For the past six years, Marcus Engman has successfully made Ikea weird.
As the company’s head of design, he spearheaded artistic collaborations on tropical furniture and L.A.-inspired skateboards to push the reserved Swedish furniture giant out of its minimalist comfort zone. But Engman recently left Ikea to start a company of his own called Skewed Productions, as a partner of the design firm Doberman. Think of Skewed as a hybrid of design studio and ad agency–its goal is to create marketing moments for companies through product design itself. Instead of spending money on ad buys, Engman wants to teach companies to market themselves through their design.
“I want to show there’s an alternative to marketing, which is actually design,” says Engman. “And if you work with design and communications in the right way, that would be the best kind of marketing, without buying media.”
His plan makes some sense. In a consumer-obsessive world, design has become a major selling point. Consumers study everything from Kickstarter campaigns built upon the personal journeys of inventors to Apple’s Jony Ive-narrated iPhone videos to hear the intent and motivation behind the products we buy.
“More and more people are interested in how things are made,” says Engman. “I believe in transparency–being more transparent in design you do–that attracts interest and over time it builds interest in the project.”
But for companies that don’t necessarily “get” design–whether that’s individual product development, or how to marry a whole line of products into one grounding thesis that can define a brand–Engman sees an opportunity for flexible, design-oriented people to help out in a hands-on consulting and development capacity. “It’s one ballgame in fashion,” he says, “and a completely different one in how we work in furniture, for instance.”
Skewed Productions is a one-man show. Before Ikea, Engman has had his own agency with 30 employees under him. Now, he plans to hire out collaborators from his network on a per-project basis. He argues that this new model will be more equitable for everyone involved, because he plans to share profits with his team, rather than paying out stock salaries. And it will allow him to take on projects more flexibly, since his crew can always be in flux. While he cautions me that Skewed is only four days into existence, and he’s just building a client roster, he’d like to have a mix of large companies and small startup clients to keep work varied.
As for his legacy, and why it was time to leave Ikea? “I think there comes a time when you feel you want to do something else. I’m not a maintainer guy. I’m a startup guy. And I was put there to make a lot of changes. And we made a lot,” he says. “Working at a large company, it’s about leading by strategy and finding new partners. I wanted to, not go backwards, but be even closer to the design, to be able to do design myself again.”