The Nordic values behind the sensory design of Europe’s Northern airlines

To appreciate the design-values of Nordic airlines, it’s important to understand three things: the value of rarity, the quality of silence, and Janteloven.

Without over-generalizing – and allowing for national and generational variance – these elements drive the Nordic lifestyle.

Rarity is prized over luxury. Something simple, like the perfect sweet/tart strawberry in its brief peak, or a fine aged cheese, can bring more pleasure than something overly elaborate.

The quality of silence is about avoiding noise – not just sound. Clutter, excessive decoration or complexity – any dissonance that can overwhelm the senses and get in the way of enjoying the moment is unappealing. Unless, of course, you’re in Roskilde- then all bets are off.

This value applies to technology design. It should be simple and intuitive. SAS learned the hard way that customers take this value seriously when a website update earned the wrath of those who found the new UX confusing. The airline swiftly (and elegantly) corrected the problem.

Janteloven (Jante’s Law) is a distillation of the Nordic ethos as written by Dano-Norwegian satirist Aksel Sandemose. It’s ten rules are (mostly) tongue-in-cheek, but it is useful to understanding the value Nordic countries place on humility and simplicity. It also reflects the value Nordic countries place on community over radical individualism.

As I exited the aircraft following a recent wifi flight test of SAS’ new Viasat installation I overheard a flight attendant tell a member of ground staff at the door, “My little blue SAS heart was beating with pride.” This reflects Janteloven. Pride is reserved for the team.

I noted that she associated her heart with the airline’s primary color – the very blue blood of the airline. I would be surprised if – as others have done – SAS ever strayed far from its classic livery or Pantone pallet.

The value placed on humility means that people in Nordic countries tend to avoid anything too showy or flashy. In cabin design, comfort should be universally available. Lavish first class cabins are out. Business class cabins are designed to make weary travelers feel at home. Premium economy is designed to offer good value for money. Economy cabins are neither cruel nor shoddy.

SAS’s A320neo cabin. Image: SAS

Now, combine the Nordic words of pleasure and you can weave together the experiential elements Nordic travelers value most: hygge, fika, Kalsarikännit. They all deliver lykke (happiness, luck, good fortune, blessing). They all share a setting: home (even home away from home). These are casual and intimate moments, enjoyed alone or with close family and friends. Many require coffee – sometimes tea – but not to wake up, just to feel warm. Or they involve alcohol – plenty of it – but whatever happens during a drinking session is never, ever mentioned again. Discretion matters and as the 11th Jantelov states, “Perhaps you don’t think I know something about you?”

There’s also something sweet consumed throughout the day – preferably something fine, rich, seasonal and handmade. Chocolates are never too far away.

On SAS flights, you’ll always find the coffee flowing. Finnair serves passengers blueberry juice. Icelandair had a beer brewed just for the Boeing 737 MAX. These are cozy, friendly comforts offered to family and close friends.

Nordic family meals are generally simple, but flavorful and even tastier with fellowship. There must be locally sourced ingredients – the origin of anything you buy matters. Local and organic are better. In-flight meals trend to something finer, deserving of special guests. There are unique vintages and beverages, and menus developed by innovative chefs. It’s always the quality and not the quantity that counts—though certainly no one should do without.

The Swedes have a great term for this that also applies to every element of Nordic design: lagom – just the right amount, no more, no less.

Such elegant simplicity is difficult to achieve, and rare, which makes it inherently valuable.

Meals are generally simple. Image: SAS

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1 Comment

  1. StudiodeKadent

    I have to contest several ideas and implications in this article. Most obviously, Ms. Garcia claims that the lack of ostentatious premium products or extreme levels of bling/class stratification is a manifestation of how Nordic culture rejects radical individualism.

    If this were true, how come the Asian and Middle Eastern carriers…. culturally much more collectivist than anywhere in the West… be so bling-heavy especially in First Class?

    Why would the airlines of the United States… probably the most culturally individualistic nation on earth…. have relatively understated premium products and have only one airline which retains long-haul international First Class?

    The reality is that individualism and a belief in hierarchy are not the same thing. Indeed, individualism was the original anti-hierarchy ideology. Nor is collectivism necessarily egalitarian; fascism was hierarchical both in theory and practice, and Marxism without exception spawned hierarchical societies even if perhaps unintentionally.

    Cultures are complicated and cultural values can be expressed in a variety of ways. Cultures with both hierarchy and individualism (such as, say, the UK) may be expected to have class distinction but also understate it visually (BA’s design philosophy perhaps?). More anti-hierarchy individualist cultures may do something similar (AA) or perhaps abolish the top-tier in favor of a more tasteful business class offering (Delta, United) and/or enhance the lower-tier offerings (JetBlue).

    Hierarchical-collectivist cultures unsurprisingly seem to incline towards airlines that have very significant class differentiators. As for egalitarian-collectivist cultures… well honestly I can’t really cite many examples of those since there are extremely few. Even primitive tribes (especially primitive tribes) have strict hierarchy. Western Europe and Scandinavia have substantial cultural room for individualism; they aren’t consistently collectivist cultures (like most, perhaps all cultures they exist on a continuum between polar opposites).