The path of most resistance

Climbing into a Mars capsule in the middle of a desert might be one of the craziest things Creative Leader Michael Nikolic has done. But far from the most difficult. As a part of the design team at IKEA, he loves a good challenge.

When there’s a will, there’s a way. One could easily argue that Michael Nikolic, Creative Leader at IKEA embodies that expression. Introduced to the world of IKEA as a trainee in 1995 he’s made a career out of making the impossible possible.

With a Master in Business and Management from Lund University Michael has worked with development within numerous product areas ranging from bathroom to home furnishing. The combination of design and business still attracts him. “There is always a customer that you need to have in mind. No matter what you develop. It’s inspiring to know that if we make something that benefits the customer, i.e. solve a problem or fill a demand, then in most cases, it also results in good business.”

This whole project is about making more out of less, a challenge we are facing globally and where IKEA can make a great contribution in people’s homes.

The quest to find new home solutions has taken him all around the world. As journalists gathered in Älmhult for Democratic Design Days at the beginning of June, Michael and his five team members climbed into a confined spacecraft-like environment for three days at the remote Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, a program created and managed by the Mars Society.

Their mission? To find out how knowledge from an expedition to might be relevant to urban life in mega cities, where small-space living, air and water pollution is the norm. “We were six people living in a space less than 25 square meters. Each day we had one minute of water to use. Just doing simple things like preparing food with limited supplies, mostly home grown vegetables, exercising, and taking care of hygiene became a challenge. You quickly had to abandon your usual habits.”

In designing for Mars, or any small urban space for that matter, repurposing is a keyword explains Michael. “You really need to find the smart solutions where items can have more than one function. This whole project is about making more out of less, a challenge we are facing globally and where IKEA can make a great contribution in people’s homes.”

Learning from space. The IKEA team at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, a program created and managed by the Mars Society.
Learning from space. The IKEA team at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, a program created and managed by the Mars Society.

Stepping out of the Mars pod after 72 hours, Michael felt a profound appreciation for our living environment on earth. “Out there in the desert, everything is dead. You are so far from civilisation. It was an extraordinary, and beautiful, experience that really made me appreciate everything that we take for granted like nature, people and infrastructure.”

Scanning a population, you will find just a few individuals that get more motivated when given resistance. Michael is undoubtedly one of them. “I get more energy from ten people saying it can’t be done, than ten who says yes. For sure. The worst part is, my colleagues all know this and sometimes, I suspect, uses it strategically,” Michael says laughing.

Not surprisingly, the rare personality type is overrepresented in the world of sports. Michael was a professional soccer player, winger, in Hässleholm, Sweden and Paris, France until a knee injury forced him to quit at the age of 29.

He seldom speaks about his career in sports and is eager to play it down. In fact, he’s not comfortable talking about himself at all. But on the subject of soccer and product development, there is an extra timbre in his south Swedish baritone. “Soccer is captivating,” he says. “A good wing player has an overview of a game and seizes the opportunities to make strategic passes to someone who takes the ball and, hopefully, scores. You need to be one step ahead, read the game; inexhaustible, yet technical, and have the strength never to stop running.”

I’m not interested in doing things that others have already done. What I produce at work needs to be something useful that makes a difference.

He pauses. “Actually, that pretty much sums up the role I play as a Creative Leader at IKEA. It’s funny, come to think of it, I am the same personality as I was on that soccer field: Never stop trying to get through with ideas; having to reverse and try new ideas when I hit obstacles.”

One of his latest challenges has been working on the IKEA collection HJÄRTELIG that aims to engage all the senses and create atmosphere in the bedroom. A range of natural materials has been used: rattan, linen and better cotton. The temporary collections at IKEA present a welcome opportunity to try out new materials. “The obstacles my colleagues and I have to overcome to get new materials approved are volume demands, recourses, flammability and sustainability to just name a few. In contrast to what one might think, the price is most often not an issue,” says Michael.

Working in teams is essential to get energy into the projects Michael finds. “It could go the other way, but mostly there is a positive spiral when joining forces.”

Like an alchemist, he is driven by the thrill of turning something useless into gold, like using an old material in a new way. “I’m not interested in doing things that others have already done. What I produce at work needs to be something useful that makes a difference. To work in a global market, trying to be in the mind of a housewife in Shanghai or a teenager in Berlin and have an impact on their daily life. If only by a minor detail – that’s what makes my job a thrill!”

Creative Leader Michael Nikolic, will go to great lengths for innovation.
Creative Leader Michael Nikolic, will go to great lengths for innovation.