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Flying the flag for good design in public transport hasn’t always been easy, but my mission remains as important as it ever was

 

stenning_ukbaFêted by my peers at the UK Bus Awards!

 

Having been fêted by my peers only last week at the 20th UK Bus Awards for being worthy of a special award to recognise my outstanding contribution to the bus industry over many years (more than 30 – yes, I know I don’t look old enough; exercise, vegetarian, and no booze, you should try it), I’ve been asked to pass comment on those years from my perspective. By the way, I’m still reeling from the utter, gobsmacking shock of that award. I love our clients to get awards, but me? This early in my career?

Looking back to the early years of Best Impressions, in 1983 the National Bus Company still existed, although the corporate bonds were untying fast. I recall several very supportive, loyal allies from that time and that organisation who obviously saw something more than worthwhile in what I was doing and could do – people like Nigel Gray and Loretta Stevens (later to be Loretta Finn) at what was then still London Country, and the fantastic David Beaman at City of Oxford. I was not exactly Mr Conventional then, not that I’ve ever had any desire to be. This streak – perhaps I should be say, torrent – of maverickness is a manifestation of my desire to follow my own path, to stand up for what I believe in and fight for what is right. And middle-class propriety could never have a place in my life. My seeming lack of deference is merely that I regard myself no worse or no better than any other human being.

Of course there are areas where I’m sorely lacking in knowledge, understanding and capability; there are areas where I’m a stupid dunce and I bow to others willingly; just as there are areas where I’m an absolute genius and one who should be listened to and followed. Arrogance? – nah, simply honest confidence. Awkward clients? – I eat them for breakfast and spew them up. Inspiring clients? – I will love them to the end of my days, wanting to do my very best for them always, sometimes without reward.

I must give an example of my uncompromising spirit. When we designed the original Arriva corporate livery in 1997, for better or worse, I had to present it to the senior board in front of sometimes irascible supremo Gordon Hodgson. Just to flex his corporate muscles and show who’s boss he commented on a line being too thick. I said I believed it was OK but making it thinner would not spoil the integrity of the design. Battle was joined. We were opposite each other at the boardroom table. With fire in his eyes, he quietly bellowed, “Who’s the client?”. You could hear a pin drop. No-one breathed. I casually but theatrically rose to my feet, slowly leant forward across the table with my hands firmly on the polished wood (I was sort of towering over the great man at that point) and said silkily, “And who’s the designer?”. I kid you not, grown men tried to run away and hide in any available cupboard, imagined P45s fluttering past their startled eyes. Meanwhile, the fire in Gordon’s own eyes turned into the faintest twinkle. We understood each other.

Deliciously amusing as this true story is, there is a serious point. Being in a position of power doesn’t mean you’re always right. And although someone in a position of power has the authority to make wrong decisions, it is incumbent on those who know better to have the balls to tell that person when they are wrong. Don’t let bullies win – thereby lies the road to ruin. I did let Gordon have his way. Sometimes it shows real strength to be magnanimous in victory.

Of course, there have been knock backs, opportunities lost, but I believe in looking forward and not having regrets. Anyway, what goes around sometimes comes around. Once we got one of those hideously patronising letters that began, “Unfortunately, on this occasion you were unsuccessful…” What, you mean they regretted their decision? I think not. We knew one of them quite well, so it was great fun (and necessary in my view to put them in their place, too) to write back and say, tongue only a little in cheek, “Unfortunately, on this occasion YOU were unsuccessful…” What’s business if you can’t enjoy it and have a good pop at such pomposity? Choosing who you work with should be a two-way process. Actually, we have on the odd occasion told potential clients politely they are the not right people for us to work with (“unfortunately, on this occasion…” – NO, we didn’t!)

Although not a setback, homophobia in the bus industry was there in spades in the early days. I remember one senior engineer coming up to me at one of the Birmingham shows and berating me for all manner of things, including being a leech by taking money out of this industry. I simply questioned him relentlessly about exactly where his salary came from. I recall he stomped off surrounded by his fawning, but less so after that, underlings, muttering “bloody queer.” One or two still think like that I guess, but isn’t it wonderful how generally in this great industry where you park your bus is just not an issue any more.

One of my big things over the years has been, and will continue to be, encouraging operators to think like retailers (which they are – goods or services, you pay money for something in return) and realise that the customer’s satisfaction, and preferably their delight and loyalty, is what should drive their business. We still have a long way to go but am I glad to have people like Alex Warner, Alex Hornby, Alex Hynes, Phil Stockley and Roger French, and others, fighting the fight, too. If you don’t want to listen to me, listen to them, guys and girls. Interesting that so many of them are called Alex.

And the power of design. I have spoken at bus and rail conferences, at seminars, to the Young Bus Managers’ Network, to enthusiasts, to any bloody soul that will listen, that design is an essential, powerful business tool, not a bit of superficial froth or a smear of girly lipgloss on top. Some may find this hard to understand (listen and learn, children) but good design is a fundamental building block of a modern, forward-thinking, free-thinking 21st century business. Thus it ever was. Learn from history; look how Frank Pick transformed London Transport in the 1930s by commissioning good design from the best architects, the best illustrators, typographers and designers to create a desirable and proud transport system for the capital. It can make all the difference and certainly increase the desirability of your product. It is not for nothing that we describe what we do at Best Impressions as “creating desire”.

Incidentally, in case anyone is in any doubt, I may have started Best Impressions as just me working on my own, but we are now a formidable team of up to 11 valiant, truth-seeking professionals, passionate about what we do and dedicated to elevate this industry to ever greater heights. It ain’t easy at times but, “faint heart never won fair lady (or man)”. And what we do covers everything from full corporate identities, stylish interiors, drop-dead-gorgeous liveries (spécialité de la maison) and complete advertising campaigns, down
to a humble but exquisitely effective, beautifully-crafted flyer.

And talking about design, I’ve never let it get me down but I cannot understand the reluctance of people to embrace its power. Is it such a dark art? Do they not trust we alchemists and magicians, sooth-sayers, prophets and seers? I have heard people say things like, “I suppose we ought to do something.” Give me strength… but enough beefing.

I’m sometimes asked what is my favourite design, livery, project or advertising campaign that we’ve worked on. It’s like “which of your children do you like best?”, for heaven’s sake. I could (but won’t) tell you some we might have done a bit better had there been more time. But I can try and articulate the wonderful glow I personally get from seeing what we’ve done out there on the road or on the tracks looking good, doing well and creating desire. South West Trains’ trains endlessly snaking through Clapham Junction, for example; a queue of people getting on the Oxford Tube, a London Midland class 350 or on a bus in Brighton; watching a Virgin East Coast 225 streak through Retford on the lean, or hearing how well a particular campaign has increased sales or, better still, changed perceptions for the better.

I remember getting on a brand new Black Cat bus we’d just designed for Trentbarton. Full of childlike pride and aching for a compliment (I have human frailties, too), I asked two local Derby matrons on it what they thought of the rather stylish interior. They looked around and one of them, sniffing as she began to open her mouth, pronounced, “It’ll do”. According to my travelling companion, Trentbarton chairman Brian King, for Derby that was a great compliment. And it was, for sometimes the best design isn’t the showstopper, the big crescendo, it’s the workaday working all day, every day, unobtrusively, unconsciously creating desire.

We believe in public transport. Good, no, not just good but excellent, aspirational, desirable public transport, is a mark of a civilised society. We need to keep raising the bar ever higher to achieve that. The world moves on at an ever-increasing rate and we must strive to be always ahead of the game. That’s certainly what I shall continue to do with the support of the industry’s finest, and shall look forward to receiving my next award in another 20 years’ time. There’s a lot more work to do until then.

 

About the author: Ray Stenning is Design Director of Best Impressions, which provides creative services to the passenger transport sector.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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