Focus on Better Design, Not Better Marketing

IKEA’s former head of design argues that too many companies hope that clever marketing will save them from poor design. It’s a backwards approach that good businesses should rethink, Marcus Engman told attendees Wednesday at the Fortune and Wallpaper* Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore.

“You look at a marketing department, it’s like a shitload of people,” he said, “and then you [look at] a design department and there’s just a few of them.”

It’s not just a matter of resource inequality. Engman argues that companies might not need such a large marketing budgets if they had a greater focus on design.

“I think investing in the designing and design, and being open about what you do and how you design, is the best kind of marketing,” he said. “And this is coming from an old marketing manager.”

Engman started at IKEA at the age of 16, “pushing trolleys outside of stores.” Later, he worked as an interior designer and range strategist for the company. He left in 2000 to form his own agency, only to later return as the home furnishing giant’s head of design.

Now Engman has stepped out again to form Skewed Productions, which he described as more of a network of creatives than a traditional design agency. The firm plans to take on a dizzying array of projects, ranging from aquaculture to an “incense volcano.”

Skewed even has plans to publish its own art magazine, which will not be so much “a magazine about art, but a piece of art in the shape of a magazine,” Engman said. But one of its most interesting projects is a collaboration with a prosthetics company Unyq. Skewed is working to develop a design process for tailored braces for young women with scoliosis. (This demographic is more likely to suffer from the condition, a curvature of the spine, than other groups.)

The brace aims to prevent scoliosis sufferers from needing a painful operation to address the condition. But the fashion-conscious brace also seeks to reduce some of the stigma that young women with the condition endure.

What’s more, its tailored nature hints at a highly personalized approach to design, Engman said. “You could almost go back to the old handicraft ways,” he said, “but in a new way, where you go to a store where everything is produced for you onsite, while you’re waiting.”

The designer-executive said he hopes the approach to a product like Unyq’s brace could be applied to large markets like gaming. According to consultancy Newzoo, there are now 2.2 billion people who play video games weekly; by some counts, eSports—spectator gaming—is now more popular than many regular sports. Yet there hasn’t been nearly enough interest in coming up with designs for eSports equipment, Engman said.

“Normal sports have invested a lot of time in designing their tools,” he said, “but designing tools for eSports—nobody has done that.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.

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