Interview originally published on designdecode.org by Michela Ventin
Design Decode is a way of bringing together different voices to understand the “way” and the “what if” of design. Each issue tells a story.
Mikal is founder and Chief Visionary Officer at Designit, a global design firm founded in Denmark 1991. Designit specializes in translating user needs into compelling products, services and experiences that create both user and business value. For the past two years, he has served as the chairman of the jury for the INDEX: Design to Improve Life, the world’s largest monetary design award. Formerly, Mikal was a board member of the Danish Design Association, advisor for the Danish Ministry of Culture in the field of Design education and an advisor to the Umeaa University Masters Program in Advanced Product Design. An active speaker at global design and business conventions on topics relating to collective creativity and user-centered design, Mikal is the recipient of numerous leading design awards for his innovative work in the design sector, including the Reddot Award, iF award, FX Design award and Good Design award. He holds an MA in Industrial Design from Aarhus School of Architecture.
Mikal, how did you find yourself at Designit? Was it a goal you planned towards, or did it happen accidentally?
I started Designit right out of school in 1991, together with Anders Geert a design schoolmate. We wanted to show the world that design (and Danish design) could be much more than the beautification of candleholders, chairs, and teacups. We started out as a pure industrial design practice. In 1996, a third partner, David Fellah, joined, adding graphic design to the mix. Already back then, we realised that teamwork and a multidisciplinary approach always has the biggest impact.
Who has been the biggest influence on your approach to design?
Some of the most important things and experiences that have influenced me over time have something to do with Italy. I actually studied for one year at IUAV. I came to study architecture but got interested in industrial design instead and found myself influenced by the Italian friends I made. When I came back home I met an Italian guy who was studying Danish design for one year at my design school. We became good friends and actually started a design company together, Il Corrente del Golfo. That was before the birth of Designit. We won the ‘Compasso d’Oro’ with a lamp that I had designed. The guy is the Italian architect and designer Fabio Novembre, by the way. We had some fantastic experiences together that shaped my approach to design, blending the Italian design mindset with the Scandinavian one.
How has your work evolved since you began?
The most significant change has been moving away from using design as beautification and using it instead for transformation. It is important to use design as a driver for both change and growth. I think we’ve all realised how important design has become, tackling issues not only at the industrial level, but at the societal level too. Today, clients don’t just ask us how their next product should look, but what their business will look like tomorrow. Again, strategic design should not just be about shaping things, but shaping ideas, strategies and businesses.
What challenges did you face while developing Designit?
Growing and globalising has been an ongoing challenge throughout our history. It’s been tough at times but also exciting. Today, our biggest challenge is probably attracting, recruiting and retaining the top talent that everyone is fighting over. As everyone realises how important design has become, all the big corporations want to recruit creative talent too. They want to build corporate design capabilities because suddenly design has become a strategic asset that they want in-house. Working not only on big projects, but also on important and meaningful projects is what keeps us motivated. So getting the right project mix is another notable challenge.
Tom Kelly claims that “The future belong to T-shaped people. And it’s not easy to replace a T-shaped person. The broader your talents, the more your ability lies in the overlap between disciplines and the less likely you will find yourself outsourced”. How essential is it to acquire multidisciplinary skills?
Being T-shaped is important, but we like to put it slightly differently. We talk about X-shaped people, inspired by the fact that many Designits have multiple talents, or say, are good at several things. For example, we have a guy who studied at a business school yet at the same time is very good at programming Arduino. This gives him some very unique capabilities from both the left and the right brain and enables him to work both creatively and strategically. We find that there’s ‘magic in the mix’ where the two crossbars overlap. X-shaped people are also fantastic collaborators that fit together in so many magical and natural ways.
Does Designit have its own trademark approach to customers? What are the underlying values of that approach?
As a legacy from our Scandinavian heritage, we’re always striving for radical simplification and a human-centric approach in everything we do. Design is often seen as a tool for increasing consumerism. However at Designit, we try to apply a bit of frugal thinking, often asking if the world really needs another product or service. We’re not here to design more stuff, but better stuff. Sometimes our role is to help our clients understand what not to make. As opposed to many other design cultures, we believe in a reductive approach to innovation. And now that we’ve joined up with Wipro Digital, we’ve added significant development and delivery capabilities at the intersection of strategy, design, and technology. I think we will see our trademark become slightly more ‘designtech’ but without losing our human-centric approach.
How does Designit enable people to discover new technologies? Are technologies the new freedom?
To us, design is very much about humanising technology and making the most of it so that it serves and empowers us in our daily lives. There’s a lot of work left to be done and if we don’t take all of this seriously, we’re heading towards a global usability crisis (see link here). It’s important that we apply ‘radical simplification’ to as many products, services, and systems as possible. There’s no sense in developing new technologies if we don’t understand how to apply them in meaningful and useful ways. Designers are really good at understanding this. If we get technology wrong, it’s not the new freedom, but a new hindrance that keeps people from fulfilment.
The existing global economy can be described as the economy of scarcity and it is far from the ideal of sustainability. You say that we’re better together. Would this be the essential step for the global social evolution?
Yes, we are definitely in times of scarcity and we have to be resource-efficient in everything we do. But even more importantly, we believe that our era is defined by extreme connectivity, creativity, and collaboration. These values actually drive new global mega-trends like e.g. the sharing economy that will revolutionise many industries and change the way we share resources and utilise things more effectively.
Is there a type of project that you would never do, or is there a no-go zone for Designit?
We would never work on stuff that harms or kills life. Land-mines. Tobacco. Killing systems. Our vision is to ‘design a better future for everyone, with design’ and that actually means going to where the big decisions are made or intervening where bad things can be changed for the better. That includes working with complicated industries that deliver products and services we cannot live without, but also have negative side-effects. In other words, many products and services solve important problems, while creating new ones. We think design is one of the best ways of dealing with dilemmas and we don’t want to just join the choir of the over-righteous that turn their back on these inconvenient challenges and leave it up to others to solve them.
Does the way you approach product design differ depending on the country for which the product is developed? Is this a burden or can it stimulate creativity?
We think that it stimulates creativity. Geographically, whether it’s Asia, North America, Europe, etc., all regions have different cultures and different expectations of what is right or wrong and what is great and not so great. What’s ‘awesome’ in the US might just be ‘average’ in Europe. That’s why it’s good to have a global footprint. We’ve always made sure to have one and it has gotten even bigger after joining Wipro Digital.
Design differs globally because emerging economies use and need design differently than mature, industrialised or hi-tech economies. For example, many African or South American markets are underdeveloped in some areas, while highly sophisticated in others. A few areas that come to mind are healthcare or banking. Classic services may need some work but on the other hand we see some great m-Health and leap-frog mobile and digital banking services.
What have you changed your mind about?
I always and constantly change my mind. To me, this is what drives creativity constantly changing your viewpoint and looking at problems from different perspectives is a very powerful process. Being in doubt is essential and it is a permanent condition that designers and creatives live with and thrive on it ensures better and more meaningful outcomes.
What is something that currently fascinates you?
The power of people that share a passion. The power of partnerships. Also I’m pretty fascinated by the potential of Designit joining Wipro Digital. Merging design, technology, and engineering, we have a unique opportunity to make design even more impactful. Truly bringing together the best of design and engineering will enable us to deliver as big as we can dream.
What couldn’t you live without?
Google, Apple, Wifi, my family and my awesome 375 X-shaped colleagues at Designit.
What’s next for Mikal?
Improve the world with design and insert design into the global agenda/boardroom. There’s an endless stream of things that need to be improved or invented out there — at all levels of life. At Designit, we’re dreaming of a ‘human-shaped world’, that is one that is liveable and usable for everyone — from the biggest structures like societies, cities, and digital infrastructure to the tiniest packaging, apps or digital applications.