In 2013, Helsinki- and New York-based design studio Tsto created a visual identity for a graphic design exhibition at Design Museum Helsinki that included contributions from the likes of Metahaven, Kokoro & Moi, and HORT’s Eike König. The commission gave Tsto an opportunity to think about what it means to be a designer today. With more and more visual stimulation surrounding us all the time, the studio decided to turn its gaze inwards and ask which elements of graphic design are really necessary and which are merely “visual trickery.”

With all its work, the studio aims to go well below the surface of things, questioning the status quo, and unravelling the meaning of trends and their impact on the way that we view the world. Alongside commercial work, primarily for arts and culture clients, Tsto uses its personal projects to explore various areas of design. In 2012, its book about smileys vigorously and poetically investigates our contemporary obsession with emoji, and includes intentionally vacuous blather like, “Smileys are holes in the universe of texts and messages, leaking meaning irretrievably into cold space.”

The identity Tsto designed for the Design Museum exhibition gave it an opportunity to probe into some juicy design topics a little more seriously. It set itself ten rules for creating the identity—cutting out what it saw as the most typical visual tropes in contemporary graphic design. Self-imposed restrictions included things like “no colors,” “no in-jokes,” “no minimalism,” “no brushwork or calligraphy,” and “no system fonts.” The list reads like a guide to what’s hip in contemporary design, and by banning easy go-tos, Tsto asked itself what “mannerisms” were essential to its practice and what it was simply leaning on to create an easy, if effective aesthetic punch.

“It was a special project for us, an interesting experiment and an essential part of Tsto folklore,” says one of the studio founders, Matti Kunttu. “’Mannerisms aren’t necessarily bad. It depends how you use them. It’s hard to reinvent the wheel again and again for every project. Once your own mannerisms are laid out on the table for observation you can combine them in new ways, or use them in an unexpected context.”

Tsto has carried its learnings into more recent commissions, too. For its identity for Bier Bier, a bar situated on the ground floor of a beautiful Art Nouveau building in central Helsinki, it used the popular “mannerism” of brush strokes, but for an emphatic reason. The custom logo has rounded lines and uneven strokes evocative of the froth marks on frosty cold beer glasses and watermarks left on table surfaces, and the varied letter shapes suggest the multiplicity of beers available at the bar, which serves over 100 brews.

“We always come up with a concept for the identity first,” Kunttu explains. “Then we usually pick the font or fonts to suit the overall feel of the concept.” Such was also the case for Tsto’s even more recent identity for Helsinki art museum Taidehalli (below), which uses the architecture of the building to inform the graphic design. The studio began by looking at fonts from the early 1930s that would complement Jarl Eklund and Hilding Ekelund’s proud, almost imposing architecture.

“We had a strong sense of what the character of the typeface should be,” says Kunttu. “Something classic with good legibility, but with a contemporary twist.” Optimo Type foundry had just released Stanley, a typeface inspired by Times New Roman, which originates around the same time as the museum was built. “Voilá!” says Kunttu. “It looked great and was sweet for posters and other larger-scale type elements that we knew would be a defining part of the identity.”