Better design

The new frontier in design is about finding ways to better serve the needs of the people. From building hospitals and libraries, to developing home-care services for the aging, the principles of design can be used to give everyone a voice.
In Finland legislation defines the role of libraries as places for work and other civic activities ― not just for lending books. Photo of Helsinki Central Library Oodi by Aleksi Poutanen

In 2018, the City of Helsinki opened the doors to its New Children's Hospital ― the largest paediatric-care facility in Finland. The hospital is a masterpiece of design and architecture, with each of its floors built around different themes that bring visual and aural elements together to represent a journey through a fairy-tale world of natural wonders.

The car park under the hospital is sea, the first floor is shore, then one passes through jungle, forest, valley, magic, mountain and space, before reaching star on the top floor. This approach was part of helping the hospital to win the prestigious Finlandia Prize for Architecture in 2018.

The sonic dimension to the project was led by composer, sound designer and Aalto University lecturer Antti Ikonen. For more than two years, Ikonen and students from Aalto University's Media Lab worked with the hospital's architects, engineers, designers, and medical staff to create a dynamic soundscape that would bring the themes to life inside the hospital.

‘If you go for a walk in the forest, on a beach, or in another kind of natural environment, you typically hear a limited number of different sounds. But you never know quite what mix you're going to get,’ says Ikonen. ‘It's this generative nature of the actual soundscape around us that we wanted to re-create for the hospital.’

‘We didn't want to just do sounds on a loop, but rather create a soundscape that would be rendered on the fly, and never play the same way twice.’

One system, many sounds

Ikonen and his students designed a 60-channel IP-audio system that plays from a single computer. Using speakers from Finnish manufacturers Genelec and Panphonics, the team created a soundscape that covers all the floors and elevators of the building. The sounds only play in these common areas, not in patient rooms, and the volume is programmed to automatically go lower during the night hours.

Uusi lastensairaala
New Children's Hospital won the prestigious Finlandia Prize for Architecture in 2018. Photo: Aleksi Poutanen

Ikonen's team used both library sounds and original recordings. From Tibetan bells and violins, to shakers, synths and sounds from nature, each sample can be controlled individually from the computer.

‘Because it's not a loop, you can pick any detail and make it behave as needed,’ says Ikonen.

‘We used some copyright-free catalogue sounds, but many of the students in my course are good field recordists and have their own sound libraries. For the second floor ― where the theme is jungle ― one of the students had been on holiday in Indonesia and had actual jungle sounds from there that he'd recorded himself.’

‘It's an excellent outcome, because the quality of applicants into Aalto ARTS degree programmes is extremely high,’ he says. ‘We get brilliant students who do brilliant work.’

Influencing library legislation

In another design project with a civic dimension, Professor Kimmo Lapintie led a research group that conducted an empirical study of people's use of libraries, coffee shops and other public spaces. Lapintie says the researchers discovered that today many people use libraries primarily for work.

‘In addition to being places of study and research, libraries are used as informal offices by entrepreneurs and freelancers, as well as by employees of large- and medium-sized companies,’ says Lapintie. ‘So, libraries should correctly be viewed as the ’spatial incubators' they have become.’

The research findings, published in Library & Information Science Research ― the leading journal in the field ― came as the Finnish government was in the process of renewing the legislation that defines library usage in the country. Certain cities had been considering reducing the number of local libraries, replacing them instead with facilities for automated borrowing and returns. But when Lapintie's group put forward their findings, the idea that libraries are for more than borrowing books became enshrined in Finnish law.

‘The function of libraries in the previous act of law was that they're places for information provision, such as providing access to books and computers,’ he says. ‘But the information from our research went directly into the government debates over the renewed library act.’

‘The act was eventually amended, so we now have legislation that defines the role of libraries in Finland as places for work and other civic activities ― not just for lending books.’

Designing for public service

Aalto's Department of Design is increasingly turning its attention to the public-service context, employing the principles of co-design to bring the views of various stakeholders into different decision-making processes. Professor Turkka Keinonen says the Nordic countries are a good laboratory for this kind of work, as co-design principles match with participatory Nordic values.


Design is part of our DNA here ― as is working together to a common goal.

Turkka Keinonen

‘Service design has been growing very fast in the Nordic region,’ says Keinonen. ‘Design is part of our DNA here ― as is working together to a common goal ― so people have been enthusiastically participating in various public-sector design challenges.’

One of the Keinonen's colleagues, Professor Tuuli Mattelmäki, has applied co-design principles in a research project aimed at creating new support services for Helsinki residents who are the first point of care for their aging family members. Mattelmäki used a research technique called 'probing', where subjects are given written assignments to complete over a certain period, before interviews are conducted with selected participants.

The researchers found that creating an opportunity for self-documentation helped participants to be more prepared for the interviews, as they could reflect in advance on their challenges and needs. The City of Helsinki has since started to use this method in other development projects as well.

Mattelmäki's students have also been working with the Finnish Immigration Service to create new services for integrating immigrants, and helping them with their online communication.

‘In the 1990s, design was focused on usability, on how to help people cope with complicated technologies,’ says Keinonen. ‘Then we started to speak about user experience, which is not just about being capable of doing something with technology, but that the technology should be meaningful and relevant, creating emotional excitement and engagement.’

‘Now we're seeing a shift towards service design and co-design. This comes with an understanding that technology is just one component in a big system, and that in order to design the whole service ― including its technical components ― you need to understand the whole structure.’

‘So when it comes to serving patients in the children's hospital, then the patients have a role, the parents have a role, the doctors and nurses have a role, the cleaning staff have a role,’ he says. ‘You need to include the passions and needs of everyone to design the best possible service or environment

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