign aims to be respectful of the original logo. Who better to pull off that balance, Morrisson asks, than its designer?
The fact that Glaser, now 81, no longer flies, matters little. He's "the Michael Jordan of design," McCormick says, in a rare moment of effusiveness. Glaser, with an unflappable manner and easy confidence that suggest a lifetime of pitch meetings, flips through the presentation book, explaining several images. When Morrisson pulls her black-frame glasses off her red bob, where they usually reside, and quickly identifies her favorite—the JetBlue and New York logos form an X, intersecting and sharing the heart—she can barely sit still.
"I just want to touch it," she says.
Glaser looks pleased. "There's no hierarchy between them," he says.
"Right," says Morrisson. "It's not 'Who loves New York more?' "
After they discuss how the campaign could evolve, incorporating other treatments, Glaser smiles knowingly. "Now you just have to sell it," he says.
She assures him: "It won't be a hard sell."
It's easy to see why McCormick, a graphic designer, lets Morrisson do most of the talking. She's not just insightful and articulate about design, but her enthusiasm is also genuine and infectious. (After she raved about the stages at Terminal 5, I had to climb atop them myself when I flew JetBlue the following week. It is a cool perch.)
When Morrisson loves a design, she loves it. It gives her chills. "I'm kind of obsessed," she admits, using one of her favorite words. Among the obsessions she cited during the time we spent together: the color orange, early-20th-century British military campaign chairs, and the Glass House. She first toured the Philip Johnson creation in New Canaan, Connecticut, while Terminal 5 was under construction, and she talked about it for weeks. At work. At home. "I told my husband, 'I want to exist in that kind of environment,' " Morrisson says. "That, to me, is what good design is. Whether you like it or not, [architect Johnson and artist David Whitney] had a singular vision about the environment they wanted. That's what I try to do with JetBlue."
Morrisson's route to airline design included some unusual stopovers. Working in TV production in Japan in her twenties. Attending college as a 30-year-old and studying journalism. Pursuing public relations, where she specialized in travel for the likes of Princess Cruises and Southwest Airlines.
She joined JetBlue in 2000 as the unconventional startup was ramping up. That allowed her to take on responsibility beyond her director of corporate communications title. "I had dallied in different areas of business, but suddenly, everything was in one place," she says. "It was a revelation for me." Morrisson helped shape the nascent brand and its personality.
After six years of working marathon hours, though, Morrisson wanted a change. "A startup is a hard job," she says. "I needed a break. And I needed to get out of New York. I had been away from Australia for 20 of the last 23 years of my life." So in 2006, she and her husband, John, the designer in the family (he's an illustrator), moved to Sydney. She thought she was home for good.
Despite her new job as head of marketing for a ticketing company, Morrisson couldn't completely let go of the airline she'd help build. At night, her husband would find her sitting at the computer, stalking JetBlue like an old flame. She'd visit the site, look up the latest news, and check the stock price, even though she didn't own any.
"What are you doing?" John would ask. "I'm just looking," she'd say. "It was pathetic pining," she admits now. "I wasn't done yet." So when JetBlue asked Morrisson if she would consult on Terminal 5, she jumped at the opportunity. After a year and a half away, she was back on her soapbox.
Managing corporate communications and strategizing design may sound unrelated, but Morrisson believes the two aren't that different. "Design is just another extension of communications," she says. "As human beings, we don't just use words, but also art and film and design, to express our viewpoints, our lifestyles, and our most meaningful thoughts."
Nevertheless she's adamant that she couldn't be effective in her job without a designer at her side. A former branding-company art director, McCormick, 35, joined JetBlue not long after Morrisson started in 2000, and they've been a design duo ever since. Their desks at JetBlue headquarters, in Queens, are close enough to conduct a cubicle-to-cubicle running conversation.
He comes up with the visuals, and she translates them for nondesigners. "TJ doesn't do words," she jokes. He grins at this like a practiced sidekick, the Teller to her Penn.
"I can't do what he does," she says.
"I can't do what she does," he replies.
"We're a unit," she says, but she might as well have broken into the chorus of "I Got You Babe." Another grin from McCormick.
Morrisson and McCormick are so in sync that when I meet them, their outfits reflect JetBlue's current color scheme. She's wearing an orange striped shirt, orange polish on her toenails, and orange lipstick. He sports a navy jacket and blue patterned shirt and tie. It's purely accidental, Morrisson swears. But it's not entirely unexpected.
Morrisson has "outsized expectations," Robin Hayes, the airline's chief commercial officer, told the audience at the AIGA awards. "She inspires us to dig deeper."
Morrisson helped identify JetBlue's core brand principles in the early days—nice, fresh, smart, stylish, and witty—and 10 years later, they still form the filter for company design decisions.
One of Morrisson's favorite details at Terminal 5 is the orange carpet atop the baggage carousel. "I had to protect that orange," she says. "People said it's so bright. But we didn't want baggage to be dark and dour the way it usually is. We want you to feel as good leaving the airport as you do taking off."
When Morrisson first suggested adding orange to liven up JetBlue's monochromatic palette, CEO Dave Barger's reaction was, in effect, We're JetBlue, not JetOrange. "It was as big a decision as introducing a second fleet type," he says. He eventually came around, because the added splash of color was undeniably fresh, stylish, and witty. "Design has always been a lens that the team looks through," he says.
Morrisson picks up a model of a JetBlue plane on a side table in a conference room. It has a white body and a fin with blue bubbles. "It's beautiful, don't you think?" she says.
"The patterns create a design language that can be applied to other things," McCormick says.
"They give you another tool, something you can use without even having to say JetBlue," she says.
This time, McCormick puts it best: "They're like our Burberry pattern."
"We invented the in-flight experience 10 years ago," Morrisson says, "and now we're trying to do it again." As the economy takes a toll on the industry, other airlines keep finding new frontiers in charging for things that used to be free, such as early boarding. Rather than follow suit, JetBlue is working with the Boston office of the design firm Ideo to add services that customers, namely the business travelers JetBlue hopes to attract, are willing to pay for. "This is huge for us," she says, though she's coy about the details. (The project won't begin rolling out until next spring, by which time Steven "Two Beers, One Slide" Slater, the runaway flight attendant, will be a distant memory.) "Unlike a lot of airlines and businesses that have nothing to lose by making changes, we have 10 years of customer goodwill," says Morrisson. "The foundation of everything we do is asking, How does this make people feel?"
Recently, JetBlue learned that some of its customers felt lost. As they approached Terminal 5 by car or on the airport train, they were having trouble identifying the building. The exterior was understated, the only JetBlue sign modest and obstructed. We need to put the company name on the side of the building, executives told Morrisson and McCormick. A big sign. Nothing fancy.
It was time for Morrisson to pull out her soapbox. "We don't want to just whack a big honking logo on the roof, an eat at joe's sign," she says. "We want more than a sign. It should add to the overall experience." All right, management replied, show us.
Working with Gensler, the architecture firm that helped build Terminal 5, Morrisson and McCormick crafted a new solution: the company name spelled out in blue rounded letters that evoke the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons. The letters sit atop slender poles with a reflective metallic surface that comes alive with the motion of passing cars and planes. The lighting around the sign renders the poles less visible at night and makes the airline's name appear to float above the road.
The sign, scheduled to be completed this fall, will help orient travelers. But it goes beyond that basic function. The sign is an unexpected sculpture that makes you stop, think, and take notice of the environment. Fresh? Check. Stylish? Check.
And one thing more. It makes Morrisson feel something: chills.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.