Interview: Ren Spiteri

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They say three is a magic number and that is why as a third interview REDWHITEmt opted to treat all followers with the magic of Ren Spiteri, the mind behind Bulldog. Already acclaimed within the previous interviews, Ren, 42 is a true lover of the art of graphic design. Born in the UK to an Irish mom and a Maltese dad, he always felt like the quintessential émigré, adopting the cultures of the countries he lived in but never really belonging anywhere. His works range from the little to the vast and is always faithful to his great talent.

Why Bulldog?
At the time Bulldog was founded, most other creative companies used the names of their founding partners as a moniker – in the vein of Saatchi & Saatchi. Maybe because of my working class upbringing, this always felt kind of pretentious to me – as if they were trying to give credence to a profession encumbered with an inferiority complex. Besides, as I’m crazy about dogs, it made prefect sense for me to name my company after an animal known to be tenacious, brave and fiercely loyal.

How did you get started in design?
I grew up in inner city Britain at a time when Margret Thatcher was prime minister. Times were hard and unemployment was at an all time high. When I left school at 17, I had no idea what I wanted to do and in any case, jobs were scarce – especially for a school leaver with average grades.

It was a miserable time really. Panic set in. I felt like a failure. A no hoper. I convinced myself that I would spend all the Thursdays of the rest of my life – ‘signing on’ (collecting unemployment benefit). Panic of course, has its own crazy momentum. Once you’re in its grasp, it’s difficult to survey your position with a calm, detached eye.

I now look back on those years of teenage angst and wonder: why didn’t I go easy on myself and have more confidence in my abilities? I should have told myself that it takes time to find out what you want to do and therefore I shouldn’t be in such a rush.

Anyway, salvation came in the most unusual form – hip hop culture. It swept through inner city Britain as an underground movement and was adopted by the more street smart kids. For the next few years, I totally immersed myself in all forms of this phenomenon – dancing, music and most importantly for me – writing (graffiti art). Gradually, it dawned on me that this could probably be exploited for profit and out of neccessity, rather than astuteness or love, I made a slow transition to legitimate employment as a graphic designer.

And who inspired you?
My inspiration at that time did not come from other designers, which, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably a good thing. I now believe that the worst place to get inspiration from is other designers. Design is a complex act of control at the crossroads of art, commerce, linguistics, logic and anthropology, just to name a few. My inspiration today, is just as likely to come from Aldus Huxely, Charlie Chaplin or Roland Barthes as Bill Bernbach.

What is the key to your success?
I always feel like there is a big discrepancy between who I want to be and who I really am. This is a great driving force in terms of personal development but also a great burden to carry around.

Which influences do you recognise in your latest works?
As I already said, my influence does not only come from other designers but if I had to pick one, it would be Herb Lubalin. A little piece of me dies, everytime I look at his work. I honestly think that everything I have done to date, is a reaction to the envy and admiration I felt when I first read a book about his work, over 20 years ago.

What skills are most important for a designer?
Talent, intelligence, courage, individualism and tenacity: it is difficult to be all five. Which, perhaps, accounts for the rarity of Herb Lubalin.

Can a designer stand out with an idealistic idea or go with the flow of the client’s wishes?
As communicators, our remit is to find the place where our client’s message overlaps with consumer needs. This should form the basis for any recommendation we make to our clients.

Obvious right?

Why then, do most agencies present a raft of ideas while examining the pupils of their client’s eyes to discover which one they like best? Isn’t this a sign of nervousness, indecision and a lack of confidence in the solution being presented?

Small wonder then that clients are hesitant in accepting their advice. I guess what I’m saying is that there are bad agencies as well as bad clients. I think I have been very fortunate to meet with many clients that believe in my company’s ability to empathize with their consumers and produce exciting stimuli that will bring about a change in opinion or behaviour.

When we do meet a client who continually rejects our advice, I hope we will never fall into the trap of malicious obedience, ‘Okay, if that’s what they want, that’s what we’ll give them – no matter how stupid it is’.

We firmly believe that clients get the creative people they deserve. Bad clients stay with creative people that they can bully. These relationships are seldom happy, because the creatives, in turn, are forced to employ bullying tactics with consumers. As in life, consumers resent bullying and stop patronising the client’s business or brand.

The lurking moral for both client and creatives is: you can only take the money and run for so long before someone finds you out.

What would you advise someone who’s interested in a career in design?
Learn to embrace clients and consumers in the process of developing communications. Use their input at every stage of the process to inform, inspire, and validate creative work. Someone told me that when I was just starting out. It’s still very good advice.

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  • matt bugeja

    Great interview! Keep up the good work. Glad to see a good local design blog


  • Derek

    Good one Pawl!