How to define the indefinable

Seymour Powell are masters of Big Bang product design, having created a flood of iconic best-sellers.
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The Independent Online

Richard Seymour is axiomatic in what might be described as an Electra Glide manner. His thoughts cruise as smoothly as a Harley at 60, changes of gear are achieved comfortably, and the inner landscapes where his thoughts roam float by like surreal stage-sets.

Richard Seymour is axiomatic in what might be described as an Electra Glide manner. His thoughts cruise as smoothly as a Harley at 60, changes of gear are achieved comfortably, and the inner landscapes where his thoughts roam float by like surreal stage-sets.

One is in the presence, after all, of the co-designer of the world's first cordless kettle 13 years ago. And he's been on the boil ever since.

Seymour's pronouncements are engaging, challenging and quotable. For example: "One of the problems with design is the word design. It's a word that we all think we know the definition of. But when you start to try to define it, it gets slippery."

Design, he insists, can't be discussed unless the ethics of a given project is in the mix. "Design is about making things better for people," he says. "We attempt to select subjects which need another look - things that cause discomfort or unpleasantness. The kitchen bin!"

And so the design studio of which he is co-principal with Dick Powell takes a distinctly iconoclastic line in product development. "We like to break out of the historical context," he explains. "We're too often dogged by the standing waves of the past."

Seymour has developed an ad hoc cosmology around process. "The noun-rich vocabulary of the West is a rather interesting concept," he suggests. "The American Indians had a verb-rich vocabulary. For example, the word rain didn't exist. It was raining. It was a process - they were referring to things in time. Now, that's rather an enlightening epiphany, don't you think?"

Thus, Seymour Powell see product design as a flowing activity, "so the things that are necessary - the mechanical improvement or the emotional relevance of the product - are not thought of here as styling. That word is misunderstood. We tend to refer to emotional relevance."

Seymour speaks of "emotional ergonomics" and is happy to risk a definition: "The creation of relevance in the application of the object which satisfies the user emotionally and practically. These aren't separated." Design is not a tablet handed down from on high; and an aesthetics-led method is instantly bogus, he argues, citing "the dominance of engineering culture in the Nineties which was the residue of the 19th-century concept of doing something, then embellishing it. We don't believe that's a supportable concept.

"We always start with the user. We don't stand at the technical end and push it at the consumer. And so, thereby comes the task. The ethics of product design are bound up in this. There isn't an Excel spreadsheet on this one. It's not a science, but it contains science. It isn't an art, but it contains art."

Seymour Powell is wary about relying exclusively on the URS factor - the "unexplainable relevant solution" - in every case. The studio is involved, for example, in the development of a radical new wet-and-dry electric razor. But the practice's encouragement of visionary flashovers - and, from time to time, prototypical blunders - is "a harmonic that influences and attracts us to experiment more".

There's a flip-side. Seymour cites a life-saving device for ferry passengers whose detailed design came from an act of imagination - and a realisation that it would be used by panicking people.

"You're on a tilting deck in darkness and, beyond the rail, is almost certain death. There's an object in front of you that may or may not save your life. That's not the place for a URS!" And that leads him into the byways of ethical clarity in design. "Should products have extensive manuals on how to use them? No. Should your VCR manual have page after page of gobbledygook? Should one be obliged to be economic in the way they use precious materials? Should shoes be made by underpaid people in appalling conditions?

"Sometimes the morality is only considered by the designer." Even so, "we're not angels. We have to remember that design is a naturally communal activity - and that our clients are manufacturers. They don't want a warm feeling when they go to bed. They want a warm feeling from the revenue. And that's the sort of thing that should keep designers awake."

Yet compromises can produce remarkable results because of a subliminal recognition on the part of the consumer: a well-designed product radiates an almost physical sense of purpose. "It's the battle of the first 35 nanoseconds," he says. "Between reflex and intellectual determinism lies the battleground - that's the domain. That's what we do here."

Cordless kettles, innovative motorbikes, best-selling Casio watches, airline seats, a brand-new take on brassieres for Charnos; but ask Seymour which of the many dozens of products he rates highest, and the reply comes winging in from leftfield: "The thing we're proudest of is Seymour Powell - the organism, the device," he says. "Because we had to be designed."

Pressed a shade harder Seymour will, after all, admit to a favourite design detail: "The 1980 Honda 400/4 motorbike, because there's a wonderful piece of metal that comes round the footbrake that stops your foot coming into contact with the engine casing. And you think - yes! Because that means the rest of it must be sorted."

It's an apt choice for a practice whose Electra Glide progress is founded on movement. "Design is never the same problem," he says. "Things change. You have to reinvent the wheel. It involves part of the subconscious process. We're satisfied here that it's a robust, pivotal tool in the quest for new things.

Videos of the Channel 4/Design Council series 'Better by Design', featuring Seymour Powell are available for educational organisations at £5.99 from www.designcouncil.org.uk/better by design/

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