CGI Isn’t Only for Mediocre Sci-Fi Flicks: How IKEA is Revolutionizing Catalogs with 3-D Digital Imaging

There’s a lot to like about Swedish furniture retailer, IKEA. Especially their spacious showrooms that encourage a “Try It Before You Buy It” approach to purchasing their products. It’s possible due in large part to the size of their showrooms. The Schaumburg location, here in the Chicagoland area, is so large it takes three entire floors to showcase all their products. Literally, every product they sell. Having the advantages of displaying and stocking your entire inventory is a definite advantage, and easily one of the reasons their brand continues to flourish, year after year.

Before you get there, though, you can check out their catalog.

I’ll honestly say it’s something I look forward to finding in my mailbox. It’s an important publication not only for me as a customer, but for IKEA as a company. This year alone they plan to publish 208 million catalogs, in 62 versions across 43 countries. Important enough to use two-thirds of their marketing budget. That is how much this catalog means to the IKEA brand.

Very few companies today still rely on catalogs to help sell their items. The bigger they are, the more they cost to print, the heavier they are, the more they cost to ship. It’s a risky gamble spending money on something before you receive any in return. Without any guaranteed ROI, most companies turn to the internet to display their items in larger quantities. This comes at the disadvantage of advertising items that aren’t in-stock at the physical store location. IKEA’s problem is just the opposite: too many items to feature and too little printing space.

The problem then lies in deciding what to feature, and how to feature it.

Montages and “Showroom-style” pictures are going to accomplish much more in far less space than would individual items featured apart from another. Another benefit is that this method immediately suggests pairings and using multiple products in conjunction with another. That vase looks really nice on that table, doesn’t it? Better buy them both. It’s simple, and seemingly subliminal, but even I’ll admit these visual recommendations, call them that, have influenced my own purchasing decisions.

Okay, so part of the problem is solved, but this still means assembling expensive items (essentially building an entire room), photographing them under ideal lighting, and then tearing the rooms apart and sending them off into the dumpster.

It’s time-consuming.

It’s expensive.

It’s certainly not good for the environment.

The print catalog takes approximately ten months, from start to finish, to create. Their photo studio covers 94,000 square feet, making it one of the largest in Europe. Building the set for a single kitchen can take an entire week or two.

It is, by no means, an inexpensive process.


Let’s think about this. Did James Cameron actually build and sink an entire R.M.S. Titanic? Nope. But he sure did sink a computer-simulated model. That ship looked pretty darn realistic back in the 1990’s, and with the vast advancements in technology, computer-generated imaging has reached such a believable level that Hollywood actors cannot discern between themselves and their CGI stand-ins. That said, IKEA’s taken upon themselves to use 3-D digital imaging to generate virtual showroom scenes. Just like Hollywood actors, the cast of IKEA’s catalog now has digital stand-ins.

IKEA's CGI Kitchen

Showcasing multiple items in the same frame encourages customers to consider purchasing more than one item. Smart.

They first tested digital imaging back in 2005: they replaced one photo with a digital image. Just one. When the catalogs went out, and not a single complaint about the CGI came in (nor anyone realizing it was a CGI picture to begin with), they decide to pursue it on a larger scale. This year, 12% of catalog content was computer-generated. Next year, they’re planning to more than double that number, increasing it to 25%. They’ve got plenty of work to do, and even more for the following year. Don’t worry, folks. They’ve kept all their staff on-board, re-purposing their skills in IKEA’s 3-D Team.

The main advantage – something I learned myself making the transition from a drafting board to CAD computer drafting – is that changes and alterations can be made with the click of a mouse.

Nothing has to be built, re-painted, moved, or torn-down.

Not a single camera is needed, and not a single photograph is taken.

And there’s no waiting time when alterations need to be made. They become instantaneous.

It really is a cost-effective way of producing a catalog without having to physically produce or dispose of anything.

The biggest advantage for IKEA lies in the incredible flexibility it affords them, now being able to change item colors and pairings instantly and according to the region in which the catalog will be shipped. For example, while Americans may prefer dark woods for their kitchen cabinetry, Scandinavians and the Japanese prefer lighter-colored woods.

Having the ability to selectively display things like item colors not only means cutting the costs and limitations of traditional photography, but more importantly, being able to push item features that may be more appealing to a certain demographic. Essentially, they can tailor-make a catalog for any region.

The biggest complaints surrounding computer-generated imagery is how clean, crisp, and perfect things tend to look. What about the fading and wear from everyday use? Or the fingerprint marks that you’d leave on a shiny surface? The reflection you’d see against a mirror or glass? That’s when the computer programmer turns to the carpenter sitting beside him, and uses his expertise. They’ve already thought that through. That carpenter may not be needed any more to make furniture…but that doesn’t mean he still knows a thing or two about it. This collaborative approach is not only admirable, but smart, as it keeps them a step above the competition.

IKEA CGI Kitchen 2

Shiny Cabinets? Glass? They’re going to create reflections. The best digital imaging keeps this in mind.

It may seem silly to invest so much time and money in computer-generating imagery for a print catalog, but it enables IKEA to make a lighter imprint on their budget and our environment. It’s cheaper. It’s easier. And – in the end – they still can continue publishing a catalog their customers have come to love and expect.

IKEA is definitely ahead of the curve, here, being so exacting in their attention to detail to make their items unbelievably realistic. And I mean it.

Don’t believe me?

Take another look at the photographs in this article above.

Not a single one was taken with a camera.

Do you receive the IKEA catalogs, and if so, find them helpful or informative? How do you feel about replacing photographs with computer-generated images? Do you think other companies in other markets could benefit from this same approach? Leave your thoughts below.

Image credit to IKEA. All rights reserved.

Eric Labanauskas

Eric is a data entry specialist and contributing writer for the QLP Blog Squad. He is a city boy with a country heart, with an appetite for anything chicken-fried. He has studied as an apprentice at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture, performed across the country as Buddy Holly in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," and can tie a bow tie by himself without the aid of a mirror. 1950's rock 'n roll is his soundtrack, especially while on road-trips with his lovely girlfriend. Suffice it to say, he is also the owner of some good cocktail party stories from his many experiences. You can also connect with Eric on Google+.


  1. Myrtle

    IKEA has the best meatballs.

    • Eric

      I’m partial to the cinnamon rolls, myself. Not sure as to how authentic a Swedish delicacy those are, but for the price they sell them, I don’t much care. 🙂

  2. Amy Swanson

    I love the IKEA catalog and when it comes in the mail I sit at the kitchen table and read it from cover to cover. I had no idea that they were rolling out computer-generated pics. Man, talk about being fancy!

    Gotta to agree with Myrtle, IKEA does have the best meatballs

    • Eric

      I’ve subscribed to the catalog from the moment the company came into the ‘States. The the feeling that comes with finding something unexpected in the mail isn’t something technology’s been able to replace, I’d say. Thanks for reading, Amy!

  3. Mandy Kilinskis

    I think that if it’s going to keep plenty of furniture out of landfills, then it’s well worth the switch to more CGI. And the fact that they can do that without laying off their carpenters? Even better!

    It’s kinda cool that they can no custom tailor a catalog to a region. Taking the extra time to do that can really up their sales conversions. Great post, Eric!

    • Eric

      You nailed it, Mandy. It’s incredibly admirable they wanted to retain their carpenters, as they recognized how valuable they would become in digitally assembling and distressing their items. Good move, IKEA. Good move. Thanks for reading, Mandy!

  4. Jill Tooley

    This is fantastic! Prior to reading this, I had no clue that IKEA was doing anything this creative with 3D images. And if you hadn’t pointed out that the included images were computer generated, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. Wow!

    Accuracy is my ONLY concern with this strategy. Hopefully they’d render the images to scale with furniture and other products; it seems like it’d be really easy to make a product look bigger/smaller/sleeker than it really is with digital technology like this. But other than that, I’m all for this. It’s dumb to spend all of that time, energy, and money setting up rooms that would just get torn down a short while later!

    Great post as usual, Eric! 😀

    • Rachel

      Jill, I agree with you on both points — awesome that they’re doing this (and the pictures look very real), but I’m with you on the concern over accuracy as well. Though to be fair, by no means is IKEA the only one using editing tools on their product images — I could pull up any clothing store’s website and find a product with a model wearing a T-shirt in the exact same pose but in a billion colors. Clearly that girl’s hair wasn’t blowing in an identical way as she modeled each color … 🙂

      But it sounds like what IKEA’s doing here is quite a few steps beyond that. Very cool! I should request to get IKEA catalogs to my house, I do love looking through those … great post, Eric!

      • Eric

        Like I mentioned in the article…I think they’ve managed to approach this movement with some serious foresight. Keeping construction staff on-board because they know how things wear, reflect light, etc etc. I think a commitment to that level of realism is what sets them apart from their competition. And – to play Devil’s advocate – regular photography can use different lenses and shooting angles to mislead the eye. Thanks for reading, gals! 🙂

  5. Bret Bonnet

    It’s nice they are investing money into this technological solution but how about taking a serious look at:

    a.) Training your associates
    b.) Improving your CRM/POS equipment
    c.) Making your stores, staff, and policies more customer friendly.

    IKEA gets a “D-” for all the above in my book! 🙁

    • Eric

      Bret, I’m going to have to start charging a session fee for all the venting my IKEA posts have allowed you. 🙂 Nonetheless, sir, thanks for reading!

  6. Jeff Porretto

    I’m pretty sure nowadays this is common with a lot of companies, though maybe not as well implemented as IKEA. I know that many promotional product suppliers use this technique to show the variety of colors for items. And I’ll be damned if they aren’t spot on. Unless you know what to look for, they look absolutely real. Man, I remember when I was impressed by Nintendo 8-bit graphics…

    • Eric

      I’m sure it is, too, Jeff. IKEA seems to be a little more vocal about it than most, but then again, they make most their news public. Seems to maintain the impression that they maintain a steady forward momentum. Heck, for a print catalog, these look no different than photographs to me. If it saves them from trashing materials, who knows…the savings may even trickle down to the consumer, eventually. And, yeah. I have to laugh when I’ll occasionally bust out the ol’ NES and wonder how in heck I ever marveled at those graphics. Thanks for the read!

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