Fulltime HEL: Episode 5 - The Importance of Design
Ever since high school I’ve been intrigued by R. Buckminster Fuller. Best known for his creation the geodesic dome. Others know him as an architect, futurist, author, designer and inventor. He’s also credited with popularizing the phrase “Spaceship Earth”. He passed away sadly, in July of 1983, but his work his lived on and even influenced the world of podcasts.
No not mine, but a podcast that inspired and still inspires me — 99% Invisible by Roman Mars and part of Radiotopia, a podcast collective. Fuller’s connection to the podcast is in the name, which is derived from a quote of his.
“Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.”
It’s Roman Mars belief and one I share that good design is 99% invisible. It’s that ethereal element that just feels right about a place, an object, an idea or a service. It’s why we pick one couch over another, find a particular book easier to read if we’re dyslexic or simply think a website is outdated. Design affects at the bank and grocery store when waiting in line, it’s slows us down with attempts at up-selling when purchasing airline tickets, and it even determines how you listen to this podcast.
Welcome to episode 5 of Fulltime HEL, the podcast about startups, entrepreneurs, freelancers and co-working spaces in Helsinki, Finland. I’m your host Gregory Pellechi.
On this episode, the importance of good design. So let’s begin with a joke, or more correctly the punchline to the joke.
That was Jussi Virtanen, a freelance designer who we’ll hear from more in a bit. His idea of having nothing more to take away from a product is an interesting one, and in my experience a very Finnish attitude towards design. It’s not necessarily minimalism, but functionalism at its heart like so much of what’s available here in Finland.
And I like that. Whether it’s the clean, simple aesthetic of Finnish fashion and interior design, the polished processes of Clash of Clans or Angry Birds, or the no-nonsense way much in Finland is done, there’s design to be found in just about every element of life here in the north.
That’s not to say things are always as smooth or efficient as they could be. Just the other day I met someone from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs who spoke of the need for Finland to streamline and centralize the assets and resources available to startups. His point being the system in Finland is too fragmented for its own good, and finding the right resources for your new business can be troublesome.
But for the sake of this podcast we won’t go into that. If you want an idea of what resources are available then check out the previous episode of Fulltime HEL.
Design is something I’m very interested in. The little I know how to do in terms of print layouts, website design and maintenance I’ve taught myself. If I had the chance I’d go back to university to focus on design. But as it is right now I have to focus on learning Swedish, Finnish and Python. And soon hopefully I’ll add PHP to my list of skills. Today’s guest has also taught himself design, though to a much greater extent than I know.
I spoke with Jussi because he’s a designer that does more than mockups and logos, but interactions and experiences. Those aspects of a website, game, app, service or product that tend to get ignore by the average person but are vital to the success of his clients. GameRefinery would be a difficult tool for game developers and publishers to adopt if their user interface was atrocious and overly complicated. Especially since they’re already dealing with a complicated concept — game marketing.
Simple solutions being the most beautiful solutions, while an opinion I tend to share, isn’t true everywhere you go. Cultural preferences abound when it comes to things as diverse as names, color palettes, shapes, use of numerology, and even the order of systems. It’s why in Asia it’s so common to see companies with the word Lucky or Gold or both in their names.
Designs are of course not limited to a single place or culture. The web has seen to that. There’s a lot to be gained from viewing the work of others. That’s why sites like DeviantArt, Dribble, Behance and others exist — at least for those doing graphic work. Written work, like my own, still lacks such a resource. But inspiration abounds on the internet for budding designers or those more established like Jussi.
Design is iterative, by that I mean it’s something that’s not simply done in one go. The process of removing unnecessary steps or items is a matter of learning. Something that clients of designers aren’t aware of always. If a good foundation is necessary for building a house it begs the question, when do you establish good design?
The problem I’ve encountered on a personal level is knowing what’s good. Design trends change with the winds. What’s popular today may not be popular tomorrow. And if you’re running your own site like I am, you have to have a design that both looks good and is easy to use. Site maintenance or using obscure features can be time consuming and for a one-man project like Fulltime HEL it can burdensome if there are too many steps.
The funny thing is good design is why I originally went with a Windows Phone — a Nokia Lumia 720. Yes this was back when they were still branded Nokia phones. The tile format of windows phones is clean, simple and doesn’t waste space. And my phone was a great choice for a long time. But now that I’ve returned to the West it’s not that practical given it lacks the functionality of Apple or Android phones.
Functionality is something that changes with time. What I need my phone to do depends on where I am. What I need my website to do is determined by my work. While I was working in Iraq, I didn’t need it do anything since I was keeping a low profile. But now that I’m in Finland, it’s key to hosting this podcast. That’s why I went with the design I did.
I have a personal problem when it comes to design. I love it. But I also tire of it. At some point after looking at a website day after day, dealing with the content management system and all the backend systems I want something else. I feel like my website is outdated. I’ve attempted to remedy this with the chosen design — something that is both flexible and clean. Over time though, it won’t include elements of the latest trends. And trends are a problem for any designer or design client.
Timeless and unique are hard to describe, when so much of our conceptualization of design is based upon what we already see. Mimicry in the arts in rampant, most artists whatever they’re medium start out either practicing techniques of those who have already achieved success or as is often the case in music playing those very same pieces. It’s later once an understanding has development and the muscle memory is there that exploration begins.
Creating something new, unique or even timeless is often time consuming. And many clients aren’t sure what they want. There is of course a simple option out there for those who just want the barest of web experiences for their company or product — Facebook.
A website is the closest thing to a store front a freelancer like myself will ever have. Sure I can sit in a co-working space and put up a little sign, but even then the number eyes that’ll see what I can do is limited. In going for a website over Facebook I have complete control over all the elements from material presented to layout and I’m not held to the whims of another corporation. Of course when you’re working for another client, their whims are often determining the end result.
When a client comes to a designer it’s with a product, service or company has created. As Jussi already said, it’s easier if they bring him or another designer on early in the creation, in part to ensure that from the first good design is integrated into what the end users experience. To do that it’s not just a matter of bringing Jussi onto the team, there’s a lot of work that has to go in before hand.
The look and feel of a company, product or service is often summed up in a name. I personally think there are good and bad names. What’s good or bad is difficult because a name needs to be iconic, but tell a person what the brand is or does. Fulltime HEL for example doesn’t explicitly say this is a podcast, but it does elicit the idea of work and Helsinki through a pun. It’s also readily pronounceable in English and most other European languages. I’ve yet to encounter someone who struggles with it.
That very process Jussi described is what I went through before launching this podcast. I went back and forth with my wife over different names. Trying to sum up a podcast about freelancing, startups, entrepreneurs and co-working spaces is not easy, especially when it’s tied to a place like Helsinki. If I were doing this in Finnish or Swedish maybe that would have been easier, but in English with a target market of not just Finland but elsewhere it had to be a name that spoke to others.
There’s more to the creation of Fulltime HEL then I’ve mentioned. Not just the name or the website. Talking with Jussi has given me a lot to think about in terms of the Fulltime HEL brand and how it’ll develop over time. Some of that will come about organically as the listenership grows. Other aspects will be deliberate. The creation process of the brand itself though was and is a learning experience. One that’s difficult to show others, but as R. Buckminster Fuller said, “Ninety-nine percent of who you are is invisible and untouchable.”
On the next episode of Fulltime HEL, meetings or more accurately Meetin.GS, Finland’s answer to that age old problem of finding a time in everyone’s busy schedule.