is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Sheepishly, I admit to having had no idea whatsoever that people would be so interested in Ikea when I wrote my post about the massive home furnishings retailer earlier in the week. Something about the combination of reasonably presentable modern design and low, low prices clearly inspires passionate responses from consumers, both good and bad. Also, I admit that the positive notices on Ikea were more abundant than I anticipated.
This interest doesn’t strike me as being about affordability as much as it’s about design. There are plenty of cheap furniture retailers out there, but how many of them inspire the impassioned, trainspotting chatter of Ikeafans.com, where customers trade every possible detail about the products and the store branches? Or the enthusiastic inventiveness of Ikea Hacker, where all manner of novel uses and transformations of Ikea goods are showcased? (Thanks to readers Gong Szeto, AJ Kandy and Jason Beaird for pointing those out to me.)
Everything You Ever Wanted in — and from — a Brand
The answer is very few, if any, businesses can muster patrons of that fervor. As I mentioned briefly in my post, Ikea, for good or bad, is a total design experience above all else. It’s been planned and managed down to the last detail, and as queasy as it makes me to physically stand in one of its stores, I can’t take away that triumph from them. With their cut-rate modernism, they’ve succeeded in selling design in ways that much tonier brands can only dream of.
What’s really fascinating to me about Ikea is that, as I also mentioned, there’s virtually no brand logo to be found inside its stores — other than Ikea’s own. It’s a kind of island to itself, a black hole for third-party brands. In many ways, it reminds me of the nearly-mythical idea of what a 20th Century company used to be, when huge corporations would operate their skyscrapers like branded cities, with their own kitchen staff, newspaper, security, medical care, etc. — all cashing weekly paychecks with the company logo on it, and all working towards providing every conceivable consumer good with that logo on it, too. By contrast, today’s corporate campuses are often maintained by collections of third-party vendors, and there’s no pretense of the employer as a kind of quasi-government that provides all things to its workers or to its customers.
The Ikea of Web Sites
There’s another interesting way to look at Ikea, too, and that’s through the lens of creating online experiences. If it isn’t obvious already, it’s impractical to build an Ikea on the net, and I’m not talking about selling home furnishings through e-commerce.
Rather, what I mean is that it’s impossible to create captive audiences the way a retailer like Ikea can. It’s no accident that most Ikea locations are located on the fringes of urban areas, where a nontrivial amount of travel is required to reach them, and where few other retail alternatives exist. It’s also no accident that, the hidden passageways mentioned by some readers aside, there’s a single, prescribed path through the showroom that the majority of customers will follow.
By contrast, there’s no shortage of easily accessible choices on the Web, and users can willfully troll multiple retailers at once, or pop in and out of retail sites at will via search engines, completely upending any attempt at guiding them through designated paths.
Most online transactions are the result of filtering through several different sites and brands, whether you’re shopping for furniture, clothes or even news. Even a site like Amazon.com is in many ways a federated experience consisting of many constituent vendors. It’s the closest online equivalent of a monolithic brand like Ikea that I can think of, and chances are very good that there won’t be another one like it any time soon. The age of one-stop shopping online is gone, if it was ever here in the first place.
As the user population’s online skills mature, brand experiences will only become more and more fractured in this way, not less, and it’s a mistake to think that a monolithic approach to building sites — huge, multi-purpose sites that attempt to be many things to many people — is a viable long-term plan. What’s that mean for big sites, for today and tomorrow? It means it’s probably inadvisable to try to build and brand everything yourself. I’ve told my bosses.
Anyway, that’s the balance of my thoughts on the Ikea phenomenon, at least for now. Before I go, I want to leave you with this hilarious cartoon on the post-shopping Ikea experience, created by my friend Paul Oslo Davis. It’s funny because it’s true. And also because Paul rendered it so beautifully well.