It’s my opinion that IKEA, and not Herman Miller Furniture got it right when it comes to delivering design that is relevant. I recognize that the majority of the design field was brought up on legendary tales on the collaboration between the iconic Eames’ and Herman Miller Furniture company. IKEA pioneered many ideas such as distributed suppliers, just-in-time inventory, self pick-up and self-assembly, and serving a darn good Swedish meatball, but most importantly they instituted design-to-cost and flat packaging. They redefined their sector and deeply influenced other sectors through their innovative drive and design to constraints discipline.
Reason #1: Old School Design Practices vs. Design Born of Necessity
In 1940s – 1950’s America, during the post WWII economic boom, Herman Miller collaborated with the famous designer team of Eames to set out to make the industry standard of office furniture. In doing so, Eames deployed a method comprised of combination of user observation, experimentation with new materials and a good dose of Bauhaus... a tried and true recipe to define solutions that many designers still emulate as the right way to design. This was the groundwork for the most common definition of “Design Thinking,” and as such, I would label this approach as “Old School.” Herman Miller achieved the goal to manufacture and sell the “Packard of Office Furniture Environments.” Visiting a Herman Miller showroom to select and place your order for delivery was, and is an exciting experience.
In a parallel timeline, IKEA was born from a war ravaged Europe, one of many companies rebuilding in a harsh, competitive environment. IKEA had a new idea...design and sell furniture that the buyer would pick-up from a distribution center, bring home and assemble it themselves. Their business model was also fueled by design mantra that forced the discipline to design according to a price point and customer self-service accessibility, portability and assembly. Designers were given strict requirements to design products at a set price (low cost) and the requirement that it would fit in a flat box that any consumer could easily locate the box at a warehouse center, put it in their vehicle and take it with them. Once home, they could open the box and assemble it themselves using easily understood pictograph instructions printed in both English and Swedish.
Today Herman Miller continues to be recognized as a leader in designing and selling high-end office furniture and environments. They prestigiously have had some of their products selected by museums and design publications as examples of design excellence. They serve the higher-end buyer and business is generally good. But in reality what they sell and their value proposition has changed very little since the 1940’s. I would say their brand has not made the jump to the digital world, nor would I classify their products as “Smart Products” readily accessible for the mainstream marketplace.
Reason #2: Herman Miller’s Brand has Pretty Much Remained Frozen in Time While IKEA’s Continues to Explore and Expand its Brand to Remain Relevant with the Times
IKEA, along with selling great tasting meatballs at their in-store restaurants, is now venturing into the hospitality sector through the opening of a chain of hotels. It is business ideas such as these that Herman Miller did not extend their brand footprint and furthermore I suspect they will not be able to adapt quickly or well to newer, more challenging digital business models nor the design and manufacturing of next-generation smart products. Herman Miller risks falling victim to their own archaic design and marketing processes.
On the other hand, IKEA’s approach to fusing design, business and lean manufacturing to address environments filled with competitive challenges and constraints has prepared them to continue to quickly evolve to new challenges presented by the digital age. In addition, the amount of customer traffic that interacts with IKEA will provide big data analytics and user requirements enabling the delivery of new innovative products all along the value chain. I believe in short order will we likely see IKEA design and retail a “Smart Toaster” or a “Smart Light Bulb” in competition with or as a reseller with Philips under the IKEA brand. It is this approach to design that I think will define the concept of “New Design Thinking” that will expand a company’s marketing footprint in both the digital and physical worlds.
Reason #3: Winning Awards and Pleasing the Critics is Nice, but it’s More Rewarding to Dominate the Marketplace.
As I see it, winning awards is good, and Herman Miller will continue to do so. But I see IKEA’s ability to constantly redefine the market as a more impressive accomplishment. By embracing a design methodology with great discipline in execution, IKEA is capable of being highly adaptive to new challenges, and therefore more likely to prosper than Herman Miller in a digital world. Go check out it out for yourself. Visit a Herman Miller showroom, browse the products, count the potential buyers in the room, and see if you walk out with a purchase. Then go visit an IKEA store (or hotel) and do the same. Check out both of their websites and apps…see if you buy something or at least shared some of your personal information with them. Let me know if you enjoyed the meal.