Ten Questions for – Chris Harrison

The Harrison Agency founder and creative director on picking the right clients, delivering “unvarnished ideas served up without too much dressing” and what to do with your talent when you’re starting out.

Photo by James McDonald at Silver Fox Imaging

When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

A great art teacher opened my eyes to graphic design. But the actual realisation was only very recently. I graduated in 1991, but for most of my career the grass was always greener. Photographers always looked like they were having the most fun with their creativity. An illustrator’s life also looked more interesting, colourful and compact. Fine artists, with all their creative freedom – all very tempting. After well over 20 years of wondering whether I’d made the right choice with design, I started enjoying it again. It’s a privilege to solve graphic design problems every week with creativity.

What was your first job?

Right place, right time. After college I did the rounds interning across London. At each studio I’d ask one of the more approachable senior designers to write me a list of their contacts at other studios. I’d call each new contact I’d been given and say, “So and so passed on your name to me, they said I should give you a call…”. Cheeky, but it worked. Georgina Urwin, who ran Saatchi & Saatchi Design was on one list I was given. I called her and she immediately barked down the phone, “What are you doing tomorrow?”. I was petrified! By 9.30am the next day I had my feet under a desk in their busy studio. I applied a lot of what I learnt there when I opened my own graphic design agency in Brighton 12 years later.

How would you describe what you currently do?

I’m the Creative Director at Harrison Agency. I make sure the vision for our creative work is upheld. It’s my job to instil confidence in our design team, too – they have to believe that they’re capable of producing great work. It’s also my job to make sure Harrison Agency is an environment where creativity can thrive.

What has been the biggest change in design since you started?

I’d say the biggest changes would be technology and talk. Especially talk. The industry has become very verbose about what we do – as a PR activity and as part of a project process. Everyone has an opinion on how branding should and shouldn’t be done. I’m not a fan of overly talking up what we do. That doesn’t mean I don’t value what we do, I just think that too much talk can over-complicate what is actually quite a simple subject.

What is your favourite project, that you’ve worked on?

A Harrison Agency favourite it would be our first season campaign for the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Not only was that project creatively satisfying (the idea started life as a personal project and then became a commercial one), but it was also a big success for the OAE. The work went viral across many classical music blogs and earned the OAE tens of thousands of pounds in free media. Going back to Saatchi Design days, I’m really proud to have been part of the team who designed the National Lottery logo.

Unknown-1What is your favourite project, that you haven’t worked on?

I lean towards the crossover work of creatives like Jean Paul Goude when I get the “I wish I’d done that” feeling. I love all the work he’s done for Kenzo, Channel, Galeries Lafayette, Grace Jones, Kodak, the list goes on. His work is full of humour, energy and it can be utterly bizarre. It’s so French. Is he a photographer, designer, illustrator, artist? He’s all of the above – a real creative maverick and I love that.

What was your biggest mistake?

Taking on clients without asking myself whether they fit with what I want to do creatively, usually out of fear that the pipeline of work will dry up. When this happens the work doesn’t have any heart and the project becomes a chore. After one particular job where the client couldn’t see the value in our approach, we had to part ways. It wasn’t their fault, it wasn’t our fault, the fit just wasn’t right. So I’ve learned not to do that now.

What is your greatest ambition?

My ambition is for Harrison Agency to be a place where people come to do the best creative work of their careers.

Who is the most inspirational person you have worked with?

My first boss at Saatchi & Saatchi Design, Georgina Urwin. I was a long-haired spotty lad from Lincolnshire, she was a well-spoken, Kenzo-suited creative director from London. George always pushed us to be bold with our ideas, she championed big ideas over stylistic aesthetics. I liked that very much. An unvarnished idea served up without too much dressing – something I’ve tried to keep alive at Harrison Agency.

What piece of advice would you give to people starting out in design?

In design it’s very easy to let feelings of “I wish I worked for such and such agency” or “I wish I worked on that account” to creep in and fester. It’s not a good place to be. Have a clear vision of what you’d like to do with your talent. If you know which agency you’d like to be at and the type of work you want to do, then do everything you can to make it happen. And remember to say ‘thank you’!

Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment campaign 2010 saw a visual interpretation of sound created from gaffer tape.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment campaign 2010 saw a visual interpretation of sound created from gaffer tape.
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