Business lessons from Erik Spiekermann

Posted by September 4, 2013
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Erik Spiekermann laid down a maxim to last night’s Reasons to Be Creative crowd: “Do not do free pitches”. The roar from the crowd suggested a fair few folk in the audience were sick of pitching their guts out to no avail.

Spiekermann’s ethos is that the client-agency relationship works best as a partnership, and he won’t accept being treated as a supplier. “If a client is an arsehole – don’t work with them.”

His list of arsehole-like behaviour also includes clients who hire professionals to do a job and then try and meddle. He says “I wouldn’t stand over the mechanic and tell him to adjust that knob a bit further!”

The typography geeks in the audience got a look-in, with a quick overview of some of his recent work for Mozilla (leaving one with a pang for the person who put the presentation together: “This is a previous version – it won’t matter to you but it matters to me. The ‘g’ is different.”).

Another of Spiekermann’s maxims, generously shared after a lifetime in the business, is to value ‘attitude’ – in people you look to hire, in clients and in yourself. “Authenticity is crucial and there can be no authenticity without attitude,” he says.

At the end of the talk, one left with a stiffened backbone, bite-sized chunks of advice (e.g. “speed and deep are not opposites”, “idea generation is not idea selection”) and on a high from spending an hour in thrall to the great man’s humour, warmth and ferocity.

2 more take home points from Spiekermann

1.  Don’t waste time making things perfect in the ideas phase. Sketch roughly, make videos quickly and don’t spend time going to the client with every pixel in place. They’ll get the idea and this is enough.

2.  Don’t start designing until the client has produced the content. Be agile and use the scrum method.

Royal Bandit (the newly-renamed design studio of Julien Vallee and Eve Duhamel) were on earlier in the day and also left their audience enchanted, though after a much gentler experience.

The duo took Einstein’s quote on ‘creativity being intelligence having fun’ and showed how this outlook informs everything they do. They showcased a bunch of projects ranging from new work (the opening titles for the conference) all the way back to their reputation-making days of working mostly with paper.

As they put it, this was a design choice based on the fact paper was cheap and readily available to young designers just starting out. The talk showed a lot of behind-the-scenes secrets and insight into how they achieved certain effects (lots of nylon strings, usually).

The importance of fun in creativity was underlined with pie charts showing how much fun they have the first time they do something (total fun!), the second attempt (still pretty fun!), to repetitions ad nauseum (not much fun).  They also showed how practicing what they preach has kept their work fresh, with changes in direction and/or materials leading to bigger and better commissions.

2 more take home points from Royal Bandit

1.  Put stuff up on the internet. When asked how they’d landed so many cool UK-based projects, the duo shrugged and said they have no idea but ‘put stuff up on the internet and it will find its way to people.’

2.  Working on spec worked for them. They referenced a project for AOL that would only be paid for if the client liked it. AOL did and the rest is design history.

Jon Burgerman was the other standout talk of the day, partly for his perfect comic timing and willingness to make himself look silly and share the results on a very large screen.

This, in itself, was one of the key messages of the session, and chimed exactly with Royal Bandit’s advice to have fun with your work. In the case of Burgerman he also emphasised that ‘making stuff is great’.

Stuck in a hotel room, rather than watch TV he films himself making faces to accompany a soundtrack of animal noises. At SXSW and unimpressed with a client’s attitude, he wanders off and sets up a deliberately down-at-heel pitch on the street selling ‘Jon Burgerman originals’.

2 more take home points from Burgerman

1.  Allow yourself to evolve. You’re an artist, not a style.

2.  Challenge yourself and go outside your comfort zone. Used to working on a small scale? Go big! Use paint? Try chalk!

Sadly, we can’t be at today’s final round of talks as the office is calling but we want to thank the team behind Reasons to Be Creative for inviting us along. We’re going back to work brimming with ideas and inspiration.

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  • Free Range Web: Looks like a great night was had by all. Congratulations to you and your team
  • Lucy Hastings: I have been following your teams progress and I must say I am impressed. Lots of luck to you.
  • Lauren Goodenough: Fab night guys! thanks to you all at BIMA and al of the sponsors too! Next year if Despark are...
  • Philip Tommy: This is a very useful article for people working in the web design and web development field.I would...
  • Ad Republic: Is this get together taking place again in 2016 Nadine?