Meet Ulla Ryynänen – Ph.D. student – graphical design – visiting the codesign cluster

Ulla is a PhD student from Helsinki, Finland, visiting the co-design research cluster this fall. The topic of her dissertation is contradictions in graphic designers work. The dissertation is done for Aalto University of Arts, Design and Architecture, department of media, graphic design. Her theoretical background comes from the doctoral studies at Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE), Helsinki University, behavioral sciences.

Ulla´s background is in graphic design. The graphic design studies started in 2000 at Lahti institute of Design and continued at The University of Art and Design in Helsinki (now known as Aalto University of Arts, Design and Architecture). She spent one term as an exchange student first at Kaunas Art Institute, graphic arts (2003) and later at Bergen National Academy of the Arts, visual communication (2007).

The general research question is what kinds of challenges and possibilities are present in the work of graphic designers. This becomes interesting when considering the changes that are taking place in media production today. Two general trends are of special interest. Firstly, the move from printing on paper to publishing through several different devices, dominated by digital publishing. Secondly, there is a transformation from individual to collaborative work. This research looks at how these changes are visible in the practice of graphic designers. The concept of contradictions from activity theory is used to understand this change. Contradictions are sources for change and development. In activity theory contradictions are dialectical, meaning that they are always present but take different forms depending on the historical situation, causing constant movement. Activity theory provides concepts to understand the dynamics between the graphic designer and the surrounding activity, so that the work becomes positioned in relation to the surrounding community, instead of focusing only on the process of the individual designer.

The data is collected using ethnography from two case studies. The first is a study following the Art Director’s (AD) work during a visual update process of a magazine, where the interesting aspect of the update was that the readers were not to notice the change. Here the questions became: why the change was done in the first place, if it was not supposed to be visible, and why the change should be invisible. Group discussions between the AD, the editor in chief and a visual consultant are analyzed. The second case study is focused on two workshops organized by the think tank Demos Helsinki. The goal of the workshops was to develop new business models for a low carbon society. The use of design thinking, the use of visual materials and the involvement of the graphic designer, are of special interest.

Ulla’s email: or

Phone: +4528601017

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