To be creative, you need to be curious first: Marcus Engman

When we at Freshworks reached out to Marcus Engman, the former head of design at iconic furniture maker IKEA who now runs Skewed, and told him about our initiative, Indian Democratic Design, he said he was “happy” to see Democratic Design — as envisioned by Philippe Starck and perfected by IKEA — “growing into a global movement.” 

Indeed, he went a step further and agreed to share some key insights from his IKEA stint at Refresh19, our recently held gathering of customers and partners at Las Vegas.

One of the first things Marcus mentioned was the word Älmhult. It means little when you first hear it — but transforms into something highly significant when you realize it’s the name of a little place in Sweden where IKEA was born. Yes, that’s where 2,000 new IKEA products are developed each year — the ones for which 900 million people flock to the company’s stores. These products also bring about 2.5 billion click-happy visitors to the IKEA website.

Marcus went on to share four practices that have made IKEA successful and that still keep it going the way it does, the Democratic Design way. Here are edited excerpts from what Marcus said in his keynote at Refresh 19.

Number one, I think [it is important] to be a company with a vision and a business idea which is not all about business or making money or selling stuff — but which has a vision with empathy at the core. And IKEA’s vision is to “create a better everyday life for the many people”. So everybody has to strive for this every day; no matter how good you are, you could always become better. So I think this is like one of the major tricks for IKEA and everybody knows this vision within the company as well.

Curiosity is key to creativity

Secondly, I think that most people regard IKEA as quite an innovative and creative company. To be creative you need to be curious first because if you’re not curious you’re never going to be creative. So to have a curiosity-driven approach for everybody working within the company is really, really important. And how do you do that? One of the things is to be extremely interested in your customers like Freshworks. What we did within IKEA is not just rely on normal research from other big research companies. We went home to people every year — everybody within IKEA does this: no matter where you work within IKEA you do home visits where you interview people, where you actually live together with people in their homes to get to know [them], to make them share what are the problems, because problems are the business ideas of the future.

I remember when we started out in India a couple of years ago, we actually did more than a thousand home visits to India just to learn what’s different. How do we adapt to India in a good way? What could we learn as IKEA? One of the things we learned, which I think is kind of funny, is the way people wash or clean their homes in a lot of places by using a lot of water. And of course, IKEA furniture was not designed for that kind of cleaning environment. So what we needed to actually do to make our furniture better was to encapsulate the legs of everything, to invent new lacquers and new foil techniques to be able to do that. And then, if you would have been a normal company you would have stayed with those things within India because that’s typically for the Indian market. But we saw that bringing that to the rest of the world would make IKEA pieces of furniture better in the rest of the world as well. So taking learnings in different parts of the world and making them global — that’s one of the ideas and is part of the curiosity-driven approach.

Democratic Design as a language

Now, if you want to be a design-led company — and IKEA wanted to be a design-led company — then you have to find ideas that you could come together about. Democratic Design was actually introduced more like a tool for product development from the very beginning but what we understood along the way was that this is not [just] a tool. It’s actually a language. It’s a common language around design that makes design important for everybody within the company no matter if you work with sales or if you’re an engineer, a designer, or an interior designer. You could talk about products in the same way. The way we talk about it at IKEA was those five pillars [of Democratic Design]: form, function, quality, sustainability, and low price. And of course, you can see that the different pillars attract different parts of a company. It makes people come together to solve that impossible thing, the impossible task of making a product which contains all five.

I’ll take you through an example. This is one of my favorite products — a water carafe. It doesn’t look like much but it is so good. First of all, the starting point for this water carafe was not to make a water carafe. It was actually to make people use more tap water instead of buying water in bottles. So that was the starting point for the project. If you look upon the form of this one, most water carafes have a narrow neck just because you want to have that, you know, [traditional] cluck-cluck sound when you pour water because that sounds nice, but there are many drawbacks to that. Usually, it makes the body a little bit more fat. What we started doing was actually how could we make people use more tap water: in most countries except for China maybe you want the tap water to be cold. So you have your water carafe inside of your fridge and in the fridge you have it mostly in the doors. That’s what we saw from all of our home visits. So what are the sizes of the doors? We researched all of the door sizes of fridges all around the world to get the right kind of diameter that made the shape of this carafe. On top of that, then, you have the function. Function, if you’re a Scandinavian designer, goes very well together with the form always and the shape is also actually from out of the function. We saw that one of the problems with not using water carafes and buy bottled water is actually that it is hard to clean a lot of the water carafes. So could we make one which is easy to clean? And that’s all about the neck, to widen the neck a little bit and to make the height right for being upside down in a dishwasher.

When it comes to quality, we said from the very beginning that we want something which should be long-lasting and age in a beautiful way. So glass is a super good material. It’s also sustainable and on top of that, what would make the perfect stopper that has been used as a stopper for all of those years? Cork, of course. Everybody understands that cork is a stopper and cork also happened to be, from an IKEA point of view, a really good material at the time since all of the wineries had started using plastics or screw corks and there was too much cork in the world — and the cork industry didn’t harvest the cork from out of the trees as they should. If you don’t harvest the cork from the trees, every six-year or so the trees will die and you will not be able to harvest at all. And, of course, since there was too much cork out there, the prices were low and IKEA loves low prices. Sustainability wise, too, cork is a really good material since it is a natural material and you could reuse it over and over again.

[Now], if you have such a great water carafe or such a great idea in terms of design, you want to make it accessible to the world. And we have learned over 70 years or so within IKEA that the number one thing to actually solve if you want to work toward accessibility is to lower the threshold for people. Make it possible to buy good design.

Design and communication work together

There’s a saying that marketing is dead. I also believe that marketing is kind of dead in the old way. I believe in sharing. I believe in transparency instead and telling it how it is. So instead of, you know, [first] doing products, then the product developers and designers brief some kind of marketing department about what the intents were with this product and then the marketing department briefs an agency…Some kind of a whispering game, you know, and everything happens afterward when everything is ready.

What about starting from the very beginning? Sharing what you do and, say, design and communication going hand in hand? So when you start off doing your design development and your communication, you actually start off sharing from the very beginning. And we have five different phases we talk about. A common starting point where you actually agree upon what you want to do, then we talk about claiming the idea, that is, to tell the market from the very beginning we’re going to do this, we’re going to do this in this way, we haven’t done it yet. What’s good with that is if you say that you’re going to do something, you have to do it. So it makes the organization deliver and deliver faster. Then we share the process. Take them along to all of the trips to Vietnam or to the United States and the production sites or meet the designers…actually, have your collaboration partners or your external designers talk about how good the process has been and how good it is to work with IKEA and how good this product is and the idea behind it is — and then you launch it.

This means it’s actually six times that you talk about the product instead of once when you just launched it [straightaway]. This means that you ramp up the interest before your sales start and this means that you won’t need as much marketing at the end.

Not just make things — make things better

Now, in the next phase of my life, I work with democratic designers and I work with those tools every day. I have my own agency, Skewed, and what we do is actually three different things: one part is an agency, another part is a small media thing, and the third part is our own brand. We say that we’re not in the business of making things: we’re in the business of making things better — that’s a huge difference. I’m not interested in products; I’m interested in change. I want to change stuff. Sometimes, change comes out of products. Sometimes, it comes from other ideas. Among others, we’re working with a company called Unyq and we’re rethinking stigmas through how to design prosthetics in a completely new way, building a value chain that is totally digitalized. Everything is done with generative design tools and by actually cooperating together with the end-user. For instance, we use this generative design tool that uses biometrics and turns that [material] into a brace for scoliosis — which is really a big stigma for young girls in the world. And it looks beautiful at the end of the day. (Editor’s note: scoliosis is an irregular curvature of the spine.)

We are also taking that line of thinking into gaming gear as well, to tackle the huge ergonomic problems that gamers face. Another thing we’re working on with Democratic Design thinking is actually fish. You know, one of the biggest shifts in the world is going to be the protein shift and everybody is talking about vegetables. But one of the most efficient ways [of getting protein] is fish. So to find new ways to introduce fish to people and to package it in a more sustainable way is also something that we work on.