5 Observations on Danish Design

Mika Aldaba
5 min readFeb 13, 2023

Living in Denmark is like living in a design museum and getting a free education on it. After 5 years in Copenhagen, sometimes I want to use a time machine and see the city all over again with fresh eyes. I sincerely thought that it was beautiful everywhere I looked. Of course, nowadays I will go on a rant about all the new ugly buildings sprouting up. The cactus towers and the new apartments at Papirøen come to mind. Nevertheless, the country is full of design gems ranging from interior design to urban planning to typography etc.

Here are 5 observations I’ve noticed that maybe other countries can learn from:

1. Design is valued and ingrained in Danish culture. I remember one Friday afternoon sitting with colleagues at a bar, when one of them pointed out an Arne Jacobsen chair at a flea market a hundred meters away. It is almost expected to see some famous Danish design items at people’s homes.

Even the Danish queen is a designer! Meet my favourite monarch:

Queen Margrethe designs sets and costumes for ballet and film. She has even illustrated the Lord of the Rings under a pseudonym.
Streets and plazas are named after designers. I write more about Poul Henningsen below.

For lazy Sundays, I love strolling in the Danish Design museum. There is also the Danish Design Center just across the bridge from where I live. Every June, there is the 3 days of design festival where you can tour the different design shops and agencies in Copenhagen.

2. The minimalist movement is not merely an aesthetic as the Scandinavian brand is known for. It came from a functional design philosophy that elevates aesthetics to health ideals. The design of the home is to have as much light as possible, to make cleaning easy and to give emphasis to hygiene. One of the first Danes I’ve ever met, Rune Rex has recommended this book Lys, Luft og Renlighed (Light, Air and Cleanliness) to me. Unfortunately it is not available in English and I have yet to go through it!

Almost all the apartments in Denmark that I’ve been to look exactly the same with white and clean lines. The garbage is always under the sink. The newest apartments are super minimalist where kitchen cabinet handles are designed to be hidden.

3. Most services are digital. Government services are highly efficient (unless you are an immigrant applying for permanent residence or trying to get a bank account for the first time).

Health is very digitalized in Denmark. My health card to access public health services is an app. I can contact my doctor, and get all my prescriptions and test history through an app. The driver’s license is also an app. I’m pretty sure they’ll release the Danish passport as an app at some point. The standard for UX and service design is high because that’s what people are used to and what they demand.

The Danish health card on your phone. I have stopped using a wallet completely once I got this app.
One of my most used apps. I love paying with this instead of having to type my card number.

Denmark is a cashless society. Only a few people use cash. If you aren’t at a pensionist age, they treat you with suspicion if you pay with paper bills. People are using Apple Pay or Mobile Pay with their phones or tapping their watches at the card reader. I don’t even carry my wallet anymore.

4. Design is political. Co-design has its roots from Scandinavian labor unions. While I was doing my masters, I learned about Scandinavian participatory design tradition in my UX design class. In these egalitarian societies, I experienced flat hierarchies at my workplaces. In my company, the intern can talk directly with the boss and even run workshops. The Danes believe in janteloven or Jante’s law which states that you are not to think you are better than anyone else.

If you find this topic interesting, watch this lecture series on design, democracy and participation.

There is no better example for politics and design than Poul Henningsen. He was most known for his PH lamps but I’m not sure if Danes these days are as familiar with his writing work. He believed that good design should be accessible and not just for the rich. Ironically, his lamps are some of the most expensive out there.

If you watch Danish films or TV shows, you will see these lamps used in a lot of the set design. Read or watch more about Poul Henningsen.

The choices we make as designers are never neutral because we always make them within a context. We either uphold the status quo and keep things as they are, or we can design differently to change how the world works.

5. Sustainability and circular design are being integrated into daily life. The pant bottle return system is a good example. If you live in Germany, then it’s similar to the pfand system. There are specific recyclable items usually drinks which you pay a small deposit on and get back when you return the empty bottles and cans to the shops.

Get money back from your bottles. We always get some extra pocket money after hosting a party from all the beer cans we accumulate.
Another image that pops up in my mind when I think of Denmark.

Furnishing your apartment for free is possible with groups such as Free your stuff Copenhagen and visiting Recycling/Genbrug stations. One can also get free food from near-expiry grocery saving organizations or cheap leftovers from apps like Too Good to Go. It is common to buy used clothes and other items from sites like DBA and Facebook marketplace. People love a good luxury bargain from flea market shopping.

And finally, I can’t write an article about Danish design without mentioning bicycles. The Danes are serious about cycling as a way of life. And it really is the most sustainable form of transport for able-bodied people.

They are so serious that an urban planner has even produced a video ranting about the 3 worst bike bridges in Copenhagen. His criticisms make sense but it’s hard not to be jealous when in comparison our bike lanes in Manila are almost non-existent.

Mikael Colville Andersen complains about this bridge for only serving a small percentage of the population which happens to include me. This is one of my favourite bridges in the city and cross it almost daily.

I plan to write more about Danish design, including specific studios and case studies throughout the year as I believe there is a goldmine of wealth that is currently untranslated.

Want to learn more about Danish design? You can watch some videos from UX Copenhagen and Scandinavian Design 101, listen to podcasts from Design Kan (in Danish) and read reports from SPACE10.