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Limitless by design

By Peter Marten, February 2009

Photo: Andrew Clutterbuck
A recycled shipping container provides lounge space and perspective in the Design Factory auditorium. The inside of the container is furnished as a meeting room.

The Design Factory cranks out ideas, projects and products, as its name implies – but it's nothing like an assembly line.

The whole Design Factory building is set up with creativity in mind. It gives off a feeling reminiscent of a late-1990s internet start-up – you know, one of those dream companies where you could work hard and play hard, cheerfully and coolly defying corporate wisdom about the way a workplace should look and feel.

The main entrance is actually located at the back of the building, by the loading bay, as if to show visitors that they should expect something out of the ordinary. The lecture hall contains not only stackable chairs, but also a basketball hoop and a blue metal shipping container rigged out as a meeting room.

Located in an unassuming building at the Helsinki University of Technology, the Design Factory possesses only one coffee room. This gives people a natural place to congregate, instead of holing up in their own offices and keeping their thoughts to themselves.

How people want to work

Photo: Andrew Clutterbuck
Click to enlarge the picture
Play your heart out: The Design Factory makes room for both hard work and all-out relaxation.

The Design Factory opened its doors in autumn 2008 as part of the upcoming Aalto University, which will merge the Helsinki School of Economics, the University of Art and Design Helsinki and the Helsinki University of Technology starting in August 2009. Companies and project teams are still moving in, contributing to the work-in-progress atmosphere that pervades the building.

Project manager Jussi Hannula is hanging out in the coffee room. He points out that none of the Design Factory's rooms or spaces serve just one function. All the furniture is moveable, so the people using a space can develop that space. "Here the focus is on the way people want to work," says Hannula. He believes that companies often take a contrary approach, designing a working environment that gels well with the company brand but does not correlate with employees' ideas of an ideal workplace.

Getting ideas across

Photo: Andrew Clutterbuck
Click to enlarge the picture
The building's single coffee room and kitchen forms a natural place to socialise and exchange ideas – or even create Christmas cookies.

"This place is all about getting ideas from your head to your hands," says development coordinator and coach Andrew Clutterbuck, who is showing me around. He opens door after door: workroom, beanbag-chair room, metal shop, classroom, textile lab. Every meeting room is equipped with not only computers and projectors, but also play-dough, chalk, markers, legos – "anything you need to get your idea across," says Clutterbuck.

Even the air here seems creative, and it's easy to get the feeling that atmosphere is what makes the difference between a project floundering or getting off the ground, between creativity and creating nothing. The space is conducive to a combination of inspiration, work and relaxation.

No closed doors

Photo: Peter Marten
Click to enlarge the picture
When the chairs in the lecture hall have been stacked away, mental gymnastics give way to basketball, badminton and other exercise.

Various companies maintain teams at the Design Factory – the main sponsoring partners, telecom giant Nokia and elevator and escalator expert Kone, are moving in during early 2009. In keeping with the spirit of the place, they will sport a "no closed doors" policy. An array of smaller businesses also populates the building.

"The academic and business worlds merge at the Design Factory," says Antti Pitkänen, a design specialist and partner at Seos. His company helps businesses innovate to create better, more sustainable products while remaining user-focused.

Pitkänen's short definition of sustainability goes like this: "people, planet, profit" – the latter means that businesses must be able to see how being sustainable will allow them to make money.

He praises the opportunities at the Design Factory. Businesses housed there give students the opportunity to gain guided experience in cutting-edge projects. In turn, the additional input and feedback from the students lead to better solutions. Seos's project management framework for its client companies includes access to both seasoned professionals and student researchers.

Dramatic charge

Photo: Peter Marten
Click to enlarge the picture
Sami Anttila of Powerkiss demonstrates a prototype device charger. Just place your phone on the table and it starts recharging.

In a tiny room down the hall from Seos, technology developer Sami Anttila is working at another small company, Powerkiss. Promising an end to "cable spaghetti", Powerkiss is developing a way of charging mobile phones and other gadgets simply by placing them on the tabletop.

"I won ‘employee of the month' a few times," jokes Anttila, explaining that a couple months earlier he was the only one at Powerkiss besides founder Maija Itkonen. The company now employs four people.

Anttila places a specially outfitted mobile phone on a certain spot on the table and it begins to recharge, like magic. We all stand there, staring, watching it work. It's safe to say that when this invention reaches the mass production stage, the effect will be considerably broader and more dramatic.

Fun factory

Photo: Andrew Clutterbuck
Click to enlarge the picture
A lot depends on how you look at things – could you see that the tubes in this close-up were actually colour pens?

Having opened a year before Aalto University's official kick-off, the Design Factory has already taken strides towards the goals of its "superuniversity". It emphasises interdisciplinary cooperation and a hands-on attitude, and brings together students, researchers and businesses under the same roof.

How can you sum up an operation as ambitious as the Design Factory, one that includes so many different people, disciplines and skills? "Have fun while working," says project manager Jussi Hannula. Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best.

Links

Design Factory
Seos – sustainable design and research
Powerkiss – a world without chargers

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