Graphis 1988 / Richard Hayhurst: Erkki Ruuhinen on graphic design

The name of Erkki Ruuhinen is synonymous with graphic design in Finland. You come across his work everywhere — from company logos to art festival posters, calendars to books and annual reports, advertising campaigns to corporate visual identity programmes.
           After seven years in SEK — one of Finland’s leading advertising chains, Erkki switched to Anderson & Lembke. During his time there A&L established itself in the Nordic countries and elsewhere Western Europe as the pioneer of business-to-business advertising, combining in-depth marketing strategy planning with exceptional creativity.
           At the back of his mind was always, however, the idea of establishing his own agency and in 1983 Erkki Ruuhinen Design opened its doors. With such success that after only a few years the agency had major clients such as IBM, the Finnish Sugar Corporation, Pohjola Insurance Group, Valio Dairies, Postipankki and Labsystems. All either operate internationally or are major exporters.
           Recognition has not only come in the form of clients — to date Erkki has won over 130 major awards — more than half of them internationally.
           They’ve ranged from a gold medal in the Rizzoli competition, through silvers in the Brno and Warsaw poster biennials to gold, silver and bronze in the Lahti poster biennial. Not to mention awards from the Clio, Creativity and TDC competitions in the USA.
The man’s working philosophy

”Design should serve the client’s business. It should arouse interest in the company and its products. Build the desired image for the company’s operations. Thus the designer should not rest content with short term limited commissions, rather he should fight for better overall planning on a longterm basis. It’s the designer’s duty as well as the key to the development of his own profession. Through better planning of design products can be create added value”, he explains.
           And goes on to add: ”The architect Alvar Aalto wasn’t content just to endow his building with functionalism. In his opinion architecture should be influential and provide an aesthetic experiences. Graphic design should have the same aim.”
           The second pillar in Erkki Ruuhinen’s work is as follows: ”I try to make the solutions as simple as possible, eliminating all that is non-essential.” In this respect he quotes Christian Dior who has said: ”The essence of elegance is simplicity.”
           His own work has gradually acquired its own trademark: clarity, simplicity and stylish mini­malism. This is not due, however, to any external influence, but rather to a strong and clear personal belief. Perhaps Erkki’s work also reflects a leaning towards aestheticism and purity caused by the severe climatic conditions in Scandinavia.
           The third principle is the one encapsulated so well by Herb Lubalin: ”Think before you draw.” Erkki carries it a step further. ”If work is sufficiently well thought out it is usually clear, pure and beautiful.”

Where does he draw his inspiration from?

Erkki has become increasingly interested over the years in the basic elements of art – space, form, colour, and composition.
           He believes there are examples of internationally orientated thinking and traditions to be found in Finnish architecture and design. The best known practitioners being the architect Alvar Aalto and glass designers Tapio Wirkkala and Timo Sarpaneva. The architects Eliel Saarinen and his son Eero Saarinen also can be considered representative with their work in the USA.
           Through their teachings in the Cranbrook School of Arts they spread the Finnish design gospel and had a significant influence on the development of American design in the early decades of this century.
           Erkki has also studied the teachings of the Bauhaus school and admired its influence on the development of art, design and architecture. In the same way the Russian avant garde movement sent shock-waves through modern European art.
           He believes that the development of graphic design is tied to the traditions of modern art: ”We can close our eyes and pretend the graphic design has not been dependent on these traditions, but I personally do not believe it.”
           ”For example Josef Albers’ lifework on the use of colours can still to this day open eyes of not only painters, architects and textile designers but also graphic artists.”
           In the same way we can learn something from Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer, Herbert Bayer, Mies van der Rohe and many other of the designers active in the Bauhaus movement as well as their best pupils.
           ”We are all only messengers on the long road of art, irrespective of which area of the arts or design we are working in.”
           ”The part we play in the overall development of art depends on how significant future generations see our contribution as being.”
           Thus holds Erkki Ruuhinen, the standard bearer of graphic design in Finland.
By Richard Hayhurst, Graphis Magazine (Zürich), nro 255, May/June 1988.