Designers in discussion on IKEA steps

The story of Democratic Design

Interview with Marcus Engman, Head of Design at IKEA

What do you mean when you say Democratic Design?
“Democratic Design is more than a catchphrase, it influences every step of the design process. Democratic Design is the backbone of IKEA, its heart and soul. It’s our tool to fulfil our vision – to create a better everyday life for the many people. In short, IKEA Democratic Design consists of five principles that help us develop and evaluate whether a product delivers on our vision. It’s our way of doing the impossible: making good design available to many people.”

What are the five principles, and what do they mean?
“They are form, function, quality, sustainability and low price. We want the form to contribute to making everyday life a little bit more joyful and beautiful. Function means that the product meets all the needs of everyday life. Quality means that our products last over time. And the low price makes the product accessible to all the many people. Lastly, sustainability is about much more than just the choice of material or how something is manufactured. We want to take long-term responsibility all the way from how we source the material, to the people who are producing it, and all the way on to the customer. We want to help people make sustainable choices that influence our future in a good way. Our goal is to create maximum value at minimum cost. And that involves a lot of hard work. We achieve low prices through material innovation, clever engineering, design, packaging and distribution. Many companies compete only with a low price. We want to create low price with meaning.”

Exterior view of IKEA of Sweden

Is any one of the five principles more important?
“No, the whole idea is to fulfil all five principles in one product. We can’t separate them if we want to contribute to something meaningful in people’s lives. You can’t compromise on quality to lower the price. It’s this impossible equation that inspires and challenges us. And it’s also the reason why it sometimes takes up to three years to develop a product. If it doesn’t live up to all five principles, it won’t go into production.”

But is it possible to create a really low price for a product that lives up to all the other demands?
“Yes it is. It’s just that it demands a great deal of innovation from our side. We need to turn every stone and find new ways of developing products. We need to try new methods, new materials. We need to think new. And we need to do it together with our suppliers, but also with our customers. We have to listen to our customers’ needs and at the same time explore our suppliers’ possibilities when it comes to inventing new techniques and solutions. And it’s only when we work together that we succeed in making better products. But it’s also important to note that almost none of our product development projects are linear. We make a lot of mistakes along the way.”


IKEA mugs with quotes

How do you handle mistakes?
“We see them as opportunities to develop. Its’ totally okay to make mistakes, the trick is to learn something from them. Okay, so this material didn’t work out, let’s try a totally different one. Innovation doesn’t come from doing things right. It’s when we do things wrong that we find new paths. Odd paths even. That’s one of the great things about being privately owned. We can be extremely long-term in our commitments. We’re a bit like Pippi Longstocking, but a company. No parent can tell us what to do, when to go to bed or how to act. If we believe it can create a better everyday life we’ll go ahead and do it. We can invest in innovations that sound insane today, but might help us all to create something new and better in the future. So, how do we handle mistakes? We treat them as a learning tool.”

How does Democratic Design work in everyday life at IKEA?
“It’s pretty much about having a dialogue all the way from the original idea to the reality on the factory floor, into the store and all the way to the customer. To turn an idea, a vision into reality, you need to be pretty dedicated, on the verge of being obsessed actually. It’s a huge challenge to deliver on the five principles of IKEA Democratic Design – form, function, quality, sustainability and low price. But it’s also very rewarding when we get it right. You need to be both systematic and chaotic in the process. And you need to ask a lot of questions along the way. Does humanity really need yet another cosy sofa? How can we minimise the use of resources? How can we be even more efficient when using materials? Can we prolong the life of a product, maybe use it again by altering it? One of the most exciting ways to answer questions is to innovate, to think differently from the very start.”

Have you always worked like this?
“More or less. There is a heritage that has been built on along the way. Form, function and a low price have been with us from day one. Using resources as cleverly as possible is part of our DNA. Back in the ’60s we didn’t talk about sustainability the way we do today, but the idea of Democratic Design has always been the starting point for us: Why is good design only accessible to a few people?”

Design furniture at the Democratic Design Day

Do all IKEA products live up to the five principles of Democratic Design?
“Well no, they don’t. Solutions that we were happy with a few years ago aren’t always that great now. We go through the product range every year and modify or take away those products that don’t live up to the five principles of Democratic Design. We develop the whole time. It has taken us 70 years to get to where we are now. And we’re far from done here.”

What does the future look like for Democratic Design? What is the biggest challenge?
“We want to look at the bigger picture, rather than just making products. What is a home? How do you furnish it? Can we create architecture? We’ve applied the principles of Democratic Design to food – and it worked out fine. It ought to be applicable to many other areas. Our challenge in the future isn’t to sell more products to the same people. It’s to create a better everyday life for everyone, not just in the Western world. We know that needs far exceed our small contributions. To reach all of these people we might need to try a totally new business model. Perhaps owning things isn’t the best and most sustainable way to organise your life and home. Imagine if the idea of Democratic Design could reach out beyond IKEA. Imagine if these five principles – form, function, quality, sustainability and low price – could be translated into other areas like governments, schools and other companies. Then we all could contribute to creating a better everyday life for everybody. Together.”

Portrait image of Marcus Engman

You can find out more about democratic design in this interview

Tags: Democratic Design Democratic Design Days Marcus Engman

Inter IKEA Systems B.V. 2018