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Creating a Democratic Design Process

Creating a Democratic Design Process

The not-for-profit Swedish furniture retailer IKEA was founded in 1943 by 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad. IKEA designs and sells ready-to-assemble furniture, appliances and other home goods. They own and operate 411 stores in 49 countries with annual revenue of approximately 42 billion dollars (US$42 billion 2021).

Ingvar launched IKEA as a company to provide home goods necessary to rebuild post-WWII Europe. His idea for distribution was revolutionary at the time: The company would design and sell packaged furniture that a buyer could pick up from a distribution center. This was a huge change in the traditional retail model where consumers would typically go to a furniture showroom and purchase pre-built furniture. This self-serve model allowed IKEA to more cost-effectively provide goods to buyers.

Since it was such a shift in the customer furniture buying experience, IKEA’s designers were given a mandate to create low-cost products that could fit into a flat box with simple pictograph instructions. Customers would pick up the boxes at a warehouse, take their purchases home, and assemble the products.

Nearly every aspect of IKEA’s business model grew out of experimental responses to customer problems. “Customer pickup” (where customers pull their own boxes from warehouse shelves) was created in response to an inability for employees to meet customer demand at the warehouse. Kamprad regarded “every problem as a possibility,” focusing less on control and getting it right the first time and more on learning, seeing, and responding to emerging opportunities based on customer needs.

Today, IKEA’s design thinking process, called “democratic design” is focused on five principles: form, function, sustainability, quality, and low price. Every product design decision made at IKEA aligns to these pillars.

In a 2015 interview with IKEA’s head of design Marcus Engman, he shared IKEA’s design process. At IKEA product development starts in the home. IKEA’s designers go on home visits with real customers to find out what their needs are. Through that engagement they gain a better understanding of what is important to customers and inspiration for developing new products. And they ask: How can we solve for everyday life in a little smarter way?

In design thinking, this is part of the EMPATHIZE process: finding opportunities for new solutions (anything from product to service design) by talking to and observing users or customers. They implemented experiments in response to those needs in a test-and-learn process, scaling up the experiment if successful.