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

Headshot of Katie Richards

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

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.

@ktjrichards katie.richards@adweek.com Katie Richards is a staff writer for Adweek.