Aptly named, no picnic, this Swedish design consultancy started in 1993 with just five graduates. Ten years on, no picnic boasts fifteen consultants and an enviable multinational client list, including Ericsson and Scania. Curve was among a packed audience at a recent Design Institute evening when founding director Urban Ahlgren shared his wit and the group’s approaches and philosophies.

Ahlgren spoke about no picnic’s unique workshop process and used one of their biggest clients Scania to illustrate the process. He also highlighted the group’s work on the Refrigerator Freezer Pack project designed for the International Space Station as

a major achievement.

With an open brief to find innovative and creative storage solutions for Scania transport design, the no picnic team used their workshop technique to foster close collaboration with Scania’s mechanical designers, marketers, service department staff and industrial designers.

“In this way we had the ability to harness our client’s internal product knowledge, to achieve more team orientated results,” said Ahlgren.

“In the workshop environment everyone had the chance to experience our method. Throughout the workshop we used sketches and models to communicate concepts and ideas to everyone.

"This was a very efficient way to tackle and overcome problems. By using this ‘hands-on’ practical approach we found more innovative and creative solutions.

“The results of the Scania workshop were refined to construct a series of models in 1/4 scale. The models exposed many of the ideas from the workshop as being practical and feasible - something everybody could be proud of.

“Workshops like this are a great way to encourage people from all departments within a manufacturing company to contribute to the development of new products.

“By openly discussing the restrictions faced by the production and service departments right from the start of the workshop, the end result is not subject to compromise,” Ahlgren added.

Torkel Hanson, now a senior manager at Scania, says he was impressed with no picnic’s direct approach.

“During the final phase of a big project we wanted to document ideas which for one reason or another had not been used. We wanted these to be the starting point for an ideas bank for future projects, as there was a risk that these experiences would not be used due to the passage of time and changes in personnel. 

“Members of various departments, including our styling and ergonomics people took part in a series of group exercises. Scania´s personnel put forward their ideas and no picnic acted as catalyst and organiser. 

“What made these exercises so successful was no picnic´s ability to get the members of the group to focus on their own ideas as well as those of their colleagues without any feelings of superiority – no easy task! I was also impressed with the company’s ability to get our group to break through mental barriers and communicate their thoughts in a way that was new for them.

“We were very satisfied with the result. And besides the documentation, we got a big chunk of personal development into the bargain!”

Under the design direction of Margarita Matiz, no picnic has collaborated closely with the European Space Agency, NASA, Astrium and DTM Ferrari to produce the Refrigerator Freezer Rack, or RFR, for the International Space Station.

The Refrigerator Freezer Rack (RFR) will be used on-board the ISS for the hungry crew who will be carrying out experiments in weightlessness during their difficult months in space.

This means that for the first time astronauts will be able to eat ordinary food in space instead of the freeze-dried food normally available. This is possible due to the space station’s enormous solar panels that produce large amounts of energy.

No picnic says the refrigerator contains everything from breakfast, lunch and dinner to desserts and snacks. Three refrigerators will be located in the crew’s living quarters.

The astronauts themselves choose which foods they want to enjoy in space. Before the astronauts blast off they have to choose their meals very wisely. An astronaut who chooses a hotdog to dine on in space must keep in mind the $A10,000 price tag which is due to its weight!

Mealtimes are the only chance for the crew to socialise, take time out and think of something else in an otherwise full schedule. Every third month a space shuttle is launched to deliver supplies and to possibly transfer relief astronauts. No picnic has designed a refrigerator that meets the harsh requirements without compromising on flexibility that is important in this very unnatural environment.

According to no picnic, the RFR design concept has been sent to ESA, NASA, Astrium and DTM Ferrari for evaluation. A qualification model based on the design concept has been built and will be tested in May 2003.

No picnic has also designed food packaging for the refrigerator in entertaining shapes that encourage the astronauts to eat during their months in space where they live under great pressure but must still perform to their best.

This first test production of food packages has been developed for ESA with the purpose of analysing the performance of the containers in the extreme conditions. The geometrical shape of the containers are based on standard NASA measurements but modified to bring an attractive space dish to the crew on board the Space Station.

The material crystalline polyethylene terephthalate (CPET) has been used for the development of the containers, designed to resist temperatures in a range of +121° to -22°C.

The refrigerator and food packages are planned to be onboard ISS when the International Space Station is completed (in the year 2006).

Through this close collaboration with the ESA, no picnic says it has been able to gain new knowledge that can also be used for new projects more relevant to those of us on planet earth.  


The ‘SIT’ method, the ‘CODE’ process... Stefan Magnusson from no picnic spoke with Curve Editor Belinda Stening about a novel Swedish approach to workshops for designers and their clients.

Do you have a set formula that you work to for your workshops?

Not really. It can look quite different depending on the personalities and needs of the client company and the problem to be solved. 

Do you run formal brainstorm sessions?

Yes, but only for a short while and we often break up into small groups to work on the ideas. Brainstorming as such is very overrated. It’s so difficult to follow up the enormous amount of material generated in brainstorm sessions. We tend to use it more like a kick-start.

We prefer the much more sophisticated SIT method. We have an extensive collaboration with the people who run it. Together we have developed a great process that we call CODE. But that’s another story. (interested readers should look at http://www.sitsite.com for more information).

Do you record discussions in any way?

Sometimes we might, but mostly we rely on rapid visualisation. We don’t use a tape or video recorder, even though that might be a good idea at times. 

Are you drawing and modelling with the client’s team at your elbow? Or do you go away and do this later in the studio?

We do both. And we try to inspire them to make sketches and models of their own as well. After a week or two the client gets a very nice compilation, lots of illustrations but not so much text. After the second phase we often deliver models describing the concepts created during the workshops.

Do you have a workshop leader and do members of your staff have set roles within the workshop framework?

Yes, one of us will lead the workshops and we try to plan the events as carefully as possible, so all of the participants know who is doing what. All the ambient activities have to run smoothly.

However, I believe that the amount of success in the project depends upon our capability to work ‘on the fly’, continuously adjusting the strategy. Creativity is very delicate and it’s very important that we are smooth (and firm) and work with the participants in a gentle way. A very tight agenda that has to be followed no matter what, can be a disaster. 

Do you bring in anyone else other than designers? Psychologists perhaps?

We have not used any psychologists yet, but one day we could. However, we often ask for the client’s permission to bring in people with various experiences. They can be technological experts, toolmakers, material experts, service personnel and, most important of all, users of the planned product.

These extras are not usually facilitators – they are participants. An exception from this is when we work with the SIT guys. They are great at facilitating.

How do you cope with what sounds like a large number of people, from many different departments within an organisation, contributing at the early stages of a project?

In the beginning they often argue a lot and try to defend their positions. Later on in the process they realise that the success of the company depends on all employees.

They attain great respect for each other and also great self-confidence. Actually it’s always a lack of confidence that creates a dispute. When people start to feel that they are creative and appreciated they can open up and start to appreciate their colleagues and their own skills as well.

Where are the workshops physically held? In your studio, in Scania’s office or at an independent site?

Mostly, and certainly in the case of the workshop with Scania, in our studio where we have access to lots of equipment – model-shop with band saw, lathe, milling machine, styling-clay-shop, sketching material, cardboard. But sometimes we have them at an independent site.

We like using various charter-boats and conference facilities in the lovely Stockholm archipelago. Smaller events, like ordinary brainstorm sessions can be held at the clients’ office. But I don’t recommend this. When trying to be creative the most important thing to do is to break fixations and old habits.

This is much easier to do at a place where these old habits haven’t been performed. The river runs easiest in its old channel. But we want to break into completely new channels. And this is very difficult to do where the river runs deep. The old office is such a place.

How many workshops have you had with Scania and how long do they run for?

We have had five different teams (ten people in each) from Scania. Each team had one two day session and one for one day. 

Torkel Hanson from Scania mentions your role as a “catalyst and organiser”. Can you explain further what he means here and how you cope with directing a group of people who may have their own ideas and not necessarily be open to new ones?

There is a lot happening behind the scene. We guide the process with rather firm hands. Sometimes, strong and inventive people have to be held back while the shy and withdrawn need to be gently pushed. We, as facilitators, see to that. We set up the framework.

During the workshop we frequently divide the team into smaller groups. We choose people very deliberately for the different groups. I believe we are very good at this. Don’t ask me why, we just are, without any degrees in psychology. I guess we use good intentions and mindfulness combined with common sense.

We see our selves as being without prestige. It’s not important who came up with the brilliant idea. The fact that it came up is due to the entire group. We work this way everyday. And I like to believe that the participants very quickly join us in this intention.

How do you cater for those who may present with their own set of ideas?

They are supposed to bring their own ideas. After we have documented these ideas with sketches or models we can put them aside and continue from there or start working on new ones. The choosing of direction towards the final concept is quite a democratic process.

In the Scania example, no picnic – together with the company manager – just did some minor controlling or influencing, mostly to avoid several teams working on the same issue. We wanted to cover a lot of material.

But recently we have got together with a branding and positioning expert and developed a process to tap into the target group and a position in the market for the new product. This is also a cross-functional pre-workshop process. In this way everyone knows the aims of the workshops in advance.

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