by John Bowers
Sweden may be one of the few countries in the world in which culture and design can be described in a single word: lagom. In every Swede’s vocabulary, sparingly used but widely applied, the word essentially means finding and exhibiting balance, yet has multiple connotations depending on context. In some cases it might mean “don’t show off,” while in others it might mean “all in good measure.” No word in the English language corresponds to lagom. A Swede might say “Vattnet är lagom varmt,” which translates as “The water is lagom warm” and means the water is neither too warm nor too cold, but just right.
The understated nature and balanced approach of lagom is expressed throughout the country in a variety of ways and across a range of public situations. Official signage, for example, functions more as invitations and requests than obligations and demands. Depictions of adults guiding children, exuberant pedestrians walking, and gentle notifications of doggie bag availability seem more like statements related to civic pride than directives. Implying “please” seems to be just enough.
As of this writing, the hockey season has begun in Sweden, snow is expected in Lapland, and the locals have installed studded snow tires on their vehicles in anticipation. Little salt is applied to the roads; instead, the majority of roads are deliberately left with a layer of snow ideally suited for studded tires. Equally balanced are the hockey games, which combine strategy and rugged skate play but rarely fighting, an act considered an affront to the sport.
The balance and civility implicit in lagom even extends beyond Sweden’s borders. Sweden recently announced it would offer blanket asylum to any Syrian refugee–the first European country to do so.
I recently returned from northern Sweden where I conducted my annual workshop for thirteen first-year students in the MA Interaction Design program at the Umeå Institute of Design. This time, the studio-based workshop explored approaches to organizing interviews, photographs, and observation notes previously compiled by the students over four days’ time in Abisko, Sweden, ten hours by train north of Umeå. The workshop’s purpose was to develop points of view for an interactive and interpretative way-finding system that could be used by Abisko citizens and visitors.
A small, remote town on the Sweden-Norway border in northern Lapland, Abisko is both a tourist destination and an important center of Arctic research, drawing researchers of climate change from around the world. Under the leadership of Niklas Andersson, MA Interaction Program Director, the students had thoroughly explored the town just before I arrived. Hailing from eleven different countries, their diverse backgrounds brought a range of interpretative perspectives to the significance of the northern lights, ways of the indigenous Sami population, social interactions among the researchers, tourists, and locals, and more. Because the school year was in its first week, their time in Abisko was largely their introduction to Sweden and lagom.
My workshop began the process of finding balance among content, targeted audiences, message purposes, and desired responses for the design of open-ended outcomes, such as physical maps or iPhone applications. It presented an interesting challenge to the students because the design solutions were meant to be implemented in a country foreign to almost all of them.
As we analyzed their research, lagom came up and the various ways it is expressed, including the national custom of fika (daily, repeated, and much- beloved work breaks centered on the drinking of strong black coffee). We agreed that embracing if not appreciating coffee without cream as well as other Swedish cultural conventions, routines, and rituals would be key to designing in Sweden.
The concept of lagom may be too abstract to function as a design method per se, but it can serve as a guide. Among Swedes there’s no single application of the word in the same way they have little agreement on the boundaries of Lapland. Lagom is a prompt to consider the embedded role of designers in culture, and in this way may hold wide consideration. For the thirteen students, lagom is leading them to consider their own cultural values and their place as they live and design in Sweden.
While Swedish design exhibits functional simplicity and elegance, conveys honesty, and is an extension of lagom, applying the concept to design problems outside the country doesn’t necessarily dictate a particular look, imply a process, or promote a given value. In this sense, lagom is as neutral as Sweden itself, assuming that neutrality can actually exist.
Words, regions, and countries are many-layered. Whether in Abisko, Umeå, or elsewhere, through government policies, organized research projects, visual depictions, or expressions of civility, the search for balance among the various components is a complicated but worthwhile undertaking.
John Bowers is the Graduate Coordinator of the Visual Communication Design Department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.