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Richard Seymour: Which Way to the Future?

How do you design the future? Studying emerging behaviour is a good place to start, says Richard Seymour.

Richard Seymour: Which Way to the Future?


December 20th, 2012

British designer Richard Seymour, along with Seymourpowell co-founder Dick Powell, is a member of the DesignSingapore Council’s International Advisory Panel. After his participation in the Council’s Value of Design Forum earlier in December, we caught up with him for a chat about the future and Singapore’s potential as a “social nursery”.

Richard Seymour

Richard Seymour, Co-founder and Design Director of Seymourpowell

When you established Seymourpowell in 1984, lifestyles were rather different. Has your approach changed since then?

Very little has changed in our approach. We have always been madly passionate about meeting real needs, both physical and emotional. But what we create has changed quite a lot. Twenty years ago, I was designing things. Now I’m helping to redesign businesses so they can cope with what I call the violence of the new – the extraordinary changes that are happening.

People ask me at cocktail parties, what do you do? I say, well I’m sort of a corporate electrician. I help business rewire themselves to become more effective through their use of design and innovation.

Richard Seymour

Transportation concept Aircruise – a giant, vertical airship hotel powered by natural energy. Depicted here over South Korea’s Incheon Bridge

Richard Seymour

Aircruise bedroom

It goes without saying that the web has entirely changed how we communicate. How do you see the future of advertising?

What a great question! Conventional push advertising – that means campaign-based, push-the-message-at-you advertising – is a dead man walking, and it has been for 10 years. But it doesn’t know it’s dead. I think one of the reasons this astounding phenomenon exists is that advertising agencies and their counterpart – senior executives in big businesses – grew up together in the 20th century.

There’s still the idea that you clamp ‘social’ onto the side of conventional advertising, like some intriguing addendum. But we stopped being like that 10 years ago. We talk and listen to each other. And with our disillusionment and collapse of trust in institutions – certainly in the West – we look for meaning and belief elsewhere.

Richard Seymour

ENV Bike, powered by hydrogen fuel cell technology

You often speak at events around the world. What topics of discussion are commonly requested of you?

Which way is the future going? One of the brilliant consequences of working across the board, from spaceships to kettles to brassieres, is that you get to know intimately what the perceived futures are in all these different organisations and businesses. I find more and more anxiety and lack of confidence in businesses at the moment, because they literally do not know what to do. Advertising agencies are an example of this. When all the power shifts to the people and nobody listens anymore, how do you monetise the vapour that’s left? Of course, the answer is you don’t.

Richard Seymour

Quantum Saddle – a rethink of the common saddle, with a carbon fibre-based chassis

Seymourpowell has a research centre. What do you research, and what are some of the means by which you do that?

It’s research and strategy – an over-the-horizon radar. How do we do it? We watch emergent behaviour. We have our own people out there, and also we harness a much broader network of people who are watching all the time. When I see a difference between what somebody says they do and what they actually do, that alerts me immediately to what’s really happening.

Our own flavour of ethnography is about finding out where the future is heading through the emerging behaviour of people. It’s not trend analysis. I’m highly suspicious of trend analysts and futurologists. How can they know what people are going to do in the future? On what basis do they make predictions? Designers have to find the truth and act on it. So the methodologies we apply are entirely about finding out the truth.

Richard Seymour

Virgin Galactic’s tourist spacecraft VSS (Virgin SpaceShip) Enterprise, modelled on the SpaceShipOne craft (created by Bert Rutan and Paul G Allen)

Richard Seymour

Conceptual interior for VSS Enterprise by Seymourpowell

What is the training or working background of your researchers?

They’re designers. What makes a good designer? It’s the ability to scan and assimilate what’s going on, and excrete it as a series of products and services. Designers are empathic. Good designers are incredibly empathic.

Richard Seymour

Calor Aquaspeed iron

At the DesignSingapore forum, you mentioned the idea that Singapore could function a social nursery. Please elaborate on what you meant.

My use of the word ‘nursery’ comes from an astronomy concept – the ‘stellar nursery’. This refers to the gas clouds where stars form. For us to be able to make the jumps of change that are necessary these days, we’ve got to be able to try new things before we do them. Prototyping has always been part of what designers do.

Singapore has a critical mass. It’s a certain size. It’s not too big or too small. It’s a controlled environment – and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. It has a set of rules it works by. It’s wealthy, it’s multicultural, and it’s got some of the highest bandwidth communications ability on the planet.

You put that together and you’ve got a nursery – you’ve got a prototyping place where you can try stuff. You can see how new ideas operate in a social sense. You could say, ‘Look Ford, everyone seems to be stalled on electric vehicles because nobody’s got to critical mass yet. Why don’t we run the experiment here and see if it works?’

Singapore could be the laboratory. The support and the tax breaks that exist within Singapore – you will not find this kind of level of interest and support at government level in most parts of the world. I think that’s something to be marketed by Singapore.

Did you know that Switzerland has a creative director? They understand their external manifestation in the world extremely well. Things aren’t mandated, but there’s guidance. And Switzerland has produced some really extraordinary things, like symbolical road signage.

Richard Seymour

Dualit DIgital Kitchen Radio

What is Seymourpowell working on now?

Hahaha, I could tell you but I’d have to kill you!

What do you think are the key issues facing businesses such as yours today?

Relevance. I really don’t think a lot of companies understand yet how much what they’re doing is changing. Or how the market and what’s required of them is changing. Many are still clinging to a series of precepts from the 20th century that aren’t going to help them at all. They not broad enough in their understanding of how we communicate. That’s dangerous.

I can’t think of a single design discipline, with the possible exception of packaging design, which has not fundamentally changed what it does in the last 25 years. And there’s a challenge for education, too. How do you educate people into a world where everything changes? Well, history tells us that those who get it prevail, and those who don’t go to the wall. So I think we’ll probably face quite a lot of attrition in design in the near future.

Richard Seymour

Aircruise deck

Richard Seymour

Aircruise restaurant

Top image: Aircruise hotel depicted at its docking station


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