Veteran designer James Sommerville knows about the influence of design.
After five years at The Coca-Cola Company as vice president of global design, he changed the definition of design at Coke. Then, as the founder of design agency known___unknown, he created a new way for untapped designers to help global companies tell their stories. But this year, as the world slipped into a major health crisis, the only messages that mattered were: Stay home and stay safe. In response, Sommerville launched #helpbydesign, sharing templates designers can use to create a poignant public safety campaign.
He spoke to Create’s Alejandro Chavetta about design—and life—in this new age.
[Download your #helpbydesign templates here to get started]
AC: What was the concept behind #helpbydesign?
JS: Anybody can design for anyone, from anywhere. So, to all designers across the world, we have a challenge...to create a positive, personal message that can be shared by anyone. It’s a great way for the design community to do what we do best, which is communicating and telling stories in the simple format of a square.
AC: What inspired the idea?
JS: We’re seeing so many posts of real heroes who are making masks, ventilators, and important equipment for medical purposes. And we were chatting with a few friends online and thinking as designers we don’t have that ability to transform our factory like that. So while we’re not that kind of factory, we are storytellers, we do have the power of the written word and the graphic word or the motion word.
AC: Let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get started as a designer?
JS: My design journey began very young, as a teenager, when I launched a design firm. Well, not really a firm, there were two of us in my grandmother’s attic. It was called Attik. It was 1986, and we were 19 years old. We were funded by a charity in the United Kingdom called the Prince’s Trust. That period really was more than just the work. It was about experiencing the highs and lows of being a young entrepreneur. We did that for 25 years.
AC: How did you make the transition to a major firm like Coke?
JS: The interesting thing is that when we were small, we tried to think big. And then I joined The Coca Cola Company and wondered what I could do at Coke that they’ve not already done. So I decided to try and think small. I flipped the switch on my Attik days. I wanted us to move as a small team, work with talent directly, and remove some of the red tape that you would expect with a large machine like Coca Cola.
AC: I feel like a lot of designers are trying to do that today, reduce the distance between them and creativity.
JS: Absolutely. I think when I decided to leave Coca Cola, it was a big deal for me. And I founded this project called known___unknown because I knew there were so many unappreciated and untapped artists out there. And I wanted to see whether I could bring this unknown army to work on global brands. It’s just a way of giving these unknown voices a stage for their ideation, their storytelling, their messaging, their typography, or their illustration.
AC: How has social distancing affected your daily life?
JS: We all want this to finish immediately, but I think it’s almost like we’ll be rethinking how we work. I think what will emerge from this is a completely new routine. Designers are very portable in the sense that we don’t necessarily need that full office environment. In fact, designers are probably at their most productive when they have some quiet time.
AC: What do you think comes next in terms of creativity?
JS: What might come out of this in the next two, five, and definitely the next 10 years, is when our young designers come up to become leaders, they’ll be working in a completely different way. You know, being more distributed. I do prefer the word distributed than remote—because remote suggests you’re trapped, you’re on an island, or you’re at the top of the mountain. Teams will become communities that don’t necessarily need to see each other, and don’t need to jump on planes, but we’ll still be working together and feel like we have a culture and a community.
AC: How can you inspire creativity when you’re at home?
JS: I would encourage people to not get too concerned that they can’t leave the house, but look for what they have in the house. Maybe do some mashups, maybe reinvent an iconic brand that’s in the fridge. You know, take it off the shelf and just rethink it, remodel it, reinvent the toothpaste tube. You know, these small things that are everyday items we take for granted. Because we eat them, and we wash ourselves with them. Take a look at those. That’s a great starting place.
AC: What’s your reaction to the #helpbydesign contributions?
JS: The beauty of it is that it’s open to any designer, it’s not necessarily about being a seasoned pro. This is about the young designers, coming into the business, coming into the design schools, maybe pushing themselves in a way. Or maybe it’s someone who’s retired, and it’s everybody else in between. It’s really an invitation to everybody in the world. We’re collaborating. As a community, there’s nothing richer than that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.