A visit to IKEA usually means house moving, renovating, and too much fun spent with LEGO for grown-ups. But is there an element of video game design hidden away within the Swedish minimalism?
I never went to IKEA for video games.
I went there for Swedish pillow covers.
But somehow I ended up with video games. Not literally — though the day the Nordic furniture giant designs a game is a day I'll be first in line to buy it. No, after traipsing around the gigantic, fulfil-every-homeware-need store a short drive from my home, I came to video games through my own imagination, through IKEAs design philosophy, and through a quote emblazoned at the store's entrance.
"Design Intelligence," it read, "when the function is part of the design".
Anyone familiar with the influence of Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things on video game design will instantly draw the connection. Norman's book espouses a simple philosophy: that an object's function should be easily grasped through the implementation of good design. Many objects are poorly designed and therefore more difficult to use. If you can't open a door on first attempt, it's probably bad design, rather than your fault. Can't use a toaster? It's the toaster's fault, not yours.
The video game link is simple. Games are inherently functional devices also, therefore players should be able to simply and easily grasp the various functions of user interface, of level design, and of in-game objects. Over at PopMatters, L.B. Jefferies wrote a good summary of Norman's text and its application to games, while in discussing Portal's design, Kim Swift and Eric Wolpaw essentially paraphrased Norman in every interview. Take this one, given at GDC 08, where Wolpaw takes responsibility for the interviewer (Brandon Sheffield) being unaware he had to click to respawn after dying: "No, again, it's playtesting. We failed you."
So how does this all apply to IKEA?
Well, most obviously, it applies to IKEA's product design. Mostly, IKEA's products are simple, and design-wise, to-the-point. They are unadorned with excesses, and generally speaking communicate their function clearly and efficiently. An IKEA rocking chair shows you how it rocks. An IKEA drawer illustrates its opening path plainly. Even space-saving eyesores, like this table set, allow users to instinctively visualise how it works before trying it.
It goes further than that, though.
The design of an IKEA store itself is a lesson in functional design, and a lesson in video game design. The following image is a map of the showroom floor at my local IKEA. What does it look like to you?
To me, it looks like an early prototype for a level of a video game.
This is a space that has been designed with a particular function in mind. It is a space that is intended to move visitors in a particular manner: like the spaces of department stores and supermarkets, it is arranged so that we must pass items we didn't know we needed but obviously do. This is the infamous (and now-outdated: see Jack Hitt's famous article for The New York Times, "The Theory of Supermarkets" for a kick-start into the area) idea of putting the bread and the milk at opposite ends of the supermarket. You know you want both, but you'll have to pass many items you might impulse-purchase to get to them.
But IKEA know that sometimes you will lose the trust of those customers who've just come for one product and have to trek past one hundred others to get to it. So they've built in short-cuts: easily accessible to those hardcore shoppers with a map, less so to those who've come for a wander. Only with the map are shoppers likely to use these shortcuts; to borrow from Michel de Certeau, it lets them see IKEA from above, and to momentarily escape their surroundings and plan their path. Those without a map hesitate to use these shortcuts, as they can only see IKEA from below. The shortcut at the beginning will never be taken by a shopper who doesn't know what they want. They'll miss all the good bits. And they know it.
What is the IKEA showroom but a piece of video game level design? The path for the player is clearly mapped. If you put your trust in the designer's hands, you will be lead through the key stages of progression: Living Room, Kitchen, Bathroom; or Enemy Ambush, re-arming point, and dialogue sequence. It makes little difference.
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We begin with IKEA's most accessible and widely-used sections: Living Room and Storage. With this, IKEA's designers are training us in the use of their showroom. By the time we leave these two areas, we understand that we choose IKEA items in the showroom and buy them downstairs, as the items in these areas are unlikely to be multitudinous: chairs are only displayed once. We know we don't pick them up and take them with us, unlike smaller items, say, in the Kitchen or Bathroom areas.
Good game design teaches concepts to users early so that the final level is a culmination of all skills previously learnt: we do not defeat the final boss with brand-new skills. Similarly, a good game will not continue to hit with wave after wave of repetitive tasks. Sometimes, it will include palate cleansers: a poor example might be a vehicle level in a first-person shooter. A good example might be playing an old level in a new way, such as the escape sequence in Portal.
IKEA includes a literal palate cleanser: the restaurant. Along with the children's area, it provides a sign that one level of IKEA has been surpassed; and a break before the next.
And when you reach the hardest and least glamorous part of your journey — the final boss of the self-serve furniture hall (intimidating, had it been visible from the beginning, yet achievable now) — you put your collected skills to the test. Those little numbers corresponding to items that you've collected are located and bought, and your free parking (the real reason you've been sure to buy something) is obtained. And as you leave to collect your car, why, they even have trolley minders so you don't have to lug your new furniture halfway through the car park. Isn't that thoughtful? Isn't that functional?
What IKEA and level design have in common is using design to control and facilitate user experience. It is "Design Intelligence — when the function is part of the design", exactly as the entranceway sign told me.
At the end of my visit, I had my Swedish pillows. I also had a handy living-room table, and several blocks of CHOKLAD LJUS chocolate. Most of all, I had a dizzying feeling like I had just been to a carnival and found interest in things that I never should have. I had eaten too much fairy floss, I had consumed one too many syrupy soft drinks.
As a consumer, I'm still not sure what to think. But as a video games critic — as I sit here on my IKEA chair, in front of my computer on my IKEA desk — I know what to think.
There are a lot of lessons to be learnt through a trip to IKEA.