It might sound obvious but one of the most awe-inspiring things about being on a cruise ship is the ability to look out the window and see the ocean in all directions. Though this experience never fails to amaze, an often-forgotten aspect of the cruise experience is the level of engineering involved in building ocean liners capable of carrying thousands of people safely across the world.

As a brand new entrant into the market with a creative team from outside the cruise industry, Virgin Voyages was able to bring this perspective to the process of designing its first cruise ship, Scarlet Lady, which launched in October 2021. It’s a template that will ultimately be rolled out on all the sister ships that follow, starting with Valiant Lady and Resilient Lady.

“We wanted all our designers across the ship never to have worked on ships before; we wanted them to think freshly, challenge us and create a brand new cruise line in the industry,” explains Dee Cooper, senior vice-president of design and customer experience, who had previously worked for Virgin Atlantic and had never experienced a cruise before joining Virgin Voyages in 2015.

“I was at a conference recently and was sitting beside two women who had worked in the cruise industry forever and both of them were laughing at me because I was saying ‘When you look out of the window, you see the sea!’” she laughs. “But the guy next to me said ‘I know, we forget that’. But that’s what people love about cruise holidays – being connected to the water and being on these amazing vessels.”

Being at sea

Before the creative team got down to the nitty gritty of designing more than 48 different public areas and 17 different types of cabins that would ultimately make up the 110,000-tonne Scarlet Lady, they had to decide what Virgin Voyages was all about, a process that began back in 2015.

“We all fell in love with shipbuilding and wanted to celebrate these ocean liners and the fact that it’s just so impressive that they carry around thousands of people safely across the world.”

“We needed to find out what the opportunities were in the marketplace, what the gaps were and what people loved about the Virgin brand,” Cooper explains. “We know Virgin appeals to the modern consumer and so we knew we wanted to create a cruise holiday which allowed people to have an amazing modern holiday at sea. We also knew we wanted to take the best bits from the cruise industry today and improve the bits that weren’t so good, such as the long queues and the perception that people eat in huge restaurants or aren’t very active.”

They landed on the concept of ‘adults by design’, underpinned by a design theme that would tie everything together across the ship: the modern romance of sailing. “Being at sea is a wonderful thing but you almost need to remind people they’re at sea,” Cooper says. “When you look out the window you want to see the sea, or you want to have a window seat where you can curl up and read a book and watch the waves roll past. You want to appreciate being out at sea, being in the wind and the elements, but also the juxtaposition of seeing the land from the sea.

“The nice thing about the phrase ‘the modern romance of sailing’ is that it makes you think about the past and the romance of the great voyages, but we wanted to execute it in a bang up to date, modern way,” Cooper continues. “It became our strapline from a creative point of view, and we had great fun designing the ship around it.

“Many of the design features that allow cruisers to celebrate the experience of being at sea are, in essence, very simple.

“When you’re in the spa, which is down on deck five, there’s a heated hammam area and a sauna with windows looking out across the ocean,” Cooper explains. “You literally sit there looking at the waves rolling past and as you’re on deck five, you’re very close to the water.”

The designers also made the most of the natural overhang at the back of the ship by cutting a hole for a catamaran net. “When you go sailing on a catamaran you might sit on a net, but ours is right up on deck 16, so you can look down on the sea ten or 12 decks below,” she says.

The colour of the ship – silver gray – was also chosen for a reason. “We really wanted to celebrate that ships are made of steel and that shipbuilding is just so immensely impressive,” Cooper says. “The fact that human beings build these ships in layers from sheets of steel and pull it all together before we put in interiors and furniture and kitchens and gyms and Jacuzzis and everything in between is such an incredible feat of human ingenuity and achievement.

“We all fell in love with shipbuilding and wanted to celebrate these ocean liners and the fact that it’s just so impressive that they carry around thousands of people safely across the world.”

Echoing the city lifestyle

Virgin Voyages decided to design their vessels around the modern lifestyle, from the ground up. “This is why we created our jogging track right at the top of the ship, which almost acts as a halo around the funnel and shows that we are an active ship, we are different,” Cooper explains.

Lower down, the choice of more than 20 eateries, from the glamorous to laid-back, is designed to echo the city lifestyle. “People that love Virgin love the choices and quality that cities give them, as well as the boutique hotels, whether it’s the Ace or The Standard or Soho House. They want things that are a little more bespoke and tailored in their culture and approach,” says Cooper.

Virgin brought in world-renowned designers, such as Tom Dixon, Roman and Williams, Concrete Amsterdam and Softroom, who had designed successful restaurants, bars and hotels on land, to achieve this feel. Depending on the itinerary, each ship also features artwork inspired by destinations on the route or created by local artists. “The itinerary of the ship becomes a backdrop for you having an amazing holiday,” Cooper explains. “We added art to give it a feeling of culture and to support the local environment.”

Cruisers can even ‘Shake for Champagne’ when the mood takes them. Beacons allow Virgin staff to locate cruisers – or sailors, as Virgin calls them – via either their mobile phone or their wristband, which is made from sustainable fishing yarn. They simply need to install the ‘Shake for Champagne’ app, shake, and the F&B staff deliver a bottle of champagne wherever they are on the ship. The ‘Ship Eats’ cabin delivery service was inspired by the land-based food delivery apps we have all come to rely on.

A sustainable point of view

Not only was the yarn for the wristbands sourced sustainably, but the hammocks – a must for sailors, according to Cooper – were handmade by women who are part of a community project in Thailand. “Sustainability is all through our DNA,” Cooper stresses. This extends from the ‘Ship Eats’ service, with its reusable containers, to the cruise line’s zero single-use plastic policy, to the way the lights and curtains function in the cabins.

“Simply closing the curtains of every cabin reduces the solar gain in the cabins, which means the air conditioning doesn’t have to work so hard,” Cooper explains. “When you walk into a cabin for the first time, it’s almost like a little ceremony. You get music, the curtains open and the lights come on. It’s all very glamorous but fundamentally, it’s all there from a sustainability point of view because when you go out of your room, the curtains close, and it keeps the room cool.”

In addition, auxiliary power is used for heating, while all waste products are burnt down and the secondary outputs from them are used. “We do as much as we can to make the ship sustainable,” Cooper adds. “We’re trying to make it a much more sustainable, closed system.”

While coming into the cruise industry from the outside allowed Virgin’s creative team to look at ship design with fresh eyes, Cooper is keen to stress there were also some old hands involved, including an architect of record who had worked with shipyard Fincantieri for over 30 years. “We weren’t completely let loose,” she laughs. “But it was great fun to challenge conventions without being constrained by years of doing this work.”