Electrolux: Good design is inclusive design

“Products have to be about both form and function. If only 10 per cent of people can use what you’ve made, then you’re a fine artist, not a designer.”

So says Adam Szczepanowski, Design Manager at Electrolux, as Pocket-lint picks his brain on home and kitchen style over the phone to the company’s Stockholm HQ. He ought to know. He’s been at the firm for nearly 20 years and a judge on the prestigious Electrolux Design Lab competition panel since the worldwide student search contest began. It may have started small back in 2003 but it seems the €5,000 first prize and 6-month paid internship at Electrolux has attracted quite some attention.

“It all starts with 1,000-1,500 entries and there’s a long process to go through. There’s a team of us that look through every single one and it all takes a lot longer than you might think.”

Small wonder then about what Szczepanowski’s biggest piece of advice for any wouldbe entrant is.

“There’s no one mistake that everyone makes. They all have fantastic ideas, all based on where they come from around the world and what the needs of all sorts of areas are. We’re always pleased to see high environmental concern. There’s really lots of genuinely great ideas in that space but the one thing I would say is that people need to be better at expressing themselves more quickly. The people reading the proposals are quite busy, so the shorter and sweeter they are, then the better.”

Consider yourself warned. None of the Design Lab winning entries have ever actually come to fruition but that’s more about patent issues due to the competition entries themselves existing in the public realm while it’s running, rather than the ideas not being up to scratch.

For the winners though, the real prize isn’t so much the chance of their product ever actually existing or indeed the money, although doubtless that’ll certainly put a dent into their student debt. The real bonus is that most of them end up working at Electrolux full time. Adam himself has two of them in his team - Peter Alwin, who came up with a compact portable cooking device called the Snail in 2010 which can be stuck on the outer of a pot or pan, and Rickard Hederstierna from Sweden who came up with the Cocoon in 2009 - a cooker that will actually grow your meat or fish from protein as well as prepare it to save on the hugely CO2 heavy practice of rearing animals and the packaging and delivery processes until the meal arrives on your plate. The environmental issues, as Szczepanowski points out though, are wider than just those of pumping more and more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

“There’s climate chance and there’s our working methods to look at too - what materials are being used, how are our products assembled, are we guiding behaviour to make it eaiser for the users to best work their machines or will all those green benefits we’ve carefully designed in end up being ignored because they’re too complicated to use? There’s also the ultimate disposal of the product to consider as well.

“The environmental issue will continue to be high on the list. It has to be. There’s been a bit of a blip with the economic downturn and people with not so much money in their pockets but the concern is building and it’s still there. Companies not good at designing with this in mind are going to be the losers.”

One of the key areas which Electrolux and the Design Lab have been looking at over the last two years is the issue of space. The prediction is that there are going to be more and more people living in less and less space on the planet, existing in generally more compact abodes with less area who’ll be looking at products differently indeed. Function will, of course, still be hugely important but overcrowding and a premium on accommodation is going to cause a whole new pressure on the look of products of the future.

“What’s going to be more of an issue is the amount of floor space something costs us,” explains Szczepanowski.

“Sure, right now, a washing machine might be £500 but how much will the floor space cost that it takes up in 10-20 years? How can we reduce that cost further? It’s also going to have to compete with space outside the home. Will it be more cost effective to get your washing done as a service instead of taking up valuable area in your house?”

Rather than straight owning or buying a service, a half-way house option is to lease a device, like a washing machine, to help bring the cost down. Already today, items like photocopying machines in offices are leased meaning that the companies that own them and make them ensure that their life cycles are longer. The parts are made to last, servicing is regular and, as such, the business model changes. The overwhelming advantage, as far as the future goes, is that it’s far less wasteful in terms of materials, construction and disposal. It’s greener and something, indeed, that might even extend to other kinds of product too.

“Product life cycles are another important concern,” says Szczepanowski.

“We should be looking to see that in phones, computers, tablets and everything else. People are already asking themselves, ‘Do I really need another object? I already have three computers and a mobile phone, do I need another device like a tablet considering the CO2 to produce and the space that it takes up?’”

So, if we're to take objects into our smaller homes, at greater expense, that are going to sit there for more time than ones we’ve bought in the past, they’d better look pretty good and we might end up spending even more time than we currently do trying to choose them; something with which Szczepanowski heartidly agrees.

“Designers can’t make things that are going to be out of date in two years. These things have to look and feel relevant into the future as well. They’ll have to win us over on function and reliability but emotionally win us over too.”

Fortunately, aesthetics is not something that Electrolux has been leaving behind. A good look at any of the Design Lab finalists over the last few years and you’d agree that any one of them could be works art as much as anything else. In fact, take a look at the likes of the Electrolux Ergorapido bagless, cordless vacuum cleaner and you’ve got the whole package from look and feel to function and space saving too.

Of course, look and feel is more than skin deep. Owner of an HTC Desire Z for its mailing and messaging ways, Szczepanowski has been quick to notice the difference of usability experience even within the Android smartphone category describing the UI on his 8-year-old son’s bottom end Samsung Galaxy phone as “lousy” compared to Sense.

“iOS, of course, is slicker and smoother,” he admits, “but there’s life outside of mobile phones.”

Design-wise, though, the issue of usability has come on leaps and bounds according to our man at Electrolux.

"Twenty years ago design was very much form related, and often other factors were forgotten. Now everyone's working hard on the big picture, with all the touchpoints that affect the senses. Good design has to mean a fantastic user experience."

While we might like to think that it’s all in the name of making more and more technically advanced gadgets the truth, it seems, lies somewhere altogether less sexy.

“There’s going to be a crazy amount of retired people by 2050 and products need to be for everyone. The iPhone is a great example of that. The current mobile phones for the elderly look awful. The iPhone is easy to use. It’s inclusive design.”

“It’s all very untrendy but currently everything is designed for the early adopter. There’s going to be a huge market to design for the silver generation instead. We’ll probably all have strained eyes from looking at screens and have had our hearing blasted out by iPods, but at least we should be in better physical condition. Grey is always going to be in, so how will this population be served by design as we get older?”

The how, we're not sure about but, from speaking to Szczepanowski - a British born expatriate living in Stockholm - it seems that Sweden is just the kind of place you'll see it happen with what he describes as an in-built culture of inclusive design.

"Design used to be elitist but here seems to be for the greater good. People are interested in making space better for everyone to use."

Szczepanowski is certainly doing his part with his three-bike, no car family household and, of course, his trusty pencil and paper - what he considers to be the trustiest tools for design along a table, the right team and perhaps a good CNC milling machine. And advice for any looking to start out design something of their own?

"Have a go. Be realistic. Be efficient in what you do; organised in yourself and productive.

"Creativeness comes from everywhere. Some of our best ideas came from marketing guys or engineers. Everyone has the ability to look around their lives and see what’s around them and come up with something useful.

"Look around. Be confident and have a go."

And keep it short when you do.

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