The early 1990s started with a frightening lull in design activity. After the hubristic moments of the late Eighties, the market for design in Britain seemed to have died overnight.

We had completed most of our work to help launch the newly privatised BAA, previously British Airports Authority, and were working on the identity for Regional Railways, the part of British Rail’s passenger services that was left over when InterCity and Network South East had been carved away and given their own identities. The regional network was known then as ‘Provincial’ and we advised both on the renaming and the development of a flexible identity system that allowed a measure of localisation. In January 1990 the project, well advanced by then, was called to halt. Other projects came to a stop, or didn’t materialise at all. Business was bad.

It was about this time we saw of a potential glimmer of light emerging in the Far East (as we used to call it). A new airport was to be built and a new railway to connect it to central Hong Kong. There seemed to be at least two opportunities worth pursuing.

Before I knew it I was on a plane to Hong Kong, flying in to Kai Tak, the airport that was scheduled for replacement and notorious for its approach that took incoming aircraft low over the city’s high-rise buildings. As our plane banked steeply for its final approach, I found myself looking into the living rooms and kitchens of the local residents. TVs flickering, lights on, food being cooked – we were that alarmingly close – and getting a neighbour’s view of it all.

It was my first trip to Asia. The pace and intensity of Hong Kong takes some adjustment, even for a Londoner.  We met with people from the Airport Authority and the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTR). The scale of the planned development was impressive, even more so when we took a boat trip out to the site of the new airport. A small island known as Chek Lap Kok was in the process of being taken apart to create a new runway that would extend way out into the distant sea. The massive earth-moving equipment roving like dinosaurs across the terrain dwarfed any humans. As a memento I still have a small piece of granite from the island, sitting in my office. A little village we walked around on the much larger Lantau Island was destined to become a new town of its own. The owner of the modest seafood restaurant where we ate under a tin roof, told me he hoped one day he would run a restaurant in the new airport. It seemed a far cry. The nature of the change that was about to take place was both impressive and humbling. We came away knowing that any project that emerged out of the visit would require us to ‘think big’.

Later in 1993 when a fax message arrived in London to tell us we had won the tender to design the identity for the new railway (officially the Lantau and Airport Railway) we had to gear up fast. Within a week or so we were back out, opening a bank account and setting up an office/apartment from which to handle the project, initially with a team of four. Our consultant Jane Priestman, who had been our client at BAA and then at British Rail as Director of Architecture and Design, had teamed up with us to lend her unrivalled experience.  We had also coopted a local design team, Kan Tei Kung to help us on the ground, and with vital issues of language and culture.

Once the team was set up we had to quickly grasp the scale and complexity of the project. The airport line would extend from Hong Kong Central station across bridges and through tunnels, via two stations, to the new airport, a distance of 35.5 kilometres. The journey time was to be 24 minutes, with a frequency of one train every 10 minutes. A parallel line would extend the existing metro system, primarily serving the local population on Lantau Island. The whole development would finally cost $35 billion.

The design challenge had two aspects: to create a premium brand for the airport line and to create a separate identity for the line that would run services to Tung Chung on Lantau Island. Both services would need to coordinate with MTR’s existing identity, which was well established. The work done when the metro was first built in 1978 was a good basis from which to start. Initially, a logo and sign system for the MTR had been designed by Design Research Unit, and subsequent work for the Corporation had been done by Hong Kong based designer Henry Steiner.

Separately, work had already been started on the design of rolling stock and the station buildings, and the design of the airport itself was well advanced. We had to assimilate all these different components which were to be held together by a coherent identity and signing programme, from trains to environments to communications.

It became clear early on that the new trains would become an icon for Hong Kong, complementing Norman Foster’s exciting and innovative airport design.  The new railway needed to provide a seamless extension of the airport into the centre of Hong Kong – sophisticated, modern and easy to use. There was no point in competing with the vibrancy of Hong Kong itself. The sister service taking local people from Tung Chung to the city centre was to be an everyday service. A little less chic than its sibling, this service suited a workaday, friendly and fresh image.

Of course, the trains themselves are just a small, albeit important, part of the total service. The stations in between the airport and the city-centre terminal at Hong Kong Central, with its in-town check-in, were all being designed by separate architects. Each station had a specific job to do, and had to fit in with its own locality and environment.

Another part of the task of building a brand was to find ways to express a sense of continuity at every point along the line. Without interfering with the architects’ remits we had to find a commonality of standards in terms of colour, finishes, materials and details that would allow the system to look coherent.

The main element of commonality would be expressed through signing. This graphic expression could become a key linking device for the entire network, as well as doing its primary job of directing people towards their destinations. Information planning extended beyond signing to ticketing and to the coding of lines (by colour), platforms (by number) and exits (by letter). These practical elements were all important in establishing a brand that would stand for reliability, safety and ease of use.

The design work done on the original urban system had been thorough, robust and uncompromising. We certainly did not want to lose these strengths, but some elements of the existing railway were beginning to look overly utilitarian and, at times, just a bit too basic for modern tastes. The reality was that the customer base was changing rapidly. A younger, more affluent Hong Kong population was becoming used to a fast pace of change above ground. Old buildings, and some not so old, were being replaced with new ones. Fashions were becoming more sophisticated, and the young people of Hong Kong were growing more brand-aware than almost any other community on the earth.

All of these changes laid down challenges for the new railway. It had to be a customer’s railway, not an engineer’s railway. Indeed customer service was a key part of the brand promise, so ensuring people understood how to use the system would prove to be a vital factor in running an efficient and profitable service. To help visitors from all parts of the world, dual-language signs (in Chinese and English), supported by clearly intelligible pictograms, were designed to run throughout the system.

In planning for a service that would be around for a very long time, we had to address political, as well as linguistic, issues. In signing and all communications, we made a break with the past by putting Chinese first, followed by English. We also made the Chinese larger. The main reason for the change in scale was because Chinese characters are more complex and detailed than the Roman alphabet, and therefore needed to appear larger in order to achieve visual parity.

In developing the signing, we paid detailed attention to colour and typography, specifying styles that were clear and legible, as well as being modern and appropriate for illumination and digital application. Planning information on the train as well as in the stations exercised our minds as we sorted through the decisions that a passenger needed to make in order to travel on the network. Ticketing and ticket purchase via ticket-issuing machines were as important as passenger information displays. Everything had to be thought through and co-ordinated to deliver a seamless experience.

In a very real way, the practical issues underpinned the brand positioning. We wanted the airport service to have all the basics right. This would be fundamental to establishing a desirable premium brand. But sorting the practical was not enough. We also wanted to establish the railway as something attractive not just functional. Right from the start, we recognised that travellers to Hong Kong should know about the new service before they arrived and see it as part of the travel experience. The brand had to establish itself online, on literature and communications, long before it was experienced in reality.

Having agreed a positioning for the airport service as a premium product with a modern international idiom that was simple, stylish and lasting, we attacked the thorny issue of creating a name and identity. The name, Airport Express (or gay chung fei sin in Cantonese) was, believe it or not, the outcome of many hours of research, debate and, sometimes, contentious discussion. A name that clearly does what it says was ultimately favoured in preference to more original or idiosyncratic solutions.

In developing the visual aspect of the identity, on the other hand, we aimed to reflect the aspiration of the brand, while creating something that was effective and practical in implementation.

Our solution was based on a simplified depiction of a railway track and an aircraft, one leading to the other, against a curving world surface. Simple, distinctive and comprehensible in any culture, this device became the defining image for the service, embossed on seat backs in the stations, printed on tickets and incorporated into the rolling-stock livery. The colour scheme of dark blue and cool green was chosen for practical reasons, as well as having a sophistication and timelessness that were essential in creating an image that would not date. The green also became the identifiable line colour and dark blue the background for all signing. The same colour palette was expressed on the train exterior in a metallic finish, giving a sleek, gleaming aspect to the trains’ industrial design.

In the interior, the themes of blue and green, combined with soft, neutral greys and mauves, imparted a restful feeling. After all, when arriving in the evening following a 12-hour flight across eight time zones, an overstimulating or strident interior is probably the last thing you need as the train speeds you to central Hong Kong and the comfort of a hotel bed.

In due course, the whole branding picture began to fit together, an image that helped Airport Express to launch successfully as the airport opened for business. The whole process was time critical, as engineering and construction works demanded that key decisions were made on schedule. Liaison was crucial. Engineers, architects and specialist consultants had to be consulted and their buy-in sought; approvals from management had to be obtained. So we had to make sure our ideas and concepts resonated with consumers with market research and benchmarking playing a part in honing both the proposition and the brand solution.

In order to keep everything on track and inform all parties of the brand development process, we made a constant round of presentations, and prepared and issued a guideline document. The final version was not published until all the elements were in place. To test things out the rolling-stock contractors in Spain, whose team we visited to check progress, built full-size prototypes of the train. Finally, the trains themselves were fabricated and shipped to Hong Kong where the track, signalling, bridges and stations were all made ready for operation.

The brand was launched and the service began operation in July 1998, one year after the official handover of Hong Kong to China. Before long, Airport Express had become an integral part of the Hong Kong landscape, as we hoped and believed it would, thanks to city’s adaptive culture of embracing change and innovation, perhaps more than anywhere in the world. Thinking big had paid off. Airport Express was just another stride in Hong Kong’s unrelenting journey.

[Parts of this story were previously published in Admap Magazine November 2001]