Partners in design
By Carmen Martínez-López, 2005
This interview with John Lloyd and Jim Northover was first published in The Designer, the journal of the Chartered Society of Designers, on the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Lloyd Northover design consultancy
Q: What are the main differences for someone starting a practice now compared with when you did?
JL I think there are two key differences. The first is to do with technology. When Jim and I started Lloyd Northover in 1975 the Mac was still nine years away (it was invented in 1984). In 1975, graphic design practice was very much a craft-based activity. All our presentation roughs were made by hand: we sketched visuals, mixed paints, laid colour washes and hand-lettered the type. Final specifications were made by marking-up typescripts, casting-off type, and arranging galley proofs on pencil-drawn layouts. Our finished artwork was made by hand too, using overlays for colour separation, and paste-up of text. The studio was stocked with pens, pencils, brushes, paints, inks, Letraset, and Cow Gum. The Mac quickly swept all this away; now, I'm hard-pressed to find a pencil in the studio. If we add to this revolution the Internet, email and mobile phone, there is no doubt that technology has transformed the way we work.
The second key difference is the rise of design management. In 1975, working relationships between client and designer were usually close. Clients tended to respect designers as talented specialists. We were embraced by client organisations, taken into their confidence and treated as partners. Now, there is often someone between the client and the designer – a professional design manager. As a result of this, design has come to be viewed as a commodity. Bidding and selection procedures have become much more methodological, the designer is kept at arm's length, and the relationship of trust between client and designer has, in many cases, been eroded.
JN People understand design better today, or at least think they do. Even small businesses today have their own stationery and literature designed. In the 70s there were many who left such decisions to the printer, as they had no experience of using designers of any sort. When we started, the world of ‘corporate identity’ and ‘branding’ was still under-developed. There were only a handful of design consultancies even interested in focusing on it seriously. We saw that it was an area that potentially could be hugely influential, which is one reason why we chose to make it a priority in our early years as a business and why it still is today. So, a key difference is clearly the level of competition and the sophistication of clients. This makes starting up today relatively harder in some ways and much easier in others. Banks now have design businesses among their clients as a regular event. In the 70s banks were very hesitant about having two designers in their twenties as business clients. Today, at least they know what we all do.
Q: Would you like to be starting out at this point in time?
JL I think the present is a good time to start a graphic design practice. As a result of the recent recession, most large graphic design firms have had to cut their operating costs and downsize dramatically. As a smaller business you can undercut the large competitors on fees and begin to build a portfolio. We did just that in 1975.
If I were to start again now, I would focus more on information design, where I see opportunities. The design of clearer signage and wayfinding systems, and the construction of easier to follow information architecture in printed and online documents, can help to make life a little easier for people. I think there is still much to be done here and I would find it rewarding to put my design skills to work more widely for the benefit of society.
JN I am not sure whether I would like to be starting out at this point. I would probably start with a different focus. Over the last 30 years design has had a big impact on the corporate world. The next challenge is probably less commercial. It is about changing attitudes and environments, about concentrating on the developing world and getting the developed world onto a more responsible path than it is currently following. My ideal new business would have a very radical agenda.
Q: If you had to provide three pieces of advice, what would they be?
JL At Lloyd Northover we specialise in branding and communications design. Over the years we have followed a few guiding principles which I would recommend to every corporate identity designer…
Solve the client's problem, not your own
Corporate design is about communicating the client's identity, not your own. It has nothing to do with a designer's self-expression.
Keep it simple
Good corporate design is achieved through clear thinking and with the greatest economy of means. Unnecessary complexity indicates woolly thinking masquerading as creativity.
The best idea wins
Our approach has always been consensus-oriented and we encourage teamwork. We believe that individuals should not ‘own’ solutions. The objective is always to find the right answer, and it doesn't matter who has the idea, as long as it is the best solution.
JN Resilience is vital – Don't give up easily … Come to work with a new thought or idea … Keep a pencil and paper by your bed at night and with you wherever you go - Never stop drawing.
Q: Everyone claims never to have done speculative work – have you at any point and, if so, what happened?
JL As supporters of the CSD we have, for most of our thirty years as a business, refused to do speculative work for new clients. A speculative pitch doesn't allow time to build a relationship or to do sufficient research, is often done to a half-baked brief, and undervalues the process of design. But, there have been times when we have really needed the work and so, like most practices, we have occasionally been drawn unwillingly to a speculative pitch. The results are never satisfactory; clients are reduced to picking a design subjectively, and because the work has been produced so superficially, it rarely lasts. Paid-for competition may sometimes be acceptable but as a profession we should stick together and avoid speculative pitches.
Q: The Society exists to promote professional practice – yet most designers measure their success by creativity – how do you relate to either?
JL It is obvious that designers need to operate in a professional and responsible manner if they are to earn and maintain the respect of the wider business community, and so it is right for the CSD to emphasise professional practice. Operating in a professional way is no impediment to creativity. Innovation in design involves original thinking applied to solving clients' problems; it is not about being crazy or off-the-wall for its own sake. But, if being startling and unconventional is clearly relevant then, by all means, be startling and unconventional.
JN Professional practice is a term that seems outmoded. You rarely hear designers refer to their work as practice. Today, it's a business. When we were at college I thought professional practice was desperately important. I wanted to be ‘professional’, to have the status that architects seemed to have, to be business-like and to offer a service that people would want and appreciate. This is only achievable because you have something to say creatively. Creativity must always underpin what you do. Otherwise you are not truly a practicing designer or even in the design ‘business’.
Q: When and why did you join the Society?
JL I can't remember precisely when I joined the Society but it must have been sometime in the late sixties or early seventies. I joined because I believed firmly that design was a true but, in some ways, an undervalued profession, and I respected the work the Society was doing to enhance the status of designers and to promote a professional code of conduct.
JN I think we joined on graduating. The CSD was the only organisation representing designers, rather than design. It seemed important and valuable. Sadly this is no longer the case for most design graduates today. The CSD has a long way to go to make itself relevant to a younger generation.
Q: What do you see as the Society's role for the future?
JL The key future role of the Society is to do what it has always done: to foster the interests of designers, to elevate the profession, to promote the value of good design, and to provide services to members. I have a feeling that the Society's profile among designers and non-designers is not as high as it once was. I would like the CSD to be regarded as the one organisation to which every designer should aspire to belong. If the Society champions outstanding creative excellence, in parallel with good professional practice, it will attract new members. We need more bright, talented, young designers to join the CSD – those who will go on to shape the profession and the Society.
JN There is a lot of catching up to do. Every designer should want to be part of a body that represents him or her professionally. Although the role of professional bodies has naturally changed, I think there is a need for a strong affinity group, for a collective voice. The CSD may need to change quite fundamentally to achieve this, and maybe it needs to widen its scope to accommodate all creative people working in creative industries
Q: How do you relate to your design education – did you have a shock when you came out into practice?
JL I went into a full-time art school education after serving an apprenticeship as a lithographic artist, so I already knew what the real working world was like. As students at the London College of Printing, Jim and I collaborated on freelance commercial projects. The transition from art school to design practice was pretty seamless and painless.
Q: How do you see design education at present?
JL As an external examiner at various art schools and design colleges I have seen many changes over the years. Staff-student ratios have declined; students have to be much more self-directed; the fundamental graphic design skills – drawing, colour theory, basic design, typography – are not covered as thoroughly as they once were; there seem to be fewer studio-based projects undertaken; academic research, rather than the enhancement of design ability, figures highly in post-graduate work; and students often graduate without the skills required for employment as a designer. I am concerned that much post-graduate work is of a particularly esoteric nature. You hear lots of buzzwords like ‘graphic authorship’, ‘personal position’, ‘visual vocabulary’. The focus is increasingly on the designer and his preoccupations, rather than on solving external problems and meeting the needs of end users, which is what design is really all about. Design education is in danger of distancing itself from the process and practice of design for the real world. But, perhaps it is wrong, today, to consider a design education as a vocational education. The academic skills of research, problem solving, and report writing learned at art school are, arguably, transferable skills that can be of value in many walks of life. However, I still feel that a design education should be a preparation for a design job. Other professionals: doctors, lawyers, accountants, architects, usually practice what they have been taught. I think the same should be the case for design students.
JN I have been working on a project for the University of the Arts London recently. The University encompasses all the leading London design colleges awarding a spectrum of degrees in nearly all design disciplines. This has made me focus again on design education and its purpose. There is still a huge debate about whether colleges can and should provide vocational courses. There is much talk about the value of design thinking and of transferable skills. As an employer one sees these issues clearly: Can today's graduates help build our business? Do they have the necessary vision, application, talent and skills to do so? We have to look at the return on our investment. I do worry that courses may become too esoteric to be of practical value, but equally I worry that just collecting a bunch of skills does not make a designer.
Q: Do you employ graduates – if so – how do you relate to vocational and academic design education?
JL When we hire young designers we only look at graduates. Of course, there are exceptions in the industry; we all know of famous and successful designers who never went near an art school. But, despite our reservations about the teaching of design, we have found that there is really no substitute for a good degree-level design education.
Q: What is your view on the increasing number of design students?
JL I don't know the actual figures, but I suspect that more design graduates come on to the job market each year than there are job vacancies. If students go to art school expecting to be trained in a vocation and expecting to go straight into a job after graduation, then it worries me that many of them will not be able to find work. On the other hand, if students see a design education as providing them with transferable skills that could apply to other careers, then perhaps I shouldn't be so concerned. I feel that some clarification is needed in the declared aims and outcomes of design courses; students need to be made aware of the limited job prospects in the profession, and need to be happy with the skills sets they will acquire at art school if there is a good chance that they will end up doing something else.
JN This is a worry if society does not have the capacity to absorb them. Having said that, the creative industries (in London at least) form the second largest vertical sector after financial services. Design students can be usefully absorbed into businesses of all kinds. However, they may have to look at jobs that use their creativity in different ways, not just thinking of being a designer in the traditional hands-on sense.
Q: The barriers between design disciplines are becoming increasingly blurred – how do you see the future for the profession?
JL I'm not so sure that the barriers between disciplines are becoming blurred. Most designers I know stick to their core disciplines. At Lloyd Northover, we have information designers, but they are steeped in that aspect of graphic design and rarely work in other fields. When we needed to provide interior design, we employed interior designers and architects; and, our forays into product design have involved collaboration with product designers.
When a client comes to Lloyd Northover for a branding project we may well deliver naming, brand design, communications design, information design, packaging design, sign design and interior design. It's true that, to the client, this is a seamless service. The individual designers working on the project will, of course, collaborate and exchange ideas but when it comes to delivering the detailed work, each will concentrate on his own specialist area.
JN More blurring will take place and more technical specialisation will occur. I expect some individuals will become naturally generalist, starting with one discipline and ranging across others as they develop. Others will become intensely specialised with detailed technical knowledge. The two kinds will work together as teams on projects. The big, complex jobs will demand a range of talents and skills.
Q: What are the key influences on your own design philosophy?
JL As an apprentice lithographic artist at the LCP in the early 1960s, I devoured design magazines such as Graphis and Gebrauschgraphik and it was in those journals that I first came across the work of Saul Bass. It was seeing the simple, reductive strength of his work – graphic images that cut through the surrounding visual dross and communicated so clearly and powerfully – that made me want to be a graphic designer. So I gave up the apprenticeship and became a graphic design student instead.
The other key influences on my own approach to design came from the LCP itself. I had a classic Bauhaus-influenced art school training and, as a result, was directly and indirectly influenced by the early twentieth-century pioneers of functional, modernist graphic design – Herbert Bayer, Jan Tschicold, Kurt Schwitters – and later proponents of modernism, for example Paul Rand, Josef Müller-Brockmann, Karl Gerstner. For me, less is definitely much more.
JN I bought into the Modern movement at an early age. Le Corbusier, Arne Jacobsen and Alvar Aalto were among the strongest influences on me in my teens. When I became more involved in the world of graphic design, designers like Jan Tschicold were influential and by the late 60s some of the most exciting leading-edge graphics was being done in the US: Paul Rand, Saul Bass and Milton Glaser were the names that resonated. In the early years of my employment I worked at various times for Terence Conran, Rodney Fitch and Michael Peters. In different ways they all connected design to the commercial world. Other designers had been less successful at making this connection. I was running major projects by the time I was 24. It was good training for starting out on my own.
Q: Do you have a mission statement?
JL At the heart of Lloyd Northover is our belief that design has the power to make a real difference to business and society - and to produce tangible returns for money spent. We are committed to create effective design based on fresh ideas.
JN Personally, I don't. It would be pretentious. As a business we say: ‘Lloyd Northover is a team of bright, inventive, down-to-earth people devoted to creating vivid brands and clear communications. At the heart of the company is our belief that design has the power to make a real difference to business and society – and to produce tangible returns on money spent. It's what we call creative value.’
Q: What do you enjoy most about design?
JL I love the process of drawing and exploring ideas with colleagues. I believe the design process should be a journey of discovery in which you uncover as many options as possible. But, the most enjoyable moment on every project is the moment when you know instinctively that you have found the right solution. An almost equally enjoyable moment is the one when the client agrees, and implementation can begin.
JN Unravelling complexity. Cracking problems. Clarifying messages. Making things look beautiful and intellectually satisfying. Balancing rational systematic thinking with an intuitive response. Working as part of a team with bright people - the best ideas rarely emanate from a single brain. Metaphorically, jumping out of the aircraft and having no idea where you are going to land.
Q: What do you enjoy least?
JL There is nothing I dislike about the process of design. What I enjoy least in running a business is the constant competitive scramble for new business, and having to make redundancies in difficult times; thankfully, it has rarely happened to us, but when it has, I have hated putting good people out of work.
JN After 30 or so years, repetition can be a problem. Some clients believe they know more than they do, which can be frustrating. In a business context, human resource management has become more complex.
Q: Many designers see the client as an obstruction to creativity – what is your view?
JL Designers aren't always right. If a client doesn't accept a design proposal it is usually because the proposed solution is inappropriate, or the designer hasn't presented and explained it clearly and convincingly. Some designers confuse something that simply looks different or intriguing with creativity. It's not creative if it doesn't answer the problem. If it is different and intriguing and meets objectives, the client will buy it.
JN Of course clients can be obstructive at times. On the other hand without clients and their problem we can't be creative. The consultant designer's raison d'être is to use creativity to change things for those who commission you. By definition, that is not always going to be easy.
Q: What has been your worst design experience?
JL I honestly can't recall a really bad design experience.
JN Selectively and subliminally, I tend to block out bad experiences from my memory. It helps you keep positive and looking forward. Anecdotally, I remember finding a 'typo' on our first launch brochure after it was printed. That was painful.
Q: What has been your most rewarding – other than financial?
JL For me, the most rewarding experience has been to produce design that really works; design that helps client organisations to achieve their aims; design that benefits the public. Our corporate identity programme for Courtaulds transformed the company for the better. The project broke new ground in many ways: we had an unusually close working relationship with the entire top management team for over five years; the research programme was, probably, the most thorough of any corporate identity project, before or since; and the design solution, including a wayward, asymmetrical symbol, was arresting and unexpected. The most rewarding outcome of all this was to be presented, in 1989, with the Grand Prix in the first Design Effectiveness Awards.
JN Winning the Grand Prix at the first ever Design Effectiveness Awards was a nice moment. Likewise, winning our first big international project on the other side of the world (after three years of deep recession in the UK) was a good feeling. Otherwise, it's taking pleasure in the small things – a good piece of typography, a perfect image, an elegant solution.
Q: What was your biggest mistake?
JL Our biggest mistake was to sign a twenty-five year lease on an office building, with personal guarantees and upward-only rent reviews. We were advised that rented property was a sound investment and that the lease would be a valuable, disposable asset for which we would be able to charge a premium. In fact, property and rental values crashed and almost bankrupted the business. We should have bought a building.
JN Naturally, you make hundreds of mistakes all the time and continue to do so. It's the nature of business. Perhaps the biggest mistake has been to take it all as seriously as we sometimes do. Perhaps it was to go to a client meeting when my wife was pregnant with our first daughter, neither of us knowing that her birth was as imminent as it was. Despite our consultant ringing the client and me leaving the meeting immediately, I missed that moment.
Q: Which other designers do you respect/admire?
JL Most of the people I really admire are no longer with us. From 1960 onwards, Saul Bass was the designer I admired most and the one I tried to emulate. When, after Saul's death in 1996, Jim and I were given the opportunity to merge Lloyd Northover with the surviving Saul Bass practice in Los Angeles, we leapt at the chance. I could hardly believe that our new base in America was the very office in which Saul had done all that great work. Other heroes of mine are Paul Rand and Josef Muller-Brockmann, who I've mentioned before, and the great poster designer and teacher, Tom Eckersley, who was head of the design department at the LCP when Jim and I were there.
JN You can't go into business with someone unless you enjoy mutual respect, so John is naturally one individual I respect and admire!
Q: If you had not been a designer what would you have chosen to do?
JL As a child I was always drawn to the arts. If I hadn't become a graphic designer, I would have pursued some other kind of creative career. I've always been interested in buildings, and literature, so I might have tried to become an architect or a writer. In the first year of my full-time art school training I was very tempted to go on to a fine art course – so I might have ended up as a painter.
JN I wanted to be an architect initially, and I still enjoy architecture. Otherwise it might have been landscape architecture or publishing.
Q: Design – creativity – innovation are all promoted as the means to increase UK productivity and profit – do you think we just talk or do designers/LN practice it?
JL For a long time, designers found it difficult to prove the value of what they did. It's fine to win awards for creativity but creative awards are no indication of effectiveness; projects that win creative awards don't always achieve objectives and meet client expectations. So, how do we demonstrate success? One way is through research; the Design Council, for example, has research data that proves that design can drive business growth. Another way to demonstrate design's positive contribution to business is through the Design Effectiveness Awards. It's not easy to win one of these awards – proof of success has to be documented with great rigour and thoroughness. As a result of these awards, and other research studies, we now, as a profession, have hard evidence of the contribution that good design can make to business success. At Lloyd Northover, creativity and the pursuit of effectiveness, go hand in hand. The numerous Design Effectiveness Awards we have won are part of a growing body of evidence that good design really does get results.
JN There is a danger that we believe our own hype. It is notoriously difficult and/or costly to quantify the benefits of design. Personally, I think we should concentrate on design. Creativity and innovation are the ingredients and the outcome of good design. Pursuing creativity for its own sake is like pursuing happiness. It's an illusion.
Q: Is design better respected now than when you started?
JN Yes, in most ways it is. But through the media many people have come to associate it with the superficial. For me it's the exact opposite – it's fundamental.
Q: Has design been dumbed down by the media?
JL Design has been largely trivialised by the media. Makeover programmes portray design as decoration and have done nothing to explain the process, purpose and value of design. I can't remember the last time I saw serious and respectful coverage in the national media of corporate identity or branding. It is easy for journalists, with columns to fill, to make cheap jibes and to knock what we do. Because it takes a lot more effort for them to attempt to understand the world of ideas and imagination, to find out how designers work, and to write intelligently, and in depth, about the role of design in business, they, more often than not, take the lazy option.
Q: What is it that makes someone a designer?
JL A graphic designer is passionate about helping others to communicate effectively and persuasively; he creates the medium through which an organisation speaks to its audiences, and through which individuals acquire and receive information. Designers want to use their creative abilities to improve the world. Design is a calling.
JN A desire to change the world. The visible world provides most of the stimulus and information our brains receive. We can't change nature (and wouldn't want to); we can change everything else.