Interview: Richard Harrington

In May, Richard Harrington will be one of the panelists in the Blueprint event Meetings and Interviews. Patrick Fredrickson spoke with Richard about 180LA, the role of design teams in the agency, the importance of craft, and inspiration.

PATRICK: So you’re the Head of Design at 180LA?

RICHARD: I am. I joined the company 5 or 6 years ago, actually longer, 7 years ago. I was asked to help set up the design department in Amsterdam. We had a great design team over there and were approached to set up the design department here.

We are a non-traditional advertising agency in terms of what we try to provide our clients. It’s not always advertising as the world knows it. It’s more branding these days. We create amazing brand experiences, whether that needs to be a piece of TV work or a piece of on-line content.

Something these larger agencies are offering now is more parts and players to service clients, broadening the understanding of what design could do for their brands. How design can be an integral part of their brand communication is more so acknowledged now, so design is really important to get right. We service that as well as the advertising work.

We’re doing a good job with the design and we’re getting stand alone work along with the advertising work. We’re actually forming a rather nice design agency within the bigger agency.

Can you break that down a bit, the idea of a design agency within the broader agency?

They are the same agency, obviously. Our clients come to us with an advertising brief because that’s what we are in the door. But as a design group within the agency, we’re providing a standard of design along side the conceptual advertising work that is good enough to be a stand alone service. And we’re seeing a nice return on the design briefs, as well as the advertising briefs. So we’re starting to create a nice design relationship with our clients along with advertising.

For example, we’re tasked to come up with Expedia’s advertising, which has done really well. It’s been voted on the TED website as one of the most talked about and influential advertisements of the past year. And through that piece of work we’ve actually been able to do an enormous amount of branding for Expedia. We’re currently looking at the interior design and wayfinding systems at their headquarters. It’s really snowballed into quite a significant piece of pure design thinking as well as advertising which is great. Does that make sense?

It does. How has that changed the teams you’re pulling together?

It means that the team involves design earlier, or we’re right in there when receiving advertising briefs. That’s my role here. Sometimes I’m brought in way up front when we’re actually getting the first briefs from a client. I’ll gauge where design can potentially engage with the project.

Something like Expedia, where we see opportunities for design to potentially have a huge impact and get its teeth into a bigger project, we’ll pull in designers really early. Then on some projects we’ll be brought in towards the end to give pure graphic design service to the client. It varies.

I think since I’ve been here we’ve managed to influence pretty much everyone in the agency and educate them that design is really, really key to creating that cohesive experience across advertising, retail, website, the digital space. I think design is kind of seen now as this important factor that can tie all these details together.

Getting design to the table early seems to be making a lot more headway of late. Design has been able to say “here is another way to approach the problem, to take it deeper”. Does that seem accurate?

I have this conversation a lot here actually. I think, and this is potentially a broad generalization, but I think design in traditional advertising shops isn’t truly understood. It’s quite easily mistaken as graphic design. Say “I need a logo design” and we’re under the risk of being the guys who just design logos unless we actually stand up and say “hey guys, this is what design is”.

How design concepts can improve solutions and solve a problem for a client is a completely different type of design thinking to graphic design, obviously. It’s basically problem-solving, in a shape or a fashion of how we believe fits to push a product forward into a new market place. It’s a progressive way of thinking and looking at something differently. I mean, I’m actually designing my conversation here to you, as I know potentially where this is going to end up. It’s just thinking about something in a conceptual way, or a visual way. There is interior design, all of the other design, food design, and they’re all just problem solutions in whatever place they need to fit into. I think that is what design needs to be in an agency these days.

On your website you make a brief statement on the importance of craft?


I’m curious how that relates to process, to problem-solving, or what design is. What is the role of craft? How do you think craft affects what it is we’re doing?

Craft is, that is for me, something that will attract or draw me to a tangible object, a visual object, or the way something is written. The way it shows somebody spent the time to make something special, to make it worthwhile, to make it so someone else’s experience with that thing can really be enjoyed and really appreciated. If I look at a piece of Gaudi architecture, for example, the craft and the love that’s gone into making that special, whether or not I even like that, it already resonates a certain level to me. I think craft does that to anything. If you put time and effort into it, it has a certain kind of entry into your mind. That’s one way of looking at craft.

Another way, I think…I came from Holland, and the Dutch are such, sort of, detailed craftsmen in typography and architecture, and I think there are a lot of things you are visually brought up on in Europe. That is something that I personally noticed when I came to America, that the element of craft is not necessarily on a level that you get in Europe. That almost pushed me back to the love of craft and to embrace it even more.

Coming over here and seeing the nature of some of the advertising as “if that guy is shouting louder than the other guy than I need to shout even more loudly”. I’m trying to educate my clients by saying if you craft something and make it small and delicate, that is potentially shouting even louder.

Craft is so important, I think. Prints, for example. That is such a beautiful art form, and the way that can be crafted. Even the way pixels can be crafted. It’s just detail. It’s somebody who has the time and the patience to put detail into something.

When you see an object that has been well crafted, whether you like the object or not, just being able to see there is the attention to detail, it’s still elevated to this special place?

It is elevated to a place where the point of entry on your perception of that object is higher. Whether or not you end up liking it, it’s already placed at a level in your mind. It’s been crafted, it’s been loved, it’s been cared for.

The skull by Damian Hirst that is made out of diamonds, for example. I particularly don’t like that but I think the craft and the form and the care that went into making that already make it somewhat special, you know?

If we can do that with advertising, or graphic design, or brands that aren’t particularly thought about in those ways, without any further investment in them outside of craft it elevates them to a place they’ve never been. That is something that I reiterate to my clients. If that is the only thing we do for them from a design point of view is craft them into a good place, then they will be seen higher in people’s minds than they were previously.

Craft can help on so many levels, can’t it? If you print a red circle onto a piece of paper with a photocopier, or if you screen print a red circle onto a piece of mirrored glass, the thought and attention to execution behind that can take it to a completely different place. It’s that kind of craft that I’m talking about.

As you’re hiring people and building teams nowadays, is that a concept you try to mentor into people?

I try to mentor that actually. If we go back to the circle for example, if I can visualize craft, that actually helps an idea to grow faster. It’s kind of like embracing the detail. That’s really important. That’s part of the process. You can’t work without the knowledge of how something is going to live in the world. An idea can be great, but if you can bring it to life through application or circumstances of where it’s going to live and how it will inform something, we can share that with the client as well. Craft is being able to do that.

What are you seeing out in the world right now that is inspiring you on that level?

I recently finished a piece of typography design with a company in London called A2type <link>( Every project they get is commissioned. Ultimately every project is unique from a craft point of view, every project has its own flavor and uniqueness.

While I was there, they designed a new font for Expedia. And while I was with them in London they showed me this other project they worked on with Neville Brody designing a new typeface for the Royal College of Art in London. It was beautiful to see. I mean, ours is beautiful as well, but this one for the Royal College of Art and those ingredients for me just kind of typified the level of execution you need to go to to create something special and unique and new in the world.

Those guys are doing it really, really well. I love and admire their patience and importance to make something new and special each time for each client. That is something I’ve certainly brought back to the studio here, and we try and do that for all the clients we get.

Our Expedia client embraces that approach surprisingly well. Taking a detailed approach to creating something new and an extensive, deep way of going about it, I was worried they would not see the value in doing that. They were really on board and finally came out the other end with something really great. So it’s working.
Clients are now seeing the value in going deep on these projects for the longer term.

Are clients coming looking for that now or is there still a process of gaining a lot of trust and incremental steps to get there?

Sony is extremely understanding of the importance of design. Adidas obviously understands it. A lot of our clients get it quite quickly.

Some of them take smaller steps. And when we take smaller steps to get there they understand where we were trying to take them potentially with larger steps. So you take the time to invest in the client and educate the client as to why we need to take a longer, more drawn out process to their work. I love that, though. I love that as part of my job. Designing a presentation to actually show why we need to design. It’s showing how we need to shape a conversation correctly to be able to be understood properly. That’s going back and looking at details to see how we want to achieve what we want to do at the outset, before we even start the work.

How did you start out?

I studied graphic design communication in London. I worked in the music industry, at MCA records, then Universal Records. We worked on great bands: The Stone Roses, Mary J. Blige, some great Jazz sleeves, the Brit-Pop scene; some great music work, and I think that’s an approach I still bring to a lot my work. Where I started it was more about expression of an emotion as opposed to what a brand manual was a telling me what to do.

I’ve always tried to maintain that in the way I go about executing a problem. It’s not always the right solution, but it’s always a personal reaction as well as a logical advertising reaction. I always bring that to the table. I’ve been accused sometimes of being abstract in my execution, and it’s not fit for our mainstream audience. But I would prefer to err on that side than fall into a mainstream.

I believe in applauding the audiences attention and intelligence. Music sleeves allow you to do that. You can get away with a more abstracted message. People appreciate that.

It’s never going to be a clean process like that in the commercial world, obviously. We’ve go so many other problems to answer with a piece of work. But I still try to encourage that. It’s the only way we’re going to differentiate ourselves from anyone else’s solution.

On all levels of approaching a piece of work, I try to maintain flexibility and freedom to turn and move where we want to go. Our process is very loose early on, and then we begin editing it and working it and breaking it down into buckets of what’s right and wrong. You can see in the end result the energy that goes into getting it there.


Patrick Fredrickson is Associate Design Director at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. He oversees design of changing exhibitions, permanent galleries, and public spaces at the museum.

By AIGA Los Angeles
Published May 20, 2013
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