San Miguel to Suomi

Short version: I’m moving to Helsinki to work for Sitra where I am largely responsible for a very exciting project. Yay!

It has been a while since I had to do this, but for clarity’s sake everything written below is the opinion of bryan boyer the individual and does not necessarily reflect the opinions or interests of my employer, Sitra.


Unknown but striking participant from Helsinki Design Lab 1968, literally translated as “The Industrial, Environment and Product Design Seminar.” Photo copyright Kristian Runeberg.

Last week in Helsinki I spent a lot of time digging through archival material from the summer of 1968. Ostensibly I was working, but the excitement with which I poured over the photographs and documents would have made it obvious to anyone nearby that this was hardly a chore. The subject of my limited research was an event held on the island of Suomenlinna, a fortress outside Helsinki that hosted Christopher Alexander, Buckminster Fuller, Kaj Frank, Victor Papanek, and other mid century luminaries for a sort of design workshop. Conversing about topics as diverse as national energy policy and the prototyping of a portable reindeer slaughterhouse (seriously), the young Finns who organized this event did so because they felt a crisis brewing in their world: resources were exhibiting their scarcity, social unrest was spreading, and experts were increasingly entrenched in their own circles of conversation. Design, they argued, could be used as a methodology that brings with it a lateral, holistic approach to the visualization and solving of problems.

Sounds familiar, right? World-saving cross-disciplinary discussions have been undergoing a kind of second-coming recently. What struck me was the prescience of the original documents – as I read it was often hard to remember that the words were committed to paper 40 years ago. Forty years and we’re still having the same discussion. To a pessimist this would be depressing lack of progress. An optimist, however, sees the past forty years as the preparing of ground for the next forty. Perhaps now, with all this time that has passed, we’re ready as a society to listen to the nagging voice of the designer. Rather than using the aesthetic judgment of an individual solely to fixate on the development of products and buildings, this is a definition of design as a method of inquiry – a mindset in conjunction with a coterie of tools and techniques that may be applied to the production of concrete objects as readily as the development and analysis of abstract systems.

Acknowledging the many pitfalls of language that come with this territory, we could call this practice “strategic design.” A designer working in this territory would use their ability to visualize in their mind and on paper complex sets of relationships such as those existing in any plan or section. They would use their ability to pursue multiple paths to the same goal the same way any studio worth their salt presents multiple schemes. They would think about the coordination, staging, and relationship of multiple self-interested parties the same way that an architect negotiates between the trades. A designer of this sort would bring to the abstract configuration of political structures, organizations, and events the same sort of pragmatic rigor that they apply to the working drawings of an object going into production (in other words, strategic design is useless without consideration of tactical execution).

Language is indeed a problem in this discussion and it’s about to get worse. My new employer is Sitra, The Finnish Innovation Fund. I can imagine the look that most of you reading this site must have smeared across your face right now. Strategy and Innovation? Yikes!

I am just as skeptical of terms like “strategic, “innovation,” and “design thinking” (4 simple steps!) as you probably are. For me, this distrust comes from seeing these terms used as rubber stamps to up the hourly rate or fluff up a studio project. Making a zany proposal is not innovative and it’s certainly not strategic. Pulling some stats from Wikipedia does not “design thinking” make. If we – as a discipline of designers – are to make use of such terms we must hold ourselves accountable to external judgment while also defending the specialization of our skills. Strategic design faces the dual threats of academic inflation and business deflation. On the one hand, academic environments rarely offer any opportunities for realization (and thus testing of ideas) in a strategic context. On the other, the business world increasingly threatens to gobble up “design” as a stock solution to poor sales and destroy the credibility and effectiveness of any serious design-minded method of inquiry in the process (“Creativity! Zam! $$$ ?!?”).

Trained designers must gain enough credibility that they can reclaim these wasted terms. Credibility comes from results, which requires testing, which requires implementation, which means we have to partner with those who need help solving their own complex problems. Currently design has a very low stakes role in global decision making because we are generally brought into the process once most of the important decisions have already been made. If we really want to change the world becoming involved with decisions at higher levels, with more at stake, is essential. If designers partner with fabricators of various sorts to bring their projects into material reality, we must consider governments and corporations the fabricators of strategic design.

Snapshot from my first visit to Helsinki in 2002 as a tourist

This is exactly why working at Sitra is exciting: as a government-endowed fund that reports to the Finnish Parliament we are accountable to the decision making apparatus of the country. Sitra has both the position and the mandate to think broadly and strategically about how to enhance the “welfare of Finnish society” – and by extension the global community. To be a designer asked to bring my skills to bear on the problems that an organization like this deals with on a daily basis is… well, pretty damn awesome.

My main task, which you will be hearing more about in the near-ish future, is to organize Helsinki Design Lab 2010, an event whose heritage stretches back to the 1968 happening mentioned above. To put it bluntly, it’s my job to make sure that HDL 2010 doesn’t follow the stale model of most design conferences: a bunch of people talking about slides. Luckily for me, there’s a great foundation to build upon.

See you summer of 2010 in Helsinki?

1 Comment so far

  1. namhenderson on February 6th, 2009

    Sounds like an awesome opportunity.
    Can’t wait to follow your progress and read about how you settle in to your new surroundings.

Leave a Reply