Helsinki (Finland) – In his column, Pekka Timonen, Executive Director of World Design Capital Helsinki 2012, reflects on the usefulness of and the preconditions for design.

“With our year-long stint as World Design Capital now behind us, there is only one conclusion to draw: the work to promote design should not end here.

Pro Arte Utili – For Useful Art. So goes the old but still current motto of Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. Here in Finland, media attention tends to focus on the “art” side of things. But what about the usefulness?

Usefulness is an important aspect of design. It is also something we should bear in mind when taking stock of the World Design Capital initiative. Design and the methods used in design can be used to create solutions that affect us all in our daily lives. This is why so many of the more than 500 WDC Helsinki 2012 projects focused on taking design to the public sector and the world of business. And this is why we had such great participation across the board from five cities, public administration, two universities, companies and NGOs to private citizens.


When you think about it, citizens have a right to better design. This is the kind of thinking we wanted to promote during the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 year, and the reason why one of our focus areas was design education for children and youth. The goal for WDC Helsinki 2012 was, through the projects, to make design a matter of social interest and part of the fabric of everyday life.

Design is Finland’s recipe for success, this much is obvious. Finnish products and services can rarely compete on price, but what they can do is be better than the competition. Design is a powerful tool in making products and services stand out from the rest. It is also an important element in our efforts to build our reputation as a country.

The World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 year made it clear that design thinking is already catching on in large corporations, and that it’s the large majority of businesses, the SMEs, that we now need to get on board.


I believe Finland has what it takes to lead the way in design globally. This only requires three things: designers capable of coming up with solutions, decision-makers and businesses that understand the role of design, and public demand for better design.

The changing role of design is also transforming the job of a designer. Finns have a strong tradition of turning prominent designers into national heroes, of depicting them as creative artists who create unique pieces to be placed on display. In light of the potential of design today, this is a very narrow way of looking at things.

The designers themselves have had a broader outlook. One of the leading figures of Finnish design, Kaj Franck, wanted to highlight the designer’s role as a problem solver – and this was back in the 1960s. He also drew attention to the fact that the process of design is a collaboration between a number of experts.

Since design is about finding solutions, we should work especially hard to strengthen its role in any sector or area tackling major issues. Eco-design, for example, can at its best bring improvements to energy systems, traffic, waste management, the use of materials, consumer habits and our overall patterns of action.


The starting point for the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 year was always to look to the future. While traditions and traditional design featured in the programme in many different forms, many of the projects sought to highlight new trends and push the envelope when it comes to design. Although perhaps confusing, this approach paved the way forward.

What issues should design address in 2013? The answer is easy. With design gradually finding its way into all aspects of society, we can look at key social issues as design challenges. How to create a sustainable way of life? How to build better cities? The WDC Helsinki 2012 Pavilion, for example, was one concrete contribution towards the latter end.

For a World Design Capital, adopting a global perspective is a natural course. During the WDC Helsinki 2012 undertaking, it became clear that the world design map was changing at a faster pace than ever before. While we’ve been busy at work here, other parts of the world have been buzzing with activity, too.

Finland would be well advised to cast its gaze further afield, to where the future of design is being written. We need to look beyond Europe to Asia, South America and even Africa. This is why WDC Helsinki 2012 participated in design-related endeavours in the likes of Shanghai, Santiago de Chile and Nairobi.

We already know where to find one future hot spot for design: as World Design Capital 2014, Cape Town, South Africa, will make its mark on the world’s design map.

Last but not least, I would like to give my thanks to the thousands of people who helped make the WDC Helsinki 2012 year happen, to our sponsors and to the countless voices who joined in on the discussion.

Let’s keep the momentum going.”

Pekka Timonen
WDC Helsinki 2012 Executive Director

About World Design Capital® (WDC)

While there are many awards that recognise individual accomplishments in design, the World Design Capital designation is unique as it aims to focus on the broader essence of design’s impact on urban spaces, economies and citizens. The designation provides a distinctive opportunity for cities to feature their accomplishments in attracting and promoting innovative design, as well as highlight their successes in urban revitalisation strategies.

The World Design Capital is an initiative established and managed by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design. Past cities to hold the title include Torino (Italy) in 2008 and Seoul (South Korea) in 2010. The City of Helsinki (Finland) is currently implementing its programme for 2012 under the theme of Open Helsinki: Embedding Design in Life, whilst preparations for Cape Town (South Africa) are underway for 2014.