Head start

Richard Seymour is not usually backward about coming forward, but Michael Johnson found him rather reticent about his imminent D&AD presidency.

There are traditional routes through a career in the design business. Richard Seymour has taken none of them. Let’s face it, how many graphic designers end up as product designers? Then add a couple more pit stops in advertising and film production and you have one of the most multi-skilled individuals in London.

So, in many respects, Seymour’s latest project, the up-and-coming presidency of British Design & Art Direction, is a chance for him to bring some of that probably unique knowledge to bear on one of the world’s best known award schemes.

This is an odd time to take up the reins of D&AD – it’s not as though it is crippled and racked by financial crisis as it was earlier this decade. The new management under Anthony Simmons-Gooding and David Kester has sorted the organisation out, entries are up every year, the education programme is rolling again and it even has time to publish books other than the annual (albeit all about advertising at present).

So, what has Seymour got up his sleeve for this patient which, if not completely fixed, is well on the way to recovery? As we discussed this a couple of weeks ago in the basement of his and Dick Powell’s office in west London, it became pretty clear, pretty quickly that his plans were at a formative stage only and he played his cards consistently close to his chest. “I’m still writing the brief,” he says. “I haven’t actually designed it yet.” But here are some of the things I did manage to extract…

There is no doubt that watching the late Nick Wurr win a D&AD Silver while still on the Royal College of Art Graphics course made quite an impression. As Seymour puts it: “It was like he’d just bought a Ferrari or his Dad had just given him a million quid. We all went whaaaaat?”

Shortly afterwards, while working with John Gorham in his first job as a graphic designer, Seymour was to win his first silver (for book jacket design). He was to come close with a subsequent record sleeve design, but then things went a bit quiet until the Nineties when two of the projects created with Dick Powell won further D&ADs, plus the president’s award in 1995.

This early taste of the glory of winning D&AD has left an indelible mark on Seymour. He fears the newer generation of designers has lost “this desperate need to be really great or really good”. For him, D&AD is one of the key drivers in that process.

Of course, for each gifted (or perhaps just lucky) creative in town who has tasted D&AD’s particular brand of success, there are plenty of others who have seen their work unceremoniously dumped by countless design juries keen to make Scrooge seem like one of Dickens’ more generous characters. While the reluctance of the graphics juries, in particular, to give awards is legendary (and arguably adds to the mystique of winning), many observers cannot see any benefit in such a miserly approach, especially since the advertising juries regularly give away 30 or 40 silvers.

Seymour knows that something is awry. “I’ve been involved in the selection of the juries and the trick is to get the mix right – there may be a very articulate, enthusiastic, young, inexperienced designer against someone more conventional. And we’ve got jury chairmen. The executive will be walking the boards, assisting the process. There will be a lot of people who can report back to me and say, ‘this is a naughty one, can you sort it out please?'”

Whether this will fix the regular problem of hung juries eating their lunch on separate tables and voting each others work out remains to be seen. But, as Seymour says, “if it goes wrong in ’99 then you can blame me. It has to be about feeling good about an idea that helps you decide. The feeling you get when you think, ‘my god, I wish I’d done that’.”

And what about that good old chestnut, the war of attrition between advertising and design? “[The D&AD] has two halves – a very focused industry on the advertising side and then a whole bunch of different components that we pretend is ‘the design business’ on the other. What is beer money to the ad giants is ‘crikey you must be joking’ to the design fraternity,” says Seymour.

But he will have nothing to do with those who want to split the organisation up again, believing that the two camps can learn from each other and realise how similar they are underneath.

He has plans to draw upon his own experience of both sides of the fence by bringing them together. “My contention is that much of the friction that has arisen between advertising and design is due to an ignorance of what the other is actually about. I want to get the two together by putting people from both sides on the same podium together,” he says. So does this mean a series of double-header president’s lectures? Well, he wouldn’t really say, but it’s a fair bet.

The product design side of D&AD is in its infancy, and he is aware that its profile could be raised. “You’d be amazed at how few product designers know what D&AD is. Some amazing designers just don’t know what it is until they get asked to judge,” says Seymour.

Further forays into his Rolodex will be made over the issue of how to further promote D&AD. Clearly he has a nose for what is telegenic and his experience of chainsawing motorbike shapes out of polystyrene on camera and defining “retro” with Luddite marketers of ceramic toilets has left him well placed to make some interesting phone calls and pitches to producers. If certain viewers are happy to watch the BAFTA craft awards and stay up all night for a glimpse of Kate Winslet’s dress, why shouldn’t there be a market for the best that design and advertising can offer?

His appearances on TV have only helped understanding of what he does. He cites chief executives ringing up after one appearance on a Saturday morning kids programme – “they would play back to me some of this wonderful stuff about what manufacturers should and shouldn’t do, what kind of approach would work, and I thought ‘I bet you didn’t think about that before the programme'”.

The now sadly defunct BBC Design Awards showed that there are interesting stories to be told, they can work on TV and there are people who will watch. Whether he will want to include Janet Street-Porter and footage of the end of the party as things start to get a little more, er, debauched, remains to be seen.

As for the infamous D&AD dinner, Seymour is quite expansive. “The do should be big and exciting. It should be something to look back on and say ‘bloody hell, that was fantastic’. The networking thing is important as well, I’m definitely going to make that work a lot better.”

He won’t be drawn upon whether the award-giving should continue to take place in unheckled and relative sobriety (ie before the Chicken Kiev), but he is sure that it will be Olympia again and that he will mend some elements of the ceremony which are patently wrong.

For example, he is clearly frustrated by the quick flash of one grubby slide of a project that might have taken a designer three years to complete while this year’s Nike/VW/Levis advert is shown 83 times throughout the evening and wins 84 silvers, huge fame and megabucks for its director. “We will learn about those things and remove the repetitious ‘oh my god, don’t show me that again’ aspect,” says Seymour.

There have also been rumours this year of publicising the nominations for next year’s D&AD. This seems like a good idea and enables the shortlisted work to enter into the public domain and spark off some real debate, rather than waiting for the annual to come out to really see why a project did or didn’t win. In a sense this service was carried out last year by the website, but as Seymour points out, not many admen use e-mail and so the idea becomes a bit biased to those more electronically minded.

Seymour seems realistic about his impending sentence. “If I come to the end of my term and people say ‘what happened then?’ it won’t be for the lack of trying. It’s bloody hard and time-consuming and no one steps into this position thinking ‘I’ll be good at this, I can up my profile’ – it’s a slog. One thing Mike Dempsey said is that you need a tin hat sometimes”.

As for the critics and the dissenting voices, he has words for them too. “If everybody felt the same way and felt the same thing, what a bloody dull world we would be in.” I get the feeling that not many people are going to argue with that. m

Life and times

History:

1974 graduated in Graphic Design;

1977 MA in Graphic and Interdisciplinary Studies;

1979 creative director Blazelynn Advertising;

1983 formed Seymour Furst;

1984 formed Seymour Powell with Dick Powell Awards:

1976 Leverhulme Travelling Scholarship;

1978 D&AD Silver;

1985 Hatchard’s Top 100 Authors Award;

1990 Design Week Best Overall Design Award;

1991 D&AD Silver;

1993 ID Award, D&AD Silver;

1994 BBC Design Award, Minerva Design Award;

1995 D&AD President’s Award;

1997 Special Commendation Prince Philip Designer’s Prize – all design honours won with Dick Powell Offices:

1987 product design judge for BBC Design Awards, set up D&AD Product Design Awards;

1989 International Advisory Committee, Design Museum;

1990 external assessor of product design at St Martins College of Art and Design;

1993 external examiner Royal College of Art Transportation Design Course;

1994 Board of Trustees, Design Museum;

1995 honorary visiting professor to School of Design for Industry at RCA;

1997 elected board member of D&AD Projects include:

Norton F1 and MuZ Skorpion motorcycles, InterCity 250 Locomotive; Tefal Classic Toaster; Nokia cellular phones; Minolta cameras; Casio watches

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