January 12th, 2022 | Blog
Velvet is the largest and most awarded design agency in Estonia. Pärtel Vurma, CEO of Velvet, talks to the Estonian Design Center about the role of a large agency in the Estonian design landscape, their vision for the future, and their ambition for ongoing growth.
I can say with confidence and pride that Velvet is growing. We grow bigger, more mature, strong and smart. We have set an ambitious goal to take design services in Estonia to a whole new level. While the results of a designer’s work are often measured by its tangible or visible results, their impact on an organisation’s culture, strategy, quality of services and products, and through this, on their financial results is increasingly valued. The designer has become the most effective ally of top management for planning their organisation’s goals and implementing change. Demands from design disciplines and the types of specific competencies are becoming more complex while the types of different professions and specialisation opportunities for designers have multiplied. This is a trend that will surely continue. I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard of designers moving up the value chain. Over the years my experience has been that if we only talk about it, this will remain a beautiful dream for designers and agencies, but in the real world we will work on yet another vague brief instead of focusing on planning and implementing changes that really make a difference.
Velvet definitely is not an agency who only talks, but fails to do. But we still have more to do to make our work visible and increase understanding of design’s real value. For this we continue to grow the Velvet team, develop our competencies and educate our customers. Where we see something isn’t right, is outdated and doesn’t create any value, we speak up.
There are strong individual design talents in Estonia: Mihkel Masso, Rait Arro, and Mihkel Güsson won the Red Dot product design categories this year; the packaging design agency Koor makes world-class packaging design, and the animation studio TOLM also stands out on an international level. What we lack in Estonia, however, are strong interdisciplinary design teams that can deal with larger systems and projects to solve the complex and wicked problems thrown up by today’s world. Solving complex problems needs not just individual mastery, but for specialists to cooperate – which in turn, needs skilled design management. Developing competencies at this level of management is impossible in the field of the design if you have nowhere to practice it. Small agencies and design teams are simply not able to offer that and the Estonian design industry needs at least one large design consultancy agency to make the leap to the next level. Today we are the most likely candidate and this challenge is on us. We want to turn Velvet into a design organization where it’s possible to apply your specific skills and education in every discipline and on every level in teams that challenge your abilities, giving you the chance to develop and move up the career ladder.
For years it has been said that the employee of the future is a T-shaped professional. I also see the only viable future for the whole agency to share the same shape. The quality of our different design disciplines must be the best in the world, but in addition to that, we can create new kinds of value by developing our skills to understand and connect different disciplines and fields and the people who work in them.
I don’t know exactly what the world or Velvet will look like in five years. I know that there are a number of critical issues in the world that designers have constantly been preparing to solve by training their creativity, empathy, and ability to apply systems thinking. It would be sad to see this opportunity missed because we don’t have enough skilled managers and wise customers. The digital transformation, the green transition, accessibility, changes in the education system, and the mental health of our society are topics that deserve more attention than just hollow slogans or programs. The problems need to be seriously addressed and the necessary changes made. We are developing Velvet to increase our influence and contribution to solving these problems.
Our strength and uniqueness lie in our wide range of competencies and the ability to connect and collaborate between these competencies. Velvet currently provides services in five design areas: strategic and service design, branding and graphic design, environmental and wayfinding design, digital product, and service design, and event design. In recent years, we have won the titles of both the Design Agency of the Year and the Digital Agency of the Year. Quality and uniqueness in the winning work have been ensured thanks to interdisciplinary cooperation.
One of my favorite examples of such a project is the Oru Hub Hotel. From the very beginning, the situation was ideal for us: the existing outdated concept needed a total makeover and the customer had the courage and motivation to make it happen.
The refresh started from a totally blank page. In the ‘understanding’ phase of the design process, we used user research to identify the expectations of the target groups of modern hospitality services. As a result of that, we also defined a completely new type of tourist profile. Based on our insights, we designed a strong concept and applied it to all channels with maximum quality and thoughtfulness, from interior design, user experience, branding, and wayfinding up to the services and digital channels offered by the hotel. Of course, for the concept to play out perfectly, we also involved the best professionals from outside Velvet, such as NOBE’s interior architects, Meta Advisory, Civitta, and many others. This project is a good example of a client who trusted our team with planning and implementing such a big change. The result is several design awards for our work, the Annual Award of the Association of Interior Architects, and the most gratifying for me – Oru Hub Hotel was among the top three Design Implementers of the year and among the top ten in the Tourism Promoter of the year competition (organized by Enterprise Estonia).
The greatest value of our work is the impact it has on our clients’ success and day-to-day operations. The design awards are undoubtedly great, and more work and people in the field need to get recognition than they do today, but it is even more gratifying when the change we have promised has been implemented with visible and tangible results.
We also enabled the Environmental Board to achieve literally tangible results – we designed teaching materials for children and adults with visual impairments to become acquainted with nature. The result was recognised with the Estonian Association of the Blind Act of the Year award. The final product was designed in collaboration between multiple design disciplines and with the cooperation of professionals from different fields. As a result, we created a product with real value and that follows the principles of universal design.
The first step is to understand the customer’s situation and expectations. When coming to Velvet, the customer does not have to have a specific solution in mind. All that is needed is ambition and the will and courage to change. Even the exact statement and wording of the problem is often a deliverable of the work that we do together. Designers have the skills, tools, and methods, regardless of the field and our experience in this field, to quickly find and map different development opportunities and select the most productive of them.
The most important thing is that our cooperation with our customers is always a partnership that creates open communication and mutual respect. I would like designers to have their unwavering principles of keeping the honor of their design profession high, both for their clients and for society as a whole, similar to the Hippocratic oath of ethics taken by physicians.
If necessary this means, speaking painful truths to clients, and inevitably the possibility of conflict. Our principles mean that we won’t solve even the most pressing demands of a client if we do not believe that it will help him or her or in a situation where, in our opinion, the client’s actions would in any way damage society or endanger the environment. For this reason, our portfolio doesn’t include clients such as the tobacco and alcohol industry, gambling, payday loans, and political parties. We also give priority to those organizations that strive to ensure that their activities follow the principles of sustainable entrepreneurship.
Our ideal client is in a situation where they feel they have untapped potential. Quite a few companies are sitting on a hidden gold mine, but they don’t know how to dig it out. This might be a service that for some reason isn’t working well – then we’ll come in and fix the service or create a new one. This might be an organization whose brand no longer matches its current value offering and is holding back development. This might be a public space where people need to access services in a safe environment. Or this might be a digital service that has stopped growing due to a poor user experience.
In any case, we love tasks that put us to the test. There are a lot of challenges in public sector projects where we have as many projects as in the private sector. A significant part of our work is also with international clients and their share is constantly growing.
I am inspired by the people of Velvet. There are more than 40 of us and we work with many different co-design formats. This means that you see and hear the ingenious ideas, experiences, and exciting thoughts of your colleagues on a daily basis. If you take some time to dig deeper, everyone is a limitless source of inspiration.
Empathetic, ambitious, curious, and hardworking. The range of topics that the agency faces on a daily basis in its projects is very diverse. We work with our clients’ most important challenges and the most fundamental issues, such as their core values and services. For our team, each project is like a crash course in. understanding the client’s field. Here our horizons will again be significantly broadened even within the next few years. I’ve been at Velvet for 15 years and still every project continues to offer something completely new. If one thing is certain, it’s that it will never get boring here.
Detailed job descriptions and instructions to apply can be found on Velvet’s website HERE.
Asked by Katrin Tomiste from Estonian Design Centre