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Design leadership and the sculpting of space & time

Pernilla Johansson, Head of Design, Electrolux Group
Pernilla Johansson  CDO, Electrolux Group

Early on in my design career, I decided to focus on working within a multinational company. During my internships, I had the opportunity to work first in a large consultancy, and then in a small studio-like setup, before finally landing in a global corporate design environment.

During my time with the large consultancy, I came to learn that clients seek them out for their particular signature style. In the smaller setup, I saw that it was important to fully understand the client’s brand – past, present and projected future. In the corporate setup, I witnessed the power of working from within – being part of building and nurturing brand equity and driving long-term value. It was this last experience that truly motivated me.

Over the years, I have often questioned how much impact in-house design has within a corporate environment versus that of a third-party consultancy.

When you hire an external consultant, you pay to listen – how internal costs are viewed in comparison to external costs is very different.markus-spiske-pwpvgq-a5qi-unsplash You make sure you give an external consultant the attention needed to ensure effective progression of the project. The consultant then has the ability to balance their time between deepening their understanding of the identified challenge, the client and stakeholder involvement, and the iterative creative time needed to craft a solution.

For a corporate, well-integrated designer within a multifunctional team, it’s easy to get carried away and react to the often unstructured needs of the other functions in the wider project team. It’s hard to take charge of the creative process and lead the way as you would do if you are in a consulting situation.

Despite this, I am still convinced of the strategic advantage of in-house design capabilities, because external consultants often don’t have full understanding of the brand and the product category. It is harder for them to contribute with true depth. But that mandate cannot be taken for granted; in-house designers need to take ownership of their creative contribution.

william-zvwxltd3ip0-unsplash-1To make a true impact in a corporate environment, Design Leaders need to take charge and facilitate the discussion in the same way an external consultant would. Focus should be on gaining a rich understanding of a range of methods and tools, setting the team up for new ways of thinking about the problem, to enable innovation.

This is why I believe my prime purpose as a Design Leader is to enable my teams to be at their very best. That means I need to ensure the right enabling conditions are in place to meet the needs of the team at any given part of the creative process; be it when they are in a collaborative stage, when the challenge may be too big for any one person to take it on, or if they are at a point where solitary work is needed and interruption of their thought processes and creative flow would have a negative effect on their performance.

The ‘space’ is a significant part of any design culture, but it is not only about the physical space. It is also about the mental space and thematt-noble-bptmnn9jsmq-unsplash time we allocate to the creative process. Designers need to get away from their desks, explore, observe, exchange, co-create and have their in-depth ‘makers-time’ safeguarded – they need to be able to work without distraction.

As Design Leaders, it’s fundamental that we are able to carve out that space and time, to sculpt the right enabling conditions for success. We need to take charge of the brief and facilitate the journey. In that way, we combine the power of a consultant with the power of being an integrated team member; we can leverage the best of both these worlds to:

– ensure the role of designers is clearly understood and as such respected across the business

– take charge of and focus on facilitating the discussion

– push for more time and autonomy if needed, to…

  • truly understand the opportunities and challenge at hand
  • provide the right conditions for the creative team to explore and iterate ideas
  • carve out a space large enough for the team and their ideas to blossom.

Electrolux Pure Q9

A few years back, my design team was briefed on a new project. The opportunity was to reintroduce Ergorapido, the successful ‘instant-clean’ vacuum cleaning platform.

Ergorapido had been the first stick cleaner, and it had taken the market by storm. It was born out of the insights that people wish to clean more frequently, and if the cleaner was beautiful enough, it would deserve a space in the living area and therefore be used more frequently.

This project wasn’t without challenges. At the time of the brief, the team was expected to deliver a design intent in little over a month. Knowing the ambition, I felt this was an impossible mission and pushed back. Instead, the team and I put forward an alternative plan. While it delayed the programme by more than six months, it gave the designers the opportunity to initiate an advanced design study.

Demanding more time as well as more autonomy to run this programme in the way we deemed best, I sought out the trust to enable my team to explore freely, before deciding on the path going forward. Both time and space were granted despite some concerns.

The creative process was based on a mix of workshop time and individual creation time. The team ensured that they built on each other by holding regular design reviews. Every detail was discussed. Every concept was the result of teamwork and not any one individual designer.

The Ergorapido had been refreshed and upgraded over about four product generations. Although it was still leading in its category, we learned that about half of users interviewed still didn’t think it was beautiful enough to reside in the living room. It also had limited functionality, unable to reach under low furniture such as sofas, for example.

With the increased performance of stick cleaners, the expectations on such functionalities for these types of products had also grown. While smaller apartments would still have only one cleaner, in larger households the stick cleaner became an equal addition to the traditional deep-cleaning vacuum cleaner, rather than playing a complementary role.

Having taken charge of the brief, in addition to the more classic trend analysis, usability studies and overall user experience research, we had the space and time for an in-depth material study, which was the foundation for the various concepts generated. During the exploration, we kept an open channel of communication with R&D to ensure the ability to industrialise the various materials and their property in regard to durability, cost and sustainability. But it was not until three concepts were fully worked out to an equal level of preference that the result was presented to the multifunctional product development team.

pangu-_standing_As the designers spoke about what would become Electrolux Pure Q9, there was excitement and anticipation in the room, and no one was left disappointed. From that moment, we worked out the direction through to implementation as one integrated multifunctional team. And that became the blueprint for the way we would work together in the future.

I remember having a casual conversation with the product manager of the project who said: “We used to tell the designers what to design and now they show us the way forward, and it is so much better.”

The success of Electrolux Pure Q9 lay in the balance of having enough time to understand the opportunity, having the right people at the right time involved, and having enough freedom and space to explore and iterate. It was a design-led project where the user experience was everyone’s responsibility, yet the role of the designers was clearly identified and respected. A space had been carved out large enough for the designers to blossom.

About: Pernilla Johansson, Chief Design Officer, Electrolux Group

Pernilla Johansson, Chief Design Officer at Electrolux, functionally directs a global network of designers with the aim to achieve distinctly unique human-centric branded experiences. With over 20 years of leadership experience, Pernilla has worked and lived in three continents over the years, with 16 of them being in Asia-Pacific.

Since 2018, Swedish-born designer Pernilla Johansson has been leading the function of Design at Electrolux.

Under her leadership a multi-functional team of 200 designers are working across 6 locations worldwide designing meaningful consumer experiences with focus on creating human-centric solutions – products, services and interactions according to our shared design philosophy, Human Touch.

Image credits:

Aron Visuals | Unsplash
Pernilla Johansson
Markus Spiske | Unsplash
William | Unsplash
Matt Noble | Unsplash



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