• Interview Excerpt: Dick Powell, Co-Founder and Chairman, Seymourpowell, London

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    What kinds of portfolios get your attention these days? What brings in an industrial designer for an interview?

    In our business we tend to look for different kinds of people. We find it very hard to find the kind of polymath who can do everything really brilliantly, and when they do walk in the door we take them on. We are often looking within the portfolios for people who we think have the kind of skills and the right kind of thinking to fill this or that gap. One of the things I tell students who ask me, “Well, how can I get a job?”, is be really, really good at one thing. That one thing these days might be being a really good Alias jockey, for example. Being really, really good at one thing makes you employable.

    One of the key things we are looking for is, of course, more creativity. One of the great hallmarks of the creative mind is the ability to draw, it’s something we at Seymourpowell have always been passionate about.

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    Even in this day and age that focuses heavily on the digital, you find the ability to draw very important for a designer. Why?

    The computer is a completely different kind of pencil. The creative mind thinks and executes simultaneously—the hand is an extension of the brain where the feedback loop is immediate. As you and I speak, most of the applications that we use on computers are too slow for the kind of creative interaction that we often need in the world of innovation, where designers iteratively conceive and express ideas constantly and quickly. This still isn’t something you can easily do on a computer. Of course we expect that graduates who come see us are already equipped with a whole suite of the basic computer skills around the key applications that we need. That’s always a given these days. So we are looking for things which are more exceptional than that, and good drawing ability is the rarest and hardest of skills to find.

    Has there been a portfolio that you’ve seen recently that resonated with you? What about it stood out?

    I haven’t seen a portfolio like that in a very long time. It’s really interesting that both Richard Seymour and I feel very strongly about this: about someone who can look at a human figure and draw it. That process of inquiry and perception is a part of the conception process. People who can look at the form of something like the human body and draw and capture it, understand how it is built and what the surfaces are doing and how the movements and mechanics work, things like that. That’s why drawing is so very, very critical to a creative mind.

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    What do you expect to learn from a designer during an interview?

    First of all you have to get over the hurdle of competency. Is this person competent? Can they do the things that we are going to need them to do? There’s kind of a baseline beyond which the conversation isn’t even worth carrying on. You see that quickly in the level of quality and finish in the book. Then the next thing you’re looking for is really startling ideas. You’re looking for engaging ideas and, if you see them, you say to yourself: “I wish I thought of that,” or “Isn’t that a beautiful thing?” You’re looking for things that startle and engage, that get your attention. Every once in a blue moon we’ll get a portfolio where every page takes several minutes to explain. Something that students often fail to grasp is that they need to make an impact with a level of understanding that will happen in nanoseconds, not in minutes. The beautiful object, or whatever it is that they may have created, is startling—it gets your attention straight away. It doesn’t need to be explained.

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    If you were just starting out now, what advice would you give yourself?

    You’re kind of asking what did we do wrong, in a sense? I think we did so many things right. To start with, we never got into this for money. I wouldn’t tell anyone to go into this business to make money. There are easier ways to make money. You don’t make a lot of money in this business. You do this because you’re passionate about it and you love it. That’s a key point. And the things we both did wrong? I suppose both of us had experiences before in start-up businesses that had gone wrong for various reasons, but we learned huge lessons from that—like choose your partners very carefully. Partnership in a business is like a marriage, and you need to treat it like that. You actually will spend more time with your business partner than you will with your wife. That means all of the famous things from marriage guidance count in business. Talk to each other, keep talking, don’t keep secrets, be open. All of those things are very, very important.

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    Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you’d like to add? Any final words of wisdom?

    I think that, for graduating students, breaking in is the most difficult moment of their career because they are emerging into an ocean that is overstocked with graduate designers. The number one thing is to be very realistic about your capabilities. Be real; how good are you? “Are you good enough to cut it?” is the key question students should ask themselves.

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    Dick Powell of Seymourpowell

    Dick Powell of Seymourpowell


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