Thomas Johansson, Design Director, Electrolux: “Product and industrial designers should glean inspiration from people’s needs and problems”

On March 4, Electrolux launched a new installment of the annual design competition for students and young designers Electrolux Design Lab. To introduce this year’s theme of “Happy Healthy Kids” to potential design stars from Russia, Thomas Johansson, the company’s Design Director for Global Laundry, came to Moscow and held two lectures at the two design schools—‘Stroganovka’ and Higher British School of Art and Design.

The other day we sat with Thomas in the Moscow Electrolux office to discuss how true innovations were born, when kitchen appliances would become «smart» and «connected,» to talk about sustainable business principles and sources of inspiration and motivation for top-class product designers.

Photo: Thomas Johansson, Design Director, Global Laundry, Electrolux
Photo: Thomas Johansson, Design Director, Global Laundry, Electrolux

On the mission and goals of Electrolux Design Lab

We have been running this project since 2003, so this is the 13th installment. Of course, with this competition we are looking to attract some best design talents from over the world, and to get good coverage in the earned media. However, the mission of Electrolux Design Lab is much broader—to fuel innovation culture within the company, to identify new areas and directions for improvement in the segment of home appliances. So our ultimate goal is to hear as many voices as possible to glean some fresh insight on what can be done to improve people’s everyday lives.

I’m often asked how many of the concepts that we received over these years had gone into production. The answer is none. Because our goal is not to find brilliant ideas as solutions to some specific problems, but to start an open discussion about the future, to see where we can create value for our customers, how we can make their life easier.

Yes, we have doubled the amount of financial reward for the ultimate winner from 5,000 to 10, 000 euro. Why not? We have offered quite a stable amount for a number of years—we felt the time had come to take it to another level.

I don’t think that young people who are not parents themselves are unable to design for kids. When I create a design, it’s not what I personally think or need—it’s about what the users think. To create a great product design you have to go out and look at other people’s everyday lives, look at what their real needs are. So even non-parents can analyze some areas where kids or their moms or dads are getting frustrated, to identify what products can potentially solve their problems.

On feedback from Russian students

The feedback on the two lectures at ‘Stroganovka’ and ‘Britanka’ was really good. In the previous years we already had some brilliant concepts from Russia among the top 50 finalists. Now we want more engagement with the Russian designers and the students of the design schools in Russia—that’s why we are here.

On ROI in the project

Regarding the effectiveness of Electrolux Design Lab as an investment project, it has always been a good payback. We have employed 5 or 6 finalists— so, the project pays back in terms of talent recruitment. Secondly, we fuel our Research & Innovations team with new ideas, problems and directions. Thirdly, it’s a great PR tool—we get dozens of interesting stories published in various popular media.

On the hot trends in the home appliances and the first app-controlled smart oven from AEG

The major micro-trend in this field that has been around for the past 2-3 years is the Internet of things, the so-called connected smart objects.

AEG app controlled oven_01

Pic.: screen shots from the AEG smart oven application
Pic.: screen shots from the AEG smart oven application

Last year we presented a concept of an oven with a built-in camera, controlled remotely via a smartphone app. Users can see on their phone display how the process of cooking is going, can set the time and temperature, or can switch the oven off remotely. That model from AEG, Electrolux German brand, was on display at IFA in Berlin. It’s still in the pipeline—along with some other smart products—but may go on sale in the next two years.

On design processes and the nature of innovations

We work in a so-called Innovation Triangle with close cooperation between Marketing, Design and R&D (ed. note— Research and Development) teams. Based on in-depth consumer insight, this collaboration enables accelerated development of new innovative and relevant products. Speaking of innovation, I never refer to it as to technology for the sake of technology—innovations, especially in our industry of home appliances must be consumer-focused. It’s something that gives people freedom and more choice—that’s why innovative solutions of the future will be connected and intelligent making the daily lives of users easier.

I agree with Steve Jobs’s point who once said that people would never «want» a buttonless phone with the touchscreen, just like they couldn’t event think of switching from horses to cars in the times of Henry Ford a century ago. So the product designer’s job is to show people something new that solves a particular problem, something that they would totally love.

Product and industrial designers should glean inspiration from people’s needs and problems; they shouldn’t ask consumers for solutions but they have to research possible areas for improvement — that’s how a true design innovation is born.

Speaking specifically of this AEG connected oven with a camera, we have spotted a problem: people don’t want to waste time going back and fourth to check how the cooking is going. And we created a solution — an in-built camera that would send all information to a user’s smartphone, giving him or her freedom to remotely control the temperature, time and other functions of the oven. The camera inside the oven also sends images of the dish being prepared.

Another important thing about product innovation is personalization and adaptable design and easy interface. So if we create an app-controlled oven, we also develop software that would allow users to customize their settings, programs and modes to fit their own needs.

On the new corporate Electrolux visual identity and continuous testing

Pic. Electrolux old (on the left) and new (on the right) identity. Image credit: Brand New Under Consideration
Pic. Electrolux old (on the left) and new (on the right) identity. Image credit: Brand New

Yes, in January 2015 we launched a new corporate visual identity with a more modern and premium feel including a custom typeface. The purpose of this redesign was to modernize the visual identity and to differentiate the brand from competitors. It represents another step on the journey towards becoming a world-class consumer marketing company. We know through extensive consumer testing that the new visual identity will be superior in helping our new innovations breakthrough with consumers.

We do a lot of consumer testing, mainly, for new product development. We use a 4-Step Consumer Preference Testing process to deliver relevant, differentiated and preferred consumer solutions to the market. Step 1 is about Understanding, Step 2 Exploring, Step 3 Defining and Step 4—Validating.

The design team works initially with needs-based concept sketches and then we go into static design models. For the final stage we use dynamic design models.

We always test product designs in consumer focus groups, and we test against competitors to see if customers understand how to use our products, if they prefer them.

We have our own research team, but we also work with external agencies on the respective markets — if that’s a European product, we test it in such countries as Sweden, Italy, the UK, Germany, and Russia.

On sustainable design principles

I’m proud that Electrolux is recognized as global leader in sustainability in its industry sector. In 2014, and for the eighth consecutive year the company was ranked as a leader in the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index. And for four years in a row the company has been ranked Industry Leader Household Durables in RobecoSAM’s Sustainability Yearbook, an annual rating of companies’ sustainability performance.

Sustainability is one of four prioritized areas in product development. At least one-third of product development spend is environmentally related. It’s about using renewable raw materials and recycled plastics, developing water and energy-efficient technologies but also the usage of greenhouse gases, in production and transportation.
We also have a Green Range of the most efficient products to meet the increasing demand for energy and cost-efficient appliances promoting and inspiring a healthy and sustainable lifestyle.

To design appealing, innovative and intuitive products that consumers love to use every day is the philosophy of Electrolux Group Design. Not just products that are new and different but also better making the everyday lives of people easier!