It has proved to be a very effective way of getting to the heart of his clients’ issues as well. Seymour talked with Belinda Stening, Curve editor, about communication, his partnership with Dick Powell and the future of the business landscape.
How have you developed the courage to talk to clients in such a direct way?
I think it came from two places. Firstly, it grew out of frustration. There are so many layers of marketing gobbledygook that mean nothing, that I get very frustrated at finding a way through it all. Secondly, to be brutally frank, the harder you beat them, the happier they seem to be with you.
So many people, especially in big organisations, have been taught to be a certain way, or to use a certain set of rules, so unless you occasionally threaten to ‘firebomb’ them, nothing is going to happen.
By using a practical vocabulary, which doesn’t include words like ‘leverage’ and ‘ideation’, we can get to the truth more quickly.
There is a whole raft of stuff, much of it absolute tripe and twaddle, in businesses about ‘innovation theory’.
It’s usually about taking people, who have absolutely no hope of having an original idea, and trying to work them up into some sort of feeding frenzy that suggests “If I follow this linear, cookie-cutter process everything will be okay and we’ll all be creative”. It’s a nonsense, and an expensive waste of time…a lot of the time.
We at SeymourPowell can show prospective clients the projects we have done and prove to them that we are not just there to give them grief.
What I’ve found is that if you can penetrate the business in the right place, which is at the top, and say the right things and tell the truth, no matter how painful it is, you can cut through hours, weeks or years of nonsense and then you can get on with it.
Have you ever scared clients off?
Yes. There have been cases when they have said, “well this just isn’t for me”. Dick (Powell) has always taken a much more professional approach with clients and generally maintains a sensible commercial distance. He tends not to maul the clients in quite the same way I do.
At the same time, the mauling process is a bonding process. It gets me close with a client and that often engenders a sense of relief, a catharsis, which you go through with them when you get down to the reality of what the problem really is.
I think I know where this comes from. I realised a couple of months ago that it’s part of how I was taught.
I was taught by Bob Gill who was certainly one of the finest graphic designers of his generation. This guy was a thunderbolt. He absolutely wouldn’t accept anything less than work that was truly brilliant.
He’d take a class of eighteen students, and by the end of two weeks most of them had dropped out because it wasn’t for them. The few of us who hung onto his coat tails benefited.
But you had to be a certain kind of person. I think there is something in this – I admire the man enormously. He has had the biggest single influence on my professional career.
So, when you started out in consulting did your experience with Bob Gill give you confidence?
No, oddly enough, I was incredibly unconfident when I started. And again part of that was that a lot of it had been beaten out of me by other staff members in college. Like everybody I went through all those steps of self-doubt. My confidence is a relatively late flowering thing, and it’s partly been a consequence of success.
It’s all about communication, finding the timbre to be able to cut through to what’s important. When you are talking to business people you have to talk to them in a certain way. It’s about business. It’s about making money.
How can designers get the confidence to mix well in business circles?
It’s an attitudinal thing. I have those bad days when things just don’t happen, but then I wake up the next day and feel I’m a ready teddy! And then all of a sudden things happen. And what does that tell you? If you have the skills you can do it.
What has made your partnership Dick Powell so successful?
The Dick Powell / Richard Seymour relationship has been really remarkable in that we are completely different. We are motivated by different things. I once joked to somebody once about the propulsion of our business being a ‘class war’.
I’m a grammar-school boy from the north-east of England. Dick is a public-school boy from the south. Many of the differential elements that create the energy in our business show up when we are tackling a design problem. We approach things from completely different directions.
We are both immensely competitive. If we’d been similar characters and had an identical approach to things, SeymourPowell would have detonated in six months. But what we’ve had is two very different people with two very different skill sets with a love of a number of things that are the same and one of these was drawing and communicating in a visual manner.
We have an understanding that if one of us thinks an idea isn’t good enough then it probably isn’t, but if we both think an idea is good, it probably is.
We’d both had bad business experiences before we worked together. We’d both limped out of these, licking our wounds, and had sworn never to be in a partnership ever again.
When I left advertising I rented some office space from Dick and seeing each other work was a perfect way for us to decide we could work together. It was born from our interest in how each of us approached and worked on things.
We started working together this way – on the right terms, not out of desperation for support. It was like a mature coming together of minds.
What is the business landscape going to be like over the next ten years?
Even the most enlightened universities are going to find it difficult to teach the future. It’s very hard to understand what the landscape of the next ten years is going to be like.
Over the next couple of years one of the greatest educators will be YouTube; there is no doubt about that. There is a brilliant Chinese scientist and behavioural psychologist working in California – a 21st-century polymath – who has reconfigured the Wii handset to be all sorts of astounding things.
This guy repurposes technology and uses YouTube as a broadcasting method for all his ideas. Even before YouTube was well known he was getting thousands of hits a week. The propagation rate across this stratum of people who need to know about his work is so fast now – it’s virtually instantaneous!
In a way, we are going back to the communication formats of the Middle Ages. If the blacksmith in the village is hopeless then we all know it. There is nowhere to hide, and it will get more like that.
This incredible global reach within seconds is just astounding. The genie is out of the box. Many traditional ad agencies still don’t get it. They say, “We’ll take on the web and we’ll be okay”. Well, they are not going to be okay, not even a little bit. The old order is dead and they know it. And all the money is going to go somewhere else.
It’s an extraordinary time to be alive, and as designers we need to be ahead of the curve on it. Because if we are not we will be manipulated by those who are much less moral in their approach.
Businesspeople who understand that they can make their future, rather than wait for it to happen, will be successful. We are surrounded by people who know what the future holds; you just have to try to get close to them to find out.
What can you tell designers of the future?
We’re going to have to broaden our ‘bandwidth’ massively, with the changes coming. When I started designing thirty years ago, the top design practitioners were also articulate writers.
They exposed their thinking and processes to others and encouraged polemic. And this kind of reciprocal intimacy is now almost entirely missing from design. Philosophy has evaporated. The loss of a philosophical and humanistic bedrock to all of this is deeply troubling to me.
Designers need to ask themselves “Why am I doing this?” If they can’t commit to making something better then they shouldn’t do it at all. This is not a place to play. Product design is not a place to screw-up – make it better, make it fantastic or get out. Don’t make it worse.
I was talking to a primary school recently and showed them our work, and the first question I was asked was “Do you make a lot of money?”. I thought, oh dear, I’ve just spent forty minutes being very enthusiastic about what I do and I was asked that!
To design is a privilege; we act on behalf of others to improve things. If all you want is to make a lot of money, then do something less dangerous.