Editor Belinda Stening, spoke to Robin Edman about using design as a development force for trade and industry.

Promoting design as an integral part of a company’s business plan and vision is a high priority for Robin Edman, CEO of the Swedish Industrial Design Foundation known as SVID.

As the economic importance and social value of design is recognised across Scandinavia with 2005 nominated as the Year of Design, Edman has worked hard to raise the profile of design as a creative process with a financial return.

“At SVID our goal is to promote design as a development force, a driver for economic development for trade and industry,” Edman told Curve.

Edman is an industrial designer and a member of the board of ICSID. He is a past vice president of industrial design at Electrolux.

With its headquarters in Stockholm, SVID has twenty-one regional offices throughout Sweden, and the network employs about fifty people.

The organisation was founded in 1989 by the National Swedish Board for Industrial and Technical Development, the Royal Swedish Academy for Engineering Sciences and Svensk Form, the Swedish society for Crafts and Design.

“SVID’s focus was originally on product development and raising the level of awareness of design,” Edman explained. “But more recently design is promoted as a development force as we guide and advise companies in their design investments.”

Despite Sweden being acknowledged as a prosperous country boasting a highly productive and well-educated workforce, local companies are facing more international competition.

SVID works with companies developing goods, services, processes, messages and environments and educates them on the gains to be made by applying design to their businesses.

According to Edman, there is still some work to be done with small to medium enterprises, SMEs, employing between five and five hundred people.

“I think one of the reasons why they have not picked up design previously is because of the size of their work-force. They are usually of the size where they cannot employ a full time designer. This means that if you don’t have a full time designer, you have to buy it, and if you have to buy it, it is something that is seen purely as a cost for most, before they start seeing design as an investment in their future.”

A clear message from Edman is that SMEs need to spend more time understanding the needs of the end user of their products. And this is where a designer can assist.

“Many manufacturers and retailers don’t talk to the users of their products. So they have this huge rear view mirror on what they’re doing and they look at that as the future. Instead of going out there and meeting the user.”

Edman acknowledges the smaller Swedish companies he works with are extremely good at product development and selling and that they are doing okay, but some are missing the part of talking to the users.

“With the very large appliance manufacturers for example, they understand that they can’t survive without design. Many smaller manufacturers haven’t seen that yet.

“Also, if you are a sub-contractor or supplier you are manufacturing something to a client’s specifications – and design might not be at the height of your thinking.”

With hands-on experience at a grass roots level, Edman cites a number of examples where adjusting to and adopting design principles has led to renewed success.

“One good example to illustrate this approach involves a Swedish company that decided it didn’t want to continue a long tradition in just being a supplier, so they engaged a design company in Sweden.

“They developed a new dashboard/communication panel for trucks and presented a mock-up at a trade show in Germany. They had been making speedo-meters and gauges for the vehicle industry – so they were always manufacturing to someone else’s design and engineering specifications.

“After the design proposals, management decided they didn’t just want to be tied to making products to someone else’s specifications and that they had to start thinking beyond just making speedometers and gauges, for their own survival. They needed to reinvent themselves as a manufacturer able to develop ‘communication systems’ for vehicles. This meant they moved from being one of many component suppliers to being communication experts.”

Edman proudly explains how the company took the entire dashboard of a truck and improved the interface of the control system creating a highly interactive system.

“This is a system that tells the driver exactly what is happening with the brakes, fuel, and overall function (there can be more than one hundred functions) of a commercial vehicle at any time in different driving conditions, along with GPS navigation.

“Now the big truck manufacturers come to them, recognising that this company understood the users better than they did. They are now helping them to develop their new truck cabins as well.

“This local supplier, by including design in their mix, is now delivering a completely different story.”

Edman says the company was able to move in a new direction once it identified the limitations to the current business. “They were being so squeezed on cost and time that they were going to go out of business. There was no future for them – they knew they had to do something else to survive.”

SMEs have always been recognised as a challenge and Edman believes the success of larger corporations has helped influence some reluctant entrepreneurs.

“This is where we see the biggest potential for change. When these small companies do something that then takes off, all of a sudden design is the thing that is driving the way they do their business.

“There is a generation shift in Sweden. A lot of companies started manufacturing in the sixties and seventies. The next generation that is now taking over is more often led by females... This younger generation is more familiar with design. They see it as being more important while previous generations are less likely to change.

“Often when we do talk to SMEs we don’t mention the word ‘design’ in the first couple of hours because we know it can be a turn off to immediately propose a solution.”

Edman says federal government funding and support for the Year of Design has created increased exposure and awareness of design and SVID.

“Sweden is very far north geographically and we have learnt how to survive the cold and isolation. Our geography and climate has taught us to be aware of the functional aspects of design – long lasting, no nonsense, simple, easy, durable... practical, and almost to the point of boring ... at least in the past.”

Edman says his professional background including a period as vice president of Electrolux design both in Europe and the US, provided insight into the Swedish way of thinking.

For Edman, one of his greatest challenges now is to make companies and individuals aware of design as a competitive tool.

“We can do this through research and education and show how design can make a difference. We are looking at how we can keep manufacturing in Sweden.

“While it appears generally that the manufacturing could be shipped overseas, the thinking, the engineering and the value creation need to stay in Sweden.

“There is a shift to ‘value add’ to manufacturing, to make manufacturing worth more to Sweden.”

Through Edman’s work at SVID he is involved in more than manufacturing and product development.

Design is not just styling, couches, or expensive products, it’s a lot of other things as well, suggests Edman.

“Through SVID, we work with hospitals and their materials, measuring equipment on industrial sites, recycling stations, dump trucks, conveyor belts, ambulance interiors...”

Designing systems

In his ongoing role as an educator, much of Edman’s current focus is talking to industry about designing systems.

“Perhaps the best way to illustrate this approach is with an example: The local general store used to provide everything we needed. ‘Sam’ ran the general store. If you bought a bicycle there and it broke and you needed a new wheel, you took it back and it was fixed there on location.

“So when you bought the bike you thought of Sam. He represented the brand but the brand of the bike was not important. Today, this chain of events suggests that you see the bike in the media, you then go to the super mart to get it. But if something happens to the bike you have to call the call centre in Singapore – and you need to send your bike to India to get it fixed.

“You lose your trust in that brand, because you don’t have the good feeling you had when you bought the bike any more. The golden chain has some rusty links...”

According to Edman, the way we interact with a brand and products has changed, and therefore the process needs to be designed – not just the object itself.

“In some cases designers are educated sufficiently to think this way. Design education in Sweden is still very object oriented. But the schools are starting to talk about process. We just have to get to a point where students are capable of working as process designers when they get out of university.”

Edman is pleased with the impact of the Year of Design and the way it has inspired companies to look at design differently, more strategically and encouraged them to consider new projects.

“With the Year of Design, 1500 organisations have sent in project descriptions and ideas to the Year of Design campaign office. It has grown the awareness. 

“Within one of our projects ‘Design for entreneurship’, we have helped five competing design consultancies to form a joint company and set up an office in Hong Kong.”

Edman believes design is something that must focus on the user’s needs and consider both functional and aesthetic aspects while also including processes, messages, merchandise, services and environments.  

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