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A Boarding Pass Design That's So Much Better Than What We Have

In our "Weekly Innovation" blog series, we explore an interesting idea, design or product that you may not have heard of yet. Do you have an innovation to share? Use this quick form .

Airports are probably the closest real-life example of purgatory. Everyone's "in between" places, waiting to go somewhere or stressing out about it. Spend too much time in an airport and a sense of sadness and foreboding can settle in, since so much of your travel fate is out of your hands.

The way they are now: One of Pete Smart's boarding passes from last month.
/ Pete Smart
Pete Smart
The way they are now: One of Pete Smart's boarding passes from last month.

When rushing around airports, the piece of paper known as a boarding pass is supposed to help get you to Point B. Too bad existing boarding passes come in the strangest standard size and display information that's ridiculously hard to read.

"It was like someone put on a blindfold, drank a fifth of whiskey, spun around 100 times, got kicked in the face by a mule ... and then just started puking numbers and letters onto the boarding pass at random," designer Tyler Thompson in 2010.

Recently, British designer Pete Smart, who made a name for himself with his effort to with better human-centered design thinking, was traveling a lot — 14 international flights in two months. And his boarding passes only made his road-weary self more beleaguered.

"For airlines, a boarding pass is something they see every day so they know exactly where to look," he says. "But for a customer, a boarding pass is a more unique experience, and therefore it takes them a bit of time to actually find the relevant information. It has to do with the hierarchy — the priority that information is given, it should be in order."

So during one nine-hour layover, he came up with some key "what if's":

  • What if key information were more accessible?
  • What if boarding passes felt less awkward to handle?
  • What if boarding passes added value to your travel?
  • His prototype kept several limitations in mind: He didn't change the dimensions of the paper these get printed on, they could still appear in a single color print, and he didn't strip out any information that's currently on a boarding pass — he worked only with the space and the facts that already exist.

    He ultimately came up with the prototype you see on the left. "It's astounded me the way it captured people's attention," Smart says. "People identify with the problem. [And] they appreciate the solution. People want to see their travel experience improved. They want their experience, from end to end, to be simpler and less stressful. Any small innovation along the way, people are crying out for."

    The biggest design flaw of existing passes is that the hierarchy of information is presented all wrong. So Smart's solution follows a more logical order, its structure is simple, and it even reminds you to change your clocks forward, if needed. That, and it fits snugly into your passport.

    Traveling with your passport means constantly tucking the pass into your book. But current boarding passes are oriented longways — landscape — forcing an awkward maneuver when trying to read them when they're sticking out of your passport. Changing the pass to a portrait orientation lets you see your most relevant information even when most of the document is tucked into a passport or wallet.

    Airlines have caught wind of Smart's idea.

    "I have been approached by a number of airlines who are interested in this boarding pass solution. This is brilliant," he said.

    But as more people move to electronic boarding passes, he says the real value of his new paper design is in the principle behind it.

    "The real value is in the question — what if we were able to improve the travel experience of people? How can we put people first and solve small, everyday problems along the way? You can apply that to every point in a person's journey along the process. The boarding pass just exemplifies the principle — innovation starts when you ask simple questions of everyday things."

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    Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.