The collective brain boosts creativity

Great design is not the work of a single designer. It’s all about working together and fueling creativity by using the collective brain.

”Product development increasingly involves more people in the process. I think it’s the only way to work if you want to produce relevant things. We – and the world as a whole – are moving away from applauding and celebrating the single genius to something more communal,” says Marcus Engman, Design Manager at IKEA of Sweden AB.

There’s also an increasing interest, both from suppliers and people, to be involved in this co-creation. This is a relatively new way of ”spending time” with brands and companies, but something we’ll see more of for sure. This co-creation is a great way of getting people to understand all of the work, effort and knowledge that go into each new product. It also offers us an opportunity to tell more engaging stories that connect people to the IKEA Brand.

“Why shouldn’t we ask people what they want and how they want things – as opposed to telling them how they should live?” says Marcus, who describes a new world where ”anything goes” – whether it be fashion or furnishing your home. This “collective brain,” as he puts it, means that more and more brainpower can only be a good thing. Creativity is also an increasingly strong currency, especially for younger people born in the 80s or later. ”We have the ingredients, and people have the recipes,” Marcus says. “Moving forward, I think that’s the right philosophy.”

Better together

IKEA of Sweden is not only seeking inspiration and advice from the outside. 2014 was really the year when new ways of getting from idea to finished product were seriously implemented. But the word “implemented” doesn’t fully describe the change because of its association with bureaucracy and corporate jargon.

The people working at IKEA of Sweden – where the range is set and the products and collections that follow are developed – have made changes in their everyday work this past year. They have worked on their own assignments, as well as in larger groups composed of designers, product developers, material experts and suppliers; with external resources such as museum curators; and a circus (for the Play Collection from Children’s IKEA); with designers from other creative fields; and with consumers all over the world with opinions about how they want to live life at home.

“It’s a creative forum wide open to ideas and opinions that are shared among people who have never worked together before,” Marcus says. “The often extremely tight deadlines aren’t a hindrance because people are having fun, and more importantly, feel that their voices are being heard, and that they can actually influence both the process and the result.”

Factory floor

And instead of staying put in Älmhult in southern Sweden, which is the heart of design and product development for the IKEA product range, the team has gone out into the world. They have spent days or weeks developing entire collections inspired by new materials, often right on the factory floor, together with suppliers.

“The new BTI (Breath-taking item) products were completed in one week in China – from a blank sheet of paper to the first prototypes. Designers, products developers and engineers joined forces with the supplier on the factory floor. We all came together and many great ideas came alive. The journey from idea to first prototype took only one day,” says Viveca Olsson, Creative Leader at IKEA of Sweden.


The NORNÄS collection and designing on the factory floor

To start a new collection not with design, but with a material and a supplier may seem backwards to many, but for IKEA products it’s common practice. With NORNÄS – launched in April 2014 – pine was rediscovered and re-launched as a contemporary material.

The material, seen as somewhat outdated, was given new life when the product development team at a factory in northern Sweden discovered its many outstanding qualities. The pine used in the collection comes from Swedish forests north of the Arctic Circle, where strong and blond arctic pine grows.

NORNÄS is produced in a completely optimal value chain that starts with choosing the right forests and the right trees. The logs are then cut and sawed according to the dimensions of the final product to maximise material use and minimise waste. These forests are certified by international standards for sustainable management and conservation.

“We choose the best woods, the best trees and then the best part of the trees,” says Ulf G. Johansson, Project Leader at IKEA of Sweden. “This collection is truly made in Sweden, from start to finish.”


”At the end of the day, what’s really important is what happens on the front line – that moment when visitors see our collections and products in the IKEA stores or at,” says Mats Agmén, a long-time IKEA co-worker and Senior Advisor at Inter IKEA Systems B.V. “That’s where and when the IKEA Concept, and the result of our collaborations, is constantly put to the test, and made better.”

The very nature of the retail business is that of a long process chain with endless pieces that all need to fit together. The distance between supplier and the moment of purchase in a store can be as wide as an ocean – literally. A retailer who is able to make this distance shorter, or even erase it, by getting everyone involved to work together will also be a successful one. “It’s about merging the understanding of life at home with production knowledge,” Mats says.

The foundation for the IKEA culture of collaboration comes from founder Ingvar Kamprad’s unique ability to connect the dots – understanding people’s needs at home, coming up with a product idea (often together with a supplier), having it manufactured, and finally distributing and selling it. And in order to achieve that first step of understanding people’s needs, we need to be “in” people’s reality as opposed to observing it from a distance. It is this closeness to “the many people” that is forever a part of the IKEA culture. “It is vital that we IKEA co-workers don’t lose sight of our humbleness in the face of all our success,” Ingvar once said.