All posts by Bryan Boyer

Bryan Boyer was Strategic Design Lead at Sitra and project manager of all things HDL.

Weeknotes Week 050

The coffee is ready and it's still not even 07:00 yet. Let's see if we can get this done before the sun comes up.

Continuing the Ambiguous Middle Phase we had a week full of appointments but with little to show. We visited another five design firms this week–in addition to three last week–in search of the perfect team to give HDL 2010 a distinct visual identity. Across the board I've been impressed with the teams and their work, but I have to say that Helsinki firms seem to be allergic to sharing their projects on the internet. No one can see how great your work is unless you show it, people!

Marco has been busy confirming speakers and participants in our summertime Studios as well as the event in September. Just before the end of the day Friday we had another look at the studio week schedules and those are shaping up nicely. We're about 60% confirmed on the weeklong program for each of three studios, but securing those remaining slots is work that's well underway.

Mmmm. Coffee and a snapshot:

In between visiting design studios, Minna and I dropped by Ritarihuone to check out the venue for our opening dinner in September.
In between visiting design studios, Minna and I dropped by Ritarihuone to check out the venue for our opening dinner in September.

Also on the topic of studios, we had an efficient meeting with the Ministry of Education. As a reward for arriving late (thanks, blizzard) we departed early. They're excited about working with us on the Education Studio and we're very pleased that are so engaged by the collaboration. We gave them a tiny window of opportunity to make comments on the Challenge Briefing draft and they still managed to responded a day early.

Tomorrow Marco and I are meeting to look over the comments we've received from our key stakeholders and to prepare a really, truly, 100% final draft of the Challenge Briefings.

And it goes... Minna has been interviewing catering co's, I've been on the horn with Barcelona about the design work for the Challenge Briefings, Hanna secured a travel agency to arrange everything for our guests (and making sure they're not incompetent robots), and we all continue the hunt for a studio space... This was week 50.


Weeknotes Week 049

We're entering that ambiguous middle phase of a project where things are sufficiently developed that there's A Lot to Do, but not yet so imminent as to be fiercely urgent. That's a fancy way of saying that there are many things on the burner but only a few tangible outcomes.

Adriel, Ezra, and Justin finished up their respective Challenge Briefing drafts on Friday. Justin and Adriel are each celebrating by taking some well-earned vacation to Peru and Florida, respectively. Send us some sunshine. OK, gentlemen?

This is why we need a sunshine delivery. Photo by <a href=\"\">Tomi Kukkonen</a> on Flickr.
This is why we need a sunshine delivery. Photo by Tomi Kukkonen on Flickr.

Next week Marco and I will be reviewing the drafts with the partners for each of the studios and then sending everything off to TwoPoints in Barcelona to turn the Word docs into booklets, which should be done around the end of March.

Seungho spent a day and a half in the belly of the National Archives for Prints and Photographs digging up historical images of Finland's settlements, work life, and family conditions to be used in these booklets. Now he's off to Cambodia with Aalto University's City in Crisis program. We're looking forward to hearing from him while he's away. If he has time, Seungho promised to post some short updates to the blog.

Hanna continues to search for a studio space. Some promising leads but nothing confirmed yet. Jaana and Minna are exploring diplomatic protocol for some of our invites.

Marco happened to choose the week of Snowpocalypse to visit the US for meetings with some potential partners. He reports good conversations in Boston and New York City, but the DC leg unfortunately had to be canceled. This will be rescheduled, though, since we had a packed session planned on Capitol Hill.

I've been doing lots of little things. It feels a bit like building a car while it's already starting to roll out of the garage. Confirming studio participants, working on bits of our collaboration infrastructure, preparing content for the website relaunch, interviewing designers for the HDL 2010 identity, and drinking a lot of tea. The Ambiguous Middle Phase continues.


Weeknotes Week 048

Judging by the fact that there are only thirty minutes left in week #048 and I'm just now beginning the weeknote, it was a long one.

More of everything. More visits to possible venues around Senaatintori, more people confirmed for the HDL Studios, more work on the Challenge Briefings that belong to those studios, more people on the team. Welcome, Sanna!

With all of this comes a different "more:" waiting. We have inquiries out on a few key bits of our September plans and the wait is near excruciating. Luckily there's plenty of work to distract us while we wait.

Adriel and Ezra spent the weekend working with Justin on the Challenge Briefings. Those are set to be 100% complete drafts in two weeks, so everyone is feeling the pressure to not only cross the tees and dot the eyes, but also make sure the structure and positioning are just right and that the information is accurate and complete. On Wednesday we experienced a first for HDL: Justin, Marco, and I held a three continent conference call to talk through some of the remaning high level questions for the briefings.

My week was split between Helsinki and Bangalore. It started in India with filmmaker Helen Han and designer/entrepreneur Poonam Bir Kasturi. Poonam is the founder of a project called The Daily Dump which offers a grass roots approach to waste management and reduction in the form of composting. Poonam and her team have been recognized by everyone from INDEX to TED, so it's no surprise that her work is inspiring. What we find particularly interesting is her approach to the systemic challenge of waste management. It's a huge, messy problem with no magic bullet. Poonam's response is an enterprise which is designed from the start to be inclusive and diffuse.

Poonam's sketch of the recycling cycle in Bangalore.
Poonam's sketch of the recycling cycle in Bangalore.

The Daily Dump is a manifold approach involving both products and services, supported by a culture of knowledge that casually informs people about the implications of their lifestyle choices. This is furthered by educational materials and curricula developed for use in elementary schools so that kids can learn about these issues more directly. From a business point of view, one unique property of the Daily Dump is that it's open source. The ideas are published for anyone to copy or adapt in their own area.

With twelve established clones, including one in her own neighborhood of Bangalore, this strategy is beginning to pay dividends as the collective body of knowledge about composting and the tools that enable it grow with each new clone context. The sum total is an ambitious, frenetic project that keeps Poonam and her team very busy. During my short few days in their offices the conversation was constantly switching between languages and subjects. I was a happy fly on the wall as Poonam discussed pricing strategies with some of her clones while simultaneously switching in an out of a design critique of their new website.

Helen will be there for two months as an embedded designer, both helping the Daily Dump articulate the narrative of their work as well as making a short film about the recycling networks within the city of Bangalore. This is a new area of exploration for Poonam and her team and we're thrilled to have an inside look at how the work develops. Helen's film will debut at HDL 2010 and we'll post it here shortly afterwards!

From a visit to <a href="">Bangalore's City Market</a>, the recycling network's major node.
From a visit to Bangalore's City Market, the recycling network's major node.


Weeknotes Week 047

Another Saturday morning, another Weeknote. This week was not atypically busy, but it sure felt like it – in a good way. Progress was made.

An important theme this month (bye, January) has been reminding everyone around us that Helsinki Design Lab is a mission-driven initiative, rather than just an event. Marco spent a lot of time re-presenting the full scope of the project both in and out of house and it's something that we need to continually push back on since this is a new development.

Helsinki Design Lab 1968 and 2008 were singular events. Like any gathering of great minds, the electricity in the air set other things in motion but those were ancillary benefits and not the core focus. When we started the planning for HDL 2010 we pulled everything back to first principles. What is the mission of Helsinki Design Lab? Only after answering that can you get to a discussion about 2010.

Consider this a rather ungainly beta version:

Governments (and large organizations) are facing tremendous transformation challenges if they are to maintain viability in the future. The challenge today is to develop pathways to systemic & strategic improvements. To do so governments are faced with the monumental task of redesigning both the boundaries of complex problems (healthcare, education, sustainability to name a few) and the ways they deliver. By offering an integrated approach to defining problems and developing solutions, strategic design is an essential capability for governments that aim to meet the challenges of today. Helsinki Design Lab fosters the creation of knowledge, capability, and achievement in strategic design through gatherings, publications, and sponsorship.

In other words, we're helping build design as a strategic competency within government. This is different from recent chatter about design policy in support of the creative industries. That's a good-but-different thing. Strategic design is moving the methods and tools of design upstream where they can have a transformative impact rather than acting as decoration. This is only possible when the designer is legitimately part of early stakeholder conversations: those which are at a strategic level. That's going to require changes to design culture as well as new perceptions about the role of design.

With this as the rough scope of our ambition, you will hopefully agree that HDL is now more of a mission than just an event. From inside, it feels a bit like a startup. We've designed it with three components that each run on different time scales:

  1. HDL 2010: An event offering a forum to a global community of decision makers and strategic designers, to gain insights from this way of defining challenges and delivering results. This is our legacy and we see it continuing stronger than ever.
  2. HDL Studios: Within Finland, HDL is developing its own experiments that bring leading strategic designers together with content experts to develop solutions for real world problems currently faced by government. This summer we will run three studios focusing on education, aging, and sustainability. More details on these in the near future.
  3. An online community built for sharing like-minded work happening around the world. When we launch our new site this Spring it will showcase strategic design case studies that take steps towards formalizing knowledge in this area. We hope that the site can become a collecting point for people interested in strategic design.

We've been working so furiously since last Fall that a proper overview of HDL never made it onto this site, but I'm glad it's here now.

And about this week: Wednesday was the highlight for selfish reasons. Between daily schedules and a few people on the floor being out with sickness, the office was unusually empty and still. Marco had scheduled a trip to Oslo on that day but canceled it at the last minute, meaning that no one knew he was in the office and we could concentrate on HDL for a couple solid hours without meetings or other tasks interrupting. We laboriously sketched out HDL 2010 and the Studios on a minute by minute basis so they both feel much more like known quantities now.

On our new floor we have a circular table in the center of the cluster of desks. This is a great place for these longer conversations and it reminds me why I believe in architecture: a slightly more open space and a new furniture plan are already helping our workflow.

The HDL Studios are coming along well with five confirmations from very talented invitees. Unfortunately, this week we also had our first declined invitation – Joanne is too busy as the COO of a new hospital in Singapore to join us for the Aging studio. Understandable.

For HDL 2010 we've been meeting with contractors who will help with the backoffice and other practical details. This is a huge project on its own with a whole new pile of details to look after, but it's exciting because it means we're moving forward.

Seungho is getting up to speed remarkably quickly and spent part of the week chipping in on research for Justin's Sustainability Studio challenge briefing.

Hanna and I have been looking for a storefront space in the center of Helsinki to use as the pop-up office for the HDL Studios that we will run in May and June. We want the studio to feel rooted in the city, and having a physical presence will offer us an additional venue to share what we're up to with a wider audience. Somehow we managed to schedule our scouting trip on Thursday, a particularly snowy and cold day. Nothing like a two hour walk through the snow to start your morning off right.

Yesterday we made an in-principal agreement to bring six top students from one of the local universities into the HDL Studios as research and visualization support staff. This is great since they have very talented students and HDL is sure to be a unique learning experience for them.

My focus this week was on the outward facing bits and core of our the internal machinery. Outside: giving feedback on the new website; press check on the stationary (finally!); and, most importantly, revamping our documents. Inside: transitioning to Basecamp for project management, getting a little to-do happy, and moving the "HDL Brain" spreadsheet from Excel to Google Docs. That's the name of our spreadsheet that tracks budget, schedule of the various components, and our invite list. With the amount of work going into that document I sometimes wonder if it truly will become sentient.


Weeknotes Week 045

This was a big week for us, as it's the first of 2010 that everyone was in one place at the same time. Justin was over from Boston so we took the opportunity to have an all day retreat for HDL. What do you call these all-day-meetings-in-another-place? "Retreat" seems like the absolute wrong word. It's about pushing things forward! I'm reading Michael Barber's Instructions To Deliver at the moment wherein he uses the term "away day." We might steal that term. We also welcomed two more Sitra people to the team on a part time basis and are waiting on some internal figurings-out before we officially welcome two more beyond that. Oh, and we hired our first intern, Seungho, to start next week. All told, that's a 83% increase in team size in a single week!

Marco spent Wednesday in London where he attended approximately 176 meetings in a span of only 6 hours while the city ground to a halt under a light dusting of snow. Apparently those meetings went well because we've now added two more names to the studio rosters. Today we finally secured our 3rd studio lead. This probably seems totally abstract given the lack of details about HDL on this site at the moment, but trust me that it's a big milestone for us.

With this growth come some key questions: how will we share files and data? Sitra has in-house systems but they're not necessarily geared towards the sort of work we need to do, nor the style in which we work. Seems like this is one of the challenges of an 'internal startup:' deciding how much of your parent organization's standard process and tools to adopt and how much do you rethink. I spent a good chunk of Friday researching CRM tools that will let us manage a list of invites without sacrificing experience quality on either the recipient or admin sides. Still undecided but so far I am not convinced by any of the options. For general coordination issues we will probably end up in Basecamp, but I'm still looking for better options.

We spent a good bit of time in front of the calendar moving post-its between little boxes. Things are a little more solid there, but it's a very ambitious time line we have set up. The idea with the home-printed calendar was to just write on it with pencils and plot a new one when it got too messy, but instead post-its are seemingly unavoidable. The next iteration will need bigger boxes that fit more than one post-it (of different colors)!

Justin's taking over primary responsibility for the Challenge Briefings and he'll be working with Adriel and Ezra over the next couple of weeks to get that content into shape. I spent a couple days editing and reorganizing the Briefs so that they're happily three of a kind and ready to enter this final phase of writing and editing. Now that we've been working on this content since last September it's starting to feel like we are developing a new sort of document. It's not an essay, not a manual, not a historical review, not an atlas, not a summary... the Challenge Briefing is somewhere between all of those.

Just got off the phone with Helen to make final plans for her time in Bangalore. She's heading there to spend two months with the Daily Dump, helping them with their work while simultaneously creating a documentary about their recycling efforts. At HDL we've been exploring the idea of an "embedded designer" that brings design muscle into a needed context by embedding themselves within a host organization. While that's not quite the case here since Daily Dump is run by a group of awesome designers, it's still an interesting experience for us as we learn the ins-and-outs of supporting other organizations and working in collaboration with them. Eventually we would like to be sponsoring designers to work within ministries and other governmental silos but we're still working on a reasonable path forward. The hypothesis is that a little bit of design expertise in a completely devoid context can go a long way.

At 11pm on a Saturday the day ends after a quick conversation with Constructing Communication about getting their help on turning the Briefings into beautifully designed documents. But I've Saved the best for last: a quick review of the updated site design from Rumors – lest the excitement of this new file in my inbox keep me from sleeping!


Weeknotes Week 044

The airport in Austin, TX is filled with droning organ music this morning. It's a little weird. I've stopped here for a two day workshop with XOXCO on my way home from a winter holiday in the US. We spent the days developing a solid plan for the web presence of HDL2010: lots and lots of little things to line up with September only eight months away.

One of the central issues for us is how to capture all of the content related to HDL in a format that is more meaningful than a blog full of posts ordered by reverse chronology. We need to be able to capture the evolution of thinking around a topic and to make that evolution legible. XOXCO has some great ideas so I'm very excited to see what they come up with for us.

Meanwhile, the geniuses at Rumors are cooking on a refined design of the site and we had the chance to review comps for the first time. This thing is becoming real.

Back in the office Marco, Minna, and Justin have begun settling in to our new space while tending to the daily business, preparing for our HDL away day, and giving Low2No some special attention. Joining us for the away day are three colleagues from Sitra who are all joining the HDL team: Elina (media/press), Hanna (project assistance), and Jaana (event management). Welcome!

Drafting up the agenda for that meeting was a Good Thing To Do because it helped discretize some of the larger outstanding issues. We're pretty comfortable with looking after loose ends and handling uncertainty, but some of the items on the docket are more like entire ropes of unsorted issues that appear deceptively simple by virtue of being tightly woven together. Writing an agenda is a good way to force yourself to unravel those ropes, and unraveled they have been.


Weeknotes Week 042

This week? It snowed; we had a holiday; it was a great. Hope you had a nice holiday as well, now let's get back to work!


Weeknotes Week 041

I should be sleeping, as I'm on the plane flying to the California for the holidays, but instead I'm writing this weeknote because I'm that dedicated nerdy.

Somehow it seems appropriate that this, our last full week before the holiday, is also the first full week of snow in Helsinki. Goodbye, Winter gloom. The snow really does make daily life more bright and the quality of the light is something special.

We started out with a visit to the comfy office of Demos Helsinki in the city's Viiskulma ("five corners") neighborhood. Having checked out their Peleton project a bit it was nice to hear more of the backstory (English summary here). They started out by looking at all of the decisions that one makes in their lifetime and the potential impact those choices have on your individual carbon footprint. From there, they selected the decisions that have a high footprint potential and asked "who is the gatekeeper for this decision?" The list is counterintuitive and suggests that the people at point-of-purchase have a very important role to play in behavior change. If your builder suggests that you use a certain insulation, for instance, you generally follow their advice. Peleton is about working with these gatekeepers to help them understand the importance of their role.

Demos was a no brainer when I had a call from SIX in London later in the week to talk about social innovation in Finland. They've been commissioned to write up an exciting report on the topic and we were happy to share with them some of the things going on here. We'll post a link when the report is published.

Actually, lots of phone calls and emails this week – mostly Marco's – to catch up with old contacts and start sharing with them the plans for 2010. It's a bit odd to be announcing that here since we haven't really had a chance to give a suitable public overview of where Helsinki Design Lab is headed, but that's only because it has been so fluid. In construction the term "fast track" means that the process of designing and building a building are conducted in parallel, with the early site work and foundations going in before the full set of plans are drawn. This is very much the approach we've had to HDL. With the foundations just about in we're also nearing completion on the design, so to speak, and I'm making it my goal to update this site in the first week of January with a clearer plan for 2010. Bear with us.

Some logistical things: we packed up the office so we can move to a new floor in the new year; Marco visited TAIK to talk about having some of their students work with us in the Spring; Martin and I made a final decision on the paper stock for our stationery (Munken Lynx, if you're curious) and finalized the design; and I had a late night check-in call with XOXCO. Those time zones are killer.

Thursday we met with Pekka T. to talk about possible venues and agreed to go with him on a visit to City Hall in early January. This is an important one for us: we definitely do not want to host HDL in a typical congress hall or something overly formal like Finlandia, beautiful though it may be. HDL 1968 was held on the grassy fields and in the crenelated environs of Suomenlinna. In 2008 we temporarily converted a warehouse space in Katajannokka into an amenable environ for conversation. This year, as we begin to hone the focus of HDL as an environment for enhancing design as a strategic asset for government we hope to host the event literally within the halls of government – to embed design there, if even temporarily for now. We're also trying to avoid the all-in-one sort of venue that traps participants in a single place, regardless of how comfortable it may be. If things work out, we'll be hosting HDL across a couple different locations around Senaatintori. This is a big if, but an exciting one.

And I've saved the best item for last: we asked Adriel and Ezra to have 80% drafts of their respective challenge briefs done for us this week and they took that quite literally, sending the files at the end of the day Friday! I'll be pouring over the briefs during the flight, but first I think I'll sign off and enjoy this sunrise over the Baltic.


Weeknotes Week 040

We've been digging into the case study content. Justin and I have been working on drafting up case studies of the various projects we visited in November. Thankfully there were two of us because it's very helpful to have two sets of notes so as to provide a complete picture of visits and interviews. Also, this must be journalism 101, but it really does make a big difference to review and transcribe notes as soon as possible after an interview. Next time we do a round of case study visits we will definitely build in more time for processing and documentation.

Minna and I had the great pleasure of visiting Jaakko Ihamuotila and Yrjö Sotamaa in their respective homes to interview them on video about their roles as organizers of the 1968 event, which was HDL's predecessor. Both of them mentioned the Cop15 proceedings in Copenhagen to illustrate how it has taken us 40 years to come back to a discussion that was quite active in the late 60s and early 70s.

Contemplating an environment for Mentally Handicapped Children at HDL 1968. Photo by Kristian Runeberg.
Contemplating an environment for Mentally Handicapped Children at HDL 1968. Photo by Kristian Runeberg.

I was also encouraged to hear both Jaakko and Yrjö mention the important role played by two design exercises held at HDL 1968. Participants were asked to collaborate on the design and prototyping of two items which offered an opportunity for ideas to be applied toward practical needs. I'm hoping that there was not an intended connection between the two projects – a mobile reindeer slaughter facility and an educational environment for mentally handicapped children – but those specific choices are a mystery that we'll chalk up to the magic decade that was the 1960s.

The more we introduce new people to HDL the more we refine the sequence of documents that progressively explain the project. I've organized a folder on the server with versions of our project explanation in two sentence, one page, and five page versions. These are critical to have on hand at a moment's notice and we continually refine them as the necessary focus shifts and details become more concrete. This week we put these documents to work in meetings with the Ministry of Education, Foreign Ministry, and Aalto University who will all be contributing to HDL 2010 in varying ways. Lots more of these sorts of meetings in the coming month or two.

We confirmed one of the participants in our Sustainability studio. This is an important focus for us leading up to the holiday.

Speaking of which, we took a long lunch on Tuesday for our team Joululounas ("Christmas Lunch") which reminds me that next week is the last before the holiday. There's a lot to do before we close out the year but it's feeling manageable.

Besides, we seem to work better under pressure anyways.


Weeknotes Week 039

Is it really december already?

This week we learned the true cost of a long trip. It takes at least a week to catch up on everything that you put off because you were on the road. The accumulation of missed emails, the necessity of thank yous and greetings to everyone you met on your travels, the processing of a huge pile of receipts (47 expense reports!) ... this adds up to another week that disappears from the calendar.

Adriel and Ezra are in full swing on their challenge brief documents. Looks like we were ever-so-slightly ambitious in our original mid-December timeline, but they're still going gangbusters and are developing some great material. Like any research or fact-finding process, we're coming to realize that it will be important to have a resting period where we can collectively let the material soak in before going in for another round of edits and revisions. So we'll get the briefs to draft by mid december and then pick them up again in the middle of January after we've had a chance to get some more eyes on the content.

Off in Barcelona, TwoPoints is nearing completion on the design of the Helsinki Design Lab visual identity system. We've sent out some draft material to the printer for a quote on papers and envelopes and all those necessities of business. Meanwhile we've started working with the templates internally to format our documents in a coherent manner. Some kinks still, but one last round of revisions is ironing those out nicely. It's weird to see this thing that has been such a homegrown project start to grow up a little. The first time I printed off our one page description of HDL with the official template was a nice moment in the office. It's a simple milestone.

Work on the website is underway as well. We signed off on the spec from XOXCO which means they'll be in wireframes and schemas soon. We owe them a draft of the HDL case study format which I have been woefully behind on completing. Sorry guys!

Even though it's strange to work on the weekend in Finland, yesterday we were on the phone with Helen, a talented and adventurous designer/filmmaker based in the US. She'll be off to Bangalore in February to spend a few months with Poonam Bir Kasturi and the Daily Dump team helping them tell the story of their work through a documentary film. It's a twofold job we've asked Helen to do: make a film but also spend a couple months working with the Daily Dump as a team member. Construction and reflection. HDL is a big fan of the work that the Daily Dump is up to and we're excited to be able to support them.

Speaking of which, this week Marco has been starting a few conversations with people who may be able to help us support more projects in the future. Not much to say about this at the moment, only that it's something we would like to be able to do.

We dipped into architecture and did a tiny bit of work on our physical space as well. Just as we approved the design for a renovation to our little corner of the Sitra offices we've been relocated to another floor. Friday was spent furiously sketching out some new layouts in order to get the furniture order out before the holiday. Priority #1: vast whiteboards.

And one final but important note that I forgot from last week's update. While I was away Minna and Marco visited Juhani Pallasmaa at his home to interview him on tape. Juhani was one of the initiators of the predecessor event to Helsinki Design Lab (we're calling it HDL 1968) and his interview is one in a series that we're doing with the original crew. It's fascinating material and we'll post bits of it here once this video project is wrapped up.

Lots of moving parts around here; doing our best to keep them all organized and operational.

If you like reading these updates about what's happening at Helsinki Design Lab, you may care to know that there are a growing collection of offices around the planet who are posting similar updates. Check out for more.


Weeknotes Always Work With Good People

While reviewing the technical spec for our new site I was amused to find this little nugget of humor – as if XOXCO had embedded it to make sure we were paying attention. The ability to be serious but still playful sure does make it easier to slog through technical documents. Thanks for keeping us in check, XOXCO.


Weeknotes Week 038

Hello from Singapore! The big news is that Helsinki has officially won World Design Capital status for 2012 with its Open Helsinki proposal. We've been chatting with Pekka Timonen off and on as he lead the bid team and it's a real pleasure to congratulate him and everyone on their fantastic work. So while we still have our eyes set on 2010, start marking 2012 on your calendar too.

In honor of the win, the last day of ICSID World Design Congress saw a bit of a Finnish invasion with The mayors of Helsinki and Espoo as well as representatives from the Foreign Ministry, Helsinki Design Week, the Design Forum, Taik, and Marco and I representing Sitra and HDL. Yrjö Sotamaa was so excited he ran around the congress hall with the World Design Capital flag trailing him like a cape.

The format of the congress was interesting for us to see since it has some resonance with how we're preparing HDL 2010. A series of "studios" were organized in the year prior to this week, each with the task of envisioning life in 2050 as it relates to a number of focus areas ranging from agriculture to entertainment. The studio heads took widely different approaches to their work. Some seemed to really get into the format and developed research seminars around their efforts, others seemed to have simply added a few new slides to their default presentation decks. Some presented plausible scenarios rigorously argued and supported with well-cited evidence, others relied more on the whims of the presenter to sketch out a possible future. The degree to which foresight work delivered by foresight experts dominated the two days of conversation that I attended highlighted the extent to which design practice has been focused on current day and immediate-future realities. Designers generally aren't in the habit of proposing floating-car futures any more, are they? Is this good, bad, or gray?

The congress reminded me of Jim Dator's Four Generic Images of the Future, a useful framework that Stuart Candy introduced to me at the University of Hawaii back in March. Stuart underlined a simple fact: if we're not in the habit of imagining the future we have a much harder time manifesting a desirable one. The work that Stuart and his colleagues are doing is essential and seems like ripe territory for collaboration with designers. Thinking about the future gets at ethics in a novel way: if you can imagine anything, why are you imagining this specific thing?

The ethics of design practice was a recurring theme both here in Singapore and last weekend in Torquay. If designers become more involved in projects with a broader social impact – and particularly if they begin to find themselves at the table of political decision makers  – the stakes of our work become very high. Personally, I believe that conscientious, talented people generally rise to the challenges they are given and there's nothing better to prove your mettle than to have it tested. Still, I'd like to see the conversation about ethics of design move to a more nuanced level.

The work of groups like Architecture For Humanity is fantastic, but doing pro-bono projects for under-served populations is not the only option for ethical practice. A binary argument between good and evil design practices may do more harm than good by allowing lines to be drawn and sides to be taken that are almost religious in their fervor. In that sense, what I'm lamenting is the lack of ethical debate about how and why we conduct our work rather than ethical judgment.

The conversation took an unexpected turn in Singapore when Chris Bangle and a few others speakers argued that the congress was filled with too much doom and gloom. "You can't push someone to make significant changes in their life," Chris argued, "you have to pull them." In other words, we need to find ways to seduce the planet to live sustainably rather than guilting them into it. Probably need a bit of both, don't you think?

A view over Singapore's developing waterfront snapped in between conference sessions.
A view over Singapore's developing waterfront snapped in between conference sessions.

Together with the Idea Factory we hosted an HDL dinner with some fantastically interesting people for all over Singapore. Ban Y J – the bon vivant, designer, and entrepreneur behind Stikfas – emphatically spoke about the need help designers break through the "surface tension" between being a garage start up and a viable market entity. In his words, marketing is the key to "raising a hand up and being seen." Particularly in countries with small home markets like Finland and Singapore, breaking through that barrier is critical for long term success. But perhaps even social issues need the right marketing campaign to give them the appropriate chance to survive in this crowded world. Responding to Joanne Yap's introduction of Jurong General Hospital's move from "an illness focus to a wellness focus," Ban asked how you entice people towards wellness? One key strategy is persistent and open community engagement, something Jurong has already started: how many hospitals exist on Facebook before they are entities in the real world?


Weeknotes Week 037

In the interest of being consistent, I'm checking in with another weeknote even though it's late and I'm tired. Very tired.

This week began in Santiago with Justin and I visiting the Ministry of Housing as well as some other key partners for Elemental. I'm getting more used to having these sorts of conversations inside the halls of government, but for the moment it's still a learning process. We're calibrating the conversation to the audience and getting better at articulating the specific contributions that design has to offer. It feels like an important thing to be figuring out.

Go west!
Go west!

Thanks to the international dateline we didn't have a Tuesday. For that matter, thanks to jetlag between Santiago and Sydney, Wednesday was pretty much a waste as well, with the notable exception of a great dinner with Dan Hill of Arup Sydney. We covered everything from urban informatics to fruit bats.

We spent two days with Second Road, digging into their archives and meeting some of their past collaborators and clients, to understand more about the work that they've done with the Australian Taxation Office. It was truly impressive to see the extent to which the ethos of design has seeped into that organization. How many tax offices in the world recruit designers every year? Now we know of at least one!

Among other activities in Helsinki, Adriel spent most of Thursday in an old-folks home learning about what it takes to care for the elderly. Meanwhile Ezra was making visits to Helsinki Police, the Finnish Military, and the Ministry of Education... I know, right?

Over the weekend Justin and I had the pleasure of participating in the Swinburne University Design Thinking conference in Torquay, Australia hosted by the dean of the design faculty, Ken Friedman. It was encouraging to hear the diversity of the conversation and in particular to discover that we're not the only ones who are a bit uncomfortable with the term "design thinking." What about doing? What is design without making? As we increase our appreciation for design as a way of understanding problems let's not forget that design is always obliged to act. This is precisely what we are concerned with at Helsinki Design Lab: how do we best think and do, conceive and act.


Weeknotes Week 036

One week and eight thousand kilometers later, Justin and I are in Santiago de Chile where we've been the guests of Elemental as we learn about this incredibly unique and exciting project. Elemental is a "do tank" that started as a relatively modest project with the goal of providing new housing to upgrade a portion of the slums in Iquique, Chile. Fast forward to today and Elemental is actively working on projects in multiple countries and expanding from a laser focus on housing to the larger challenge of using "the city as a shortcut to equality."

Santiago de Chile as seen from the offices of Elemental.
Santiago de Chile as seen from the offices of Elemental.

When we talk about strategic design, there are few people who fit the description better than the team at Elemental. By leaning on expertise from areas such as law, traffic engineering, community organization, economics, and sociology the designers at Elemental are working to develop systemic change within the interlinked problem space of the city. Building new homes for slum dwellers is one thing, but explicitly designing those houses as a tool to bootstrap the owners out of poverty demonstrates an important reframing of the problem, required dedicated follow through, and has delivered much more meaningful and valuable results.

After visiting two of Elemental's projects and speaking with many of the team members my brain is a little saturated. I've been culling through notes and trying to make room for our meetings with the Minister of Housing and the former CEO of Copec, both early sponsors for the Elemental work. Tomorrow is a full day and then we're off to Australia. And yes, this month is heavy on the travel. That's why we support the Carbon Fund.

One thing we heard this week in Chile that echoes previous conversations in many different places: people want to hire design services, they believe in design services, but their procurement systems don't allow it. How do you buy something when your procurement system has no check box for it? How do you invest in a process when you're used to buying products? This is going to be a recurring theme.

By now Adriel and Ezra should be landing in Finland where they each have a busy week of fieldwork for the studio briefs. Our session last Monday was intense but great. One of those moments where a lot of swirling thoughts become more clear – still cloudy, but we're developing a nephology to describe them. The Breslin was kind enough to lend us their mezzanine for a half day meeting. Those people make a mean breakfast.

Speaking of hotels, Minna has been securing hotel rooms for us in Helsinki. Checking these bits of logistics off the list is ever so satisfying.

Slowly we're exploring the viability of the HDLT, a project which we'll share more about when there's something solid to share. Marco has begun due diligence on this in anticipation of first discussions with some key partners next month. He's also lining up some key people for HDL 2010, including our first confirmed studio designer. We're waiting to hear back from another key invite – a speaker for HDL 2010 that would make me pleased as punch to have on board.


Weeknotes Week 035

As I write this, the lobby here at the ACE hotel in New York is a raucous hive and I'm happy to be tucked into a small but comfortable room upstairs. Justin and I have come to NYC as the second stop on a three week trip that will cover six cities on five continents. This trip is largely about meeting strategic designers around the world and to see their work in context. It's about finding champion projects that make the endeavor of strategic design tangible and accessible to a broader audience.

On Wednesday we met up in London to visit the Helen Hamlyn Centre where Maja and Rama gave us an in-depth introduction to the work they have been doing with DePuy. It was a great way to start the research and it's going to be interesting as we gain a more complete understanding of the project by meeting their clients and other groups who were touched by the design work. One thing is definitely clear: the importance of having a client who advocates for design is immeasurably large.

We also had the chance to drop by live|work and hear about some of their projects, particularly Make It Work done for the Sunderland City Council. With a large population of long term unemployed people in Sunderland live|work were asked to help develop a system that would bring inactivity rates down. By coordinating among the 280+ organizations that already offer services to unemployed and in-need populations, their solution helps match the right kind of support to the needs of the right individual which increases results and decreases costs due to wasted or ineffectual services. This video gives a nice introduction but there's certainly a lot more to dig in to.

Marco made a day trip to London for an interview with a great magazine which we are very excited about, so we took the opportunity to spend a solid five hours taking stock of the past month and planning for the next few ahead of us. These day-long meetings seem to work better the further they are from the office, but I suspect that mostly has to do with the fact that your calendar is marked out-of-office and thus a clutter of meeting invites is avoided. We've been having stock-taking meetings every couple months and it's working well for us as significant markers between which weekly and daily coordination fits in. Set the strategy, adjust regularly.

Despite the fact that it was absolutely gorgeous in New York today Adriel, Ezra, Justin, and I spent the day locked in a conference room hashing out developments in the content of the studio briefs. There are lots of ideas flowing and we're starting to narrow in on some critical dimensions that will bracket each one of the studios. The difficulty in this sort of situation is to strike the right balance between providing a stable enough frame that the studio participants have something to react to, while maintaining enough flexibility that the framework will be durable. We're getting there.

This week: more, more, more. Meetings with friends old and new; a full day of conversation with the Jonathan Rose Companies about their holistic approach to development; a kickoff meeting with the talented people of XOXCO, who are going to be developing the new HDL website; and then heading to the airport and on to South America.


Weeknotes Week 034

Not that I'm going to spend the weekend without working, but it's really a relief to have made it to Friday. After a long week I barely have a voice left.

Marco has been lining up some overseas speaking gigs in the early part of 2010 as well as revamping our one page description of HDL. The dreaded "one-pager" is an essential tool that we are constantly tweaking – sometimes just a word here or there, sometimes renovating entire paragraphs, or adjusting type and layout. When you only have a page to make your pitch every little bit matters. By next September we'll probably have a ream's worth of outdated one-pagers.

We've been on the phone with Singapore, San Francisco, Cambridge, MA, and London this week. Mostly taking care of last minute arrangements for the trip that Justin and I embark on next Tuesday. We'll host a dinner during the ICSID World Congress in Singapore to introduce some folks there to HDL. If you plan to be at the ICSID event let us know.

Today was also a mini-milestone in that we received two tenders for our new website. There was a third team invited, but they decided to back out of the running. Navigating the procurement process has been a new experience for me personally, but one that I am enjoying. We're treating it like a design problem and that small brain trick makes it easier for a couple of trained architects to figure it out.

We finally stopped talking about the long list of people we would like to have join us and actually started putting it in Excel. A little wrangling, a few formulas, and some conditional cell styling later and we have a useful tool which helps us tweak the mix so that all our bases are covered. Are the genders balanced? Do we have enough non-designers (about 60%, for what it's worth)? Where do our guests hail from?

This gets at a bigger question: when curating a mix of people you're really talking about individuals who each bring with them a unique vocabulary, set of perspectives, and inclinations that represent a larger subculture. It's really an assembly of representatives, in a way. Of course the people make are what matters, but our event is as much about a conference of communities as it is about exchanges on the individual level. Or maybe I've been reading too much Peter Sloterdijk.


Weeknotes Week 033

How do you buy something that doesn't exist? How do you offer something that there is no market for? This is the territory we've been mulling over at HDL-HQ, where strategic design is the something in question. Jussi Sorsimo from Culminatum stopped by for lunch and described how he has been thinking about the same issues with regards to service design – expanding both the capability and the market for it here in Finland.

One facet of this problem is that governments generally don't have the tools they need to procure this kind of advanced design work. Renovating procurement procedures is a fundamental challenge that many governments and large organizations face. This is a challenge Emily Thomas knows a lot about from her time at the UK Treasury, as I had the pleasure of learning last time I was in London. Having the same conversation in two different contexts, reminds me that some of the most exciting – and powerful – changes are waiting in the most mundane aspects of our lives.

Speaking of procurement, the Invitation to Tender for our new website has been sent out to the three best teams that applied. This is exciting as it means we will be able to begin that work in earnest in a couple weeks. All in all that's about a month and change worth of paperwork before we can sign a contract and get to work.

Marco has been visiting a couple of conferences around town as a keynote speaker talking about the expanded role of design. Justin has been in Brussels meeting with people at the EU. I've been in Ruoholahti preparing the itinerary for our trip for November.

Justin and I will be visiting designers here and there to interview them, their clients, and collaborators about their work. This is going towards an initial crop of case studies that look at the efficacy of design as a strategic tool which helps make sense of complicated problems and works through the implementation of solutions. When it comes to defining what we mean by strategic design, we'd like to do it through example rather than just talk. After this trip, we'll be in a much better position to do that!


Weeknotes Week 032

We've been doing a lot of reading and some furious scribbling here at HDL HQ.

Fellow Helsinkian Adam Greenfield has been musing about the contemporary city and the sorts of designers needed to make the most of it. The comments are particularly interesting.

GOOD Magazine is slowly revealing their list of 100 "exciting, interesting" people and projects. Favorites there include Project M and

It's a bit old news now, but Business Week has published their annual list of the "Best Design Programs in the World," a term I put in quotations because they've certainly stretched the definition of design for their own purposes. Bruce Nussbaum's introductory post titles it "World's Best Design Thinking Programs" and that seems a far more appropriate title.

Our friends at BERG London together with Timo Arnall have released Immaterials: the ghost in the field, a second video exploring the realm of RFID and nearfield communications. Rarely does one have the opportunity to watch a discourse take large strides, but I get the feeling that's exactly what we're witnessing as Touch/BERG elaborate nearfield communications as something with nuance – in other words, as a material.

Elsewhere, Matt Haughey points us to some tips on building community websites which is a nice compliment to his own on-the-ground post from 2007. These issues are on our minds as we begin to work on the new HDL site.

Adriel, Ezra, and Justin have been making headway on the studio briefs.

I Finally had a chance to talk to colleagues at 2nd Road in Sydney. Despite the bounty of ways to communicate, it never fails that the hardest thing of all is to find an overlap in two busy calendars (let alone four). Justin and I will be visiting them in November to collect information for a case study we are writing about one of their projects. That's part of a longer trip that I'll share more about next week.


Competencies Practical Magic

Over at frog design they've been talking about what it is that designers do, and have proposed a rather interesting pivot for the conversation: magic. As they tell it the world has two kinds of designers, those who are pro-magic and those who are not.

In the first camp: “What we do has nothing to do with magic! We design objects and interactions for people, in the clearest and most logical way... We help people survive in the world.” In other words, design is about function, purpose, usability.

In the second camp: “Of COURSE what we do is magic! We are nothing if not magicians, making the impossible real, bringing the just-out-of-reach right into the palms of our hands. Whether objects, or experiences, we create the moment of wonder and delight.” In other words, design is about meaning, emotion, even transcendence, if you will.

This sharp distinction seems a little overzealous, though. Like many things, the answer is somewhere in between. Design practiced well should always have a purpose and function, and to do that it must often "[make] the impossible real." The fact that designers work from conception to implementation is a unique professional obligation and involves the resolution of conflicts and impossibilities of all sorts into a seamless and singular material reality. That itself is a kind of magic.

To actually produce an object or service the designer must rectify conflicting client desires, material behaviors, economic envelopes, and numerous other requirements. This is the really hard part. If the designer is successful, these disparate inputs are dissolved into a wash of intention – as if by magic – and the resultant thing just works in ways equally delightful and useful.

The difficulty of implementation is one of the reasons why "design thinking" is not enough. Putting aside for now a lengthy but necessary discussion about rebooting the practice of design and the way we educate our designers, "design thinking" is only half of the value proposition. A design proposal, no matter how insightful, clever, and well researched is only ever a mere tiptoe into the journey. The success of good design is always the result of combined thinking and doing.

Try out any of the numerous iPhone lookalikes to understand the importance of a continuous spectrum from idea to final product. Even with the same feature set, aesthetics, and ambitions, every iClone I've tried pales in comparison to the original. If there's magic in design it's the practical magic of making any friction between abstract possibilities (ideas!) and material reality (things!) disappear. This, finally, is design thinking and design stewardship working in conjunction to deliver work of the highest caliber.


Weeknotes Week 031

This was another week of infrastructure. Most importantly that involved launching a call for participation (and eventually tenders) to build a new website that will be part of HDL. Navigating the public procurement system in Finland has been an interesting learning experience for us, but we're on the right track now and looking forward to being able to actually start work on that project in November. As an aside, anyone interested in a serious innovation challenge would do well to look at procurement policies. Ripe territory there.

On Monday I'll be in Barcelona meeting with the talented people behind Constructing Communication who will be developing the visual identity for the new HDL site. We're excited to work with such talented people.

I finally found a cheap place in Helsinki to have large format drawings plotted out. This was celebrated by printing up a single calendar spanning from October 2009 though September 2010 which yields a new perspective to the project. It's equal parts "wow there are a lot of days between now and then" and "oh crap we have to get moving fast." Marco added the first item: he's taking a well deserved Fall holiday with his family starting next week.