Change is not hindered by attitude but by the lack of references, says Tapio Rosenius

Tapio Rosenius is a Finnish designer, modernizer, artist and entrepreneur. He is known as the CEO of Skandal Technologies, a company that develops ambient communication solutions, as well as the founder of the Lighting Design Collective. Based in Madrid, Spain, Rosenius will return to Helsinki in early February to attend the lighting professionals’ event Valo/On. Weekly’s programme director Anni Korkman interviewed Rosenius about ways to bypass thinking and the permanence of architecture.

Weekly: In your work you create connections between lighting, a digital future, and the biomimetic and human experience. Have you always worked with light?

Tapio: Oh yes. When I was younger, I wanted to make movies and studied photography for a while. I realized quite early that each picture actually consists of the light that the camera captures. I decided to forget about the camera and embrace the world of light. The school I attended at the time, Tampere University of Applied Sciences TAMK, provided excellent opportunities to experiment. My teachers encouraged me to boldly reach beyond cinema and my other passion, media art. I became inspired by permanence as a theme and in a space. Our experience of architecture is continuous because we sense spaces daily, in fact without a beginning, middle or end. These days I’m bringing the logic of art into permanent environments.

My school had received financing to send one student to work as an intern abroad. I heard about this opportunity just one day before the application deadline. I wrote “lightning designer” in the AltaVista search engine, with that typo, and wondered about the poor results. However, a Scottish designer had made the same typo, so I ended up at Kevan Shaw’s website. I sent him my resumé, and the next morning I got a phone call. He hired me although I knew next to nothing. I ended up working with Shaw for more than three years. My first project was the Lisbon World Fair.

After a few years, I continued my studies at The UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment in London. I learned to read academic literature on biology, for example, to learn about the impact of blue light on humans and similar phenomena. These are the skills I still use in my work.

Weekly: How did you come up with your work method?

Tapio: After an international career of ten years, as I was starting up the Lighting Design Collective, I knew what I didn’t want to do at least. I had seen what others did, what they ended up doing, and felt it was very limited. In this field, there are certain collectively approved rules which make all results look the same. Since the beginning, I wanted to bring experts from various fields together to create a combo of skills and approaches.

Weekly: What are you working on right now?

Tapio: The Covid pandemic turned the world’s eyes on us to show the benefits of combining the physical and the digital in built environments. How do we lure people back to offices? How can we make a work environment into a continuously transitional experience that feels relevant every day? These questions are topical right now, but we have been looking for the answers for years.

Weekly: Right. How?

Tapio: We study and search for ways to design premises that have an impact on human behaviour. We collect data with sensors and combine it with contextual information. How can we make people understand the passage of time? Or to forget time?

So much can be done with light, but it is only one means among many. Nowadays our agency designs experiences and operates more comprehensively. The kind of tools we needed did not exist in the world, so we founded a sister company, a start-up called Skandal Technologies. The POET software platform we develop enables the design and implementation of physical and digital installations that consist not only of light but also of media, sound and data.

Our environments provide us with information continuously, without paying attention. On this we focus; we operate on a perceptional level trying to avoid the cognitive process.

Tapio Rosenius

Weekly: Does this mean you are trying to bypass thinking?

Tapio: Yes, that’s right. We can influence people on an intuitive level. One example is lunch time at the office. We can create movement in the room that people only perceive from the corner of the eye. This movement can be accelerated to communicate urgency or that it is busy in the cafeteria.

Another way is to visualize data and affect behaviour by gamification. Our software visualizes behavioural data, for example the use of stairs. Visualizing calories may encourage people to use the stairs.

Weekly: What kind of questions do you ask when you evaluate the results?

Tapio: What is the value of wellbeing to a company? What is its value to an individual? How do features that lengthen the life of employees increase the value of an office building?

Weekly: Your methods can have a huge impact on people. How important is corporate social responsibility to you?

Tapio: Ethical questions are key! We utilize the Nudge concept, which includes an element of voluntariness. People always have a choice in the places we design.

Weekly: Where does the most interesting experience design happen at the moment?

Tapio: For decades it was only done commercially. Shopping centres became experience or lifestyle centres and so on. We implement this idea in work environments. There are many possibilities in offices because they have not developed much in terms of lighting concepts. At the Valo/on event, I will present a few radical innovations which we have worked on lately.

Weekly: Work rooms are indeed rather traditional also in companies and fields that “think big” or work towards the future.

Tapio: Change is not hindered by attitude but by the lack of references. This can be seen in the design field, where clients are presented with mood boards. Pictures of work already done. The client chooses the alternative that they like, and the designer, much like a pharmacist, mixes a solution from existing ingredients.

Weekly: Design phases can be somewhat mystical… Perhaps we need new ways of presenting the creative process and communicating what is possible.

Tapio: Right, and it is hard as hell to get to the core, to think genuinely creatively.

Tapio Rosenius is the keynote speaker at the lighting professionals’ Valo/On event on Thursday, 2 February at 16.00. Read more here. Valo/On is produced by Luovi Productions, which is also the publisher of Helsinki Design Weekly.