Over the years I’ve realised that, like many designers, I have to immerse myself in the cultural context of my work in order to get results. I’ve come to think of this as ‘method designing’, after method acting; a way of ‘getting into character’ that consciously and subconsciously informs the design process.
This approach might come from the fact that, as a designer, I’ve actually spent a lot of time writing, curating, and doing strategic work. All these activities require the ability to process vast amounts of data (often media) fairly rapidly and synthesise into some new form—as does designing, or at least the kind of designing done by designers like me. I find it difficult to have a discussion around form and function without trying to get at the ineffable, intangible aspects of a project’s context, for which I’m yet to discover a good word. Raymond Williams’ ‘structure of feeling’ partly does it, and mise-en-scène does to a limited extent, but ‘context’ isn’t quite enough, and doesn’t get at the lived experience and cultural aspects as well as the socio-economic and form-based.
A few years back, I noticed I’d been practicing method designing since the 1990s, when I worked for about five years as a web designer to the music industry — mainly artist websites for Virgin and EMI — and we often ensured that the music of the artists in question was on constant rotation while we were working. This was often gruelling, given the artists in question not only included Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack, David Sylvian and Bryan Ferry but also the Spice Girls, 911, Billie Piper, Genesis and many others that I appear to have astutely excised from the memory banks. Still, enduring that lot through a form of immersion did at least partly ensure that the texture of the work that emerged from our studio was generally felt to be on-the-money.
I’ve taken this approach with me as my work moved away from more obviously cultural artefacts towards cities and architecture, where there are rich pickings to be had, of course.
Specifically, as I’ve been doing work on projects in Helsinki over the last few months, often at a (very large) distance, I’ve been actively exploring a few cultural artefacts, as part of a ‘method design’ approach underpinning work on Low2No and Helsinki Design Lab.
Matti Joensuu’s book The Priest of Evil was recommended to me after I asked Twitter for some contemporary Finnish fiction recommendations. And, despite the dodgy title, it’s great (thank you Lewis Martin). It's a crime novel, featuring a modus operandi of murder feared by most urban dwellers, committed by a occultish serial killer who is being tracked-down by a world-weary detective with a complex personal life. There are actually numerous patterns of Finnish culture—and specifically Helsinki culture—discernible within the prose. It was also a chance to delve into the exact opposite of the Helsinki I know. I’ve always visited the city in spring, high summer or autumn, and found it a place full of crisp light and sparkling water - clean, highly civilised, creative and inspirational. The Finns I know are funny, bright, talented, often garrulous, and highly engaging. Not without their moments of introspection, but cultures without introspection are dull and problematic.
But The Priest of Evil portrayed the opposite of that Helsinki, which is a useful counter-balance if nothing else. As I’ve noted many times before, cities are often experienced through the lens of layered cultural artefacts assembled prior to visiting in person. This is most obvious in places places like Los Angeles, yet here, Priest of Evil’s explosive finale at Hakaniemi was certainly in my mind as I was walking through the old square a few months later, on a sunny spring day where almost every aspect of the ‘soft infrastructure’ was entirely different to Joensuu’s story. I am entirely aware that the Finnish winter is very long, but have no particular feel for it, having never experienced it. Friends talk of November being the hardest month, as it is without even the reflective qualities of snow.
Joensuu’s book is Permanently November.
But beyond that, having read the book beforehand, I actually heard echoes in several insights into Finnish culture that locals contributed during Helsinki Design Lab. For example, the backdrop of domestic violence in Finnish culture, which is not a theme I’d have listened-out for otherwise. I find that cultural artefacts like this can often by more illuminating and thought-provoking—due to their philosophical contingency, subjectivity, and relatively impressionistic form—than straightforward, apparently objective articles on such matters.
In terms of music, a few years running sites for non-mainstream music meant I was familiar with Finnish artists like Pan Sonic, Jimi Tenor, Kimmo Pohjonen, Edward Vesala, Raoul Björkenheim, and subsequently the great Paavoharju and others.
Yet it was clearly time to dive into Sibelius a little more deeply, and I’ve been listening to fair amounts of Symphonies 1 and 3 and his earlier work Finlandia (in particular, the recording by CBSO conducted by Sakari Oramo.) Here, the allusions are more formal and more abstract, yet also affecting and inspiring. (Sound can also provide a supportive backdrop to work, of course, in a way that other artefacts cannot.) Reading around the music—particularly with classical music—can help massively, and the fluid national identities swirling around Finland when Sibelius was composing these works easily emerge from these vibrant recordings.
How these particular themes will emerge in subsequent design work is often not obvious, although the prompts in Joensuu’s characters make one look more carefully at the sparse characteristic of public squares, for instance, or the importance of subterranean spaces (I mean underground shopping centres and the metro, rather than the bad guy’s lair), just as the stirring, colourful dynamism and belle epoque qualities of Symphony No. 1, say, echo a golden era in Helsinki’s architecture, which one could choose to either draw into design strategies or react against. But really, there is a certain amount of ‘magic’, to borrow fellow HDL-er Alejandro Aravena’s description, going on in the synthesis here, which defies easy description of process. (I should also add that this was accompanied by more traditional research, such as reading Helsinki: Daughter of the Baltic, or the copious, largely-technical briefing notes on Finland's carbon profile supplied by Sitra for HDL.)
Method designing may not be so much about psychological motives or personal identification, as it is with method acting—although the idea of inhabiting elements of the collective psychology around a culture is increasingly interesting, if complex, territory. It’s more to do with creating a series of sensory impressions that inform the design work in less tangible fashion.
This, of course, is not rocket science. Or even rocket design. It could be seen as just listening to a bunch of mp3s while your cursor is hovering in Adobe-space. Which it is, partly. But I’ve always found it useful, since beginning to think of it as ‘method designing’ a few years ago, and am sharing it here in the hope it generates some further discussion or richer thinking.