Paul Smith: ‘What’s next?’ DM25 talk series | PDD

Paul Smith: ‘What’s next?’ DM25 talk series


on March 12 2014

As part of its 25th anniversary, the Design Museum asked leading designers and architects to talk about the future of design and how the design world is changing. Paul Smith opened the series in February with an inspirational talk on the need to reinvent ourselves in an ever changing world.

We are sitting in the middle of the main exhibition space, surrounded by illustrations and pictures selected by Paul Smith himself – a room full of what inspires him. In front of us, Paul is about to share  his point of view and his thoughts about what’s next in design, and what we – as designers – need to keep in our minds. A reminder of things we tend to forget, as we get too busy trying to keep busy.

‘People say that trade today is difficult’ he tells us, ‘… but if you think about it, there used to be very few people fishing in the same pond. Today, you’ve got many more people. Everybody is trying to reach to the same customers, so why would they go to you?’ From the beginning of his talk, Paul Smith sets the tone and the focus: what is it that makes you, as a designer, a brand and/or a company different from others? It could be style, a product, a feature, a service… but also a point of view.

However, the key focus is ‘Balance’, a notion he refers to throughout his lecture; the balance between the dream and the money that pays for rent, the balance between newness and experience, ideas and business. It is about your aspirations as a designer, against the things that need to be done to earn wages. He looks back at his own debut, when his very first shop was only opened two days per week, while he would spend the rest of the time handling different jobs to earn his wages. This, he says, is also what he means by balance: to balance the need to pay for rent and survive, and to work on his own dream. Today, the ‘dreams’ are the fashion shows, and what brings business are all the other collections and ranges that Paul Smith produces. Despite the publicity, the prestige and the work involved in a Fashion Show, it only accounts for a small portion of his global business. It may be the part of the business that makes the most noise, but it may not be the one that brings revenues.

Image Credit: Paul Smith
Featured image credit: PDD

The world today is fast-paced and filled with information. We create an incredible amount of data every day, exposing us to so many things, all the time. And this of course has enabled us to learn, to be informed, and be influenced by others but at the same time has also led us to compare ourselves more to others too. In this context, it can be easy to lose sight of what is our own point of view, and to shift the original balance: to raise the money, and lower the dreams. Who hasn’t been tempted to follow the steps of others in the design of a new product or service? To do X or Y product, just because it is the trendy thing to do? ‘Do we need to follow them?’ Paul asks. ‘Question if you should do the same’, but don’t be childish: be child-like: exploring, daring, creating…with a point of view.’

He does not mean for anyone to discard all rules under the pretext of sticking to our own point of view; rather, he pleads to us to think laterally ‘because we don’t need more of the same’. He takes for example the work of Thomas Heatherwick, with his rolling bridge and the latest Routemaster bus design; and the work of architects Herzog & De Meuron for their unconventional apartment building in New York, or ‘Bird Nest’ stadium for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. All of these represent to him striking solutions to what has been resolved so many times in a ‘boring and repetitive’ fashion. Apartment towers don’t have to look like a monolith and bridges don’t have to split in half from the middle.

Image credit, left to right: Heatherwick Studio, Herzog and De Meuron.

On the same wave, Paul Smith goes on to talk about Style. As he reminds us, what is progressive, unique and desirable one day can quickly become ‘not so distinctive’ tomorrow if we don’t keep on questioning and analysing ourselves, and we should never be too proud to do so. To analyse and question ourselves is of course not limited to this context but is also valid across disciplines. You can never rest on your success and there are no excuses for not trying to reinvent yourself. (Re)inventing does not necessarily mean we need to start work from scratch again. Rather, it is about what needs to be kept, not what needs to be removed. Design is as much about today, than it is about tomorrow.

Image credit: PDD

By reinventing and questioning ourselves and our work as designers, he does not only mean reinventing our style, but also our methods of work and in a wider sense, our mentality.

He recalls his own experience with the dying textile trade in UK, that was increasingly unable to compete with the raising competition of the East… Yet craftsmen were unwilling to change their methods of work or their machinery. It wasn’t only about money, but about mentality. He looks at other iconic UK businesses, once successful such as Harrods or Mini, which were in decline until they were purchased. ‘Why couldn’t we keep them alive?’ he wonders. Was it money that brought them back to life, or was it a mentality? Were they too complacent in their success, while other business and countries developed to surpass them? Everything is always changing and the world is moving fast. We need to keep moving forward, look forward and be curious.

But as Paul Smith says, ‘everyday is a new beginning’.

To learn more about the DM25 Talks, visit the Design Museum website.