Bringing home the practical wisdom of Scandinavian design

Global Design Studio Scandinavia | University of Technology, Sydney


In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.

I have just completed the first semester of the first year of my Bachelor of Design in Integrated Product Design Bachelor of Creative Intelligence and Innovation (IPD/BCII) at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS).

In one of the subjects just completed, Inside Design, I made a design goal map which outlined what I wanted to achieve in the future as a designer. I want to design anti-fragile product systems that thrive amidst the volatility of the complex ecosystems we live in.

Time is a primary source of volatility. Things change over time. Fragile systems break with the passing of time. Systems that are not harmed or benefitted by this are said to be robust to time. Systems that become better or thrive with this are anti-fragile to time.

I see Scandinavian design as distinct body of design practice that not only has withstood the test of time but is thriving. Design movements and fads have come and gone. Yet we seem to value more (not less) the functional simplicity of Scandinavian design. That is why I jumped at the opportunity when the first ever Global Studio Scandinavia was offered as an elective. In this reflective essay, I describe highlights of the design practices we observed in our field trip to Scandinavia. I then reflect on what I can take away from these observations to incorporate into my own anti-fragile design practice.

Itinerary Global Studio Scandinavia 2015
Date Place Activity
Copenhagen, Denmark
Index: Design to Improve Life® Talk
The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts | Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation Tour & discussion with head of product design department
Design Museum Denmark Visit
The David Collection Visit
Almhult, Sweden
IKEA® Headquarters Älmhult Tour of exhibition, facilities and meet up with designer and range & design manager
Gothenburg, Sweden
Volvo Museum Visit
Stockholm, Sweden
Electrolux Headquarters Presentation by Vice President Major Appliances EMEA Group Design
Helsinki, Finland
Aalto University Design Factory Visit, discussion & workshop

My journey into Scandinavian design

I've admired Scandinavian design for quite a while now. I've even bought a number of pricey Danish furniture. Of course, I've also been through a number of affordable IKEA® furniture. It's one thing to admire Scandinavian design from afar simply as a consumer. It is quite another thing to go there with eyes of a design detective trying to figure out what makes it tick. One thing'sfor sure: this trip to Scandinavia has opened my eyes to possibilities and given me seeds to plant into the developing ground of my own design practice.

Index: Design to Improve Life®

The Index design awards cover product design in the broadest sense of the word - way beyond what was traditionally regarded as industrial design. The five award categories pretty much cover every aspect of the good life: body; home; work; play; and community. The winning entries shown and discussed by Vittoria Casanova (our host) sparked my design brain to really look beyond wanting to design the next iPhone. There are a host of ‘wicked problems’ out there in the world where I could apply the all the design thinking, process, skills and tools I pick up from my IPD/BCII studies.

Students sitting around a table watching a presentation
Figure 1: presentation and discussion at Index

A couple of examples. In the body category, there was the Yellow One Needle Cap. It was a dead simple, sustainable solution to disease transmission caused by ‘needle-stick’ injuries. A yellow cap of heavy molded plastic that fits securely on a average soda drink to dispose of used needles safely. The design was borne out of the designer's own experience of ‘needle-stick’ infection injury as a Vietnamese refugee in camp in Singapore.

In the community category, there was the Smart Highway. Lots of money have been poured to make smart cars but not so much to make the largest infrastructure dumb roads smart by embedding technology that can visually communicate road conditions to the drivers as well as generate its own electricity.

I found Index's mission statement succint and powerful: ‘we inspire, educate, and engage people to design sustainable solutions to global challenges’. The way they designed their offices in Fæstningens Materialgård — a former military storage facility — is also congruent with their mission statement.

The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts | Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation (KADK)

KADK was born out of a merger between the Royal Academy's school of architecture, Danish design school and school of conservation. Our host professor Troels Degn Johansson spoke about the close cooperation between engineering, design, and architecture schools and KADK's strength in practice based research for postgraduates. KADK's stated DNA is the union of three fields of knowledge: academic research, artistic research and professional practice.

Professor Johansson and students at Codesign space
Figure 2: Prof Johansson talking about KADK's Codesign Programme

Of particular interest to me is KADK's Codesign Masters Programme where product designers have to engage in open collaborations with a network of non-designers. The programme combines codesigner research (sketching, making, generative prototyping, collaborative inquiries & critical exploration of possible futures) with studio-based teaching and real life assignments with external partners. Codesign appears to have similar traits as the BCII component of my double bachelor's degree at UTS. Hence, the possibility of a post-graduate continuation at the KADK has opened in the horizon with this visit.

KADK is a relatively small school in terms of student numbers. What stood out for me was the breadth and quality of spaces and facilities for students. Design students have their own permanent space where they can house their works in progress. KADK is another Danish institution whose beautiful premises benefitted from the conservation and conversion of former military facilities.

Design Museum Denmark

The ‘Utopia and Reality in 20th Century Craft and Design’ exhibition showed me that the revered giants of Scandinavian design can be read as to have taken part in a 100 year grand movement: in the dreams and visions of a better society— utopias. These include the hope that crafts, design, and architecture could act as gateways to a better world.

70s rum & pop design interiors with red hues
Figure 3: interior and product design in 20th century Utopia & reality

In short: designs are not just designs, there are stories behind them. The exhibition tells the story of a 20th century characterised by:

  • progress and speed;
  • but also dreams of slowing down; and
  • pausing in the midst of waves of development.

I see these story themes still very much relevant to our 21st century—if not more so.

Last semester, I completed the subject Design Thinking where one of the key things I learned was that as I designer I should not only find my own design language within the contemporary landscape but I must also look to the past and find my place in the flow of design time and history. This visit to Design Museum Denmark should prepare me well for Researching Design History next semester.

I was fascinated to see the work of Arne Jacobsen. It was interesting to note how his 1929 ‘House of the Future’ caused ‘shocked outrage and enthusiasm in equal measure’. I believe his vision of the future has arrived at least in Sydney. This house with a helipad and speedboat mooring is now the coveted style by the most affluent in Sydney's north shore and eastern suburbs. What was more interesting to me is how after World War II, the severity of his style of modernist anonymous industrial products was tempered with a more organic aethestic from his interest in botany. Thanks to this, we now have the ‘Drop’, ‘Swan’ and ‘Egg’ chairs.

designer chairs exhibited in museum pedestal
Figure 4: The Ant stackable chair and its siblings

This organic modernist design is exemplified in Jacobsen's ‘the ant’ stacking chair—the first chair with seat and back in one piece and the first successful Danish mass-produced chair. Several iterations of the design have been made. Speaking of anti-fragility: more then 7 million of these chairs have been produced. It continues to be produced today.

Another highlight for me was the exhibition of Kare Klint's work and work-in-progress sketches. He was more anti-fragile than the revolutionary industrial modernists. Although he worked analytically and systematically, he did not want to throw away all the learning of the past. Instead he built up and found inspiration from the past and outside Denmark, such as 18th century English furniture making. His projects were also mostly in collaboratin with his students. This echoes the master-apprentice system of the artisan past. It was also said that he put emphasis on practice and on learning by doing.

pencil sketch of furniture design and human measurements
Figure 5: Kare Klint's furniture design sketch

A lot has been said in the first semester of my design studies about the importance of process and documentation of process. It has been hammered into us to have a design journal, to sketch all the time. So it was heartening to see an exhibit of Klint's sketches, drawings and prototypes. It validates the importance of understanding why a designer made an object in a particular way — it is not enough to just see the finished product.

After seeing this exhibition, what made Danish design so distinctive, to me, is that their designers did not just follow the wholesale doctrine of austere modernism and functionalism as practiced in the continent such as the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier's urbanism. Rather, they tempered it with Danish traditional craftsmanship and the designers' interests in organic forms.

The David Collection

Speaking of the distant past, my visit to the David Collection was such a personal eye opening experience. Prior to this visit, I don't think that I have seen an exhibition of Islamic art as such. The museum's Islamic collection is very extensive and well curated. It was for me like an intensive history lesson in Islamic history— from the founding of the religion in Medina up to the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Page showing Islamic caligraphy and illustration
Figure 6: story of Noah's ark as depicted in Islamic art & calligraphy

Seeing the exhibition made me realise that for centuries a large part of the world was under Islamic rule. Islamic dynasties ruled from the Middle East to the Mediterranean, Afghanistan, Northern India, Central Asia, North Africa, the Iberian peninsula, even up to central France. Literature, philosophy, the arts and natural science flourished under the caliphates primarily because for the most part, Christians, Jews and people of other religions were allowed to keep their faith and way of life as long as they paid tax to their Islamic rulers. So there was a lot of trading and exchange of culture happening during these times—for example during the ‘Pax Ottomana’.

The Islamic tolerance of the past is a far cry from the current brand of Islam pushed by th fundamentalists, and the carricature portrayed by western media. It made me wonder if there is any design inspired solution to counter this wicked problem of fundamentalist religion inspired violence, intolerance, and unfair treatment of women and other oppressed groups.

IKEA® Headquarters Älmhult

With some controversial articles about IKEA® floating around in my social media feed, it was good to get a peek behind the scenes; to get to know its origins; see how all those flat-packed furniture get conceived and designed. IKEA® is scheduled to open a huge museum in 2016. In the meantime we saw the ‘IKEA® Through the Ages’ exhibition at their Tillsammans (corporate culture center)— which will seed the future museum's collection.

Ikea founder and his business idea to offer a wide range of well-designed functional home furnishing
							products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.
Figure 7: Ingvar Kamprad's IKEA® Business Idea

The exhibition showed IKEA®'s humble beginnings in post-war Småland to a global company that has redefined and continues to redefine the home furnishing industry. IKEA® founder Ingvar Kamprad's business idea back in 1943 still rings true today; quite visible and palpable in their corporate culture and design process.

It was interesting to know that the entrepreneurial Ingvar first started to supply whatever the farmers needed in the Älmhult area via catalogue orders. After supplying a variety of goods, he looked at selling furniture as there was a lot of woods in the area out of which the local craftsmen in the area made furniture from. With the starting DNA of saving costs: the delivery of the catalogue goods were first through existing milk delivery runs. Later he used the postal service. When he started to ship tables, he found that the table's legs occupied a lot of space, thus expensive to ship. So again to save costs he thought of dis-assembling the legs and let the customer do the self-assembly at home. Thus, the birth of flat-packed furniture such as the Lövet side table as far back as in 1956.

Lovet side table as assembled and as flat-packed ready to ship
Figure 8: Lövet, one of IKEA®'s first self-assembly products

The exhibition continues like what one would normally see in a typical IKEA® store displays today: furniture arranged in their suggested settings. With a difference, in that the exhibition showed how the shop setting looked throughout time at different periods in IKEA®'s history: from the 1950s; 60s; 70s; 80s; 90s to today and even the possible future.

Our exhibition guide told us about how when IKEA® was starting to get successful, it's competitors and suppliers weren't too happy with how it was bringing the price down of furniture. There was a time that the company even had to move to Denmark and adopt a red and white logo reflecting the Danish flag before settling on the current logo that mirrors the blue and yellow colours of the Swedish flag. There was also a time that nobody in Sweden wanted to supply IKEA® so it had to source manufacturing from Poland. Again, necessity as the mother of invention pushed the company to start to globalise its operations.

Couch, swivel chairs, rug, lamp, centre table and shelves
Figure 9: IKEA®'s 1960s store display

The exhibition also showcased how IKEA® pays particular attention to the materials used in their products and details of the manufacturing process. They make use of interesting materials like corrugated cardboard arranged in a certain way that can be sturdy enough for shelve panels, air in sofa beds, and steel frames from their trolley manufacturers repurposed to make shelves and furniture. It also showed how the company experiments to push the envelope and innovate. Some of these speculative pieces were commercial failures at the time they were introduced but are now highly priced art items in the collector's market. I learned a lot in seeing concretely how IKEA® continually adapted throughout the years to changing materials and logistics technology, market taste, and volatile conditions. IKEA® not only survived the volatility but thrived following its adaptations to volatility. This is anti-fragility at its best.

Democratic Design

IKEA®'s experience and learning in the past decades is beautifully embodied in it's current corporate philosophy of Democratic Design to manifest Ingmar's original business concept to ‘offer a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them’. I was very much impressed that everyone we met and talked to at IKEA® referred to and talked about how their aspect of the business reflects the Design Democracy philosophy.

A4 poster showing 5 democratic design parameters applied to the excite range
Figure 10: Democratic Design parameters applied to IKEA®'s top product range

Democratic Design operates in every part of IKEA®'s business to shorten as much as possible the distance between supplier capabilities with consumer needs. It invites the customer to take an active part in the IKEA® value chain. It comes from their belief that everyone has the right to a better everyday life. Democratic Design is how IKEA® makes things. They break down making things better into doing things better among these five parameters:

  1. Form—making the world a more beautiful place visually and emotionally;
  2. Function—how good each thing works and how they make things work at home;
  3. Quality—making everything last longer and age gracefully;
  4. Sustainability—to have an improving impact on people and the planet; and
  5. Low price—making things truly affordable for the many, not just the price of each thing but affording to make things better.

The application scope of these five democratic design parameters to IKEA®'s entire product range are dialled up or down with these three settings:

  1. Expect—majority of product range fulfills Democratic Design parameters;
  2. Exceed—selected part of product range exceeds Democratic Design parameters, giving people the possibility to co-create; and
  3. Excite—top of the product range that challenges and develops the Democratic Design parameters, invites people to be in the movement.

Design in practice

open area with tables and lots of people having lunch
Figure 11: lunch time at IKEA® headquarters

One of the first things introduced to us by our host Johanna Parikka was fika culture. It essentially means to have a coffee break with one's colleagues. We were told that IKEA® takes fika seriously as it is very much a part of Swedish culture and way of getting things done. And yes there were plenty of coffee machines and break out areas scattered around IKEA® headquarters. The building was one big open plan space. The first level had the eating area where we had a good lunch. On the second level was the area for designers. It was similar to an IKEA® store floor, except messier—as it is littered with prototypes, materials, and installation of possible future product ranges. The designers didn't really have offices but there were fish bowl type rooms where one can have a quiet space to have meetings or take calls. The lower levels had the different workshop and fabrication areas including kick-ass 3D printing facilities used for printing all sorts of prototypes.

Furniture pieces strewn together on the floor
Figure 12: a collection of IKEA® designers' favourite products

The open plan architecture of the building in a way reflects how things work in IKEA® as I gleamed from our discussions with deputy Range & Design manager Leonie Hoskin and senior designer Henrik Preutz. It appeared to me that there was no strict hierarchy in the organisation. The marketing and business people choose designers they would like to work with and designers can agree to the project depending on how they manage their own schedules. I was impressed to learn how Henrik has designed over 200 IKEA® products over his 10 years of being in the company. It was interesting to note how the design process starts from the actual manufacturing process and logistics. As Henrik explained, the low cost parameter of Design Democracy can only be met if a certain minimum number of flat-packed product units can be made to fit on a single supply chain pallet—as shipping costs is a major component of product pricing. Henrik said that at the start he learned the hard way the importance of understanding the quality and safety of materials and finishing in the manufacturing process. That is why he said their designers spend a fair amount of time in the factory floor understanding the manufacturing process.

catlogs aranged chronologically on wall shelves
Figure 13: collection of IKEA® catalogs over the decades

This in a way confirms what I've been coming to terms in my design studies: product design starts with first knowing the constraints of the project. Creativity comes with working within the given constraints. Without factoring in business, market or other customer constraints I could possibly make a work of art but not a viable product.

Overall, I was very impressed with how Ingmar's business concept embodied in the Democratic Design philosophy permeated all the discussions we had with everyone we met at IKEA®. I think I've now seen how corporate culture can be the key competitive advantage of a company like IKEA®.

Volvo Museum

Volvo is another Swedish company with a long history and strong heritage of producing quality vehicles and building brand recognition for safety. According to the introductory video we watched at the museum entrance: like IKEA® Volvo had humble beginnings as a spin-off of SKF a ball bearing manufacturer back in the 1920s. In fact, the name Volvo is Latin for ‘I roll’ alluding to its ball bearing manufacturing origins.

Two vintage cars
Figure 14: the first Volvo car models

All it took was for a SKF sales manager and engineer to ask a ‘what if?’ question: what if we made a car suited to Sweden's rough roads and freezing temperatures? It seemed to me that Volvo grew over the decades by asking a series of ‘what if’ questions, what if we: make trucks? buy our engine supplier and supply the marine vehicle market as well? make buses? make aircraft engines? open an assembly plant in Canada? make construction vehicles? buy Japanese, American, French truck companies?

Volvo has since sold its car manufacturing business to Ford while retaining half ownership of the brand, with Ford in turn selling to a Chinese car company. The history of Volvo to me shows how fluid the company has adjusted to market volatility over time. It expanded by acquiring businesses when the opportunity was there, and sold off businesses when it made sense to. Volvo has practised a key anti-fragile strategy: optionality.

Trucks, cars, jet fighter, heavy equipment
Figure 14: museum floor showing the wide range of Volvo products

Asking ‘what if’ questions was one of the methods we learned in Problems to Possibilities in the BCII component of my studies to unlock creative intelligence to solve wicked problems. Asking ‘what if’ questions opens up options. Optionality is an anti-fragile strategy to navigate unknown territory. It enables us to take action when we don't fully understand the situation. It involves a series of iterating between generating options and then choosing the best option at each iteration, until the desired state is reached.

From what I saw in the Volvo Museum: I could say that Volvo has practiced optionality that enabled it to survive and thrive throughout its long history.

Electrolux Headquarters

Prior to our visit at Electrolux headquarters in Stockholm, I had in my mind that Electrolux was a company that made vacuum cleaners primarily sold through door-to-door salesmen. That was the image I grew up in the Philippines. It was a pleasant surprise for me to find out how it is truly a global appliance company that design and make major appliances, small appliances and professional appliances.

washing machine, dryer, iron and board
Figure 15: Electrolux professional laundry product range

In addition to the Electrolux brand, it also owns strategic brands like Grand Cuisine, Frigidaire, Westinghouse, AEG, Zanussi, Eureka and their recent acquisition of GE appliances. The company strategically positions each brand to a particular market segment. For example Grand Cuisine caters to the ultra-luxury market, and Eureka for the low end market. The appliances Electrolux fall into 3 major categories: kitchen, laundry, and small appliances.

Even better— as a product design student I learned a lot about the Electrolux design process from our host, design vice president Simon Bradford. He stressed the importance of consumer insight that feeds into product design and innovation. Simon spoke about Consumer Journey Understanding—a process to understand why people buy products which is a major component of their design process.

photos of professional chefs and window to pro kitchen
Figure 16: Swedish Culinary Team using Electrolux appliances

He also talked about how Electrolux has benefitted from its open innovation initiatives like the Electrolux design lab which is a yearly competition for students and an internal innovation tool called iJam. Electrolux also benefits from outside innovation of its suppliers and participation in industry collaboration like the Open Innovation Forum. Similarly there is this flow of innovation from designing appliances to cater to the edge case needs of professionals like the Swedish Culinary Team and adapt these innovations downstream to the consumer market.

Similar to what was discussed in our IKEA® visit, Simon also discussed how their designers pay focus on how things are made and understand the constraints of manufacture. In addition, there is strong emphasis on user testing. New Electrolux products must have 70% acceptance of users, otherwise it's back to the drawing board. Simon emphasized the value of user experience in their design process. Electrolux aims to be the best in class in consumer experience. As he said UX belongs to everybody not just the web industry. To have best in class UX, a product must:

  1. have appealing design with shop floor standout;
  2. be innovative and consumer relevant product value proposition;
  3. have magical user interface and uncompromised usability; and
  4. have design quality through fit, feel and finish excellence.
To provide a magical experience, a product's user interface must be:

food processor, jug blender, immersion blender
Figure 17: The Electrolux Masterpiece Collection

  • clear;
  • empowering;
  • relevant;
  • engaging; and
  • humanizing.
To cap it all off, Simon gave a real world example of the process Electrolux went through to design ‘The Masterpiece Collection’ for its small appliance division. I learned a lot about how the design process works in such a large global company. Again, the importance of methodology and process was honed into me. This trip has put Electrolux into the list of companies for my internship.

Aalto University Design Factory

Our visit to the Aalto University Design Factory was a perfect pre-cursor to my BCII Problems to Possibilities subject. Our host Andrew Clutterback told a lot of stories about the projects and start-ups that were incubated there. He also talked about the early days of the Design Factory. It started out as just a space from a former wood processing building provided to an experiment in a shift in thinking within Aalto University.

students milling around
Figure 18: Aalto University Design Factory reception area

This was towards a more conceptual thinking and cross-disciplinary hands on projects. He said at first they didn't have much funding. So when they wanted to renovate the space, all the funding would have been spent just getting regulatory permits to do the renovation. But container vans under the regulation were considered as furniture so no permit was necessary. So container vans were trucked into the space to create offices and work areas inside the empty factory space.

This seems to have set the spirit of Aalto Design Factory as a place where open innovation happens. I could feel it while I was there. People coming in and out, having coffee, talking about ideas, and tinkering with stuff. The student projects exhibited around the factory show how the students collaborate with industry to solve problems.

Figure 18: using container vans for offices

For example, there was the Elephant Tap, a project in collaboration with UNICEF to develop an innovative water tap to improve water sanitation and hygiene in schools across Uganda. They also experiment with culture within the design factory. For example they have hugging points where people could stand if they wish to be hugged. Students are also experimenting all the time. We even participated in a student research workshop where we design paper boats to race. Overall I found the Aalto Design Factory a fertile ground for innovation and anti-fragile tinkering. It will be a place in my radar as I progress in my BCII degree.

Bringing it home

There's a lot to take in from my journey into Scandinavian design. I imagine I will continue to process these as I progress in my IPD/BCII degree. Several themes stand out for me. Scandinavian design grew out of a particular problem solved by ideas from particular persons. Local solutions to local problems. It was only when that solution has been battle tested in Älmhult or Gothenburg or Copenhagen did the solution spread out globally. So ironically, a trip to Scandinavia made me realise that if I would be designing for Australia, I should take a hard look into the local Australian problems and design local solutions to them before thinking globally.

As discussed above, all of the successful design led Scandinavian companies had a common strength on heritage, culture, openess and intense focus on process. There is also overemphasis on understanding constraints, creating options and fluidly reacting to mistakes and changing market conditions.This is consistent with anti-fragile thinking. Stressors, constraints, and mistake carry information necessary to maintain the health of a complex adaptive system. And the wisdom of optionality is the way to do things when we cannot understand the complexity around us. It is the way to navigate our way around the rapidly changing ecosystem we live in.