We were blown away when we saw FFF’s Sean Rees and Purpose colleague Nathan Webb present their work for speech therapy course the McGuire Programme at London’s Point conference. From Sean’s very personal story of recovering from a stutter, to the creative and business challenges of working with a global not-for-profit organisation, we met up with them to find out why the project meant so much, and how they pulled it off.
Tell us a little about the McGuire Programme (MP) project
NW: Each year Purpose do a Wish List where every member of staff nominates a client they’d like to work with; anything from charities to big brands. Purpose then approach the organisation with the most votes with the aim of working with them. Last year the McGuire Programme, a speech therapy course that Sean put forward, won, so we approached them to see if they’d like to work with us.
Where did you start?
NW: The MP operate in different regions across the world, but we needed to get them all in one room, so we did a Skype conference with about 10 people in 7 locations, spanning time zones from Australia to the states. We spent six hours online, with people dropping off due to bad connections etc. It was really intense but also enriching, getting to the nub of what we needed to do. We always aim to boil it down to a simple single Core Thought that we can use to inform everything that we do creatively.
SR: It was about getting everyone on board for that process, so everybody contributed and helped to shape their brand, and that we really understood what they needed on a practical level, and how we might best support them. Their input really shaped the final thing.
How did you decide what you were going to deliver?
NW: Everything we were doing was an investment [for Purpose], so after the workshop we put together an internal proposal outlining what we thought they needed. A lack of continuity was the biggest issue, so it was quite apparent that their identity needed looking at. We had an ideal list of deliverables, and went back and forth internally for a while to get a very lean package for them.
SR: In my mind what they really needed was a re-brand. Their previous branding was created some 10 years ago by a friend of the programme, and it has served it’s purpose. But today, they are a worldwide, well respected organisation – they really need an identity which reflects that. And as Nathan said, one that brought the regions together – sometimes the look and feel was so disparate they looked like different organisations.
And was the project delivered completely free?
SR: Yes completely free.
How do you balance that as a business? Someone once told me you’ve got two types of jobs: those with economic currency and those with creative currency. Do you agree?
NW: We have three criteria: Does it make good business sense? Does it open doors to new opportunities? Is it good for the soul? And whenever projects come into the studio you have to judge whether they’re a goer or not based on these three questions. The projects within the studio must have a balance of all three. This one was good for the soul. It sounds hippy, but it’s important.
We spend so long doing these internal proposals because you can’t just go willy-nilly and decide to invest in a nice project. It has to be a good business decision, that you can give a definitive amount of investment to.
Why did you nominate the MP Sean?
SR: I’ve been involved in the MP for 10 years and it’s helped me a lot in that time. I’d decided to give back by becoming a Primary Coach to support and mentor the new guys coming through the programme. But it’s pretty great to also give back in a professional capacity – using our skills in visual communication. I’m really grateful to Purpose for creating this opportunity and making it happen.
NW: We wanted to help the MP find their voice, as they’ve done for so many people.
What was the biggest challenge of the project? Scale and practicalities? Or perhaps limited time and resources?
NW: Being as lean as possible and yet being able to produce the things they actually needed. Some great solutions also came out of that challenge, for example we found another MP graduate – a web developer (Barry McGee) who’s doing a superb job of building the website, it’s due to launch soon. So it was a challenge but also something that’s memorable and one of the project’s biggest successes.
SR: The challenge also was that everything had to be very practical. The McGuire Programme has no design department, little money to outsource, everything had to be applied by the Regional Directors themselves. They needed a dead-simple kit of parts that they can use in a very practical sense.
How did you manage to be so efficient, apart from working until midnight each night?
NW: There were only the two of us. The two best designers in the studio though obviously! [laughs]
SR: Given the amount of experience I already had on the programme I was able to hit the ground running. And the process did happen quickly, after we cracked the core thought, it all started flowing quite smoothly.
NW: In terms of working efficiently, when you need to you can find ways of being very lean by identifying quick wins but there are always hurdles that will trip you up when you don’t expect it, and getting the tone right really slowed us down. To get the right balance between warm and assertive, and not feeling like a victim, was very important.
How important do you think it is to have an affinity with the client or project?
SR: I do believe it would have been harder for a designer who hasn’t experienced it [having a stammer and joining the MP] to come to the same conclusion – in a lot of ways I was designing from experience.
But by the same token, do you think for example that a man can’t design a tampon packet?
NW: That’s bullshit. But it’s important to have an experience in something to be able to design for it.
But you didn’t have any experience in this Nathan.
NW: Given time you can absorb yourself in anything, and you have to get very involved in understanding the problem in order to solve it. We didn’t have time on this one, so having Sean on the team was fundamental.
SR: I believe that, conscious or not, you do put a little-piece of yourself into every project you do, and this being a project that I’m quite personally close to, a lot of me as a person has gone into it. It’s not often you get chances like that, particularly with client projects.
Because it’s so personal how did you not get self involved to the point where you can’t be objective?
NW: That was probably my job. It’s important to have someone to recognise where to draw the line and what’s practical. Sean was the lover I was the stone cold mason. [laughs]
Some agencies get accused of doing projects that are created purely for entering awards and get lots of limelight, even though the client may be entirely fabricated. What do you feel about that?
NW: It’s a tricky one. It would be easy to say I totally disagree with it because in general when there’s no authenticity to a project and it’s getting a lot of limelight that’s not on.
SR: I’d always come back to ‘is it solving a problem?’ And if it’s not then it’s just eye candy for eye candy’s sake. If you’ve invented a problem that was never there to begin with, it’s pretty worthless.
NW: I think as a designer you do have a responsibility to use your creative skills to the best effect you can. But the reality is sometimes you want to create some eye candy — something that makes you smile. It’s really nice when you can merge the two things together, when you’re solving a problem and it’s also great design but they don’t always come along in reality, so in order to keep your creative juices going you can occasionally create eye candy. But I don’t know about creating complete falsities.
There’s a story of a famous designer who created a well-known logo and then went through the phone book to find someone with that name to give it to.
NW: I think that’s quite an interesting exercise in its own right, if it’s not hidden behind, and you’re open about it.
SR: I agree with Nath, honesty is the key – don’t make something out to be something it’s not. If you’re pretending, and do a retro fit, then I think people are intelligent and they see right through it.
NW: Yeah they do. That’s the official answer! It’s such a blurred area, you want to create design that makes you excited and you can’t constantly do design for big corporations. Those nice projects don’t always come along, and when they do they may not quite reach the point that you want them to, but where does the boundary lie?
When you can see that someone’s made a project up completely that’s bullshit but there are so many aspects to consider, it’s a real grey area. I think it’s easy to say I completely disagree with it and be very hard line but that’s not the real world.
What makes for a good client relationship?
SR: Transparency and honesty.
SR: Mutual respect. We had that with the MP. They are so chuffed with what we’ve done for them.
Did they have much feedback or did you have total creative freedom?
SR: Everything had to be appropriate, and we made sure it was. We came to them as experts they respected that and trusted our recommendations. It probably didn’t hurt that we were offering it for free!
NW: Normally there’s more to-ing and fro-ing so that was very refreshing.
Purpose seems to hang onto their people for a long time. Nathan you’ve been there 8½ years, most people stay in a job in design for 2-3 years. What is it about Purpose that makes the team happy and successful?
NW: We get boring jobs like everyone does. But when we’re employing, we are not only ensuring they’re great designers but that they don’t have egos. Obviously we made an exception with Sean, [laughs] but I cuddled it out of him! There’s not a competitive edge in the studio, everyone works together to create great design.
Do you think you need a bit of competition between the designers to push each other out of your comfort zone and beyond what’s expected?
SR: Everyone has respect for each other. You look up to designers above you a bit like a big brother or something, you need people above you who you respect and admire. Culture is quite an important ingredient of what makes Purpose who they are. It’s like a little family.
NW: When you’re employing people you naturally don’t want to employ arseholes but also, a lot of effort and investment of both time and money goes into ensuring the culture is feeling right. We quite often go out and do stuff together. I think it’s great. I’m leaving. [starts to sob]
Why are you leaving, what’s the plan?
NW: I’m leaving to go freelance for a bit. I’m gonna be freelancing for the foreseeable future, giving myself time to do some of my own projects.
SR: Eye candy work!
NW: [Laughs] I do some eye candy called idlydoodling.com — cartoons that I create to make people laugh. And some other projects as well.
Do you think this flexibility and variety in working life is a common trend right now?
NW: Personally I’d be eventually looking to start a company but I want some time to explore what I’m doing and how I use my design. In terms of the pattern of freelancers, I saw Nick Couch talk at Point I think it’s probably true.
Do you have a dream project or client now you’ve done the MP?
SR: I put forward the MP and the NHS because they really need the help of design. Everyone’s fallen out of love with the NHS. We had [on the Wish List] Channel 4, Rapha, galleries, a whole mixture. The wish-list is about people’s passions and what you’re interested in, but that’s not to say a dream project might come out of an unexpected place.
Where did the idea of the Wish List come from?
NW: It was for us to be put forward someone we’d really love to work with but it’s also a good learning opportunity for us, because whatever gets picked we have to find a way of approaching them. That was put on the design studio as opposed to New Business, so this initiative activates the design studio to start to take ownership and that empowers them.
SR: It was down to us as designers to approach the clients we want to work with, so it’s giving us an opportunity to experience the new-business end of the spectrum, which we don’t usually get exposed to — that could be seen as training. It’s also adds more variety and get projects in that people are genuinely interested in.
Sean do you think being a person with a stutter has had an impact on your career as a designer?
SR: Possibly. Part of our job, as you get more senior in particular, is about presenting and communicating your ideas clearly and effectively to a client. So it depends on your role and aspirations. It would be easy to shy away from it, but I’ve tried not to allow it to get in my way and I’ve constantly kept pushing out my comfort zones – part of that culminated in the Point Conference, which I used as an opportunity to challenge myself. Doing that was harder than any client presentation, and I hope to carry that experience through to other situations.
You can watch Sean & Nathan’s presentation at Point here