Ikea’s Top Designer on the Gift of Failure and the Future of Democratic Design

Marcus Engman says Ikea is more than just a brand

IKEA

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands—As head designer at Ikea, Marcus Engman is responsible for managing a team of 20 designers who dream up and produce all the products Ikea brings to its shelves every year. At this week’s “What Design Can Do” conference here in Amsterdam (focused mostly on how designers can address climate change), Engman spoke about a concept that is key to Ikea’s design process.

It’s called “democratic design,” and it’s essentially a way of the life for the brand, based around five key design principles that are at the heart of every Ikea product. The principles are form, function, sustainability, quality and low price. In his keynote address, Engman explained the idea of democratic design through one of its recent products, the 365+ water carafe with a cork stopper.

It sells for $4.99 in the U.S. (an example of the low-price pillar of Ikea’s democratic design) and is made with a wide neck to fit ice cubes and is the perfect size to fit in any refrigerator across the world. Every decision that goes into making an Ikea product is purposeful and relies on those five key concepts.

Adweek caught up with Engman after his “What Design Can Do” keynote to talk more about the concept of democratic design, working as a young designer and his experience starring in an Ikea ad in the Netherlands.

Adweek: Where did the term democratic design come from?
Marcus Engman: There is a long history for the word. It was invented in 1995, within Ikea. We did a small booklet for internal reasons where we talked about how we do design at Ikea, and then we invented the wording. At that time, though, we only had three dimensions of democratic design. It was form, function and low price. Since then we have added talking about quality and sustainability as the five pillars of democratic design.

Marcus Engman
IKEA

When did you add quality and sustainability to the mix?
That was when I started, so five and a half years ago.

Why are those two things important to you, and Ikea?
It’s always been important. Being resource efficient has been an idea at Ikea since the start, but I think if you want to do great design these days, you can’t shy away from sustainability.

You have such a small team of 20 designers for the amount of products you make in a year. How do you pull that off?
Yeah, it’s really not very many designers, but working with product developers, we are at 2,000 people. It’s how we look at what to use designers for. The designers go in and out in a lot of projects, and the projects are led by product developers. A lot of the time the product developers have a designer’s degree, so they are educated as designers. They don’t work as designers but lead the projects from a design thinking point of view. That’s how we work, and then, of course, we collaborate with a lot of others. We work with over 100 freelance designers.

Where do you find your inspiration for design at Ikea?
It’s from so many places, but mostly it’s actually from people and doing home visits. Coming as close as possible to real people and finding out their needs. We talk about reaching people. That’s what everyone is doing, but I think it’s actually more important to side with people. It’s a big difference between trying to reach people and trying to side with them. We want to be on their level and really understand the how and why. The other inspiration is just that all of us love production. That’s a prerequisite for working at Ikea. You have to have a love for how production works, new ways of producing things and how we can make it better.

You mentioned in your keynote that you have to be OK with failure.
Yes, that’s the way we work, and I love that. Usually I say we are masters of making mistakes. I’ve been part of so many mistakes, but we are really good at learning. We are fast learners. It’s this culture of daring to make mistakes that makes us more innovative.

What advice would you give to a young creative who tries something, fails and feels discouraged by that?
If you try, you will fail. What else is there? The worst thing would be not trying.

I hear that you were in an Ikea ad recently. What was that like?
Somebody fooled me to be part of an ad in the Netherlands, actually. I was talking about democratic design and the importance of that. I’ve worked in communications all my life. That’s my background. I used to be marketing manager for Ikea. I wouldn’t say that I’m a firm believer in ad campaigns anymore. I’m more of a content-driven person. I think one of the best ways to explain how our company works is to show what we produce and how we do all this stuff and be totally transparent about that. That seems to work for us. Even if I am not in communications anymore, I think the way we do our range is contributing a lot to the identity of Ikea, it’s some kind of campaign without making campaigns.

So essentially you believe in just telling the story behind the creations?
Precisely.

Do you work with young designers?
I was in New York at Parsons a few weeks ago. We work a lot with schools around the world. We have six interns all the time and have project-based employees working with us all the time. Those are usually youngsters. I think it’s a good way. For me I am really interested in the way you set up education around design nowadays. There are some things I think could be better. So what can we, as a big company, add to the education for designers? I think it’s important to have that. We sit on a vast knowledge of how to incorporate production into design.

What advice would you give those young people looking to start their careers?
Lately there’s been so much talk about design thinking and conceptual thinking. My advice would be not to lose out on the craft of design. There is some of the old-school part that needs to marry the thinking part. You need to know what good looks like, as well as also being able to do the thinking and the processes. We have a tendency now to focus on the process part that we lost the craft. Keep the craft alive.

When it comes to climate change, how much is Ikea actively thinking about designing for the future?
It’s part of everyday work for every product we do. That’s what I love working for Ikea. We are a doer company, not a strategizing kind of company. We don’t talk so much. It’s not just something we say. We see that we use the right materials and production choices in everything that we do, but what lately has been the big thing we’ve been talking about is how we can cater for a behavior of change through our design. Also where we have to go with a far more circular approach on how to handle resources for the future because it’s already there, there’s a resource scarcity. So how can we take care of that? The only way is to work in a circular way, and we have both the means and scale to be at the forefront, of that so we’ve decided to be at the forefront of that.

What’s one of your favorite things Ikea has designed since you’ve been at the company?
One of the things I think is really interesting right now is a thing we are doing with Tom Dixon, which is sort of an open-sourced thinking, and how to get others on board on something that we have started. That’s a little bit of a new thinking for how to design within a company like ours. That, I think, is really inspiring. Then we are making endeavors into music, that’s coming up, and that’s going to be interesting, too.

What’s your favorite thing about the Ikea brand?
That it’s for real. That it’s not just a brand. I usually don’t talk about branding. I talk about personality. For me it’s all about that. I think that we are for real, and that’s what I love.