“Scandinavian design” has become shorthand for sleek, understated, and beautiful minimalism, but as each Scandi nation would attest, it’s far from a catch-all term. In Finland design is delivered with sincerity, craftsmanship, and a touch of eccentricity, as I discovered at Helsinki Design Week this year. Across disciplines, design is taken seriously, but playfully too. There’s an omnipresent sense of humor, not only in Finnish product design—like the work of 83-year-old, permanently cheerful designer Eero Aarnio, inventor of the iconic 1963 Ball chair—but in the nation’s graphics and illustration output too.
A quick scan over the website of Agent Pekka, Finland’s biggest illustration agency, sums up a spirit of superb craftsmanship married with the sort of eccentricity that can’t be forced: just look at the likes of Sac Magique, Rami Niemi, Antti Kalevi, and Linda Linko. While there’s no one style, there’s certainly an approach that seems to unite Finnish creative output. “From my point of view it would be extreme boldness combined with as little razzle dazzle as possible,” says Mikael Kivelä, head of design at Helsinki-based agency 358.
According to illustrator Antti Kalevi, if there is a shared style, it comes down to the fact Finland is so small. “We have so many talented illustrators here, but what makes it interesting is the variety of styles. We have such a small market here in Finland so illustrators have to have a strong style to succeed, but when they do they are probably working globally already.”
Fellow illustrator and designer Linda Linko agrees that a small population can both increase competition and also hone style; it makes for a close-knit, supportive group. “Finland is a relatively small country, and the design community is small. Everyone knows each other,” she says. “We support each other a lot.”
Finland is a country much lauded for the quality of its education. Recently The Guardian published yet another article looking to explain why it consistently comes top in best education leagues, pointing to the fact that children don’t learn mathematics or literacy until they’re seven years old. Before that, the focus is on play and creativity. Once school has started, design education is high on the list of priorities.
In the 1990s the city of Helsinki, the Finnish capital, made architecture and design education a formal part of school operations. This introduced “design thinking” to the way schools tackled issues like bullying and classroom planning. Petra Ilonen from the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo, says; “Design education is based on participatory and phenomenon-based learning, perspectives that are now emphasised in education. We participated in the assembling of the design path for schools tool, to ensure that the teachers can find materials and complete education entities created by professionals in one place.”
The primary institutions teaching design in higher education are Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture, and Lahti Institute of Design, which is part of Lahti University of Applied Sciences (some 100 km north of Helsinki). Kalevi’s experience studying graphic design at Aalto University was for the most part very positive. “The best thing is of course the other students from whom I learned so many different attitudes, tips, and tricks,” she says.
Linko also studied at Aalto University. “When I was studying it was quite artsy and we did most of the work by hand. Every week we had a group session called “the critic” where we discussed each other’s work—very straight and honest,” she says. “I think that was the most important education I had from school, and I learned a lot about style and creating my own thing. In work life you just don’t have that anymore.”
When I visited Helsinki Design Week it was clear that the Finns are immensely proud of the work they produce. While there was certainly an international feel, the focus was on showcasing Finnish design and designers. “I think people appreciate good design here,” says Kalevi.“Some people are very interested and they pay attention to things, and some people less, but it’s all fine.”
“People’s attitudes towards design are quite positive,” Linko adds. “Everyone has at least one Aalto vase at home, or Iittala glasswear, or Marimekko towels, or all of them. I dare say an average Finn has a basic understanding of visual design, but at the same time it’s always a challenge to explain to new people what I do for living.”
Kivelä feels that Finland’s graphics scene has gone under the radar until now, but the situation is steadily improving. “People are starting to see the value in graphic design,” he says. “There has been a long-lasting trend of approaching design like an engineer—form follows function and other phrases. Functionality is self-evident. It’s like designing a car and talking about how it’s important the car has some wheels and a windshield, and stuff like that. What makes the difference is how you feel when you see the car on the street, how you feel when you open the door and sit inside, how you feel when you start the engine. That’s beyond functionality; it’s art, it’s intuition. That’s where the real value is generated.”
Design in Finland is about beauty, functionality, and fun; qualities that correlate neatly with its attitudes towards design and design learning. These continue to form a growing part of the curriculum. As reported in The Guardian, changes to the Finnish national curriculum this year mean the country, “now devotes more time to art and crafts. Creativity is the watchword.”