We need to rediscover the Nordic design DNA
12. January 2016
The success of the Nordic countries is driven by a design DNA that is so prevalent that we have come to take it for granted. It is time for us to rediscover it – and use it to stand out in the global competition.

At what was probably last year’s biggest Danish top executive conference, the 2015 VL Summit, the chairman of Maersk Group, Michael Pram Rasmussen, gave an interesting presentation (in Danish). Facing an audience of top executives at  DR Koncerthuset, he highlighted four particularly valuable characteristics of Danish leadership practices: treating the employees as equals; listening to the employees; focusing on releasing the employees’ potential; and giving the employees the necessary latitude develop their own ideas independently.

According to Pram Rasmussen, a big part of the explanation for the success of Denmark and the other Nordic countries lies in these special leadership values. They have contributed to the successes – from IKEA and H&M to LEGO and Novo – that have made Denmark and the Nordic region in general one of the wealthiest regions in the world.

However, Pram Rasmussen also pointed out that other countries, perhaps especially those to the west and east of us, have begun to see the promise of Danish and Nordic leadership values. According to Pram Rasmussen, these values are going to take hold worldwide, for the simple reason that they are ‘relevant competitive qualities’ that any company stands to benefit from.

That poses the challenge that these leadership will no longer be our exclusive property. Companies such as Google and Facebook in the West and the new digital competitors from Korea and China in the East have been quick to embrace equality, trust and freedom as leadership principles. This means that they are cutting into our competitive leadership advantage. At the same time, says Pram Rasmussen, we are busy undermining our own leadership history by stifling companies and public institutions in red tape and a zero-error culture. According to the chairman we may be making a costly mistake, unless we show due care and diligence in continuing to develop our unique approach to leadership.

When we forgot about our design DNA 
The challenge currently faced by our Nordic leadership values is not new to the field of design. Here, for decades, we have neglected our unique strengths and allowed others to make them their own. As most people will be aware, the Danish – and, to some extent, the Nordic – golden age of design unfolded in the mid 20th century. We are all familiar with the iconic products by Wegner, Jacobsen, Mogensen and other leading designers, which we not only enjoy in our homes but which are still featured in current lifestyle magazines around the world. The key principles then were simplicity, minimalism, pragmatism, honesty, democracy and functionality, and those are still the qualities that many of us look for in quality product design.

“For Denmark and the Nordic region at large, this means that even if we are seen as belonging to the design elite for furniture and fashion, the same is not the case when it comes to design for client involvement, innovation and strategic business development.”

Christian Bason

What is less widely known is that Denmark and Scandinavia were also the first to systematically employ ‘participatory design’: design development processes that actively involve the clients, users, staff and project partners. In a manner of speaking, participatory design builds on the same principles of democracy and equality that characterised the approach of many product designers – only extended to include services and digital solutions and combined with ‘modern’ principles of cooperation and inclusion. Already in the 1970s,  for example, it was seen as essential to involve the employees in the development of new IT systems in Denmark to make sure that their user experiences, working conditions and needs were addressed. This marks a clear parallel to the leadership values that Pram Rasmussen speaks about today, almost 50 years later.

When Silicon Valley discovered Danish design
The Americans soon picked up on the Danish and Nordic ability to involve the users in design processes and reflect their needs in innovative products, services and systems. Listening to the sales pitches from one of the world’s biggest and leading design agencies, American IDEO, one recognises obvious elements of participatory design, or, as they prefer to call it, ‘Human-Centered Design’. Similarly, design concepts such as co-design, design thinking and service design are now in use all over the world. Books and articles on these topics rarely mention the Scandinavian origins, and few Danish or Nordic thinkers or practitioners are known in the global design scene. The impression that is conveyed – most recently in a  in Harvard Business Review – is that the new design concepts are the brainchild and exclusive domain of cool design agencies and companies in Silicon Valley.

For Denmark and the Nordic region at large, this means that even if we are seen as belonging in the design elite for furniture and fashion, the same is not the case when it comes to design for client involvement, innovation and strategic business development. That makes us a less obvious choice in the future when high-volume industries look for design talent (the sale of Danish Designit for close to a hundred million US dollars to the IT giant Wipro last summer is the exception that proves the rule). In practice, as I have discussed previously, this means that unemployment among designers in Silicon Valley is close to zero, while the Danish design degree programmes in Aarhus, Kolding and Copenhagen have recently their enrolment figures significantly due to concerns about high unemployment rates for their future design graduates.

Time to refocus our efforts
Just as Michael Pram Rasmussen cautions that others will copy our approach to leadership, others have long since copied our approach to design. In my assessment, however, the struggle is not lost – although it is definitely time for us to refocus and redouble our efforts. Here are three things we can do to rediscover our Danish and Nordic design DNA as leverage for improving our competitiveness:

  • Charting the Nordic design DNA: We should formulate a widely recognised Nordic design manifesto that clearly, compellingly and succinctly identifies the aspects of our culture, values, competencies and practices that characterise our shared design DNA. I am convinced that we will find that we still have unique strengths and resources capable of giving us an edge over ‘plagiarists’ abroad.
  • Marketing Nordic design in terms of the difference it makes: We should be far better at branding and marketing our Danish and Nordic design DNA as something that goes beyond tangible products: as a broad design approach and its impact, including prosperity and trust, innovation and ingenuity, involvement and room for play and joy. One example is the relaunch of the Danish Design Award 2016, where we focus on the difference that good design can make.
  • Bringing more global design agencies to Denmark: Recently, Fjord Design, which is now part of the consultancy giant Accenture, announced that they are considering placing a new regional office in Denmark. Actively attracting more of the world’s leading design firms to Denmark can only benefit our domestic design industry by contributing to the talent base and the level of ambition.

Finally, I think that we may need to come up with a new label – a new design concept – to inspire, set the agenda and bring our Nordic design DNA to the awareness of global business and industry. True to our Nordic style, naturally, this should be accomplished in an inclusive process …

First published on Mandag Morgen blog