In June and July last year, the ground-floor gallery space in the offices of SEA design was home to an exhibition of work by the legendary Dutch graphic designer, Wim Crouwel. As huge admirers of his work, the founders of SEA – Bryan Edmondson and John Simpson – were delighted when the Dutch master agreed to participate in the show. The design group are certainly big fans of Crouwel’s work but it is the way that he has managed to balance cultural and corporate clients that has had the most impact.
“When he saw what we had in the exhibition, he was saying, ‘I don’t have a copy of that!’,” Edmondson recalls. “People had seen the posters in books but to see them up close was brilliant. He’s single-minded but can work in both arenas which is what SEA is all about: he’s still a great corporate designer as well as a cultural one.”
SEA pride themselves on having their feet firmly in both these camps. Their first major client was the BBC for whom they worked on identity and corporate literature. They won the business solely through the strength of their portfolio at the time, which contained books which they had created for photographers but no work for the corporate sector. The presentation they made was timed with a stop-clock and, as Edmondson readily admits, they were the sole “scruffy buggers” at the meeting, but they got the job. More work, for clients such as EMI and Ted Baker followed: they realised, says Edmondson, “that with each job you have to do the best you can, because someone out there is going to see it and that’s how we get our new business.”
Both Simpson and Edmondson are from the north of England (Yorkshire and Lancashire respectively) and met while at Roundel design studio in London, having graduated in 1992. After working at several different companies, they remained friends and SEA was properly established in 1997, the name deriving from the surnames of the pair, along with that of long-term friend Ralph Ardill. Their initial self-promotional projects with GS Smith Papers earned them well-deserved exposure but, Edmondson remembers, “we found out at an early stage that it’s the corporate stuff that runs the company – it’s about finding the balance”.
And unlike many small companies, they don’t shy away from showing off their corporate work – sure, they do exceptional work for artistic, fashion and cultural institutions, but it’s the work that appears in the high street or in corporate business that they are most proud of. “We use the experience of working with photographers on the more creative jobs and introduce those kinds of people into the corporate mentality,” Simpson explains. Having done exhibitions and books with Rankin, including his Nudes series, it was an interesting move to get him to work with them on a current range of packaging for Boots. “That’s where the hard bit is,” says Edmondson. “To get a great job out of a corporate client is very difficult because there are often constraints: you’re not expressing yourself but someone else. We’re commercial designers, but it’s great not being commercial sometimes. If you sprinkle a bit of that in there though, I think that’s good.”
Clothing company Jigsaw’s recently launched brand Kew was the first high street work SEA were commissioned to undertake. “The kick is when you see it in the shop,” says Edmondson, in contrast to cultural work which has little exposure. Their work features all over the new stores, from the new identity itself, to the bags (which are, apparently, highly sought after) and receipts. Just the kind of job that, as a small company of eight people, they can really get their teeth into without having to rely on anyone else. It’s good for clients too: when they meet their new designers, they meet the people who are actually going to do the work, not the middlemen of larger organisations. “Big companies often do guidelines and give them to a smaller company to implement,” Simpson says, “but we like designing the whole thing.”
While Edmondson likes seeing their work in the most commonplace environments on the high street, he equally enjoys the satisfaction of knowing that, occasionally, their best work is hardly noticed at all. During a lecture they once gave, a student couldn’t believe that they’d also produced work for EMI alongside that for Wim Crouwel.
Sometimes the way the success of our corporate work is measured is by how few people talk about it
Edmondson answered with a theory he has. “I said that’s a good thing,” he says. “Sometimes the way the success of our corporate work is measured is by how few people talk about it. You’ve got all these different people to please – marketing, the chief executive, the customers – but discretion at corporate level is an indication of how well it’s done. It sounds a bit bizarre, but you’ve actually been successful and done a bit of graphic design that the investors don’t pick up on and go, ‘what a waste of this, that and the other’.”
This year the SEA Gallery shows some of Crouwel’s best corporate work. “His posters could have been done yesterday they’re so fresh,” says Simpson, “and that’s the sort of thing we’re trying to do. And he’s still designing now, so he must be doing something right.”