Photography & video — Jussi Hellsten, Lauri Rotko
Text — Marianna Kellokoski

Aiming for a functional, efficient and desirable place to live – Helsinki as a design city


A good city is like a successfully designed utensil: it looks and feels so good that you want to make sure coming generations can enjoy it, too – but a city is also a constantly evolving thing. We asked six experts what significance design has had for the City of Helsinki, and why design is important in the future.


Helsinki’s objective is to improve its residents’ lives with the help of design. The goal is an urban habitat that has been designed together with the users, or citizens, with their needs taken into account. In recent years, Helsinki has developed many of their public services together with design professionals. People from around the world are already coming here to see how challenges in the public sector have been solved with the tools of design. In the future, Helsinki will be even more widely known as a model city of design, because design here is an integral part of the city’s core up to its administration: the city is now appointing a Chief Design Officer for the first time. Helsinki will also change historically much in the coming years. Combined with influential achievements and people, the end result will bring about a well-designed city and everyday life.

Classic objects and open governance through design

The birth of Finnish design is pinpointed to the time after the country gained independence, when little by little, a national identity started being constructed by creating a new style of their own. The pace increased after the World Wars, when the country was rebuilt for the needs of a growing population. The material deficit caused by the war placed demands on producing everything efficiently and economically in daily life, while not forgetting aesthetic values.

As a product of the golden era of design, as it was called, a vast number of buildings and utensils were born, many of which have since risen to an iconic position both at home and overseas. International award-winning designers became Finland’s national heroes.

Entering the 1960s, alongside growing prosperity, design became everyday mass production and Finland slowly started becoming urbanized. Especially Helsinki grew and developed at a fast pace. At the end of the millennium, the world’s cities started competing with each other for international resources due to accelerating globalisation. As part of their development work, cities began distinguishing themselves: it was necessary to identify distinguishing factors in order to attract investors and skilled workers.

What separates Helsinki from others as a design city is a strong strategic commitment to considering the user’s point of view. Making information concerning the city available to everyone, among other things, has increased the opportunities for participation. Anyone can download information related to the city on the Helsinki Region Infoshare website. The aim is to advance transparency in decision-making and the open development of the city, which everyone can participate in. Opening the information has led to opening decision-making, and to how development and incomplete issues are more and more widely opened up to shared discussion.

Events are providing turbo speed for using design

“Design is in the DNA of Finns; it’s part of our national heritage. Design is also the thing that we have come to be known for around the world. That’s why it was natural for design to be sought as a competitive tool for the success of Helsinki internationally”, explains Helsinki Design Week’s director Kari Korkman.

Korkman founded the Helsinki Design Week festival in 2005, which gathers professionals of design, architecture and fashion together every year in Helsinki for a week to showcase new developments in the fields. The excitement over design quickly spread to the city administration, too. The international organisation of industrial design, the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design, chose Helsinki as the 2012 world design capital. Helsinki was the third city in the world to be granted the title.

“The design capital year rattled decision makers into thinking what would be good for Helsinki. Eventually, when the opportunities of design started being understood more comprehensively, it switched on the turbo speed of development. Design was a path that the city wanted to set foot on,” says Pekka Timonen, who was leading the project.


At the same time, the designers’ ways of designing novelty had spread to the development of the city’s services, too. Helsinki’s overarching theme for the year, “Open Helsinki – Embedding Design in Life”, expanded and accelerated the application of design into new areas and elevated design as a means for developing novel solutions together. It was as if the year gave permission for start doing things in a new way.

“Traditional design is what Finland is known for around the world. In the future, Helsinki’s reputation as a design city will be born from how extensively design has been understood here,” Timonen says.

New Chief Design Officer to steer Helsinki as a design-driven city

As a follow-up to the design capital year, Helsinki launched the two-year Design Driven City project. Three urban designers were hired for the project, the task of whom it was to find out what kind of a role design professionals can have in developing the city, as well as improving the city’s understanding of the use of design.

“Design is one of those modes of thinking, or approaches, which clarifies and speeds up the execution of complicated things. We succeeded in laying the groundwork for telling about what the place and necessity of design is in the city. In the future, user- and need-driven thinking will transform independently into a clear part of developing services,” says Tiina-Kaisa Laakso-Liukkonen.

According to Laakso-Liukkonen, design expertise is currently desperately needed as a companion to the digitalisation of services.

“We are a technology and engineering nation that loves systematics. However, we have to be careful now that we don’t solely put technology at the forefront again. Good design is always user-driven. Keeping quick trial runs, participation and customer understanding along is vital when designing digital services. The combination of design and systematicity make an unbeatable team.”

The next stage for the city to use design even more strategically will begin when design expertise, digitality and dialogue with users is tightly knit together. The Chief Design Officer, who will be start their work in autumn 2016, will be conducting this stage and the co-development of the future.

Bringing public service design to design education

The transformation has led to the revamping of design education as well. The dean of Aalto University’s academy of arts and design, Helena Hyvönen, explains how there has been an attempt to actively diversify design education in the direction of transformed needs.

“The studies are now more comprehensive and wide-ranging than they were ten years ago. There’s teaching of and the opportunity to minor in business and technology. Design research has also distinguished itself in specifically solving the production of public services.”

But how do designers develop services? The Helsinki-based design office, Pentagon Design, designs products, spaces, services and brands. Its creative leader and shareholder, Arni Aromaa, has over twenty years of experience in combining business thinking with design expertise. A new service design industry has come about alongside the designing of physical products, but according to Aromaa, the manner of designers in approaching problems has remained the same – a designer has never designed just for himself.


“A well designed product fascinatingly stands out from its competitors, is aesthetically pleasing, takes time, is efficient to produce and also creates benefits for the producer. If you think of Helsinki as a designed product, then you can attach the same characteristics to it as well. Design has always meant solving practical problems, and the task of the designer has always been to represent the voice of the users. The historical image of an artist who designs a product and signs it gives a very limited view of a designer’s work. It has always been solving practical problems.”

Kari Korkman believes that during the next ten years, lots of new companies that have design as their main competitive advantage will spring up in Helsinki. Behind this lies the increasing appreciation of entrepreneurship. According to Korkman, the role of events will grow in the future, because people’s everyday activities are moving online.

“The new internationalization is based on interactivity, where networks are the deciding factors. We aren’t talking about imports and exports anymore, but interactive activity. Work is being done increasingly via the web, which is effective but lessens people’s encounters. Events are needed to bring people together, because nothing is as effective as meeting face-to-face.”

Helsinki Design Week, which has grown into a year-round actor, is now helping design intensive companies to succeed around the world. Early in the year the festival joined the new World Design Weeks network, which includes tens of cities from Asia, North and South America, and the Middle East. In 2017, Helsinki Design Week will host the network’s annual event, which will bring international designers and their exhibitions to Finland.

A city as a good platform for design business

Also accelerating the use of urban design have been the simultaneously developed new ways in which the city develops both official and unofficial routes. Widespread customs originating from the people, such as Restaurant Day, with which the city can be used and developed, have made Helsinki more diverse.

A phenomenon can be born from the basis of a small group’s idea, which at its best has transformed cities in thirty-five countries into platforms for thousands of little pop-up restaurants.

According to Fiskars’ product development director, Petter Masalin, it is of vital importance that a city is a place where diversity flourishes, because it creates opportunities for business, too.

“Helsinki is already starting to be quite international, so it is easier to understand different needs here. We are interested in multiculturalism and what different people want. The more broadly Helsinki has ways of living, the better the opportunities for business are as well.”

The city’s residents are now especially interested in combining old and new ways of living, Masalin explains. The development is apparent in the popularity of urban farming, for example.

“Helsinkians are currently interested in wellbeing – they want to grow carrots and herbs in the city centre. The job of design is to enable the realization of these kinds of new interests. When successful, design produces the kinds of tools for people’s needs that you don’t even notice in everyday life.”

Read on


Design thinking isn’t just about creating better products and services; it can be used to make entire cities better. Design enables cities to make changes that both save money and hit their target, say strategic designer Marco Steinberg and Tiina-Kaisa Laakso-Liukkonen, Secretary General of the International Design Foundation.

The next big change in design


Using public services in a smart city is simple and even pleasant, say Jaakko Salavuo, Director of Information Technology and Communications and Santtu von Bruun, Head of the Competitiveness and international relations unit at the City of Helsinki.

Smart Cities


User-centered design helps create services that citizens actually need, say Turkka Keinonen, Professor of Design at Aalto University and Päivi Sutinen, Service Development Director of Espoo.

User-centered design


Helsinki is known around the world for its design thinking that reaches throughout the city, all the way to its leadership. According to Design Foundation Finland’s Jorma Lehtonen, it's thanks to education – but we still need a lot more.

Helsinki and design thinking


Participatory design is most productive when other groups in addition to the end users are also involved. Then it becomes co-design, say innovation adviser Tuula Jäppinen at The Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, and Tuuli Mattelmäki, Professor of Design at Aalto University.

From participatory design to co-design


Using design to develop cities will offer plenty of work in the next few years. Different public actors would like to buy design expertise, but first it is necessary to know how to make a good call for tenders, says Tiina-Kaisa Laakso Liukkonen, former Project Director for Design Driven City.

Tendering for design