Heads or tails

Design could be on the verge of splitting into two different disciplines, argues Richard Seymour, as the polarisation between specialist executors and generalist ideas people gets ever stronger

I see a number of issues conspiring to create the unusual conditions you find in the marketplace at the moment. The first is that design itself is mutating at a rate that the colleges, and even many designers, are finding it hard to adjust to. The second is the continuous subdivision of courses in design to cope with Government funding pressures (more students equal more cash). The third is a function of oversupply in the marketplace and the need, therefore, for further differentiation among the design subclassifications.

In itself, this isn’t too much of a problem (indeed, any change in an operating environment generally creates this kind of turbulence) but it’s where this all points that is more troubling. Taking Seymourpowell as an example, we undertake work which ranges from hydrogen-powered vehicles to shampoo bottles, so unless I want to employ 500 people, I’m going to need polymaths with a much broader bandwidth than is common. Clearly, the smaller the design group, the more multi-talented the individuals need to be.

In my experience, the designers with the broader bandwidth tend to be the most creative, as they bring experience from many different challenges to bear on any given problem. Specialists certainly have their place, as long as they are very good and very experienced, and here lies the paradox. We constantly put people on to projects who specifically don’t have specialist experience (along with someone else who has), because we want both experience and naive enquiry at the same time. A soon as someone joins us, they are immediately ‘dilated’ though exposure to new challenges, because this is how people grow. An over-specialised/ under experienced workforce isn’t going to help me if a completely new challenge emerges on a project. We need broad-bandwidth thinkers.

Having had the luxury of studying under the great Bob Gill at the [then] Central School of Art and Design and the Royal College of Art, I had the opportunity to see a big thinker at work, who chose to output his ideas and skills though a conduit of activity that was narrower than his experience. It produced a fierce concentration of executions that worked brilliantly, but which would have been equally amazing through the medium of film or (these days) Web design.

The first professional project I ever got after leaving college came from a phone call from Wella in Japan, asking if I could design a good corporate manual. I had one piece of work that matched its request in my portfolio. I sent it to Wella, claiming my main portfolio was in Los Angeles (which wasn’t strictly true), but here was one piece that suggested my approach. I got the job. Wella presumed I specialised in that line of work. If I’d shown Wella my entire portfolio, it would have seen everything from letterheads to emergency shelters in Africa (and Wella would have run a mile). I’ve been suspicious of ‘specialism’ ever since.

A client wants a brilliant job. He may believe that this will be achieved by going to a specialist (it works in surgery and medicine, after all) and may go out of his way to find such a thing. The real question is, on what platform of experience does that specialism stand? With the pace of change we’re encountering in design at present, how relevant is that specialism now? My own theory is that design is beginning to separate into two new forms of organism: the specialist ‘executer’ and the polymath ‘interpolator’. The second one uses experience and ‘bandwidth’ to determine the area within which the solution lies, and the first one then executes it specifically within the format that is required. This is efficient if you have enough specialists to cover the ground, but the real world is rarely as easy as this. Designers who contain both elements are very, very, rare.

All the really great designers I know have a very broad bandwidth and at least one specialism to go with it. It’s just like the Magnificent Seven, where each one was a specialist with a knife or rope or whatever, but any one of them could slug it out in a tight corner, big-time.

The only way to cope with mutation in our broad church of design is to be able to apply our thinking in a broader context and convince others that we are up to the job. Take it from a graphic/illustration/ film production/product/strategist specialist – the best specialism grows from a broader understanding of where it’s all going, not where it is today.

Richard Seymour is co-founder of Seymourpowell and a former president of D&AD

Latest articles