Interview Martin Pyper / Designer
"Don’t take yourself so seriously, because no one else does."
Even before going to art school, Martin Pyper knew he wanted to become a graphic designer. Born in Bristol, Martin lived in France and is now based in Amsterdam. After a successful career at all the big agencies (VBAT, PPGH/JWT, FHV/BBDO) Martin decided to go about it alone, starting with a single client. "I felt I’d earned enough credits and knew enough people to make it." But real life isn't always that simple.
Interview by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
Were you born a designer? No, but I knew from an early age that I wasn’t going to be an academic. I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years, but I’m still learning. There’s this thing about having 10,000 flying hours to become good at anything. Every job takes a lot of energy and mistakes and existential doubts … [chuckles].
You moved around quite a lot from an early age, to France, for instance, where your dad took up a job teaching English. What effect did this have on you? People often ask me how I manage to speak such good Dutch, and I think it’s because I learned to adapt quickly. It makes you a good observer of body language and how things work. It also gives you a broader horizon because you’re constantly seeing different types of people and places.
But I’m a bit of a loner and I work alone in my studio, and that’s probably partly due to that. You get used to your own company.
What did your mum do for a living, and what were your parents like? My mum was a geriatric nurse, a carer who also worked with AIDS patients for a while. She grew up on a farm as one of five children, so she was very practical but also very unassuming. My dad was the life and soul of the party – funny, entertaining, outgoing. He was into politics and history, and I was obviously emulating him when I wrote my two books about the Second World War at the age of ten. My parents shaped my morals and values. They weren’t hippies, but they were relaxed and very left wing. There was always music playing in the house – The Beatles, Dylan – and they encouraged us to read. I still discuss books with them.
You went straight from grammar school, which is considered a hotbed for high achievers, to art school. How did the experience compare? I loved art school. All of a sudden, you’re in this grown-up world, surrounded by mods, punks and rastas. People here were sensitive, unpredictable, weird, and slightly unorthodox. At grammar school there’d been a lot of over-achievers, and I knew I wasn’t one of them, but this felt comfortable, and I really enjoyed it.
Did you have any clear career plans at this stage? Yes, I knew before I went to art school that I wanted to be a graphic designer and work with letters. I was quite focussed in that sense, and had a job before I left art school.
What was your first ever design job? It was a summer job just before art school; I was 19. A local hospital asked to make a brochure. I had no idea what I was doing and it was scary because I’d promised I could do it. I took pictures, made drawings, and typeset everything on an old typewriter. I was really eager to go to art school and get on with being a graphic designer.
You worked as a designer for several design companies [Optimus, Philips Design, VBAT], and as a creative and creative director at a string of highly regarded ad agencies, such as FHV BBDO and PPGH/JWT. At what point in your career did you begin to trust your own judgement? Probably about five years after I left art school, which was about that 10,000 flight-hour mark. When you’re young, you’re treated that way; everyone around you is older and behaves like they know it better, so you naturally defer to them. But at some point you realize they haven’t got a clue either. So I think it’s a combination of the man-hours and finally realizing that saying you know what you’re doing is as good as knowing it. Nevertheless, I still don’t trust my judgement completely, and I think that’s a good thing. There’s that Dutch saying that translates as “uncertainty is a sign of intelligence”.
How did you, a designer, end up working in advertising, and how did the challenges differ? Ad agencies and design agencies have slightly different DNAs, so it is unusual to have worked at both. But during that period, advertising agencies were trying to bring all of the disciplines together. One of those agencies was FHV BBDO, and a couple of friends and I heard they were trying to buy one of the design agencies we’d worked at. So we knocked on their door and said don’t buy them, buy us, and they went for it. But it didn’t work out because while the management wanted it, the creatives from the agency side saw us as their little helpers. That was the mentality of advertising agencies back then. But when I said I was leaving, the agency boss asked me to stay and become an advertising creative. I thought, “why not,” and stayed for four years. I flew around the world making ads, which was fun, but it wasn’t me. I could see that there were people who were much better at it than I was, and I missed being a designer; I realised I was more of a crafts person than an advertising creative, where your job is to orchestrate things.
It taught me an awful lot about business, though, and about how the industry fits together and works.
"I still think the best way to learn is to make mistakes."
What was it like to go from art director to creative director? Did the required skills come naturally? Not really. I didn’t really enjoy it, and it made me realise I wasn’t a leader. My solution to someone doing something wrong was to make the person go back and do it again until they got it right, and I still think the best way to learn is to make mistakes. But the agency preferred me to bang my fist on the table and say, “Do it like that!” because the quicker people get things done, the more money you make. Furthermore, my hourly rate was very high, and that puts an enormous amount of pressure on you because people expect you to do amazing things in that hour, whereas no matter how competent you are, there’s only so much you can do. It wasn’t me, and I hated the administration side of it.
Before setting up Me Studio in 2005, did you consider looking for an ad agency that shared your principles? No. After four years at FHV, I worked for another three years as a design director at one of the large network agencies, by which point I’d tried them all – big ones, small ones, in the UK and here. It paid very well, but it wasn’t rewarding with respect to the things I found important. I felt I’d earned enough credits and knew enough people to make it happen.
Did you have a roster of clients to get you off to a flying start? I started with one client: The Dutch National Ballet which was a client of the agency I worked for, and when I quit they said they wanted to come with me, which I hadn’t expected. I didn’t start with much apart from that, just the blind faith that it was going to happen. And for about a year and a half it didn’t – there was a lot of chasing after people, calling old contacts and trying to drum up business, and gradually realising it’s not that easy.
Things slowly started to pick up after a year and I half. The contacts I’d made while working at agencies started to pay off, and continue to do so today.
Most people consider it a chore to send out invoices and sweep up, but you’ve said doing everything yourself keeps you fresh? How? I suppose it has something to do with staying connected to the world and the guy next door. When the agency was charging clients absurd amounts for my time, I was only allowed to do one thing because I was so expensive. So I was in a bubble. But it’s fun to make the invoices, clean the toilet and deliver work to clients.
You state on your website that “what makes something inspiring is yourself and how you look at a thing, not the thing in itself”. Can you describe how you see the world? What I find inspiring would probably bore the pants off you, and I like that idea because it takes it away from this myth that creatives are quirky people with an unusual view of the world. Although I suppose we all try to present ourselves to the world in a way that makes us look like interesting people with unusual views, and there’s a commercial aspect to it because you’re selling yourself by suggesting people should choose you because you’ll come up with something more interesting than the other person.
Music is your biggest source of inspiration. If you could take only one song with you to a desert island, what would you choose, and why? I really, really don’t like you for asking that [chuckles], you know that’s impossible. I’d choose something by Bowie, Marvin Gaye, PJ Harvey, New Order, Joy Division, Radiohead’s “Identikit”, but if you held a gun to my head, I’d have to say “Parks” by Four Tet. Why this track, I don’t know, but this is what I want played at my funeral. That’s the interesting thing about music, that it’s impossible to say why you find something inspiring. It just touches you on so many levels. But I listen to lots of different types of music. I used to spend Saturdays in record stores and bookshops, and my attraction to cover designs ended up introducing me to new genres of music. It’s a little bit different these days with digital services, Spotify and iTunes with their boilerplate approach: if you like that you’ll like this.
"I accept that things change, but I find a lot of digital work quite soulless."
Speaking of the world going digital, is your focus on analogue a counter-reaction to that? I think it is. I’m not on a nostalgia-driven crusade to make everyone go back to listening to music on vinyl or anything like that, but I do miss a lot of stuff that’s been replaced with poorer digital alternatives. I accept that things change, but I find a lot of digital work quite soulless. Most websites look very formulaic, and have a similar polished look: large photos, one of three typefaces. It’s a bit like the opening titles for the Netflix series. They’re all really well made, but they all look similar. I like to see the dirt under people’s fingernails or the bit of sellotape at the edge. People have spots and the world has spots and that’s okay. The wrinkles are what make you what you are. It’s a difficult one, though, because it can also become a bit of an affectation. There is a lot of stuff that’s made analogue but has nothing to do with authenticity. Brian Eno once said that one of the most difficult things about being an artist is knowing when to stop. I’m not an artist, but I always remembered that.
Do you have to be an old-school designer to be good at analogue design? No. I was taught to use a pair of scissors and a pen, and I’m very glad I was. It’s given me lots of grounding in the way typography works and the physicality of things. When you cut letters out you feel them in a way that you can’t on a screen. But I meet lots of twentysomethings who are genuinely interested in analogue stuff, and not in a nostalgic let’s-shoot-everything-on-film way, but just looking for ways to do things differently.
You do lots of poster designs. Are there any common elements that would distinguish them from posters by other designers? I hope not. I've had people say, “Oh, that’s a typical one of yours,” and I go, “Oh, really?” It’s not something I’m trying to achieve or something I want. The question is different with each assignment and the parameters are different, but I suppose you do have your dogmas, and in my case that might be a particular way of layering things, or fonts or colours that I like or don’t like, but I hope my work isn’t easily identifiable. I find it interesting when artists and designers start sticking things together that don’t quite fit; when things start to fuse.
You’ve been a visiting lecturer at a design academy. What did the experience teach you? I didn’t do it for very long. I noticed that other people were more outspoken and had a presence in front of the class, whereas I’d hear myself talking, and I’d wonder, “What are you talking about?” It’s not false modesty; it comes back to that uncertainty thing: do you actually have anything of value to say to people? I liked meeting students, but it wasn’t my thing.
One of the things you used to stress to your students was the importance of presenting yourself and selling a concept. How do you present yourself and sell a concept? One of the things I learned during my agency years was that you have to do a bit of a show. I don’t mean play the clown, but I think one of the most important things is humour, and it’s something a lot of people miss. I always try to be honest and not bullshit people. Beyond that, I don’t have a template. It depends on the person and the circumstance. What’s important is to be a good judge of character and to see what that person needs in that particular circumstance, not just in the work, but also in the relationship and in the presentation.
Your work and identity overlap almost perfectly. Any downsides to that? The biggest downside occurs when you don’t have enough work or when what you have is going badly, say you’ve lost a client or if someone doesn’t like what you’ve done. It affects my personality in a broad sense. This can be marginal, but it can also be quite bad, and that’s a danger. It’s something I talk about with a lot of my friends who are photographers and people who work for themselves in that we’re very vulnerable because what we do is who we are.
Do you ever seek anyone’s advice? Not often enough. I’m quite independent in that respect. I’m probably not very good at taking people’s advice on my work. It’s possibly also a weakness; it can’t be good to always trust yourself. It’s an age thing as well; at a certain point you know what you’re about and what you believe, but it can be sort of refreshing to have somebody sort of throw that upside down.
Besides your daughter and son, what’s your biggest achievement so far, in life and as a designer? Being able to live and support my family from doing what I want. I don’t have to do much stuff that I don’t want to do, and I found a way to get something interesting out of the less interesting stuff. If I can carry on doing this for another 20 years, that’d do it for me.
"I’ve learned to sell myself and be a bit more extrovert from working in advertising, but that’s something a lot of designers I know are notoriously bad at, and don’t like to do."
What would surprise someone who knew you as a 10-year-old if they saw you today? I had a school reuinion last year where I saw people that knew me as a ten-year-old, and most of them said I hadn’t changed a bit. And I don’t think I have, in broad terms. Dedicated, thoughtful, a bit introverted. I’ve learned to sell myself and be a bit more extrovert from working in advertising, but that’s something a lot of designers I know are notoriously bad at and don’t like to do.
What skill or talent do you wish you possessed, but don’t? I’d love to be a writer, and to have the ability to write something worth reading, and the discipline to sit down and draw it out of myself. I admire that, but at the same time I know it’s just not me. It’s something my dad always wanted me to do.
And I wish I had a bit more leadership qualities. It’s easy to not be the person leading the charge, and it might be a bit more interesting if I was that person a bit more, personally and professionally.
What do you think separates those that do their own thing from those that follow a more conventional route? Possibly luck. If you spot the signs or you’re in an environment that helps you identify what you should do.
What advice would you give someone considering the leap into the uncertainty of self-employment? Don’t take yourself so seriously, because no one else does. On a practical level, you need a network. It took 15 years of working for other people to build my network. And you must be able to tolerate your own company.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but make sure that you do something that you really, really love. The trouble is you don’t know what you like till you find it. But if you find it, it’s so much easier in a fundamental way because it’s work but it’s not work. So ask yourself: do I really care about this? Is this what I am, deep down. Things will still go wrong, but it’s fundamentally easier.
Finally, if for some reason you had to give up your independence, which agency would be your first choice, and why? Having come this far, I’m probably a bit too critical and experienced to be able to go back to working for an agency. But working on the client side might be interesting, because it’s not something I’m familiar with. All of the things I moan about would be in my hands. Could be disastrous, but it could be funny and interesting.