Can design traditions from minimalist Sweden blend smoothly with the melting pot of influences from Thailand? The result, no doubt, would be incongruous. However, after finishing this project, my conclusion is that it works just fine. It’s just a matter of communication.
In May 2004, the Swedish Trade Federation and a group of companies in the construction industry visited Thailand and China to find new products and suppliers of construction material.
At the companies we visited, we found that quality and price were very competitive. The major obstacle for most Swedish companies was the difference in design and standards. Where EU standards were applicable, the design was for other countries in the union. This isn’t strange at all, since Sweden and the Nordic countries is a small, mainly closed market for most producers.
We decided to create a showcase for design and production to explore the possibilities for Swedish and Nordic construction companies in Thailand.
At this time, the Swedish and Thai governments were working on a joint plan of action aimed at increasing cooperation in a number of areas. Two of these areas were Trade and Design.
With government support and company needs in mind, I started to look for possible designers and partners. Using well-known designers would have been a good way to begin but more expensive and also rather limiting, so we looked at the possibility of using Thai and Swedish students. Students are not yet fully trained or committed to particular design traditions and we felt that as well as being multifaceted and creative they would also be open to influences from their peers abroad. Given the great work the students have done so far, this has proven to be the correct decision.
Basic criteria for the design:
I wanted to ensure that the views and experience of the industries involved in construction and sourcing were properly taken into account. To do this I engaged a reference group of companies from different parts of the construction sector. I interviewed them and discussed what their basic requirements were for the products in this project.
The target group:
80+5% of the market should accept the product as good and well designed. 80+5% means it is the top middle range with something special” that attracts 5% of the top range consumers.
The price needs to be substantially lower than products on sale today.
New technology is welcome if it is tried and tested and is cost effective. Apart from these very basic and general requirements, each company has strict technical specifications that are relevant to production but not to the design of a product.
My initial plan was to assign four students from both schools to a specific product and see how it could be developed combining the different approaches. They would communicate through the Internet and by telephone.
Based on my experience with international projects, I realized this was not a practical way to move forward. The main reason was not cultural difficulties or communication problems, but because in Sweden we have two semesters with a summer break, whereas in Thailand they have three semesters with short breaks in between. I was convinced this could be worked out, but that it would be more practical to pair the groups with designated partners from the other school. In this way they could share inspiration, criticism and new ideas. This ended up working just as well as the original plan.
The companies involved wanted to see realistic products that were easy to produce at low cost. Teachers wanted the students to push the boundaries and develop as designers. Since all the students had different ideas about how to adapt their designs to these demands, the final results ranged from the super realistic and simple to produce to the futuristic and conceptual.
There was a tendency for Swedish students to find inspiration in the beautiful and soothing Thai landscape and culture, while Thai students focused more on developing and testing their ideas based on how Scandinavians use their bathrooms. For instance, Swedes sometimes share showers in the morning – a habit unheard of in Thailand. Several very interesting concepts were developed, which focused on the family in the bathroom.
Now in book form:
A book with all the fascinating design elements from the project has now been published. In this book, young designers, inspired by each other’s cultures, explain their own accounts of their ideas and inspiration, as well as showcase some of their excellent designs.
Communication is not a problem for our students. Problems arise when other people and disciplines have to be taken into account. These include professors, educational demands, companies that have to think about their markets, government regulations in areas such as energy conservation, handicap access and child safety as well as manufacturers who know what can be produced within a certain budget. Not to mention the materials’ inherent properties that are occasionally problematic for the designer.
With all these elements in play, good communication is essential. And that’s what this project is about: how to combine all the different elements and create a working product through collaboration. The results are extremely diverse, from products that could be pushed into production today at excellent prices, to entirely new products that require more development but are promising future concepts. Others have taken on specific problems, such as a bathroom renovation, and come up with interesting and efficient solutions that, if put into production, could save both time and money.
Share the experiences of some of our participating companies as they deal with designers and producers. A company planning to use some of the designed products will need to have a clear understanding of its market and what its customers will accept. Products or layouts that are too avant-garde will only appeal to a small percentage of the population. This project has been a constant tug of war between the ideas of the creative designers and the demands from the purchasers and real customers as well as the producers.
At the end of the day it is important, not only to understand each other’s point of view, but, even more importantly, to really know what you want.
Apart from the companies involved, we have received help from the Thai Embassy in Stockholm, the Swedish Embassy in Bangkok and the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm. An exhibition using print screens and multimedia was held at the Thai Embassy and proved very popular with the public. It was followed by a week-long show at the permanent exhibition for housing and construction in Stockholm.
As a result of the connections made during this project, the two universities involved are now enjoying formal exchanges. No amount of evaluation can compare to a year of workshops, visits and in-depth discussions.
I hope you will enjoy this book as much as I have enjoyed leading the project. I also hope it will serve as an inspiration and guide for those who wish to strengthen their own brand and company as well as lower costs by using their own designs.
Our Own Brand
NCC is one of the leading construction and property development companies in the Nordic region. The Group had sales of SEK 49.5 billion in 2005, with 21,000 employees.
In recent years, NCC has been looking at innovative ways to ensure the highest quality construction at substantially lower cost to the customer. We are doing this by changing from project based to a more industrialized type of building process. Special attention is paid to the supply chain and how we purchase our material.
Previously, we relied almost completely on domestic suppliers in the Nordic countries; today, international purchasing will be a natural part of our sourcing to ensure we are making the most of our competitive advantages.
Why own design?
Why would we choose to design our own products? Wouldn’t it be easier just to buy products from our regular suppliers? With current high price levels for domestic products in Sweden, for example, we need to find products that are cheap but also have the design and quality Swedish customers will accept.
To provide a product that fulfils all customer requirements regarding price, quality, social responsibility and environmental protection, we need to control the process from beginning to end. This is only possible by cooperating closely with OEM producers that we have evaluated and chosen. In this way, we have full control of what is included in the price, we can monitor quality as well as how well this factory follows our rigorous CSR policy.
How to design
NCC’s goal in participating in the Thai Swedish design project is to explore our own design possibilities and how we can develop this while keeping prices low and quality high.
The products must be acceptable to most of our customers, so we are not looking for avant-garde or experimental designs. This doesn’t mean that the product can’t have that “extra” something to catch the customer’s eye.
Much of our involvement in this project has been to try and convey this message to the designers and perhaps curb their individual creativity a little. One way of doing this is to show examples of products in all price ranges. This worked well with some of the designers. By collaborating closely with them we were able to visualize the product we required.
As purchasers, we are of course to a certain extent in the hands of the designers. Knowing what our company wants and how to communicate this will help establish good relations with the designer and enable us to develop very positive results.
This project resulted in new ideas and alternative ways of sourcing. It also helped us look at new ways of constructing a bathroom to suit different categories of customers. The design students have given us good examples of “out of the box” thinking with many good and practical ideas.
The project has also showed us that Thailand is a strong sourcing alternative to China with high quality production and competitive pricing. Developing new approaches to both sourcing and production is good for the industry.