The Best Thing in the Helsinki Design Museum

A day in Helsinki with my wife and three lively sons included a visit to the Design Museum.

We enjoyed the permanent exhibition on the ground floor. It raised questions about what is designed and how. Also, what belongs in a design museum: Aalvar Aalto, kitchenware, ceramics, chairs, lots more chairs, and – being in Finland – Fiskars scissors and a Nokia Communicator, wooden prototypes and all. But none of these could be described as the best thing in the museum.

The sight of my boys fighting over the mouse of a virtual reality interactive of the Finnish Pavilion from the 1900 Paris World Fair definitely added an extra frisson when we moved upstairs to a whole floor filled with stunning and expensive Oiva Toikka glassware. Sensational, but still not the best.

For my money they saved the best design until last. (I mean this sincerely and not in any way to undermine the contents of this wonderful museum. I’d love to return with a little more time on my hands.)

Like many other museums and galleries the Design Museum gives visitors a sticker to show they’ve paid. Thus, outside other museums we see little clusters of discarded stickers, erupting like a disease on any available surface. Like this…

Or this…

Not so the immaculate doorstep of the Helsinki Design Museum. For just inside the doorway is a box, about the size of my smallest child. The box’s role in life is to attract coloured stickers. I say with some certainty that this was the single most interactive, participatory and engaging part of our family’s visit.

I have no idea who put the box there, whether they understood its true purpose beforehand or simply permitted it to remain once the practice emerged. I’ve seen the solution elsewhere. Maybe museum people swap tips like this at museums conferences.

Whatever the story, the originator of this solution is a true design genius. It’s simple, fun, human-centred, and it solves a social problem. Without a doubt it’s the kind of thing that belongs in a design museum.

2 thoughts on “The Best Thing in the Helsinki Design Museum

  1. I think the “permitted it to remain” part is very interesting.

    If it wasn’t put there for this purpose then does the person who saw what people were doing, and allowed it to continue, become the designer?

    Or does the possibility that it emerged because of it’s context (which might include that person) mean that it can’t really be said to have been designed at all?

    Either way it’s a lovely example.

  2. Interesting question, Tom. Personally I think emergence is underrated as a source of innovation, and bottling its juice is fair game for the designer. That’s what Christopher Alexander was doing with his pattern language, right?

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