Last summer, when my parents came to the US for my graduation, they were comically excited to visit an IKEA store. I resisted the idea until the end (giving in, eventually) as I could not comprehend how they planned to carry all that back with them to India. (I’m currently back home, sitting on an IKEA chair. Don’t ask.)
I had been in the States for 2 years by then but had never visited an IKEA store before. I either had my furniture delivered (hey Wayfair) or was handed over a furnished room. Despite that, I did not hear the end of all things IKEA. From its minimalist chairs to its delectable in-store meatballs, the company was a beloved b-school example, for students and professors alike, using it efficiently to answer a question that might have caught them off guard.
Intrigued by my folk’s excitement for the blue and yellow, I decided to dive into what is essentially a one-stop-shop for anyone, from an 18 y/o freshman to a newly married couple, who is looking to set up anyplace from a dorm room to a penthouse.
And what I stumbled upon blew my mind.
To me, Sweden always came across as a first world outfit where people are chilled to their bone and are happy out of their minds. But a lesser-known fact is that this little block of land has produced some of the most resonating companies of our age. IKEA, H&M & Spotify to name a few.
Again, Why Sweden!?
How does a nation with such a high tax rate and a seemingly satisfied people, who from the outset might seem complacent at best, produce the second-highest number of billion-dollar tech startups, per capita, in the world? (#1 Silicon Valley)
Let's see why….
For one, Swedes are an opportunistic lot. Age does not deter them from taking a plunge and pursuing on their own. Such an appetite for risk is enabled by the fact that the country backs its citizens with a very solid social system, boasts full employment, upholds gender equality, and provides for everything from free education to fully paid healthcare. This allows entrepreneurs more bandwidth to wiggle and take risks without worrying about the livelihood of their own and their loved ones.
Secondly, the majority of the population, under the age of 40, grew up with a computer at their disposal. This allowed them to take complete advantage when the government timed its reforms and tax breaks with the internet boom. This, complemented with laws that eased the route for international companies to operate and invest in Sweden, created a lucrative environment for citizens to start on their own and add to the economy with speedy job creation, which in turn fuelled consumption.
In the past two decades, Swedes have built an impression to embrace the idea of creative destruction, which entails that something new is always built upon existing technology, and calls for the destruction of something old and redundant. On top of that, Sweden has managed to build an elaborate system to prevent the creation of monopolies. These measures range from public sector deregulation, privatization of services in the social space, and easing the process for new companies to obtain licenses while blocking mega-mergers within large industries. Amongst other pros, such measures greatly reduced the barriers for new entrants in the economy.
On a macro level, all these measures were followed by a cut in the corporate tax rate from 52% to 30%. The premise that such a measure spurred economic growth is debatable, but it surely motivated the people to keep their money within the country. This cut was complemented with a reduction in inheritance and wealth tax allowing people to earn, retain and pass on their estates, which could then be invested within the country.
And lastly, the size of Sweden as a country allowed for a swift and free flow of information between established businesses and individuals/small firms with entrepreneurial aspirations. Such an exchange always empowers entrants, enabling them to learn from the mistakes made by the older kids on the block.
Despite the fact that the inception of IKEA predates all of these developments, it gives us an idea of the inherent mindset of the Swedes. This provides us a window into the mind of one of the most inspiring entrepreneurial stories of our time, that of Ingvar Kamprad, and his then little venture, IKEA, that is today present in 50+ countries, with nearly 400 stores has become one of the most respected and valued private firms in the world.
The Soul Of An IKEA Product
The backbone of IKEA is its philosophy of “Democratic Design”, which at its core, comprises five values. Form. Function. Quality. Sustainability. Low Price.
A product designed by brands like IKEA serves at the center of a user’s everyday life. You do not switch your dining table every month. You’re not moving your sofa around every week. Thus, when designing such products, it is imperative for designers to build products that…
…are a combination of quality and function that exceed expectations
…..are sustainable beyond the factory floor, enabling the user to lead a more sustainable life on an everyday basis
…..create a product that stuns and makes the customer as well as the builder happy and,
…..provide the product at the lowest price possible so that as many customers as possible can afford it.
These values have stood the test of time, flowing through the minds of hundreds of talented individuals within the offices of IKEA, all artists in their own way, bringing heaps of talent with a pinch of stubbornness to the table. One way in which IKEA enables this transition is by rethinking traditional workspaces. Business problems and functions are seldom linear in nature. They require multiple departments and different hats to work on the smallest of problems. Traditional work-spaces, or workspaces that are spread apart, do not facilitate such collaboration and add a ton of lead time while making decisions. IKEA worked on building a workspace that was proactive in nature, providing employees with a silo free hands-on environment that allowed for a swift exchange of information. It built pockets for brainstorming and boundless thinking, as well as secluded spots that are quite essential for reflection and focus thinking. IKEA puts the Swedish mentality of promoting an uninterrupted flow of information and thoughts, to very good use.
A classic is always defined in retrospect
The world of design is in constant alteration. Companies are thinking about design in a completely different way than their counterparts did 20 years ago. Brands today, from fashion to furniture, seek to find a balance between the induction of nouvelle designs, and their age-old classics (slightly tweaked, if need be). Let’s take the example of IKEA. At any given time, IKEA has a large number of passionate designers collaborating and prototyping new items to make our lives easier and more fun.
Meanwhile, the rest of the company’s machinery works night and day to fulfill the demand for IKEA’s timeless classics, such as the KLIPPAN sofa or the POÄNG armchair.
And this got me wondering that, despite the availability of state of the art smart furniture, why are buyers gladly picking away basic FROSTA Stools? Such behavior can be partially explained by the phenomenon of the paradox of choice. On a daily basis, a person skims through a million and one options while deciding what to watch, what to eat, what to buy, etc. Such constant decision making takes a toll on their minds, and if and when a brand provides them with options that they are familiar with, they do not think twice before investing in them. (Wonder why so may OTTs are paying hundreds of billions for TV shows from the past?)
Shaping Society With A Table
Our lives today are fast and in constant flux. Our activities and our mindset have become individualistic, the value of our time has suddenly appreciated way too much. And as we gulp copious amounts of information about worldly happenings, we pay negligible attention to the closest that live around us, our family.
Posing this as a design problem, IKEA came out with the KUNGSBACKA.
This dining table was made with an aim to be a ‘fluid’ piece of furniture. Apart from allowing the entire family to dine on it, its frugality and ergonomics transform the table into a social hub for the family. The kids use it to finish the next day’s assignment while the parents hastily wrap up their day’s emails. The design of this product adds layers of diversity, which in turn makes it a pivotal device holding the family together.
The idea of creating products that can have multifold use cases should be at the core of our designing effort. Make your creation fluid. (Good example: Athleisure) Dynamic products allow for a lesser number of items to be owned, and a no compromise on quality mindset will become the new normal.
This also enables users to save space, money and time for richer experiences. One can appreciate the beauty of multifunctional products in something as simple as a Bowl, which serves to be so much more functional than a plate. This is a good example of how basic products are reinvented to fit in with the behavioral and lifestyle changes in the population.
As more and more people eat on the go or on the couch, while storing away leftovers in the refrigerator, it is vital for designers to think of a ‘fluid’ container that can adapt to this new lifestyle.
When we are developing something, may it be baking a cake or designing a dress, the majority of our focus goes into looking at the single-dimensional beauty of a product, that is, how it looks from the front to the top.
But products have a multidimensional existence.
It attracts attention from all angles, and as a designer, it is our duty to give it an aesthetic appeal from all angles. Lest it will borrow some AWAY from the surroundings it lives in.
“With that in mind, she looks as good from the back as she does from the front”
SUSTAINABLE SUSTAINABILITY: The 1€ LED
Sustainability has always come at a cost. It is not entirely accessible to people from all walks of life, simply because it is too expensive, too often. At the IKEA HQ, Ivan passed on this problem to a young designer, in the form of a challenge to design a LED bulb for 1€.
As designers across the world tread on this path, one key idea to be kept in mind is not to compromise on the quality of the base component, which will eventually reward by allowing us to reduce other ancillary costs that we would otherwise have to incur to make the product function efficiently.
Did you notice MY furniture?
People are tired of having to choose from products that are ‘one size fits all’. They want a pinch of ‘them’ in products and experiences they invest in. Adding a flair of imperfection into our creative process can produce the much-desired feel of personalization by turning “defect into effect”. This was one of the essential traits of the collaboration between renowned designer Piet Han Eek and IKEA, namely INDUSTRIELL collection.
To achieve this on an industrial scale, the team went ahead with production using five casts instead of one for products and leaving some unfinished business on others. This enabled the designer to give every product a distinct personality and the buyer a sense of an intimacy with it.
And this is one of the core premises of Batik design, an art form that I, at my company, practice. With consumers surrounded by industrially produced garments that are perfected to the final thread, these products often feel like they have just come off the conveyer belt. On the other hand, the process and designs of batik stand out amongst these. No two pieces made with batik prints look or feel the same. The owner feels that sense of personalization with the product.
As I end this piece, I’d like to mention and recommend the book that inspired me to write this piece. IKEA DEMOCRATIC DESIGN is a book by the company that highlights the stories behind the development of some of their products.
As you take these ideas back to the drawing board for your next project, remember that with every item that you design, cook or build for someone else, you give away a little bit of you in it. And that little bit is what will truly define the product.
Thanks for reading.