Interview with Martin Simpson

When did you realise you wanted to be a designer?

As kids, my brother and I would spend hours drawing together, side by side at the dining room table. We imagined worlds, sweeping stories, scrawled across large rolls of paper with cheap wax crayon. I think our Mum ended up buying stores’ worth of lining paper and old wallpaper to keep pace with the ambition of our creations.

At school that enjoyment continued. I knew I wanted to do something in art, but I never would have said design.

It wasn’t until my college Foundation Course that I finally discovered the Bauhaus (I may have been late to that party). I began to see how I could combine my love for creating with solving real world problems. Even now I can be heard telling designers ‘form follows function’ as I walk the halls of the agency.

How did you get started? What was the biggest obstacle?

I was lucky. I got my break in the final throws of university, designing and artworking ads in the news industry. I still get cold sweats thinking about that in-tray (and the never decreasing mountain of paper) waiting for me in the mornings.

There, working alongside the roar of the printing presses, I learned my technical craft and found a passion for ink on paper. I learned to manage the competing demands of the clients, the sales force and the hard, hungry deadline of a publication.

The learning curve from university to reality nearly broke me. I look back now and realise it made me.

What’s been your most successful way of getting clients?

Strive to do great work. Have a high standard. Aspire to be a good person.

How do you get clients to stay with you and use you for more work?

I genuinely believe that if you do great work (and you’re a good person), clients will return to with you time and again. It’s surprising how quickly word gets around.

Of course, having great clients helps too: clients that recognise your value, encourage you to add richness and insight to their strategies, give you space to push boundaries. These are the relationships you want to foster. Immerse yourself in their customer opportunities, market and business challenges and you will be able to add more value.

Do you ever have issues with clients paying late? How do you manage that?

Firstly, be clear on the terms of business. Make sure you have a signed agreement that covers all the thorny stuff define the services you will provide, identify who will own the Intellectual Property at each stage, make sure the terms of payment are clear, include an outline of what will happen if things go wrong.

Secondly, write robust project proposals. Break the project down stage by stage, making sure to describe what you will deliver in each. Make sure you have written approval from the client before pen touches paper. Insist on it.

If things change (they always change), go back to the project proposal and repeat the process.

Good clients value this stuff. I ask very hard questions when clients question it. Invariably that isn’t a good sign.

What does your typical work day look like?

To be honest, there isn’t a typical day. There are lots of meetings of course; agency leadership, client briefings, design proposals, creative reviews and admin too. One thing, though, is very consistent – listening.

I spend much of my day focussing on my listening. The first part of producing great design, is deeply understanding the problem you’re trying to solve. To cultivate understanding, you first need to be listening.

If listening is something you struggle with, I’d get working on it.

Any piece of advice/wisdom that you’d like to give to the readers at This Design Life?

Put people first.

Always. Look after them and they will look after you.

Connect with
Martin Simpson

Connect with Martin Simpson on LinkedIn.

Martin Simpson is Senior Vice President at global brand and design agency Marks, based in its Birmingham studio. He leads design for the agency across Europe, bringing a wealth of experience in building highly effective creative teams and design processes across FMCG, retail and technology brands.

Prior to Marks, Martin was Head of Design at Tesco where he led its rebrand, relaunched retail convenience business One Stop and launched Tesco’s discounter proposition, Jacks. Over two decades, Martin’s work has touched many household brands including Cadbury Dairy Milk, Kenco, Oreo, Maynard’s and Trebor.

Interview published on: Oct 4, 2021

Check out these other designers

Emily Penny

Emily Penny

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a brand strategist? I chose to study Fine Art and Art History at uni and...

Melanie Hubert-Crozet

Melanie Hubert-Crozet

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? Very early on actually! We got our first family computer when I...

Dan Mall

Dan Mall

1. When did you realise you wanted to be a designer? I originally went to college to be an animator, but I quickly...