Design Week: What’s your first memory of each other?
Richard Seymour: I have a vague memory of seeing Dick playing fussball at the Royal College of Art Artbar, but we met properly at St Albans College of Art where we were both teaching part-time.
Dick Powell: I saw Rich’s work some time before I met him! He graduated from the RCA the year after me and I saw it when I went back for the next year’s show. Rich originally did graphic design at Central, but at the RCA he did multidisciplinary design. Still, his show was nestled alongside all the illustrators and graphic designers. It was quite startling work and made a big impression.
DW: When you set up Seymourpowell, where did you think it would be in 30 years?
RS: In the dumpster of time… I measured my life in three-year bursts in those days, so a 30-year stretch was unimaginable. That would be my entire life up to that point, all over again!
DP: When we started, I characterised our objective like this: “If the CEO of Sony is thinking of going to an outside design business, then Seymourpowell should be one of the three names on his shortlist”. Bear in mind that, at the time, Sony was exclusively in-house and a powerhouse of innovation and of manufacturing products… so that was very ambitious. And yes, we did work for Sony and a lot of other similar businesses too.
What is the most memorable project you have worked on?
DP: Mmmmm, that’s difficult! Personally, what I think back on most are the relationships with clients that have endured for decades and where we have been able to make a real difference. We’ve worked with the SEB Group, which owns Tefal, for 29 years and continue to do so. And, in the process, we’ve created some enormously successful products, from the world’s first cordless kettle to its latest steam generator for ironing. We’ve seen many, many changes of management, and we’ve had to re-pitch, but we’re still there! That, I think, is because we continue to do ground breaking and successful work for them.
RS: The Bioform Bra for Charnos. It’s burned into my retinas.
What is the one project you wish you’d worked on but didn’t?
DP: The ones that got away, eh! Ah yes, that’s easy! We got shortlisted by Apple back sometime in the ‘80s, and they came to visit our humble little shed in Fulham. And, despite renting plants to try and smarten up the exterior, we lost out to Tangerine, which is how Apple met Jony Ive…
RS: For me, there isn’t one really, I’ve been incredibly fortunate in getting absolutely fabulous opportunities virtually placed into my hands.
What is the biggest mistake you made?
RS: Handing over a truly great motorcycle design to MZ and watching them kill it through a series of small but crucial modifications on its way to production. I still wake-up screaming in the night over that one…
DP: I’m a “treat others as you would like to be treated yourself sort of person”, which means I take people at face value; I trust them. But it also means that I tend to miss duplicity and disingenuousness… and twice in my working life that proved a mistake. But you learn from mistakes.
And what was your greatest success?
RS: Seymourpowell. A truly fantastic innovation machine.
DP: No question – building this business is our greatest success. I think to get this sort of business to a point of critical mass where it can easily survive the eventual departure of its founders was quite an achievement. We did it without compromising our creative values. And, along the way, just about everyone who worked here became a friend – at our recent 30th party, about 200 of them showed up to help us celebrate!
Why do you think no-one has made a successful TV programme about design since Better by Design [the pair’s influential 2000 Channel 4 series]?
DP: Ha! That’s easy to answer! Because it’s hard. Very, very hard! Why? Principally because the timescales for TV production simply do not marry up with the timescales of industrial production. TV companies, and their budgets, don’t stretch any longer than a year and most are far shorter. Secondly, we fought very hard keep the series close to a serious documentary series, with us as “expert witnesses”. But there was creeping trivialisation and the introduction of too much reality show type jeopardy (of the “will our dynamic duo succeed or not?” sort of thing) required to inject, what they called, “entertainment”… when, in truth, the whole process was enormously entertaining and interesting to viewers without all of that. And that, in its turn, amplified the prospect of failure in the full glare of prime time TV… it was pretty scary!
RS: No one nowadays knows how to say no to the “give me jeopardy, give me conflict, give me a fact where the voiceover can say ‘…and what they discovered would change the face of (insert subject here) for EVER’” brigade of programme commissioners. If it can’t be made with a director holding his own camera then it tends not to happen. Better by Design was one of the last of the honest, camera-over-the-shoulder pieces of telly I’ve seen for a long time.
What has been the biggest change to the design industry in the past 30 years?
RS: Obviously, the inexorable march of digital tools, from prohibitively-expensive behemoths in the mid-‘80s to the fast, slick and ubiquitous power tools of the 21st century.
DP: We were one of the first design businesses to dig deep into the client’s product strategy and to forge a different kind of relationship to what had gone before. And what we have done since is to change and evolve constantly, reacting to new needs, embracing new methods and tools and increasingly doing work which could no longer be defined by the word “product”. And that continues to happen!
What advice would you give to someone looking to set up a design business now?
DP: Very, very few successful agency founders went into it to make money. We went into it because we were passionate about what we did, because we thought we could make a difference and because we thought we could do better (and, by the way, we still do!)… and if we made a decent living in the process, that was great. So my advice is: “if you’re doing it for the money, think again!”
RS: Be optimistic, bold and brilliant. Or fuck off and do something less dangerous.