On the ball

Rod Petrie could have played football for a living. Fortunately, he thinks the rules of the game will also work in the design studio

As Terry McDermott, former assistant manager of Newcastle United, accurately stated, “No one hands you cups on a plate”. Silverware is a great sign of success, whether you’re in football or design. You probably wouldn’t believe it, but as professions, they have a lot in common.

Both involve playing in teams, both require motivational and inspirational leaders and both require tactical brain power. They share the highs and lows of emotional outpourings, winning and losing, and both are highly competitive.

Brian Clough once said of his sidekick Peter Taylor, “He’s a genius, I just work hard.” Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your team is key. Ask any football manager, from Sir Alex Ferguson down, and they will all say, “You can’t give a player ambition, he either has it or he hasn’t”. The secret for both the design consultancy and the football club is to recognise talent and ambition and harness it early.

The question I am most asked is, are you born to be a designer? It’s like asking a footballer if he was born to be a goal scorer. The answer is yes. I am sure that if you asked Alan Shearer how he scored his goals or a designer how they developed an inspired creative solution, they would scratch their heads and look baffled – they wouldn’t really know how they do it. Both have the same intuition, that instinctive knowledge of what will work and what will not.

Yes, there are techniques for improving these skills, but the talent’s got to be there in the first place. Understanding technology is important, but if you can’t design, the best computer in the world won’t help you. Equally, the latest boot technology is meaningless if you can’t kick a ball in the first place.

Some players start out with the intention of being a goal scorer, only to find out that their best position is in midfield. The same is true of a designer who believes that he or she is great at concepts, only to find that the creative director believes they are better as a creative implementer.

In the Seventies, Malcolm Allinson commented on Sir Alf Ramsey’s ability to manage. “He was a good manager of a bad team but a bad manager of a good team,” he said.

Both club and consultancy need motivators on and off the field; the ability to motivate and inspire the designer and player is crucial. It’s about getting the best out of your team. But designers and players must eventually decide which club or consultancy they want to play for and which is going to further their careers.

The manager and creative director need to be fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their team. Each game is different and requires a different strategy. You have to hold your nerve when performing below par or losing a pitch and stick with the team members. Too many team changes can be unnerving.

Global compatibility is crucial. Well, not quite, but in today’s shrinking world the ability to win away is paramount. To compete in a global arena, clubs and consultancies require versatile squads which can play a variety of roles and they must have a formidable youth policy to ensure the survival of their brand.

Today’s game requires that all players have the ability to play on foreign soil and handle the inevitable jet lag. They play football differently in South America and Russia; design also requires designers who understand the local market’s dynamics.

I believe that it’s in football where the last brand loyalists remain. Can you imagine a QPR fan changing his or her allegiance mid-season to Newcastle United, just because his team is doing badly, like some coffee on special offer?

In the design business, loyalty is harder to measure and define. Of course, it isn’t a spectator sport, but it can and does on occasion need to be theatrical, especially during presentations.

Client loyalty is very difficult to measure. If you lose three football matches on the trot, supporters will still watch the team. Lose even one match in design and you’re out of the league. A competitive pitch in design is like a cup match in football – you get one chance so you have to field players who are best suited to the task.

Sir Alf Ramsey once said, back in 1966, that Martin Peters was ten years ahead of his time with ideas. As designers, we need to practice on a daily basis to excite the client crowd and even then the client can pull out of the tackle and go with something safe from another consultancy.

If you want to win, work as a team – everyone must understand that. A team of superstars may look good on paper, but I guarantee you they won’t pass the ball around during the game.

Like football, timing is everything – a mis-timed tackle delivers a red card and you’re out of the game. Similarly, if a design group is not available when a big international brief is being given out it can lose both kudos and revenue.

All players want to play for a Premier League club and to have European experience. This is also true of designers. Are British design companies recruiting foreign players for their squads? Yes. But too often both club and consultancy underestimate the work involved to achieve sustained success. As the saying goes, fail to prepare and you’re preparing to fail.

A great team does not just consist of the people the client or supporters see. A truly great team has support behind the scenes. The organisation required to put the show on the road is immense – from travel arrangements to technical support. The emphasis on training facilities has grown in importance: designers are trained to improve their presentation skills, footballers are trained to deal with the press.

I have long admired Liverpool, which managed for nearly 20 years to remain at the top both here and abroad. The club’s seamless management style of promoting within (the famous boot room boys) is legendary. Consistency over long periods of time for both clubs and consultancy is crucial, but both can come and go if the management and playing staff are not on top of their game. Occasionally, a club or consultancy can become flavour of the season, but you know in your heart of hearts that the Man Uniteds and Liverpools will always be there.

In the immortal words of Sir Bill Shankley, “Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that”. Sadly, design does not have such famous words, though Alan Fletcher’s quote, “What distinguishes a designer sheep from a designer goat is the ability to stroke a cliché until it purrs like a metaphor” sounds good to me. But lose a pitch or lose a game and you will feel the same way – as sick as a parrot.

Rod Petrie is a director of Design Bridge, designer of the Euro 2000 ball

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