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Personalisation for the masses: Tom Dixon, Marcus Engman, Bethany Koby and Kirsty Emery discuss the future of design

We’re living in a culture where everything we consume and interact with can be tailored to our personal needs, and this expectation for the customisation of our lives and surroundings has – in recent years – found its way to our possessions. But what does the rise of personalisation mean for design? How does it change our products and the design process behind them? Last night It’s Nice That and IKEA hosted The Future of Design: How Personalisation is on the rise for the mass audience, a panel discussion exploring the topic, featuring four experts in the field: Marcus Engman, Head of Design for IKEA; designer Tom Dixon; Technology Will Save Us co-founder Bethany Koby; and Unmade co-founder Kirsty Emery. Each has expertise from sectors spanning toys, fashion, furniture and product design, and exciting insights to share on where this rapidly changing market might be taking us next.

The discussion was instigated by the launch of DELAKTIG, IKEA’s first customisable furniture range, itself a pioneering development for mass produced furniture design because it brings the luxury of customisation to the masses. Yet Marcus and Tom were quick to point out that furniture design is late to the party. “Spotify has already changed the music industry, gaming has changed completely, and now – because technological advances have made it possible – furniture design is changing too,” Marcus said, with Tom commenting: “Furniture is way behind. It’s just starting to catch up.” When asked if he thinks people expect more involvement in the design of their things, Tom believes the market hasn’t allowed them to. “I think people interact less with their products now. I used to build my own stuff from scraps I found, and do up my bike. But when we were researching for the [DELAKTIG] project we looked into IKEA hacks and we found these amazing projects. People were so inventive. I loved the fact that people could make a cheap Tom Dixon lamp by screwing a bulb into a metal bowl.”

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Marcus Engman and Tom Dixon

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IKEA: DELAKTIG

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Like in the furniture sector, Bethany believes the toy industry is also lagging. “It has so far to go, it hasn’t changed for a long time. You walk into any toy department and everything’s still pink and blue plastic. When we started we were the only ones in our own category (making kits that kids can build and programme to learn about electronics and code) but now that technology is becoming more widely available and accessible to more people, there are more companies doing exciting things with toy design and we have to keep ahead.” Tech Will Save Us caters to what Bethany calls a “creator generation” growing up with iPads and access to technology, and where most tech products are closed to consumers now, the landscape is changing. “65% of kids in primary school will grow up to work in careers that don’t exist yet. How do we arm them with the knowledge and expertise to cope with that? It’s not just through tech, it’s through teaching them problem-solving skills, which is where tech comes in.”

Kirsty made the point that projects like Nike iD have been around for ages, and represent complete freedom for the consumer, but that has its flaws. “You can literally create any combination you want, and what’s fascinating about that is the manufacturing infrastructure that needs to exist to allow that to happen. When designing customisable products, which Unmade does with the fashion industry, Kirsty believes there is a fine balance between allowing consumers too much freedom, which – she explains from experience – often causes “choice paralysis”, and not enough, so the process isn’t engaging. “It’s about creating boundaries or parameters for consumers to design within. They can’t be too tight otherwise [the consumer] doesn’t have enough impact, but equally you want to allow enough familiarity and create an enjoyable user experience, so you empower them with confidence to create.” Unmade works with brands such as Ralph Lauren to enable their custom ranges, and explained that “the garments still have to look like Ralph Lauren, and have a customised look, and can’t be allowed to become ‘ugly’… we’re not in the business of creating ‘my face on a jumper.com’. The way we do it is by using things like a houndstooth pattern, something instantly recognisable but that can be manipulated.”

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Technology Will Save Us

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Technology Will Save Us

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Similarly, Bethany explained, the Tech Will Save Us kits have to be “intuitive but not too open, and not too simple,” to give the kids choice and power, but not make it unsurmountable. For example its Mover Kit, which has three components and thousands of possible outcomes. This requires “a lot of testing” she says, and means the role of designers is different. “Designers have to reconsider their position and allow for a lot of possible outcomes for their products, not the perfect thing that you’ve crafted and put out into the world but potentially things you don’t like or consider ugly, but maybe that’s a good thing,” she posed, “for us to be more open-minded”.

Marcus said he was excited at the prospect of the changing perspective and role of the design industry, which could see IKEA give consumers a kit of parts to make what they need, like apps on their iPhone. “Designers become more problem solvers rather than focused on aesthetics. It becomes a discussion of ownership, when we think about open source design and putting control in consumers’ hands. I’d like to see [the industry] become like an app store for hardware, so people can buy modular elements to create their own stuff, like Lego. Do we even make things any more?” he posited.

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Unmade

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Unmade

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Tom also said that one of the major challenges with creating DELAKTIG was “letting go as a designer. As part of the project we handed it over to 75 students and there were some amazing results. Someone in Indonesia made a sofa that turned into a raft in the event of a Tsunami, someone in Tokyo extended the legs of the sofa so you could hide under it in an earthquake.” However, he remembered, the risk of opening your design up to free interpretation opens a can of worms. “There were some unexpected and terrifying results as well. They ranged from hideous to glamorous. That’s the downside, but you have to accept it!”

Tom also likened the advent of 3D printing in product design to that of digital printing in graphic design, and its positive and negative effects. “Digital printing meant everyone could be a graphic designer and it saw a lot of crap graphic design, and the same is happening with 3D printing and product design now. But by opening it up to everyone the cream will rise to the top.”

Looking to the future, Bethany said they were looking not just at new technology, but also new ways to experiment and innovate with technology that’s been around for a long time. Kirsty commented that a similar subject was the foundation of Unmade. “We couldn’t understand why 3D knitting machines weren’t being utilised to their full potential. They can print a scarf, then a dress, then a hat, but they were just being used to print the same thing over and over again.” Now, the company is working more in performance wear for athletes, creating individually tailored garments, and made to measure apparel, which will enable consumers to go into a shop with their measurements and have clothes made specifically for them.

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This brought up the topic of mass market customisation and its potential impact on the environment. “Unmade will never produce anything nobody wants. Ten percent of all the clothing made in the world goes into landfill. Imagine if one in every ten cars we made just went straight in the ground, it’s crazy. We’re only making clothes that people have already bought, rather than making a bulk of clothing that might not be bought.”

“That’s what’s great about DELAKTIG,” Tom continued. “It can change with people’s lives. Usually people just chuck away their old stuff and get new stuff, but personalisation allows it to adapt as people’s lives change. Also this range is made from recycled aluminium, it’s the best grade, they use the lower end stuff for cans and things like that. So it’s already sustainable but it’s very nature makes it sustainable too, in that people can keep it for 10-20 years plus. Now we just have the problem that the sofa is selling fast in the UK (though more stock is coming in June) so people won’t be able to use the hacks I’ve designed!” A good problem to have? “For IKEA, Not for me!” he laughed.