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How Vorwerk's new chief designer Jan Delfs works

„Desing Thinking, Design Doing, Design Being”

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Tomorrow, today is already yesterday” it says on the door that opens up to Jan Delfs’ office. Vorwerk’s new chief designer describes himself as a “paths finder.” He reveals to me in conversation what this constitutes, how he wants to lead the world of Vorwerk products into the digital age and which part Design Thinking plays in this.

Jan, after nine years of working as a designer for Telekom, you opted to go to Wuppertal in April. You took on the role as the new Head of Design at the Engineering Division in August. What was the reason for you to go for Vorwerk?

Like many other people, I’ve known the Vorwerk products, especially the Kobold vacuum cleaner, since childhood. But in the last few years especially, I have been following the development of the company professionally speaking, too. The brand has significantly rejuvenated itself, completely repositioned itself in terms of design and has also taken risks, in particular with the digitalized Thermomix. It was this love of experimentation that attracted me.

Right from when you began, you put up the quote “Tomorrow, today is already yesterday” on the door of the design office. How difficult is it in fact to consistently challenge the status quo?

It costs a lot of energy, of course, to break down habitual patterns. But for me, it is a question of attitude and a way to overcome one’s baser instincts. As a designer, you need to bring along a basic sense of dissatisfaction and keep on asking difficult questions. There’s a quote from the scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg that holds a lot of wisdom: “I don’t know whether things will get better if they change. But it is certain that things must change, if they are to get any better!”

Have you always had this underlying discontent that you talk about? And is it possible to pass it on to other people?

I can convince my colleagues and other people – when I myself am convinced. I’m not this great psychologist who works with all kinds of motivational tricks, at any rate. I have needed 20 years to realize that I am a “finder of paths” and that I don’t want to belong to the “seeker of causes” group.

What’s the difference between the two?

The seekers of causes usually look back and stagnate with their “Yes, but …” attitude in their conservative, static roles. Path finders look ahead and understand where the journey is going. They are open to new things, they’re always on the lookout and their vision is geared towards the future. Most of all, they’re not afraid to try things out.

Which path would you like to find for Vorwerk?

Our goal is not simply to design products, but also to create holistic customer experiences. People are meant to be excited right from the very start – and design is currently becoming ever more important in the process. Design serves as a mediator between people and technology and transforms innovative technology into customer-relevant products.

Can you state an example?

You can see this very clearly in the development of the Smart Home segment, which everybody may be talking about, but which is growing a lot slower than eight years ago. The reason for this is that technology simply does not yet offer what is expected of it. The perfect customer experience has, to an incredible extent, to do with emotions.

In what way?

Let’s look at the “door locking system” of the Smart Home. Just in technological terms, everything here was done right. But – partly because of the security aspect – the term itself has a negative connation. If the function is renamed to become a “door opening system,” the technology itself remains the same, but the perspective and the experience are changed to become something positive. The user is welcomed – like by a professional hotel porter.

If the welcoming experience is then aligned withthe user’s mood – for example, with different light nuances or music styles – then we’re getting really close to the perfect customer experience. But as of now, technology is not able to do what we as people can: to read emotions in people within milliseconds.

Technology has still developed more rapidly in recent years than ever before. How has the digitalization influenced your job as a designer?

Digitization has had a massive influence on design. Above all, it has forced a shift in power towards the consumer. With his or her consumption and purchasing behavior, the customer has a greater say about which product and service are successful. Designers need to work more via networks and in an interdisciplinary way – and as designers always see things from the customer’s point of view.

Which role does the much talked about Design Thinking play in this?

Design Thinking has been the cause for lots of commotion amongst the management of quite a few companies over the last five years. There is an incredible amount of coaching and seminars on the subject to highlight new ways of working and thinking. But the learnings aren’t worth much if they are not implemented holistically within the company. To do so, you have to design the company itself completely differently and can’t just rely on a creative process for landing ideas. So, the line of approach to take here is “Design Thinking, Design Doing, Design Being”!

Can you explain this strategy in more detail?

There are some designers and authors who proclaim and promote this triad of “Design Thinking, Design Doing und Design Being,” amongst others the design management professor Jan-Erik Baars, a former colleague of mine. A company that doesn't put the customer clearly at the center of its activities is quickly marginalized today. What people are looking for are products and services that enhance life. To acquire them you need an agile company setup, one that is no longer coined by Taylorism, so one that corresponds less to the classic hierarchical company structure.

From a cultural and meaningful corporate vision – this is the “Design Being” – you deduce customer-relevant thinking (“Design Thinking”), which you then implement (“Design Doing”). What’s important is that all participants shed their functional and department-oriented way of thinking and jointly create a sustainable customer experience.

Jan, as we finish here – can you let us know: how do you and your team create these kind of customer experiences?

There’s certainly no exact formula here. We want to create a “wow moment” for people and create a sense of excitement. The most important thing is to keep an eye on social change and be aware of people’s needs – independently of all trends and technical innovations, which of course also flow into our products.

The fact that everything at Vorwerk comes from a single source – from the first stroke of the draft sketch, through production and quality assurance and on to direct sales – is a great advantage from my point of view. The excellent connection with our customers is the edge that we have over many companies that only create closeness through social networks or personally worded emails. This and our love of experimentation, which we should definitely be intent on preserving.

Personal details: Jan Delfs has been working for Vorwerk since April and replaced Uwe Kemker as Head of Design in the summer. Delfs studied Industrial Design at the Muthesius Kunsthochschule in Kiel and founded his own design studio in 2006. As a freelance designer, he designed household goods, consumer electronics and interiors for renowned companies. He has been awarded over 80 international design prizes for his work. Most recently, Jan Delfs worked for Deutsche Telekom for nine years in various design positions and was responsible, amongst other things, for the hardware and software design of the e-book reader Tolino.