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Picturing the future literally

The pen might be mightier than the sword, but a picture can be pretty powerful too. Juhana Arkio and his team use pictures to prepare for the future.


TEXT: LENA BARNER-RASMUSSEN PHOTO: ORCUM ERDEM

From a distance, it looks like a swarm of mosquitoes approaching. As they get closer, you start hearing the buzzing sound of engines. You might think for a second that an army of battle droids from Star Wars is closing in on you.

But, no, this is not a scene from a Star Wars movie. The swarm of mosquitos is actually Wärtsilä’s service drones approaching a vessel out at sea. It might just as well be a power plant out in the Omani desert. They show up whenever the engines alert to problems or maintenance needed, and, powered by solar cells on their spider-like legs, they can fly long distances.

Welcome to the future. This is how Wärtsilä may service engines at some point. For now, however, all there is to this project is this one image.

“You can interpret this picture [of the drones] whichever way you want. We haven’t investigated for instance how they will fly, we haven’t gotten into any details at all. All we do with this picture is envision the future,” says Juhana Arkio, Industrial Design Manager at Wärtsilä.

But still, this one picture is a strategically powerful tool because it helps in igniting creativity to take on new and wild ideas. If you start a building project by counting the bricks in your shed, then that will define your ambition level. According to Arkio, the question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to take charge and form the future or be moulded by the environment around you while sort of drifting towards something.

Obviously, he prefers the first option.

“What you get with this picture is a snapshot of the future, a scenario, and that works as a vision of the future. Then you can start working backwards to what this means in concrete terms, what technology would get you there.”

So you make technology the enabler, not the solution.

“The future belongs to those who prepare for it,” says Arkio.

A project closer to the flying drones is the current work for Wärtsilä’s next generation engine projects. In this context, product semantics has been used in an attempt to visualise Wärtsilä’s values in a future engine room environment.

“We use the picture for investigating how values like safety, reliability and quality can be communicated through design in an engine room set-up,” explains Arkio.

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“THE FUTURE BELONGS TO THOSE WHO PREPARE FOR IT.”

Customer in the centre

It’s only natural that industrial design makes an entrance into the traditional industries. Arkio calls it the megatrend of customer-centricity.

“For an industrial designer, user-friendliness, i.e., customer-centricity – has always been the core of it all, the very starting point. In an industrial setup, you might think of the paying customer first-hand when developing solutions, but at the end of the chain, there is always the end-user. So our equation can be summed up as designing things that the end-user finds easy to use while also fulfilling the needs of the paying customer.”

Usually these two tend to converge into what’s easy to use is also more efficient.

This is where the interview is interrupted by a phone call from Arkio’s 9-year-old son. After having sorted out the details of being picked up from the library, the iPhone still resting in Arkio’s hand, he points out that digitalisation is what has propelled this trend.

“Our everyday gadgets have helped us define user-friendliness. We demand from our smartphones, TVs, cars – everything – that they are intuitive, and this extends also to our work environment.”

And good design solutions where you truly understand the end-user are the starting point for intuitive products. 

More than good looks

Product semantics is one dimension of good design. Here the sceptic will say it doesn’t matter what the machinery looks like in an engine room as long as it does the job.

But then again, the customer is a human being and is subconsciously affected by how things look.

“So, the right product semantics makes the products also look meaningful and valuable, i.e., safe, high quality and reliable. This is also the link between design and brand. Our products need to be recognised as Wärtsilä equipment by our core values whether the brand label is visible or not,” says Arkio.

And that’s why industrial design was an integral part of the R&D work in the newly launched Wärtsilä 31 engine.

“It needed to be easy to use, safe to operate and convey high-tech and quality.”

At Wärtsilä, Arkio is experiencing a professional dream come true: managing a design team in a creative design studio environment. Because that’s partly how he sees his work at the Innovation Node, where Wärtsilä experiments with completely new concepts.

“Design studio activities have always been instrumental in envisioning the future, and we are increasingly seeing more fusion between industrial design and innovation in companies in general. This is what modern product design is all about.”

The Industrial Design Artist

Orcum Erdem spent last summer at the Innovation Node in Otaniemi, a 15-minute drive from Wärtsilä’s head office, as a trainee. A student of industrial design at Aalto University, he has a knack for illustrating, Arkio noted quickly from looking at Erdem’s portfolio. Erdem used a digital painting technique for the illustrations.
“These images represent very high quality in the field of creativity and futuristic design,” Arkio says.

Product semantics is an old paradigm in the design world and means an attempt to convey what a product is or does through its form. A designer using product semantics creates products that are understandable and engaging. Today, the phrase is increasingly being reevaluated to also including a user-centred approach.

© 2018 Wärtsilä