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Usability, durability and aesthetics drawing from nature

Facade designs through the eyes of graphic designer Annika Jaakkola


Master of Arts Annika Jaakkola got to know graphic concrete a decade ago and has designed facade patterns for over twenty properties. Jaakkola, who works as an in-house graphic designer at Jaakkola Architects, tells how she ended up working with facade patterns.

"In the early days of my career as a graphic designer, I got my first job in the field at Graphic Concrete. My interest in combining architecture and graphic design grew from that summer job."

Jaakkola ended up as a graphic designer somewhat by chance. However, she feels that it was the right choice.

The road to graphic design by accident

The fact that Jaakkola became a graphic designer partly happened accidentally. When your family has an architecture firm, the natural choice would be to become an architect: "In my childhood, I was supposed to become an architect and drew a lot of floor plans with just corridors and lots of doors." Jaakkola laughs, "Clearly, that wasn't really my thing."

Jaakkola also considered studies in interior architecture at a university of applied sciences, but university studies won, and she ended up in graphic design, somewhat unexpectedly: "At the age of 18, I had no clear idea of what I wanted to do. Without much thought, I also applied to the University of Lapland, and suddenly I found myself in a new city without any networks."

Jaakkola admits to pondering for a moment whether she had made a mistake, but her thoughts quickly changed when she found her own field: "Graphic design felt right from the start, especially when I found the connections to architecture."

Nature as a source of inspiration in design

Jaakkola mentions nature as her first source of inspiration. Nature is close to Jaakkola's home in Lauttasaari, Helsinki. Additionally, her time in Lapland brought influences: "While studying in Lapland, I found so much new inspiration from nature, and in Lauttasaari, nature is so close that there is constantly something new and interesting, providing a lot of inspiration for pattern design, including colors."

Biomimicry as a starting point for design

Jaakkola's first pattern, "Swarm," was created ten years ago as part of a summer job: "When designing my first pattern 'Swarm,' about ten years ago for Graphic Concrete's GC Collection, I came across Anna Kuukka's thesis 'Surface Design in Architecture,' which examined pattern trends. It left me with lessons that I still use in my design, such as nature mimicry - biomimicry, and organic technology. It seeks inspiration from nature and combines it with a more industrial and electronic form. I still apply these lessons to my design."

The close relationship with the sciences is also evident in Jaakkola's design process: "I believe it is important for visual design to be based at least in part on research. Even though it is a part that doesn't show in the finished work, it is crucial for me that the process is there behind it."

Jaakkola's first pattern is also visible in her home office in Lauttasaari. In addition to the poster, a concrete sample has been made from the pattern.

"It's fun when people ask what I do for a living, so I can actually show what I do. Even though graphic concrete doesn't mean much to most people outside the industry, many recognize the patterns after seeing a pattern sample that they have seen the designs somewhere."

Viborg Provincial Archive  Denmark

In the early stages, designing patterns for massive surfaces made Jaakkola nervous, but especially urban design committees from different cities provided positive feedback.

"Graphic concrete is a great way to enhance the interest of building projects sustainably and cost-effectively. It is also a realistic option in terms of cost, and often acceptable for clients as a way to add more interest to the built environment."


Durability, usability and overall design

Jaakkola aims to make sustainable choices in both design and her life. Additionally, she considers the passage of time as a unique feature.

"I love beautiful things, but in design, and especially in graphic design, aesthetics cannot be the ultimate goal. The most important starting point for me is sustainability, usability, and the holistic nature of design. Although each pattern is, in Jaakkola's view, a representation of its time, it is essential that the pattern withstands time and fits the building even later, not just repeating the trends of the moment."

"My oldest patterns, which are over 10 years old, do not seem to have aged thematically either."

For example, the Runomitta pattern in the Vermo area, containing excerpts from Kalevala, was noticed by both Länsiväylä and Helsingin Sanomat, and according to journalists, also by readers. This, for Jaakkola, was a good experience that facade patterns have their place.

"The Runomitta pattern is a really ancient idea brought into the present day. The pattern has received a lot of praise for how the ideas have been taken from the area's history.”

Patterning in architecture under the conditions of the environment and the object of use

"I have mainly designed patterns related to architecture. Similarity can be sought in textile design, but the usage context is different. In graphic concrete, in addition to the material, the intended use is already known. Designing for the built environment is site-specific, so it is essential to consider the surrounding area."

"In the design of graphic concrete, I start by examining the unique features of each area. Usually, even from a smaller area, you can find something that inspires the pattern."

As an example, Jaakkola mentions Runoratsunkatu in Espoo near the Vermo racetrack, a residential area with many patterns inspired by horse racing and street names.

"When the pattern is not the starting point for building design, the relationship between the pattern and architecture must be carefully considered. The pattern must harmonize with the architecture and function visually. In cases where graphic concrete has been the starting point for architecture or has been involved early on, one must consider how the pattern adds value to the architecture."

"We recently visited Jousenkaari school in Espoo's Tapiola Jousenpuisto area, where the opening lines of ‘Sibelius's Op.75 Kuusi’ were added. The project has sparked a lot of discussion in the area, as visitors try to guess which work the verses are from. The copyright process was also interesting in the design of the project. It had to be clarified how to obtain usage rights for a permanent project when rights are usually sold only for a few years at a time. However, permission came immediately because the project was interesting even for Sibelius's heirs."

Jousenkaari school is located at Palloilutie 5, 02120 Espoo. 
More information about the project can be found on the Jaakkola Architects website.

Usability as a starting point for design

In the design of printed materials, Jaakkola focuses on usability and readability – data visualization. The most important information should be visually apparent first.

"I hope that the end result conveys to the user a sense that the result is polished and professional. The purpose of my work is to facilitate the visualization of visual data and make it more readable."

Regarding usability in pattern design, it must be considered that the pattern is calm enough. Additionally, the pattern should arouse interest and make people stop to examine it more closely. Jaakkola also hopes that, when walking by, one of her patterns brightens someone's rainy Monday morning.

"In the design of basic prints, you can think about seasons, for example. Still, additional challenges arise in architecture as the pattern must work in all weather conditions, every season, and even years later."

"Especially in residential buildings, the pattern can be a focal point for residents or even increase discoverability. It can be fun to describe your home as the one with "horseshoes" compared to saying it's the gray house over there."

"For example, tall buildings may feel a bit cold from the outside due to their size, and in such cases, the pattern may bring warmth and humanity, creating a home-like atmosphere from the outside.”

What do you think about concrete as a material, especially when there is a lot of talk about environmental issues and sustainability?

Jaakkola has over ten years of experience with concrete, so she knows what material she is designing for. "Concrete is a very interesting, versatile, and cost-effective material. Additionally, it is not as environmentally burdensome as some other similar materials."

"I try to consider the natural liveliness of concrete, so I avoid large smooth surfaces in patterns that could cause variation in the surface, which may look like a flaw to someone else. A lively pattern covers the color irregularities of the concrete."

When working with concrete, color variations on the surface are likely, but Jaakkola feels that "the end result looks like concrete should look – alive."

According to Jaakkola, the surface of graphic concrete appears both hard and soft at the same time. "I have noticed that there is a peculiarity in the surface of graphic concrete that everyone who sees it for the first time goes to scratch the surface to see if the pattern comes off."

Patterning as a part of the architecture or a separate work?

The difference can be whether you are designing a repetitive pattern or individual images. In a repetitive pattern, especially for a large surface area, the pattern must be somehow integrated into the architecture. The scale also affects whether a particular image or pattern is perceived as part of architecture or a separate work of art.

In the Vermo area, there are larger parking garages with patterns designed by Jaakkola. Just the scale of the area requires careful consideration of the relationship between architecture and pattern design. The Wild Vine pattern in one location in that area is so massive that it adds an extra dimension to the architecture.

Regarding the artwork aspect, Jaakkola gives an example of a single landscape image from the Rantarousti school in Tyrnävä, featuring a crane pattern. The artwork also includes poems by the local poet Väinö Kirstinä: "These individual patterns feel like independent artworks that have then been integrated into the architecture."

Do you have any tips for planning?

According to Jaakkola, it is beneficial to have some experience in pattern design. The most crucial thing is to consider the viewing distance.

"The variation in viewing distance brings versatility, new levels, and layers to the pattern. The pattern must work from a distance, but it can also reveal something more when examined closely. If the pattern is at eye level, you can even touch the surface. So, moving around in the environment, you can discover new surprising features from different distances."

"My other tip is that concrete is an organically behaving material, so by following the basic guidelines of graphic concrete, you can already go quite far. For example, in patterns with small details, such as typographic patterns, attention should be paid to ensuring that there aren't any too thin lines."

The leopard pattern on the facade of the building may be surprising.

Who is it designed for?

"Graphic concrete is such a powerful part of the cityscape that I hope the end result stimulates all users of urban space – residents, occasional passersby, and visitors to the city. If the end result attracts attention or evokes some emotion, then, in my opinion, its purpose is fulfilled.”

"I feel that through my patterns, I have been able to bring joy to people."