“I like work that just feels a bit wrong”
Richard Turley in conversation with It’s Nice That
Richard Turley leads me through Wieden + Kennedy’s US headquarters in Manhattan’s Soho and into his private office. It’s small and quite stuffy (despite the best efforts of a Dyson fan) on this humid New York afternoon, and what you might call ordered chaos reigns supreme – there are piles of books on the floor, scattered papers across the desk, and Post-its on almost every visible surface. The walls are festooned with tongue-in-cheek slogans: “We have to evolve this”, “I am positive 2017”, “BUY ME”.
If you’re familiar with Richard’s work, this setting probably won’t surprise you. Regular It’s Nice That readers will know him as the designer who originally gave Bloomberg Businessweek its uniquely irreverent visual tone; who relaunched Interview magazine and launched Civilization (a “newspaper-cum-support-group” for New York City); who led Wieden’s rebrand of Formula 1; and created some of MTV’s wittiest video content during his years as the broadcaster’s head of storytelling. His work always gives the impression of haste and intuition; it feels sketched and imperfect. Yet that’s exactly the point. And beneath that rough surface, the underlying ideas are always razor-sharp.
While his background is in print design (one of his first jobs was at The Guardian in London), few people can claim to have worked across so many different media and sectors, from journalism to television to advertising. And fewer still can claim to have maintained their own unique tone of voice and sense of humour across such a diverse range of outputs.
Today Richard is global creative director of Wieden + Kennedy and spends his time travelling and helping the company’s offices worldwide with whatever design-led briefs they might be working on at any given time. We caught up with him in New York, where he’s been based for nearly ten years now, to discuss everything from the tyranny of Instagram to the problem with shameless “Trumpian” bragging in the creative industry.
INT Wieden + Kennedy approached you a few years ago, because they’d seen your work. Do you have any idea what work they’d seen and what attracted them?
RT Every year or two, the ECDs and the global people go and do one of those away-day cluster-fucks and Iain Tait, who runs the London office, emailed me and asked me to present to them. So I rocked up to this Mexican hotel and presented the work and I think it just struck a chord – perhaps the way I was thinking about stuff and the way I was hitting challenges. You’d have to ask them what they specifically liked, but I think it was the No Chill work I was doing for MTV at the time, which was very short, sharp, choppy bits of video for TV. People who like my work tend to like specific things I’ve done – ad people really like the MTV stuff, graphic design-y people like the Bloomberg stuff, the Formula 1 work has struck a chord with agencies. Then there’s the sort of niche magazine community who like the zines and things. Not many people like it all, but people tend to pick the bits they like.
“I hope there’s a bit of naughtiness and cheekiness. I like work that just feels a bit wrong.”
INT You’ve worked across a broad range of outputs – newspapers, advertising, TV, to name just a few. Is your creative process consistent, though?
RT I don’t have a defined process at all. It’s about learning, about me teaching myself something or learning through work and learning through making. A few years ago, I realised that I’m drawn towards opportunities to do things I haven’t done before. At the point at which I was leaving Bloomberg, there was no way in the world, and there is still no way in the world, that I would ever work for a magazine again full-time. That just doesn’t interest me. The same goes for TV. And it’s not because I’m arrogant enough to say I’ve learnt how to do TV or anything, but I think the interesting thing to me about employment and work and careers is the ability to work with different types of people and learn different things from them and have projects that I don’t really know how to solve, and that I have to figure out how to solve through making.
INT How do you tend to approach a creative problem, then?
RT My work process is just pretty quick. I never got diagnosed with ADHD, but I’m pretty certain I’ve got some variant of it. I’m very scattered and intuitive – I kind of feel the work, rather than think it. I don’t have a specific way of tackling a problem, apart from really quickly. I’ll work fairly relentlessly to get to the solution and then, once I’ve found it, I feel a bit protective of it, but also once I’ve found something that I like and respond to, then it’s about not overthinking it too much and not trying to push it, just sticking with it.
INT Is agency life perfect for you then? Because at an agency you’re often working across lots of different things?
RT My version of agency life is absolutely suited to me, because the projects I have tend to be short-term and pretty quick. And I do my own stuff on the side of my Wieden work. Agencies are about big collaborative teams and enormous networks of people coming together and working across departments, and that can be good. But I realised that I needed to have an output that had a little bit less infrastructure. That’s not a criticism of agencies – it’s just a fact that business is big and there are a lot of voices in the room and getting work into the world takes a bit longer and it has its own set of levers and pulleys that have to be used. Doing Civilization is a really nice way of something that’s just me, something I can collaborate with a small group of people on and do that’s a little bit free of that structure.
INT What is the relationship between your work here and your personal work?
RT I don’t mean this as a slight towards advertising and marketing, but the reality is, making a commercial for L’Oréal is probably not going to creatively satisfy you – if it does, that’s great, but the reality of working for big brands and everything is that you’re working for very different criteria, you’re working towards very specific briefs. I don’t ever see it being a case for me where a client brief would satisfy me 100 per cent.
INT When do you find time to work on your personal projects, if they’re purely passion projects that you’re doing in your own time?
RT Yeah, I work fucking hard. I don’t really have a tonne of hobbies. My interests extend to my family and my work, in that order. So I’m not really a particularly exciting or interesting person to be around, because I get all my social kicks from talking to people at work and from my family. I don’t go out a lot, I’m kind of just nerdy and boring.
INT Do the personal projects feed back into the work you’re doing here?
RT I think it does feed in. It depends on the project – the projects I do tend to be magazine or publishing-driven and that tends to mean that I’m meeting different kinds of people, particularly at Interview – I’m around photographers and stylists and just seeing how different types of people think and make.
INT We talked about how many different formats you’ve worked across. One thing that’s quite universal to all of them is humour. Talk to me about the place of humour in your work.
RT I think it’s just a good way of puncturing, of getting through to people. But really it’s about making myself laugh. And fucking around. And I’d hope that there’s a bit of naughtiness and cheekiness. I like work that just feels a bit wrong. I definitely matured in the era of appropriation culture and that that runs down through just about everything I’ve done.
This image and below: 7x7 by Wieden+Kennedy New York (Justin Flood, James Hughes, Frank DeRose and Aria Dean)
INT What do you mean by appropriation culture?
RT Collaging and putting two sets of conflicting material together to create a third outcome. I think appropriation culture is just people swiping stuff, stealing it, recontextualising it – a lot of my work can be seen as fairly similar to that. I got called out for being a bit of a cannibal at a talk once. I think the guy thought it was fairly insulting, but I genuinely think I am. I don’t think what I do is particularly original and I’m very open about my references and where I’ve taken things from and how I’ve thought about things.
INT It’s also pretty rare that something is actually completely original. The creative act is often about bringing different influences in and pulling them together and making something new.
RT I totally agree. And it butts up quite badly against the need for a lot of creative people, particularly in the advertising industry, to be a kind of creative auteur. This idea that you’re spouting completely original ideas and that you’re a vessel for your own innate genius and creativity, which I find really nauseating. As you get older, it gets more irritating, because you see all these repetitions and you see the innate unoriginality in their original idea. It’s kind of Trumpian, because it’s so without shame.
INT Your sense of humour and that appropriation tendency are visible in your work for Bloomberg Businessweek. I’m curious – how did you get such freedom there?
RT My take on it is that Bloomberg didn’t really know what they were doing. If that magazine had been bought by Hearst or Condé Nast, then they would have known exactly what a magazine should do, how it operates, what it should look like, and they would never have allowed that. Look, it’s not like they gave us complete carte blanche – it wasn’t like Josh [Tyrangiel, the former editor] had said, ‘Hey, we can just fuck around and do crazy stuff, put dicks on the cover.’ But the conditions under which that magazine was made were naivety, enthusiasm, a bit of money, and it not needing to be fiscally successful. And then we had a very short chain of command. Also everyone we hired was not really experienced. That was quite deliberate, hiring very junior people who were interesting rather than senior people who knew how to do their job.
Junya Watanabe / Civilization SS20
“Instagram and Facebook have weaponised that human instinct, that need to be liked, in such a nasty way.”
INT Would you have taken that job if you hadn’t known you were going to have that freedom?
RT Oh yeah, I didn’t know we had that freedom! I took the job because I wanted to move to America. I would have done anything at that point to move to America, that was my dream and I never thought it would necessarily happen. I never thought Businessweek would change my life the way it did. There is a before Businessweek and an after Businessweek for me and it’s like night and day. I worked in magazines, worked at The Guardian for about ten years; I would have done alright at The Guardian, I think I was on a certain trajectory there. But the opportunities I’ve had from being over here, the opportunities I’ve taken from being over here, the experience of coming here, recontextualising myself in the way that moving abroad does, it’s just profound. It was an amazing opportunity, and I’m very thankful and also slightly bewildered.
INT You say there is a before Businessweek and an after Businessweek. Do you still feel you learnt things at The Guardian, say, that you’ve taken forward into your career?
RT Those ten years I spent at The Guardian with a guy called Mark Porter, I didn’t know how to fucking do anything. He taught me everything – how to set type, how to look at type, how to look at pictures and crop pictures, he taught me how to think. There is a before and after Bloomberg, but I wouldn’t change anything about the before, in terms of my career and what I learnt. I needed that grounding.
INT Tell me about your relationship with social media. It sounds like you’ve done a bit of an about-face on that front.
RT I definitely partook in that for a bit. But now, in the past year or so, I’ve just made a decree – I came off social media, because I was finding it deeply annoying. I had a realisation that fuck, I’ve just got to get out of this. Everything is content now, everything is social media, everything is PR – if you don’t PR something, it doesn’t exist on a certain level. I just feel like, in that world, you have to challenge yourself to figure out a different way. The best way to think about it is “Like” culture. This need to be liked, the affirmation we get from putting a piece of ourselves or our work or an idea we’ve had into the world for it be judged and measured. You see it all the time with creativity and Instagram, people saying, “Oh that’s not going to work for Instagram”. So we’ve created a world where there’s a piece of software where we can just push an image in and then it’ll spit a number back out and that number will either make us happy or inform a creative decision for us. And we’re absolutely stuck in that. I don’t think we’re going to get out of that for years and years, if ever.
INT In the design world, as you know, lots of things revolve around Instagram. To take yourself out of it is quite a bold move, isn’t it?
RT You do find yourself interwoven into these behaviours that social media pushes us into, around affirmation and needing to get your ego stroked all the time and needing to feel validated by other people’s opinions. Which is a fundamental human instinct, so it’s no surprise that it gets mixed up and twisted on these platforms. But I recognised it in myself as being really unhealthy. Instagram, not that I ever posted much on it, that for me was completely toxic. I found myself getting more and more pulled into that world and not really enjoying being there. So it was very much just a personal thing for me to want to pull out of those environments and just to try to figure out a new relationship with my work. It sounds really conceited! But the question is, how can you still make work that doesn’t rely on people “liking” it? That doesn’t require affirmation or being validated by an exterior source? Just doing stuff because I want to do it.
“For me, there is a before Businessweek and an after Businessweek and it’s like night and day.”
INT Where do you see our relationship with social media going next?
RT Instagram and Facebook have weaponised that human instinct, that need to be liked, in such a nasty way. I know I’m going to come across as a bit of a grumpy old man, but I think we do have a fundamental problem with it and it’s not something we’re ever going to fix. The only hope is that these platforms get polluted in a way, like Facebook kind of is, and at some point Instagram will suffer some form of breach of trust or something that means people don’t want to associate themselves with that platform anymore. I know people get a lot of pleasure out of it and I can be a bit blow-hard about these things, but I think life would be very interesting again if we weren’t all tapped into the exact same networks and not all exposed to the same resources, and not have the access to every single tool and every image in the world. That might actually be quite good for creativity.
INT It’s also interesting that, with all the imagery and access to all the references at your fingertips, things start to look quite similar. Surely it should be the reverse?
RT We’re just sheep, aren’t we? And brands are as much sheep as people and they exhibit those behaviours as much as people. My reading of that, which could be wrong, is that Silicon Valley and digital platforms have created a version of successful design and design thinking that people just on a very basic level, or people who don’t really understand too much about these things, want to feel closer to, want to ape and mirror. So everything starts to look like Apple, or Airbnb or Casper. It all blends into this sameness, where everyone feels safe and feels modern. I remember Michael Bierut describing the way that mid-century modern and modernist design was like a comb being pulled through tangled hair and suddenly there was this clean way of looking modern and contemporary and cool. It feels like almost the need now is just to fuck it all up and make it messy again. Because it’s just this bastardised version of “modern” – this kind of clean, sans serif, lots of space, effortless, simple and kind of joyless but functional – that’s certainly what we’re into at the moment. And it’s pretty fucking easy to do. There are quite a lot design and branding agencies that churn out the same old thing all the time in various different versions.
INT I want to talk about inspiration. So much of your work is about having an idea that nobody else would have. Do you ever get scared that you’re not going to be able to do that? Because creative ideas can go sometimes, can’t they?
RT I think the way I deal with that is that I make a lot. I don’t think I’ve ever really panicked about not having an idea, though. Maybe that’s the absurd confidence of the middle-aged white man or whatever that meme is. I also suppose I’ve never really cared. I’m sounding like a series of contradictions now! I work really hard and I love my work, but I also don’t really care about it – I love the process, the act of working and thinking about stuff, but if I don’t come up with a good idea for something, I’m not beating myself up. Maybe there’s something in that, not overthinking, being intuitive and instinctive about things, which has also enabled me to detach a little bit, which actually makes that thing better, because it’s a bit under-thought and a bit looser.
INT One final question: Your career has seen you move from Bloomberg to MTV to Wieden, from print to TV to advertising. They’re the kinds of career move most individuals would maybe do once in their lives. Have you never been scared of hurling yourself in at the deep end?
RT That doesn’t worry me at all. One thing you learn from doing it is there’s a way that multiple industries solve problems. There are similarities in the creative process. I also probably don’t think that careers are that important in a funny sort of way. There’s a Tibor Kalman quote – “The perfect state of creative bliss is to have power and know nothing” – and I think the last three jobs I’ve had, that is the epitome of my experience: having power and not really knowing what to do, and having to figure it out. All those experiences have been positive. And who knows, it may all go to shit tomorrow. But at the moment, I’m really happy at Wieden and I really enjoy this job and the people here; but if it was to end tomorrow, I’d be fine. I’d do something else and I’d hopefully enjoy that too.