Photography & video — Jyri Öhman, Mari Huhtanen, Vilja Pursiainen
Text — Annaliina Niitamo

Information Design Makes Urban Information Appealing: The Future of Trams


When information that is hard to understand is released by a city in a clear manner, it makes it easier for citizens to participate in developing their city. Helsinki’s tram system will change radically in the coming years. It needs to be expanded upon without solely relying on engineering jargon.


If Helsinki were given its own sound, it would be the clatter of a tram. The first trams in Helsinki ran in 1891 and were pulled by horses. Nowadays when searching for an apartment, many people mention that they want to live within a tram network. At their best, tramlines are easy to grasp and create strong routes in a city, which are simple to use without a map.

The Helsinki City Planning Department’s traffic engineer Niko Setälä is involved in conducting a tram project at the Helsinki City Planning Department. The goal is to make travelling by tram even smoother and expand the tram network to entirely new parts of town.

“We want to start a discussion about what citizens desire from public transport,” Setälä says.

Well-designed information engages citizens

A city’s responsibilities include transparency and being under the assessment of its residents. This requires the residents to understand what their city intends to do. That is why the City Planning Department, with the help of information design professionals, has produced visualisations that communicate the new tram system plans in an interesting manner.

“We have an awful lot of texts and reports published, but only few people bother or have the time to read them,” Setälä says.

A huge amount of technical details and expert knowledge are behind the tram system reforms, but traffic engineers tell about their plans with the help of visualisations and by discussing them in non-technical terms. This is called information design.

Helsinki among the first to have a major in Information Design

Aalto University has recognized the need to train information designers. Beginning in autumn 2016, the Visual Communication Design Master’s programme's Information Design major will use methods from design and graphic design, with which data is made understandable and user-friendly.


The amount of information in the world doubles every two years and the pace is ever increasing, says Aalto University’s Professor of Graphic Design, Zachary Dodson.

“At the same time, it is important to understand and interpret information on a human scale. It is not enough that information is merely visualised; instead you have to discover something meaningful from it.”

A professor will be announced for the Information Design Master’s major soon. The programme will take Aalto University to the crest of an international wave, because at the moment you can only complete a degree in information design in the United States, Great Britain, and Zürich. Aalto’s degree is multidisciplinary and it combines visual communication, data expertise, interactive visualization, programming and critical design, among other things.

Just as when designing a good chair, in information design too you have to think about the user.

“It’s no good designing a chair for a person of one specific height only, because then the next person cannot use the chair. You have to think about the widest possible user group if you want the design to be usable,” Zachary Dodson says.

Design’s methods pick out the essentials from data

Setälä says that it was useful for the engineer to talk with external information designers. Kaskas Media acted as the communication partner of the city’s department.

“The communication and visualization professionals knew how to ask the right questions about what is important knowledge for the residents. They saw what information was interesting to visualise.”

Engineering knowledge regarding trams does not immediately sound like an interesting story. How do you make expert knowledge attractive?

“Things are often thought of as very complex totalities. You have to be able to cut out excessive details and find relevant points,” Niko Setälä says.

An urban resident might not be interested by the fact that increasing the speed of trams requires a range of improvements to the tracks, traffic lights and partitioning of street environments. What is interesting is that he will arrive five minutes earlier. Let the engineer take care of the rest.


Key lesson: Information can be designed, too. Information design enables a dialogue between professionals and urban residents. Departments encounter residents better when they design information concerning them clearly and captivatingly.

Read on


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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