This interview by Angus Montgomery first appeared on Design Week.
I left school in 1974 with a talent for drawing. That led me to the Glasgow School of Art foundation where I was exposed to design for the first time. I chose to specialise in Graphics in year two but changed my mind after two weeks and transferred downstairs to 3D Design, (interiors, furniture and products). I specialised in furniture in years three and four, influenced by the established Italian masters: Sottsas, Bellini, Magistretti and newcomers like Antonio Citterio. I was lucky enough to win scholarships and prizes that sent me to Milan to work with Cassina, to meet those heroes and soak up that culture. My college career was a bit of a high point for me, I loved it.
After qualifying in 1979 the market was at a very low point, Design was very much a niche luxury and the total employment pool must have been a tiny fraction of what we know today. After six months and 400 application letters, I secured a job with Stewart McColl. When I started there there were 15 designers, I stayed six months before I was made redundant but returned a year later and saw it grow to 125 staff before I left in 1983 to set up Dalziel and Pow. These were formative years for the design industry. The Scottish connection was strong at McColls – it was a very sociable office, reflecting Stewart himself. I met some great friends there, including the co-founder of D&P, John Pow, and our current MD, Ros Scott.
I’m titled creative director here at D&P and take an overview of many of the projects that we deliver. I’m very hands on, perhaps too hands on! I meet potential clients, reassure them that we are who we claim to be, and help shape those big ideas that transform their brands. I am still actively involved in the process of design, but increasingly act as an editor, refining our proposals to our clients to try to make them as relevant and effective as possible. Our design discipline here is centred around retail, but that is very, very broad, taking in environments, communications and digital. I need to be able to talk to our clients across all those disciplines, representing the broad skills within the studio.
There have been so many changes in D&P’s 32-year history, most notably in digital. CDs have been invented and become virtually obsolete in our timespan. Digital developments have changed the way customers behave and our clients sell. We need to understand that and reflect it in our response to every brief. The design industry has developed in that time too. We are now operating in a market where we no longer need to sell the value of what we do – there is hardly a successful brand that hasn’t used design to establish it’s position and that wasn’t always the case. This is the time for us to exert the most positive influence and create the most challenging solutions.
The favourite projects are always the most ambitious, the most significant. Changing Chelsea Girl to River Island in 1988 was a very rewarding experience, creating the complete experience with very few restrictions from a creative client. Creating the new Argos concept last year was significant for our new digital offer. Creating Topshop NY was a buzz, landing our first significant project in the US which has led to strong clients since. Creating the latest iteration of River Island in Birmingham this year has been very exciting after a five-year break from their brand. As always the favourite projects are the ones we have live today. Next year looks like our strongest to date and that’s exactly how it should be.
We don’t tend to dwell on projects we don’t win or never get invited to design in the first place. We don’t really work on Bond Street, preferring to operate in the driving middle-market where we reach a larger audience and make a bigger impact. We are competitive, as competitive as any ambitious consultancy, but we aren’t obsessed with any one of our competitors. We do tend to meet the same individuals at various pitches but we all win our fair share and we all seem to thrive. There is room for us all in a fairly small pool of retail design specialists.
We may have been a bit insular in the last 32 years, preferring to be more self-contained, more independent. This could be a strength or a weakness. We have built a team of 18 digital designers producing some great work that really enhances our clients offer but would we have been better collaborating earlier rather than waiting to employ our own strong team with our own design ethic? Time will tell but it appears that more than ever we as an industry need to be open to the skills of others – we can’t be everything to everybody no matter how hard we try.
We have ticked so many boxes to date it’s hard to say what drives us forward, but we are certainly driven. Maintaining and enhancing the quality of our design delivery is a constant challenge when you are continually growing – growth brings many challenges as you strive to integrate and encourage new members of the team. So the greatest ambition here is to continue our steady growth and focus on the quality of our product, creating those engaging experiences that turn our clients from good traders to great brands.
Our inspiration comes from our clients: Bernard Lewis of River Island, Simon Wolfson of Next, Paul Marchant of Primark, these are the industry leaders who drive us on, who are always challenging and hungry for the next big thing. In retail design there are very few recognised figureheads. We transform the everyday experience for the vast majority of the public but rarely get recognition in the industry as a whole. That’s quite nice in a way, we can keep our heads down and get on with the job.
Firstly be proud to be a designer, it’s a great profession that is growing in stature every year.
In the beginning, be open to whatever comes along. Tackle each task with 100% enthusiasm. Listen to how your seniors go about their daily job and learn from that. Not all you need to know can be taught, it sometimes comes from borrowed, second-hand experience gained in the day-to-day experience of being in a studio.
Be ambitious but modest, there’s always something to learn, if you think you know it all you’re very wrong.
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