Down-to-Earth Spaceship Design

British design firm Seymourpowell came up with the concept interiors for Virgin Galactic's spaceship. Still, they say design isn't rocket science

It's rare that a company gets the opportunity to invent an entirely new industry, but that's exactly what Richard Branson and his team at Virgin Galactic are doing. Together with legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, Branson & Co. are working to make commercial space travel a reality.

The first passenger flight won't take off until at least summer 2009, and they're still far from having final ship designs. In the meantime, Virgin needed a version of the spaceship to entice would-be passengers and show those who've already shelled out the $200,000 ticket price that their money is in safe hands. That's where London design agency Seymourpowell came in. A trusty stalwart of the British design scene, Seymourpowell is well known for groundbreaking work for clients including Unilever (UNLVF), Yamaha, Nokia (NOK), Tefal, and Dualit. This time its challenge was to come up with a conceptual spaceship interior.

"Part of our problem is how to educate the world about our product without actually having it," says Ned Abel Smith, brand and marketing director for Virgin Galactic, who commissioned Seymourpowell after seeing an interior it had created for a luxury model by Bell Helicopter Textron. "I was so excited at the idea of getting them involved. They're not just designers, they're problem solvers. They created an incredible animation and set the benchmark for building our product. They really gave us a backbone, and as a marketing tool, the animation has been fantastic."

Window Seat

For its part, designing something for which there was no precedent didn't faze Seymourpowell in the slightest. In fact, the animation came about as push-back to Virgin. "They wanted a full-size model—which they did actually manage to get built in the end—but they didn't have the budget for us to do it," says company co-founder Dick Powell. "Anyway, we argued that they didn't want a 3D model that wasn't very convincing and looked a bit crap. Instead, the animation could show off the passenger experience."

As such, the film features the whole trip, showing how seats (which obviously need to be in exactly the right position for blast off) could retract into the floor once in space so that the passengers could float around the cabin without getting tangled up. Portholes, not a big feature in NASA spacecraft, are placed all over the vehicle—after all, there's neither up nor down in space.

"The design problem was a human problem first and foremost," Powell continues. "The truth is that the processes by which you make planes, trains, rockets, and consumer products are all broadly the same. The way you bash metal is the same if you're making car-body panels or a washing machine. The individual companies [we work with] all have certain idiosyncracies but really, it's not rocket science."

Who's the Rock Star?

This resolutely down-to-earth attitude permeates every aspect of Seymourpowell, which started in 1984 as a partnership between Powell and graphic-designer, advertising-creative, film-production-designer, jack-of-all-creative-trades Richard Seymour and now boasts a staff of around 60 people.

The stars of two British design TV shows, Designs on Your… and Better by Design, and design industry favorites (both have served, separately, as the chair of D&AD, the British creative industries' swankiest organization), Seymour and Powell nonetheless pride themselves on their plain talk, and both partners fiercely eschew the designer-as-rock-star trend. Ironic, really, given that one of the first of those rock stars, Philippe Starck, looks to have been given the nod to design the real interior of Spaceship Two.

But Seymour and Powell aren't bitter. "We design Yamahas, or Nokias, or Doves. We don't design a 'Seymour' or a 'Powell,'" says Seymour firmly of their workhorse approach to design. "It's a matter of choice and I'm glad we chose this way. Don't get me wrong; it's got nothing to do with humble, hand-wringing, 'we're not worthy.' It's just the way we do it. We like it—and it works."

The Customer's Not Always Wrong

"What drives us is the high street," adds Powell. "I remember once, [designer] Ron Arad was disparaging us, saying 'Seymourpowell are the guys who do the stuff in the Argos catalog.' Well actually we're quite proud of that. That's the stuff that your mum buys, and shouldn't you want it to be better than it was before? It's actually much harder to produce something that costs £4.99 and has to be produced by the million than something that's limited edition and costs £150."

It's an attitude that's certainly popular with clients who can approach Seymourpowell feeling confident that practical matters pertaining to the bottom line will not be overlooked. "The key thing about having a long relationship with a client is that when you go into a presentation, you remember that they know more about their market and business than you do," says Powell. "Their perspective on what you've done is critical, and for you to simply stand up and fight without giving that view adequate consideration is often wrong. Designers often do that, forgetting that just because a client disagrees doesn't mean that they're wrong."

Seymourpowell has worked hard to build its long-standing relationships, which it has forged with companies including Samsung (SSNGY), Dualit, and consumer kitchen product company, Tefal (known as Calor in its native France and as T-Fal in the U.S.). In fact, when Powell was first introduced to the team at Tefal, more than 20 years ago, he was described as l'aestheticien—the styling guy. Rather than vault onto his designer high horse, Powell simply rolled up his sleeves to show what design could make possible. "We went on to create the first cordless kettle," he recalls. "Then we transformed their toaster business. The first year, one model sold 60,000 pieces. By year three it sold 3.5 million." That's a lot of toasters, and a tidy black mark on the bottom line.

A Better Bike

Not that Seymourpowell shies away from more conceptual or experimental problems and challenges. Its partnership with hydrogen fuel-cell pioneers Intelligent Energy led to the creation of the world's first hydrogen-powered motorcycle (see, 11/27/06, "A Motocycle That Runs Clean and Quiet").

"In that case, the client wanted something compelling to demonstrate their technology, and we worked with their fantastically competent engineers to create this bike," says Seymour. "It's an extraordinary technology and we knew that it should have an extraordinary demonstration. They didn't say 'we want a fuel-cell powered motorcycle, here are the specs.' It was 'do you know anything about fuel cells? You do? Oh good. Can you help?' And we all worked together to design a motorcycle."

Ever ready to integrate itself more deeply in a client's culture, 10 years ago Seymourpowell founded its own offshoot research and strategy unit, Seymourpowellforesight (SPF). Again, this taps into the collaborative reality of their work. "Most people don't come to use saying 'we need a new toaster' or 'we need a new phone,' but asking us what we think they should do," says Powell. "They have a rough idea that they want an 'x' or a 'y,' but they're not very good at figuring out what they should do because they don't have a wide-ranging view of people and markets and cultures."

The "Corporate Electrician"

That's where SPF comes in, offering detailed market-mapping, competitive analysis, and consumer research. The eight-person team neatly transformed the mother company from a traditional product design company to what Seymour describes as a product-centric management consultancy, á là Ideo, Continuum and the like. And with three other creative directors, Nick Talbot, David Fisher, and Adrian Caroen, overseeing many of the projects, the balance of power is spread out, allowing both Seymour and Powell to remain hands-on designers. "We run in full armor. We fight, and then we win," says Seymour bullishly.

"Six years ago, people would ask me what I did and I'd say I was a product designer," says Seymour. "Now, I struggle. The latest description I like is 'corporate electrician.' In other words, Seymourpowell doesn't simply hand over a design and then grab the check and trip off into the night. Instead, the firm works with clients to apply creative thinking to every layer of a business model, even when a tangible product isn't called for per se. To Seymourpowell, it's about creating long-term solutions that can affect an industry (no one ever accused these guys of thinking small).

Seymour himself was recently appointed as global creative director for the Dove and Vaseline brands within Unilever, and is working to implement strategic design thinking at the highest levels of that organization. "One of the most interesting things about working with Unilever," says Seymour, "is that it delivers products to half the population of the planet. If you get a bit of it a bit right you can have a huge effect."

Click here to see the video animation Seymourpowell designed for Virgin Galactic. To see an overview of Seymourpowell's other work, click here.

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