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Pragmatic Inspiration

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Pragmatic Inspiration

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Making pretty designs is not difficult; making them good and inexpensive is an art. For 70 years the world's biggest furniture brand has been surprising consumers with sensible, stylish designs created within strict limitations.

Pragmatic Inspiration

By Yueh-Lin Ma
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 526 )

Sarah Fager, a 35 year-old in-house product designer for IKEA of Sweden, returned from maternity leave just two months ago. Foremost in her mind is the wellbeing of her two little daughters, ages one and two.

"I'm not the least bit concerned when I see my two year-old daughter with these scissors, because I know they're just right for her little hands. She can cut whatever she wants without hurting herself." Working together with a designer in Britain, Fager developed the Måla creative arts and crafts series for children over a three-year period.

Fager showed this writer colored pens, brushes, scissors, and stamp pens. Picking up a colored pen and removing the cap, she pointed out a small hole in the cap that would prevent total blockage of the air passage in the event that a child accidently swallowed it.

The Måla series is Fager's proudest accomplishment in her six years at IKEA, because it realizes three crucial principles: "respecting children's creativity, reinforcing their independence, and assuring safety." The most expensive product in the entire series, an easel, sells for just US$14.99.

No Prima Donnas Allowed

"It's actually easy to make pretty designs. What's difficult is making good designs within all kinds of limitations," Fager explains. For IKEA designers the top challenge is low price.

IKEA's product specifications are directed by product developers, who set highly detailed requirements. From the start, all designs take into account a specified price.

Designers are compelled to look for the right materials and suppliers to suit a given price range to develop product functions, quality, and sustainability. "At IKEA we're not stars," Fager asserts. No one has the luxury of exercising creative abandon.

Designers are not stars, and design begins with pricing. The world's biggest furniture brand, with 342 outlets in 41 countries around the world, IKEA has been exceeding expectations for 70 years.

All over the globe, IKEA is like Sweden's cultural ambassador, exporting an image of minimalist, light, natural, stylish Scandinavian domesticity, from the company's stores to its catalogues.

However, following a bus trip from the Copenhagen airport past Malmo and across the Øresund Bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark, arriving at IKEA's headquarters in Almhult is quite a surprise.

It is difficult to imagine that IKEA rose up from this tiny town of 15,000 people with poor soil, vast grassy fields and low stone walls to become a global behemoth with annual turnover of 27.5 billion euros.

Minimal, Inexpensive, Not Wasteful

IKEA brings out around 9500 products each year. The company's spacious showrooms direct shoppers one-way through the displays, attracting them with varied interior spaces, stimulating people's imaginations towards lifestyle moods, like a playground for adults and children alike.

But when it comes to corporate culture and management approach, imagination is well grounded.

"We're already so globalized. If you were born in New York and work in Shanghai, how do you get to know the culture of this Swedish brand?" asks Anders Malmqvist, director of the Inter IKEA Culture Center AB.

Some of the employees at IKEA's world headquarters are third- and fourth-generation staff. Noting this asset, the company established the IKEA Culture Center at its headquarters three years ago. To date it has hosted 50,000 workers from around the globe to discuss such ideas as "what is minimalism" and "satisfying people's needs with low pricing."

"We hate waste," IKEA Group president and CEO, Mikael Ohlsson, exclaimed in an interview with The Economist.

The company encourages designers to keep finding new approaches, like packing methods to squeeze double the number of sofas in the same space, reducing transportation costs and environmental impact.

A Conversation with 200 Million Consumers

Constantly seeking better uses for materials and innovative packaging and shipping methods to reduce the cost of merchandise is IKEA's secret to beautiful design. On top of that, the company really knows how to talk to consumers.

IKEA began circulating free catalogues to consumers in 1951. Issued each July or August, the IKEA catalogue is for many people a source of inspiration for creating their own lifestyle and designing their own home. Now issued in 29 different languages, its worldwide circulation exceeds 200 million copies.

It is hard to imagine that, whilst IKEA has over 100 contracted freelance designers, the company only employs 11 in-house designers. In contrast, it uses a veritable army of 250 people to compile its catalogue. Although over 50 of those are freelance designers, the figures speak to how seriously IKEA takes the company catalogue as a means for disseminating information.

The power of a conventional catalogue printed on paper is that people can hold it and read it, relates Anne-Lene Wold, IKEA's interior design manager in charge of global catalogue and website production. With their catalogue, IKEA enters people's homes. They appear in mailboxes, and seek out the consumer, a much more active approach than an Internet website, which passively waits for users to visit. The catalogue serves the role of inspiring consumers, so that when they plan to decorate their home to think of IKEA.

Attuned to Local Needs

"Did you assume there's just one annual catalogue?" Wold asks. In fact, the IKEA catalogue comes in many different international editions with different content. Whatever style is en vogue this year – mix and match fashion or ethnic chic – the main themes of low prices, small spaces, and refreshing tidiness always run through everything.

IKEA does in fact make slight adjustments tailored to different markets. For instance, the Japanese catalogue takes into account the tatami style prevalent in Japanese architecture, anticipating accordingly spatial layout and storage issues. The result is that consumers feel that "IKEA understands me."

In order to get close to the market the IKEA catalogue always features models from a mixture of ethnic backgrounds, rather than typical Nordic blondes with blue eyes. "And the models are all IKEA employees or their friends and family. Everybody lines up looking to model for us," adds Wold with a chuckle.

Anticipation of different customer needs is evident beyond the catalogue presentation, in product development. For instance, while Italians like to hang their clothing up, Americans prefer to fold clothes and put them away. Consequently, large drawers are a prerequisite of the dressers IKEA sells in the United States.

Just this past June, IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad announced his resignation from the board, passing on operation of the company to his youngest son, Mathias, and moving back to his native Sweden after 40 years of residence in Switzerland to avoid Sweden's high taxation.

Kamprad, now 87, is reputedly so frugal that he was reluctant to retire an old jalopy he had driven for over a decade, and he even collects discount coupons. He retains control of IKEA through a network of trust funds to try and keep the company in private hands and avoid an acquisition or takeover by outsiders.

An oil painting in the IKEA Museum, a gift from a former Soviet astronaut, depicts the first IKEA store on the moon.

However, it is not necessary to wait for an IKEA moon landing for great honor and distinction, as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has enlisted IKEA to produce more robust and practical temporary shelters for the world's refugees.

Putting its design acumen into action, IKEA developed a modular house that is flat-packed for easy distribution and can be assembled within four hours, without using any tools. The roofs are outfitted with solar panels to generate electricity, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees relates that it is looking forward to reducing the cost of the modular homes from US$8000 to $1000 per unit.

Finding solutions through design despite huge limitations should not stump IKEA.

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman


IKEA in Brief

Founded in 1943 in by Ingvar Kamprad of Sweden, now with 342 stores in 41 countries worldwide.

Number of employees: 153,000

Catalogue circulation: 212 million copies

Number of visitors in 2012: 776 million

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