The Future is Beige, Not Green

Interview with Janno Siimar, Design Lead & Partner, Velvet

Janno Siimar  Photo credit: Raul Mee

In Velvet, they call everything they do “design”. They position themselves as the first “empathy first” agency in the World. And they try not to add garbage (both mental and physical) to the World.

Velvet is dubbed as an empathy first design agency, what do you mean by that?

First and foremost, Velvet is a design agency comprising four different avenues: strategic, environment, communication and digital. Empathy is an integral part in all of them. We start by mapping the needs and values of both our clients and their customers.

The word design is mostly associated with graphic design or simply ‘’people who can draw things’’. The avenues you listed clearly go beyond that.

Our agency covers the whole spectrum of design. We have graphic designers, architects, service designers, anthropologists and so on. It’s more about thinking and understating than drawing. The depth of work depends on the customer. If you ask us for a logo, that’s exactly what you’ll get, but if you ask for more, we’ll give you more. To be honest, whenever a client comes to us with a specific brief for a webpage or rebranding, we always ask them to visualise their plans and dreams for the next 10 years ahead.

Once we’ve mapped down the future outlook, we can re-evaluate their original brief and identify the actual tools needed to realise this future scenario. Maybe they need a webpage or a new logo, but quite often, they just need to change internally. By the time the client turns to an agency, they have usually identified the problem along with a possible solution which they think we can help with. But as an agency we need to take a few steps back because the client’s idea of a solution may be completely wrong at that point and other issues need to be resolved first. Luckily, I have methods for every step on this journey. This is where empathy first comes into play.

What are you working on today? Any exciting projects keeping you awake at night?

Currently working on product development for a new Estonian brand producing concrete details for furniture. The brand is aiming for the Swedish market, where they’ve been active for a long time now, but have never attempted to reach the customer directly (i.e. worked as a sub-supplier). They’ve come up with a really cool product that has great potential on the Swedish market, where people are looking for innovative durable interior solutions. Velvet is creating a brand from scratch with all the whistles and bells that come with launching a new product in a foreign market. Right now it’s product development and market research. We’re expecting to launch early next year.

It’s hard to conduct market researches for innovative products because people have a hard time imaging something they’ve never used or even seen before. How can you expect useful feedback?

First of all, we need to dig deeper into behaviour and needs. How do people act in these environments? What do they need? What are their values? I’m not talking about the stuff marketing builds its concepts on, I’m talking about in-depth analysis of human behaviour. We interview them, visit their homes, observe how they live, how they make decisions etc.

And yes you’re right, in order to receive useful feedback you need to have a prototype. Concrete cupboard doors can be tricky in terms of values because it’s a vanity product, but we do know that we can offer durability and design. This product is categorised as post-eco meaning we’re using the materials that are already there, not chopping of nature to create something new. It’s a trend that’s been taking over the world for several years now, but has yet to reach our region.

So tree hugging and products made out of natural wood is already yesterday?

Tree hugging is far from ecological. We shouldn’t be producing this way anymore. Concrete is already a processed material made by using the same crap we’ve already thrown out there. The fact that you’re chopping down trees and converting them into your products doesn’t mean you love nature. The future is beige not green. Velvet has another client who produces balcony floors from garbage. These floors last for 25 years and are immune to sun, heels, wine, you name it! Their ecological footprint is literally negative.

Is this something your agency stands for?

You should ask yourself: what is the fifth biggest island in the world? Manmade garbage isle consisting of crap that one agency or another has produced at some point. Every morning we come to work with the aim that our clients’ stuff wouldn’t end up on one of these islands. Luckily we don’t work with alcoholic beverages, hence, packaging isn’t a huge deal for us.

The same goes for mental garbage. Services or communication meant to sell you stuff you don’t need. Then again, if you have a client who’s passionate about their work, writing a content marketing article is pure joy. As a design agency, we’re one step ahead of marketing, meaning we can prevent companies from producing mental garbage.

Talking of clients, do you have the liberty of choosing them?

We do have the liberty, even in Estonia. To be honest, we’re aiming further than our domestic market and by now, Velvet can claim with full confidence that we are a global company. Most of our clients are connected to Estonia in one way or another, but we do have clients who are completely foreign. Today we’re working on our export strategy. We have a sector based approach, which means we are targeting very specific clients from the marine sector for example. We’ve been looking for new accounts for 1,5 years now and finally, business is coming in. Velvet is doing everything from experience design to digital transformation.

What’s your outlook on the up and coming generation? Is it hard to find suitable people who would fit your empathy first approach?

The up and coming generation is just as good as we make it. I think we had close to 100 applications for a job posting recently. Safe to say nobody has experience doing the things we do at Velvet and that’s okay. We’re looking for specific qualities not experience. First you need to have empathy, the ability to step into another person’s shoes. Secondly, be a grownup person who won’t break under the pressure because design is 99% difficult. You’re mostly operating in the dark, which is not a comfortable state for most. Finally, done is not better than perfect! You should take your time and make every work your best.

Young people are not built differently than us, they just have values and are used to creative problem solving because they have grown up in an environment which requires to do so.

Visit Velvet and meet Janno Siimar and his team during Balticbest 2019 company visits program on August 30 in Tallinn. Read more and register HERE.

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