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Cognition |  5 min read

What I Learned from IKEA’s Democratic Design Days

Zeke Condon shares what he learned about IKEA’s design mantras and principles.

This article was originally published here.

A few from the Cognition team were lucky enough to attend the IKEA Democratic Design Days opening presentation by Marcus Engman – IKEA’s global head of design.

Democratic Design Days is a yearly event normally held only in Almhult, Sweden as IKEA’s showcase of new ideas, new season trends and to introduce upcoming partnerships, ideas and concepts they are working on. This year, for only the fourth time in their 75 year history, IKEA also held a sister event outside Sweden. Lucky for us, here in Sydney town. We were invited to attend the kick-off session, and in just a short talk, Marcus was able to instil upon us a long list of learnings from his design career that can be applied across so many other industries and verticals.

As the title suggests, IKEA’s approach to design is very democratic. They share all of their big partnerships and ideas before they have final products to show for it and are an open book in terms of where they see the market heading. This year they announced multiple current and upcoming partnerships such as:

  • Adidas to tackle sports at home,
  • Off-The-Grid living partnerships with WIRED UK where they are introducing concepts like solar-powered components around the home,
  • Sonos to introduce more stylish high-fidelity connected music installations, and
  • My favourite of all: a collaboration, starting next year, with LEGO.

At IKEA, there is only a very small team of designers and each designer needs to know the full IKEA business end-to-end – distribution, manufacturing, supply chain, technology and customers. The whole lot. This is so that when they design, they are building something that is possible to manufacture and distribute, but also so that if they need to change a process within the supply chain to support a new product, they are working with engineering teams to design those changes as well.  As such design at IKEA is embedded in the culture, and is not just focused on the product but the whole value chain.

So how does such a small team of integral designers disperse themselves across a business that ships millions of new products a year?

IKEA’s Design Mantras and Principles

Marcus kindly shared with us several of IKEA’s secrets to ensuring they remain focused on the best decision making and design.

Failing forward

At IKEA, they embrace mistakes, wear them like a badge of honour even. Marcus took us through the company’s and his most remarkable design mistake: the Blowup Furniture range. The range was fundamentally flawed. Users could not sit on or use anything without jolting creaking noises, and they initially recommended that customers used hairdryers to inflate them, which turned out to melt your new piece of flat-pack as a result. But these failures were used as learning curves (and the range promptly sold off in the bargain bin). 

It's all about the legs

The first break-through in design with IKEA flatpack was when design teams realised the commonality that most furniture had legs – all you needed to do to save some space was to make removable legs. Through this mantra, IKEA continue to innovate by keeping tightly aligned to problem-solving through simpler more practical design means, instead of trying to over-engineer. 

Make it about everyday life

Everything that IKEA creates needs to withstand the toll of time. It also needs to work in everyday life, which is why IKEA always test on real people and show as much interest in real people. They do not use any external agencies for research to ensure this mantra stays close to home. 

Look at real world examples 

When looking for inspiration, IKEA look to reuse what design is already available. When challenged to build a couch that would suit a living room that was decorated in industrial design, they sought inspiration from the humble, well-engineered and readily available shopping trolley to build the legs and frames in the same patterns and colours. Simple nuances like this also help their design remain relevant and relatable to the people they design for. 

Challenge yourself on the cost 

Once you have an idea, work on it. Challenge yourself to capture the essence of the design, but then redesign it to remove cost. And keep doing this over and over. 

Inducing tech for tech sake = Fail 

Going back to the blowup furniture. The driver of the range was the functionality it added for IKEA ­– blowup furniture is a flat packing business’s dream. But the warm fuzziness of the new technology blinded IKEA initially and it didn't function well. Marcus warns away from being led away by new technology without a valid use case. 

The 5 Principles of Democratic Design

IKEA, above all and in addition to the rest of their mantras, like to ensure that all design is assessed, critiqued and delivered according to five overarching IKEA design principles: 

  1. Form 
  2. Function
  3. Quality
  4. Sustainability
  5. Low price

While the Principles are simple and in-descriptive, they are powerful within the realm of what IKEA is designing.

The example provided by Marcus was their $2.99 365+ water carafe. In designing it, the form was considered thoroughly, well beyond just having a spout. It has to fit in all fridge doors in all fridges across all brands across all countries, so they personally researched all fridge brands old, new and upcoming. It also has to be functional, but not just able to hold water, this is a reciprocal that should be cleaned well and so has to fit in dishwashers – and not just fit, but so that the dishwasher can easily spray in. So they researched dishwashers, the angle they spray, and they made the opening wider and slightly fluted. The quality is of a particular all-round glass type but thin enough and clear enough as to still appear a little ‘fancy’. It had to be sustainable, so they use cork and glass, which are both recyclable and highly recycled materials. All the while, the low price goals drove the teams designing this carafe, and many other similar products, to keep their research and development costs as low as possible so they can continue to sell at prices this low. 

I hope you enjoyed my take on an inspiring talk. My parting design question and challenge to readers:

How might we use IKEA’s principles in our own design and decision making processes?

Connect with me on LinkedIn if you are interested in discussing this further.

LinkedIn link: https://www.linkedin.com/in/zeke-condon/

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