Mikal Hallstrup on the Design of Everyday Things

Fresh from his appearance at Design Indaba in Cape Town, Mikal Hallstrup of Designit talks about the importance of design in everyday life.

Mikal Hallstrup is the chief visionary officer of Designit, the Copenhagen-based design consultancy firm that he co-founded in 1991. Today, he works with a team of more than 300 professionals across 15 offices in 11 countries, helping commercial clients, hospitals, and governments understand the importance of good product design, sensible branding, and the value of enhancing the consumer experience.

Recently, Designit worked with Oslo University Hospital to design a new breast cancer diagnostic center that Hallstrup says sharply cut waiting times and improved communication, creating a less stressful environment for patients as they await diagnosis. The firm also created a new brand identity for C.F. Møller, the Danish architectural firm, as it expanded into landscape architecture, health care planning, consultancy and other areas. With its design for a compact, digitally oriented urban showroom for Audi, dubbed Audi City, Designit has helped the automaker redefine the car-buying experience for a new generation of motorists.

We spoke to Hallstrup after his recent appearance at the Design Indaba conference in Cape Town, South Africa, about his firm and how it uses design to improve experiences for companies and consumers alike.

Tell us a bit about how Designit has evolved since you helped found it in 1991, and how it is positioned today, in 2014.

We’ve always been jumping across fields and industries, and we’ve gone through different phases. In the beginning, we were very divergent and wanted to work for all industries, because we thought design was so great and that we could apply what we’ve learned to the bicycle industry, we could apply the consumer thinking on medical products, etc. And then over time, I think we overgrew a bit and got too broad. And so we kind of settled with what we have, in certain industries. We do a lot of health care design; we do a lot of stuff in the financial sector. Energy and wastewater is another big one, and automotive. And the last one would be consumer electronics—gadgets and stuff like that.

We started out being 100 percent product guys—industrial designers—and then over time we just grew into the service design space and digital design, etc. And I think today, looking back on it, it made a lot of sense merging all these. If we’d just stuck with products, we wouldn’t be where we are today. There was a huge shift with Apple around 2008. You had a company like Nokia, which had thousands of handsets and one service, and then Apple basically turned the whole thing upside down with one handset and a thousand services. That was a massive shift for us. They’ve turned a lot of industries upside down, and we’re really interested in that because we do strategic design. That means, I guess, we design like everyone else does, but with a pinch of strategy and business, and we very much believe that business and design belong together.

Why is design—product design, Web design, brand identity—so important? A cynic might say, “Who cares what something looks like as long as it works?”

They have this saying in software that software is about functionality and beauty is a feature. To a certain extent I agree, but on the other hand if we lived in a Mad Max world with ugly-bugly black matte stuff all around us, I think we’d all get depression. I think we sometimes underestimate the power of beautiful stuff that you can tell people put tender love and care into when they made it. It’s confirmation that, you know, we do this stuff for other human beings, right? But it’s very much about context. If I’m in a life-threatening situation, I don’ t care about how something looks; I just want it to work. In my daily life, I want stuff that makes me happy, and I guess people all over the world do, too.

Tell us a little about the scope of Designit, which has expanded to the point where it has quite an international reach.

We have 15 offices. The big ones are in Copenhagen and Madrid, and then you have Munich—a huge product and technology hub—and then Tel Aviv, Oslo, London, etc. We have a small sales office in San Francisco, but we realized that if we really wanted to go into the U.S., we’d have to really think carefully about how we do it because that’s “red ocean.” I always call San Francisco “San Futurisco,” because we’re helping old-fashioned industrial players log into the digital economy—that’s what we spend our time on in Europe, whereas in San Francisco, the future has landed; no one does products anymore. Maybe Nest and Tesla are the exceptions; with Google buying Nest, it’s kind of an offline leap into robotics and all this stuff. Whereas, in Europe—go to Sweden, our neighbor country. They have a lot of product manufacturers still that have to think about how to tap into the whole digital economy and “smart” things.

How do you see these developments—Google acquiring Nest and so on—influencing what you do?

I think what we’re seeing now is social, mobile, analytics, the cloud—everything’s coming together now, and I think we’re only seeing the start of it. With Google and Nest, when they’re split they’re very powerful, but once you merge them, it’s going to go bananas, and that influences products. Everything is going to have a brain and a connection to the Internet.

Do you see this idea of the “connected home” catching on in a meaningful way?

If you take designers out of the equation, things are going to go crazy because no one’s going to ever be able to use this stuff. You’re going to get tangled up in it. But if you get designers involved, I think we can create a meaningful experience. If you just want to embed an iPad in a fridge, it’s easy; you can do it on the same budget. Just fit it in. But it’s not about the iPad; it’s what you’re going to do with it. What do you want it for? The “whydeology”—why, why, why? And, you know, some people have a hard time grasping that it’s not about embedding it and styling it beautifully. You don’t need a smart pad on a smart fridge if you don’t have a smart carton of milk and a smart supermarket. Binding all of that together—cracking the code and creating these ecosystems—that’s going to be a huge task for the future.

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