What I Learned About Creativity at the Helsinki Design Museum

The Helsinki Design Museum is small, but if you’re visiting the city, I highly recommend it. The permanent exhibit on the history of Finnish design alone is worth the trip. As Kathleen and I walked through the museum, I was continually inspired by the global vision of designers based right here in this relatively small but beautiful city. Here’s a handful of thoughts about creativity and design that stood out for me as we toured the exhibits:

1. You don’t have to be an artist to be a designer. The museum showcases a number of designer’s notebooks, and you’re immediately reminded that many of the drawings and sketches are not works of art. In fact, some are hardly readable. Many designers have brilliant ideas, but aren’t necessarily artists themselves. So stop worrying that you’re not a great artist. The point is to get your ideas (no matter how rough) down on paper. (Try my Unique Planner to help you make that happen.)

2. Design is collaborative. A large exhibit upstairs tracks the very successful Aamu Song & Johan Olin’s design practice based in Helsinki. While they supervise the great number of objects they design and sell, their focus is on finding “masters” around the world who have created everything from toys to clothes to household items. They work with these artisans to tweak the product and make it ready for the market. The museum did a great job of showing just how collaborative their work must be to lead that many artists and designers around the world. (Another reason leading creative people is a skill we all must develop.)

3. Creativity is a process, not a moment. One interesting exhibit was based on the many iterations of the Nokia mobile phone. Creating what was once the most popular phone in the world wasn’t a flash of inspiration, but a long process featuring many different designs and prototypes. Most of the time, true creativity doesn’t happen in a flash, but in a long process of variations, rough ideas, and failures. But it’s the process that opens the door to insight which leads to a successful design.

4. Creativity is about problem solving. The museum isn’t just interested in the Finnish contribution to graphic or glassware design, but also includes brilliant creations from all walks of life such as farm equipment, transportation, and medicine. They even include the re-design of a wash basin in Finnish sanitariums that dramatically lowered rates of infection among patients. We discovered the scissors we use in our office in Los Angeles were designed in Finland! American advertising legend George Lois was famous for saying, “Creativity can solve almost any problem” and that idea comes to life at the museum.

5. Design is a way of life.  The museum reminded me that being a “designer” isn’t just a job title or a field of study. Design is a way of thinking and a way of living. At some level we’re all designers because we’re all trying to use creativity to navigate through our lives. Design is all around us, and when we begin to see the impact it has on our world, our perspective begins to change. I was reminded of the great quote from Steve Jobs: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

6. For creativity to flourish, it needs to be valued. One of the reasons Finnish design is so popular and successful is that designers are valued in this country. The joke in many other countries about designers is that 90% of their job is responding to client requests to make the logo bigger. But in places like Helsinki where designers are valued and honored, amazing things happen, and world changing ideas are born.

Finally, another quote from Steve Jobs: “After all the statistics and calculations are formulated, the one element that breathes life into marketing is good design.”

Main photo by Alexandr Bormotin on Unsplash

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  1. As a creative type/musician, I love #3. I once had an older recording artist I played for tell me, “Good ideas are worked for”. Best advice I ever got.
    You are so correct. Too many think creativity is akin to the big lightning flash, when it’s actually more like the tediousness (and often silliness) of rubbing balloons on your head to see which ones actually stick to the wall. Great thoughts, Phil.

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