Design Ecosystem in Helsinki

 { 🇫🇮} – Helsinki: a young and dynamic city leading the way in design

Helsinki Cathedral. Photo by Tapio Haaja.

If you are looking for beautiful and understated design, look no further than Helsinki, the young capital of Finland. This is a place brimming with young creatives who are eager to maintain their city firmly on the design map. Finland has earned its reputation as a destination for design lovers thanks to companies such as Marimekko and people like Alvar Aalto.

A Brief History of Finnish Design

Simple and effective design has been a staple of this young Nordic country. I say young because Finland has only been independent for a little over a century, having been previously under the control of Sweden and Russia. Since then, this country’s history has been characterised by its design.

An important year for Finnish (and global) design is 1935. This is when the designer and architect Alvar Aalto, together with his wife Aino, founded Artek, a furniture company which would go on to become synonymous with functional and simple Finnish design. The name Artek is a portmanteau of the words “art” and “technology”, two concepts which were at the core of Aalto’s practice.

The same ideas were applied some years later to a different field by two pioneers of modern fashion and textile design – Armi Ratia and Riitta Immonen, founders of the quintessential Finnish brand Marimekko. Everyone who is familiar with Nordic design will know this name, as they are one of the most influential companies to emerge from Finland.

What Local Designers Say about Helsinki

It is fascinating to see how this Nordic country, known for its lakes, saunas and liquorice-flavoured sweets, has been such a hotbed of innovative thinking in the fields of design and architecture, and how it still continues to be so nowadays. We have spoken to some of the people that are actively involved in the contemporary Helsinki design scene and are changing the face of the city through their work.

Alice Baggio, service designer at Aller Media, says: “Helsinki is full of unknown treasures – unknown to any non-Finn born out of Finland. Before coming here, the only local designer I knew was Eero Saarinen (who became a famous designer after migrating to the United States and who doesn’t seem to be well known here). There are very well known design brands like Marimekko, Iittala and Arabia and, of course, Alvar Aalto is a thing here. There’s a lot going on with the architecture in the city, lots of different styles living next to each other. I like to say that the Central Railway Station has a sort of mixed post-Soviet/Art Deco aesthetic. The Rock Church was carved out of granite in the 1960s. More modern is the most peaceful place I know — the Kamppi Chapel. Last fall we had the new city library, Oodi, and the new modern art museum, Amos Rex, that have incredible architecture.” Paulo Dziobczenski, a visual designer based in the city. adds:

Helsinki is a super nice, safe and silent city (coming from Brazil, those topics come to my mind). A few years ago, Helsinki was recognised as the World Design Capital and the design scene here is very strong.

Downtown Helsinki with its iconic trams. Photo by Tapio Haaja.

The State of Design in Helsinki

Design, together with nature, has been the main driving force behind Finland’s boom. It is important to mention that up until the 1960s, the Finnish economy was still not on par with that of other developed countries, and it was only in the 1970s that it got itself to more or less the same level of other countries in the Western world. Nowadays, design in Finland is healthier than ever, with plenty of creatives flocking to the capital to satisfy the high demand for skilled and motivated graphic designers.

One place where such creatives are to be found is the Werklig agency. This self-styled strategic brand design agency is at the forefront of a large visual facelift that the city of Helsinki has been undergoing in recent years. They are the people behind the new City of Helsinki visual identity, which made use of the city’s crest as the main common element for a modern and flexible logo.

But there is also a lot going on on the digital design front. As a city with a burgeoning start-up scene, it is easy to understand why Helsinki is becoming a tech hub for the whole of Northern Europe. “Digital product design is a big deal here”, says Alice Baggio. She then adds:

It may not be the Silicon Valley, but Helsinki is definitely a tech capital. After Nokia collapsed, lots of techies were laid out and since they still needed to fill up their fridge, they started their own companies. There’s loads of developers and designer around. Lots of public services are largely digitalised, which makes things really easy.

The Design Community in Helsinki

Design has always been a big source of pride for Finns, and their connection to it is unquestionable. When the tourism industry first started putting the country on the map due to its distinctive natural features, such as the countless lakes which scatter its landscape, a lot of people also started to be presented with its trademark design.

Fast forward to today: Helsinki has become one of the undisputed capitals of design, and was even named “World Design Capital” in 2012 by the World Design Organization. Finland’s capital is now present in every design lover’s travel list and the city fully embraces its reputation as an international design hub.

In this fervent environment, several initiatives have found the perfect conditions to take place and thrive. One such initiative is the Joint Futures design conference, which took place at the beginning of September. This event brings together experts in many fields of design for talks and conversations. The keyword of this event is ‘holistic’ — the belief that all the parts are interconnected and make up the whole.

Another initiative worthy of mention is the UXHel (known previously as UXify), Helsinki’s hands-on user experience community, led by Yves Florack. It organises regular meet-ups which focus on skill exchange and is a leading platform for discussing for everything UX design-related. Paulo Dziobczenski recommends checking the IxDA Helsinki and Helsinki Design Meetup groups, as they organise events regularly.

UXHel meetup. Photo by the organisers.

Design Education in Helsinki

Design education in this friendly Nordic city is mostly provided by the Department of Design at Aalto University’s School of Arts, Design and Architecture, the city’s well-established institute for higher education in the field of design.

Here, pupils can enrol in a bachelor degree for the duration of three years. Those who are successful and want to continue pursuing an education in design can choose between a master degree in Collaborative and Industrial Design, Contemporary Design, Fashion and Clothing Design, Creative Sustainability and International Design Business Management. Aalto University is considered by many to be the leading institution for design in Northern Europe, and as such it has formed some extremely talented creatives. The research approach at Aalto University’s Department of Design is practice-based and human-centred, two pillars of Finnish and Nordic design.

The Finnish Design Academy works hand-in-hand with institutions providing design education in order to promote and further-develop university-level education in the wider field of design in Finland. The project is fully funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture and, aside from Aalto University, it is run in collaboration with those in Turku, Savonia, Metropolia, Laurea, Lahti, Häme, Lapland and South-Eastern Finland.

Last, but not least, it is worth mentioning Ornamo, an organisation which aims to promote the profession of designers and the role of design in society. Its efforts are conducted by a 2.500-strong membership base, made up completely of professionals in the field. Full membership is granted based on qualifications and experience, but the minimum requirement is a doctoral or master degree in design, architecture, technology or economy, or a bachelor degree in design. Those who wish to still be part of Ornamo but have not yet graduated can do so if they are enrolled on a design degree course, either in Finland or abroad.

Places to Work from in Helsinki

It should come as no surprise that in a city like Helsinki, the choice of places where one can work from is plentiful. We have asked some local designers where they like to bring their laptop and work on their projects while sipping on a cup or two of khavi.

One place which ranks high on every local designer’s list of favourite is Roasberg on Mikonkatu 13, a café located a mere two-minute walk from the central train station. It is the kind of place where you don’t feel rushed, as its got plenty of space and different areas. Here you can work away while sipping tea or coffee, which you can accompany with a slice of their delicious homemade cakes. The music is not intrusive, plug sockets abundant and the atmosphere relaxed, making it an ideal spot to spend several hours.

Kahvila Sävy, on Aleksis Kiven katu 12, is another spot favoured by many. This café in the hip Kallio district is the sort of place where you don’t have to feel safe conscious about showing up with a laptop, as you’ll likely be in the company of other people who, like you, came there to work. Unlike Roasberg, plugs here are a bit scanty and hidden.

The architecture of Oodi, Helsinki’s new Central Library. Photo by Mika.

An obvious choice is the beautiful new Helsinki Central Library — Oodi. Located in the Töölönlahti district, this is one of the most recent additions to the city’s cultural landscape and one that is sure to make a long-lasting impact on the Finnish capital. First of all, the space which houses Oodi is an astonishing piece of architecture, which combines a wooden facade with glass and steel structures, and bares the signature of ALA Architects, a firm based in the city. But Oodi is much more than just a central library – it is a contemporary space where to learn, meet others and work. 

Of course, Helsinki doesn’t lack the ubiquitous co-working spaces so common nowadays in most European cities. If that’s your thing, then head down to Mothership of Work (MOW), a co-working hub opened in 2016 which was named for Best Office Space at the Nordic Startup Awards held the same year. Here you will find 2200 m2 of space scattered across six floors, for a capacity of up 300 people. Other good options are Minimum Viable Office (MVO), a space run by Arctic Startup media platform, and Hub13, whose motto is “Growth as a Service”.

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Gianmarco Caprio / Content & Community Manager @ Phase

Content creator, editor and community manager at Phase.