Idea-driven designer, author, Biomega Founder, KiBiSi Partner, World Economic Forum think tank member; Jens Martin Skibsted is a versatile, knowledgeable creative with a thoroughly impressive, eclectic range of milestones on his résumé as well as an unparalleled talent for infusing contemporary product design with lasting innovation and aesthetic sustainability.
Currently concerning himself with a wide range of enterprises and initiatives from his magazine about African design called Ogojii to creating new items for the renowned, Danish porcelain manufacturer, Royal Copenhagen, Jens Martin is a busy man purveying an agenda-setting take on design and the future of product-driven branding.
More importantly, as one third of KiBiSi, the design supergroup he founded with Lars Larsen and Bjarke Ingels, Jens Martin helped define some of the signature characteristics of the Bulbul brand, such as our name and the unique, blue silicone loop.
As you can probably imagine, we thought it was a good idea to meet up, pick his brain and pilfer his vast knowledge on three fields central to Skibsted expertise: idea-driven design innovation, sustainability and branding through product design.
Could you briefly start out by explaining ideation and idea-driven design innovation?
I’ll try and make it brief – and explain it in a way, so that I actually understand it myself. Within industrial design you basically have two kinds of designers. This a simplification, of course, but the first one is the auteur; the artist with the big idea who creates utilizing his or her intuition. This is all about shape and very emotional, making it hard to evaluate. The way to relate to it is basically to say whether you like it or not. The other type of designer is the process designer. Process design is about replacing the very intuitive approach, with a process-driven approach, which often revolves around asking a lot of people what they think about a given subject. You can follow them around with a camera and whatnot, and this approach employs anthropological analysis to understand its user and build a concept around the analysis. Both approaches have their pros and cons. The first, shape-driven approach often revolves around one person. Let’s say that it was about me; that wouldn’t really make sense for a brand like, say, Bulbul. Or Coca Cola, for that matter. Because it’s about the brand not the designer. It’s OK for a brand like Fritz Hansen because they’ve worked with a wide range of designers, but they’ve also run into some trouble with people going: ‘Oh, they’re the brand who make Arne Jacobsen.’ In that respect, the auteur designer becomes too dominating. At the other end of the spectrum, process people are much better at not getting in the way of the brand. They look at the accumulated information and the criteria they have to meet based on this information. Still, the inherent weakness in the process approach is that it’s very hard to put design in a bottle, as it were. The result can differ quite a bit, depending on who the designer is.
At KiBiSi, we started to question the legitimacy of these design paradigms. I had thought – and my KiBiSi partners thought the same – that forging a third approach to design had to be possible. We then came to the conclusion that we wanted to uncover the idea behind the product. Furthermore, we needed a process to uncover that idea. We still retained the intuitiveness from the more shape-driven design paradigm. But we were three bosses at KiBiSi, which added to the difficulty in just saying: ‘We’re doing this because I think so.’ We then arrived at an approach, which was almost as objective as the process approach and yet, still free enough for it to remain intuitive.
So idea-driven design and innovation is mainly about forging a third design path between the two other traditions.
Yes, so to speak, but is clearly different from them. To put it another way: we wanted the quality that the intuitive designer could create by himself or herself, but the fixation on the individual person taken out of the equation. It’s essentially about the idea rather than the person. In other words, it’s not about Karim Rashid or Marc Newson, it’s about locating the idea behind the brand.
Tell us about your current projects?
Most of my design work is currently focused on Biomega electric bikes. Right now, we’re actually designing 4 different bikes. A lot of time goes into the intricacies. Designing bikes, as opposed to designing watches, lets you play around and redesign a lot of different elements. Which doesn’t really make sense on a watch. You wouldn’t, for example, design new hands on an existing watch. Maybe you could do some new versions, but there’s no need to optimize the individual parts on a continuous basis. There’s plenty of room for that on bikes, so we’re designing new saddles, stands and so on. Other than that, I’m also involved in Ogojiii, a new magazine that highlights the best of African design. As an extension of this, we’ve designed some new African chairs. Finally, with KiBiSi, we’re creating new items for Royal Copenhagen. That’s pretty much what I’ve got going in terms of practical design at the moment.
KiBiSi designs are often hybridized products that mix disparate aesthetics and sensibilities – Why is it, do you think, that mixing things up creates good design?
I think the hybrid thing was actually our way of furthering what we just talked about. If you want to create a given design, one way to go about it is to start off by asking how a wide spectrum of people have solved the problem you’re about to find a solution for. This means that if you need a function that can close, you have a look at a wide variety of closing mechanisms. If you’re then designing diving gear, but using a closing mechanism from skiing, that’s when the innovation starts to happen. So it’s been a way of being innovative while keeping our focus on the idea itself.
How do you see your role in KiBiSi in relation to Bjarke and Lars – do you guys have different roles?
I think we do have different roles, but these roles sometimes overlap. We’re all Creative Directors, of course. I think I’ve been the guy who very early on concerned himself with what kind of idea we wanted to achieve. From a brand perspective, I’ve probably been the most commercial of us in that I’ve always had my eye firmly on the idea-driven side of the brand. For example, If you take Bulbul, I kept insisting that we added the signature blue silicone loop to the strap.
Going back to the idea-driven design, I’ve interviewed you a few times before, and I always had the impression that one of your fortes was adding elements from popular culture to the design process?
Lars is actually pretty good that stuff too, so I can’t really take credit for that (laughs). Lars is also very good at articulating things succintly. Where I sometimes have a tendency to overcomplicate. But generally, I think my contribution has been things like the Bulbul name. It wasn’t only me, because no one has done anything one hundred percent by themselves, but I spent a lot of time with all that stuff. We liked the fact that Bulbul, (which means nightingale) has Danish connotations by alluding to the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. The Bulbul bird also looks a bit wild. Jacob wanted something, which had that wild and expressive side. So things like that have sort of been my department.
You’ve written a book called 'Instant Icon.' What was the reasoning behind putting that book on the market and who were you talking to?
One aim was to show how you can engage in branding via products. Some of the points in the book were that there’s this habit of thinking very short-term about products. If you then look at what designers are good at, it’s creating lasting products. Objects that make it to a design museum and so on. A product like the Sony Walkman, which is completely obsolete in terms of technology, still works in terms of design. People still intuitively understand it and relate to it. So it was about imbuing the products with longevity. In order to get that longevity, the products have to look cool over time. When most manufacturers want to make enduring products, they usually just make them robust. With that in mind, Instant Icons wanted to introduce the notion of aesthetic sustainability. Adding to that was the idea that products can play differing roles. You could, for example, have a watch in the Bulbul portfolio, which was centered on telling the Bulbul story and other watches that were a part of that story, but more about selling a nice watch at a good price. My impression is that a lot of brands currently think in spreadsheets. If they want 40% revenue on a given product, that makes the more out-there, innovative product impossible because you might just earn on 10% on it in the short term. But that out-there, innovative product is the one that enables 50% revenue on the next ones.
Could you tell us about the design process behind Pebble from your point of view?
It always takes a long time to design a product because there are so many aspects to it. Pebble was no exception. The design phase itself is actually a relatively small part of the whole process when you throw in quality-optimization and production-optimization, etc. But even if the design phase isn’t the most central in that it doesn’t take up the most volume in terms of man-hours, it’s still the most important element since it’s an integral part of all other phases. We have to take part in everything. If you just optimize on production, without a thoroughly designed product, everything else becomes insufficient. When you’re a designer, you engage in a constant ping pong with the manufacturers and engineers. With Pebble, we had a look at a lot of different elements. Like finding out who Bulbul founder, Jacob, was as a person. A defining trait was his background in the coastal city of Hjerting in the Danish countryside. Funnily enough, my grandmother’s boyfriend was from Hjerting, so I actually know the city like the palm of my hand. Anyway, we started thinking about the beach, which led to examining the worn pebbles on these beaches. Concurrently, we liked the idea of an asymmetric watch. To the best of my knowledge, that hadn’t been done before. So Pebble was essentially about merging Jacob’s background, with Danish elements and the desire to create a different and innovative product.
As I understand it, the unorthodox asymmetric design landed you in considerable manufacturing difficulties?
Ha, yes. But engineers always think designers are annoying. You have to respect them, but on the other hand you can just do what they say. You have to circumvent the problem in a new way that doesn’t adhere to their preferred, conventional models. If you do that, your design will inevitably look like everything else on the market. Needless to say this doesn’t apply to very talented and skilled engineers. On the whole, however, there is a certain way of doing things within the industry. Preferred materials, production techniques and so on. And people get locked into that. As a designer, that’s when you have to challenge the status quo.
Holism seems to be a big part of your design philosophy?
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s my mantra, but I did originally study philosophy. I think that what philosophy has the ability to do – and what it has in common with design is the production of meaning. That, and viewing things in a larger context. Philosophy is the scientific, theoretical discipline for this and design is the practical, hands-on discipline. I guess my background in philosophy had made viewing things as a whole come naturally to me.
If we talk sustainability and try to narrow it down to product design, what do you think the most interesting developments are within the field?
With sustainability, I think it’s important to recognize that people generally tend to have a hedonistic side. I happen to drive one of Elon Musk’s Tesla cars because I think they’re super cool. Sustainability doesn’t – and shouldn’t, in my opinion - be boring and restrictive. For me, the sustainability tendency, which recognizes desire as an important factor, a tendency that Biomega bikes are also a part of, is getting it right. If you look at transportation in general, I think e-bikes are really going to take off. So are solar panels, for that matter. They’re going to be super important on a consumer level – especially on the African continent. As a matter of fact, I think digitally integrated off-grid design in Africa is where the cutting edge is right now.
I’m guessing this is where Ogojiii comes into the picture? Why did you choose to start a magazine about African design?
I’m a member of a think tank in the World Economic Forum and one thing I noticed that no one else seemed to notice, was first of all that all design is design; within the design world there is this tendency to categorize things and go:’ That’s not design, that’s design thinking or fashion’ or what have you. That line of thinking segments everything into segregated compartments. But I personally think that design is best when all design is accepted as design. So that was one of the things I noticed. The other was that the most interesting design came out of the African continent.
Why do think that is?
It has something to do with the fact that Africa is currently experiencing rapid growth. In Denmark in the 50s and 60s, it was the same thing with Arne Jacobsen and all the other furniture classics. Denmark was at the forefront of the global market in wood veneer, which sent a gargantuan number of containers overseas and generated and a huge amount of growth. Interesting design very often comes out of areas where you have a high degree of growth and innovation. And that’s what’s going on in Africa at the moment. In the future you’re going to have a lot of growth in Africa, not quite as much is Asia, but still some, and Europe is just going to be super boring (laughs).
You’ve once said that: ‘It’s not about form or function, it’s about idea.’ Could you elaborate on that quote?
Yes, it’s a circumscription of the age-old: ‘Form follows function.’ What I’m saying is basically that the design should follow the idea. If we take the old furniture classics, the function side of things isn’t all that relevant because we’ve pretty much had the sitting-down function nailed since ancient Egypt. The form can still be further developed, so that’s where the classic furniture designers focused their efforts. If we fast forward to the Polaroid camera, you have a product that’s idea-driven: the idea of the instantaneous. The function of taking a photo has been around forever and the designers then chose a form that didn’t overshadow the idea, which is why Polaroid cameras look very basic – kind of like really old cameras. So the idea was the dominating factor in the Polaroid camera. If you look at the entirety of all great design, you can argue that either the form or the function came first, but they are, in my opinion, both serving the idea.
Jens Martin, thanks for talking to us.
You’re welcome. Thank you.