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Small tech companies meet summer design school: reveals a great potential for customer-driven success stories

Companies around the world use design to grow their business. The three-year research project looks for ways to speed up the transformation of small businesses to become more design-driven. The first year has already given great results.
Design students Christopher Gros and Molly Balcom Raleigh worked on a brand refresh at Tume, and and studied how farmers express the pride in their work.
Design students Christopher Gros and Molly Balcom Raleigh worked on a brand refresh at Tume, and and studied how farmers express the pride in their work.

Aalto University and Metex Fund initiated a three-year research project in 2019, aimed at developing strategies for design to enter Finnish small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The Metex Fund belongs to the Centennial Foundation of Technology Industries of Finland. 

The vast majority of companies in Finland employ less than 50 people, making the growth and survival of these SMEs an important part of the competitiveness of the Finnish economy. Following the ongoing transformation of Finnish technology industries, the big industrial corporations will employ fewer people. The new jobs will be increasingly created in SMEs.

Working as advocates for end-users and customers, designers often help companies become more customer-driven, which can be especially beneficial for companies that have a strong focus on technology. As a catalyst for growth and employment, design is often introduced as an unexploited opportunity for SMEs. However, reports from practice show that many experience challenges on their journey towards becoming more design-driven.

‘Companies lack clear strategies for how to employ in-house designers or integrate the expertise of external designers in projects’, says Associate Professor Oscar Person who is responsible for the project.

Teknologiateollisuuden 100-vuotissäätiön Jussi Neuvo ja Marianna Jokila.
Jussi Neuvo and Marianna Jokila from Centennial Foundation say this research will support growth-oriented SMEs to experiment with new ways of working.

Experience promotes learning and industry insight

Metex Fund will invest over 200,000 Euros to the research project that will be based on experiences from Aalto Summer Design Studios project courses in 2019-2021. During the three summers, students take on design briefs from Finnish SMEs, with mentoring by leading Finnish design agencies.

'This research will support growth-oriented SMEs to experiment with new ways of working. Also, our goal is that talented design students want to work in technology companies and that foreign students will get good business contacts and stay in Finland after their studies, explains Marianna Jokila, project manager at the Technology Industries of Finland Centennial Foundation.

Jussi Neuvo of the Metex Fund says that this is a new kind of an approach, ‘We are building a network and utilising the know-how of Aalto University and design agencies. The three-year research project is also an investment which in the future will give new research-based insight to design similar pilot projects.'

This unique research combines design research and challenge-based design projects that are carried out within Aalto Summer Design Studios courses. Doctoral candidate Patricia Naves studies how and what the companies learn from design experiments.

Aalto Summer Design Studios
Aalto Summer Design Studios had briefs from Tume, Joros and PEL-tuote. The students were mentored by ED Design, Muotohiomo and Werklig.

‘During the three summer courses, we aim to find out how design can best benefit SMEs, and what would make such companies collaborate with designers, and be motivated to invest in design competence’, she explains.

The first round of Aalto Summer Design Studios kicked-off in June 2019 with six students taking on design challenges for Tume, Joros and PEL-tuote. The challenges ranged from idea exploration to branding. Finnish design agencies ED Design, Muotohiomo and Werklig mentored the students.

The first year already exceeded expectations

Based on the first year’s experiences, Naves says that the results in SMEs can be substantial.

‘Working with small companies allows the design students to access all levels of management in the company. Also, the students developed and delivered projects that could have a major impact on the overall business of their host-SME, which kept them engaged and motivated throughout the entire process’, Naves says.

Patrik Jungarå, managing director at Tume is satisfied with the experimentation. ‘I was really surprised by the quality of the results. We entered the project expecting some graphic material and ended up with strategic work. It was a wake-up call for our company in terms of what we need to reach the next level.'

Design students at the Tume Factory. Photo: Patricial Naves
Design students Molly Balcom Raleigh and Christopher Gros at the Tume factory. Photo: Patricia Naves

Design students Molly Balcom Raleigh and Christopher Gros took on a brand refresh at Tume. Following survey research with young farmers, Balcom Raleigh and Gros found out that Tume products were very much appreciated, but a consistent way of talking was lacking. Tume could interact more with their customers on social media, and support farmers in sustainability and help them express pride in their work. With these insights, they designed a bold social media strategy for Tume as well as ideas for communicating the brand.

‘The students were quickly grasping ideas. I expected that I needed to do more, but they were very well prepared. We got new customer perspectives that in our daily life we don’t hear,’ says Mari Liimatainen, marketing designer of Tume and PEL-tuote.

Interested in joining Aalto Summer Design Studios 2020?

The research on Aalto Summer Design Studios will continue this summer with the goal of expanding the network of companies, design agencies and students. ‘For 2020, we are looking for a new group of SMEs that want to learn about design and establish connections with students as well as a group of agencies that would like to take part in mentoring the process,’ says Person.

The recruitment of companies and design agencies will take place in February and March.

If you are interested to learn more, please contact Oscar Person (oscar.person@aalto.fi) for more details.

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We maintain close ties with our alumni, employers, companies and communities, and actively seek partners that embrace creativity and risk-taking.

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