An Interview with Seth Guge, Creative Director at Verve
Seth Guge talks about his lifelong love of design, the arts, and the creative process.
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Seth Guge
Seth Guge joined Verve as Creative Director in 2010. His career has included design leadership roles at Arc Worldwide/Leo Burnett, Euro RSCG, and Burrell Communications where he brought his creative talents to brands such Target Stores, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Verizon, and Proctor & Gamble. Recognition for Seth’s work spans both the digital and print worlds including best-in-class design accolades by for the Crest Whitestrips online storefront pages and being featured in Print Magazine for the design of Michael Jordan’s book, For the Love of the Game. Seth holds a B.A. in Visual Communications from Judson University and was one of forty design leaders selected for Harvard Business School’s Business Perspectives for Design Leaders program. 

Q: Seth, tell us about your background and when you first recognized your love of art.

SG: I grew up in the Fox Valley area of Illinois and have lived there all my life. I’m the oldest of eight kids and my father was an artist – a wood sculptor, and my mother wrote poetry. My parents also collected antiques and art seemed to be around me all the time.

My interest in art began when I started drawing. My parents understood my natural ability, along with being part of an atmosphere that already had art in it. Some of it was my ability and some was part of the woodwork of the house. My parents started art lessons for me through an after-school program. A lot of kids were going home and playing baseball, while my parents once or twice a week drove me to a lady’s house where, with one or two other kids, we did various things, including oil painting.

Q: How has your interest in art and design evolved over time?

SG: When I was young and I drew and painted, I thought I would make money drawing and painting. Then I went off to college, took photography classes and wanted to be a photographer. I took illustration classes and wanted to be an illustrator, then graphic design classes.

As I started to do internships in the graphic design industry, I realized it didn’t necessarily mean I must be the person who took the photos or drew the pictures. I had the ability to manage all aspects of the projects, finding the photographers and other team members and being able to control the whole creative process, looking at design, photography, communication, stepping out into the marketing as well, the strategy behind the project.

Q: You’ve worked on some big brands like Target, McDonald’s and Starbucks. What was something that surprised you as you worked on those projects and what lessons did you learn as a result?

SG: I saw that working on bigger brands doesn’t necessarily mean bigger budgets. It was kind of surprising that we still needed to stay within parameters. What you think might be a big budget project can be small budget and it can be better that way and vice versa. A small project might have a big budget and time requirement.

I’ve learned through the years that it’s about the team and how much energy and people it actually takes to do things efficiently and really well. You need a strong team of people collaborating and also making sure on the other side of that that there aren’t too many people who are filtering out things and watering down what you’re trying to do.

It’s about balancing and making sure there’s enough support and enough heads thinking about it, but making sure there actually are not too many filters. I’ve seen both scenarios where a project failed because there was not enough support behind it or it failed because too many people were trying to voice their own opinions.

It’s the team, the talent and the energy that make a project work.

Musings on Design

Q: How do you get to know a new client so you can understand their vision, purpose and needs?

SG: Often it’s like investigating or being a detective. There’s always some interesting psychology at play as well. It’s like listening to someone to talk and discerning what they think their problem really is and starting to get inside their heads in terms of, is what they’re saying what they really need?

Sometimes a client totally understands what they need to push the brand forward and they have it all figured out. Other times, they have no idea and are trying to figure it out. Or they think they know what they need to do and it’s actually not what they need.

Sometimes it’s pulling in the research and listening and from there discerning the situation and the solution.

Q: Why is design critical to marketing efforts?

SG: At some point there was a breakthrough in the business world in understanding how important design is. Obviously, it was around forever but just since about the mid- to late nineties the breakthrough hit. It was probably associated with what Apple did with the iMac and what Target did with their advertising and branding. People looking at some of these companies were really embracing the creative side of business. At that time, the world started to realize how important design and creativity are in the marketplace in order to sell products. It was always there and people understood that, but around that time I think people really started to embrace it.

Q: From a design perspective, what is key to creating a strong brand?

SG: Every situation is different. Sometimes it’s about the way images, photography is used. Or, it can be as simple as the color the company is using. What I like is being able to sit back and see patterns. When you look down from an airplane, grids, sometimes you see grids and structure and sometimes it’s chaos down there. Sometimes the chaos is in the manmade pieces and the structure is in the natural pieces – and vice versa.

If you’re standing in a field, you’re right next to everything. You can see a long way but you’re looking out from the weeds. When you’re up high, you look down and can see the whole thing from a new perspective. You get a better sense of how things are working.

I like to do that – step back and look at everything – color, taglines, strategies, vision – and come up with things you might not have gotten to because you already thought you had it figured out. It might have started out as executing. But when you can come in with something bigger and broader, you can oftentimes make it beyond what a client imagined was possible.

Q: Steve Jobs famously said that design is not just about how it looks, but also about how it works. How does the way products work fit into design?

SG: People sometimes pigeonhole designers as people who just want to make it look good. But the reality is that designers are taught from day one that form should follow function. I think it’s a preconceived notion that creatives just want it to look good or be cool, but most of the time creatives understand what the objective is and what the strategy is and execution of that idea comes in second to facilitate what the client is trying to do. Most of the time creative individuals are adamant to make sure it’s working well before it looks cool.

Looking to the Future

Q: With everything constantly evolving and changing, how do you adapt design to accommodate?

SG: One of the biggest changes is making sure with the design that the visual will flow well on all those screens. Fifteen years ago, it was all about print or digital and digital was probably on a computer screen. Then it started to happen on your phone and then on tablets. Within the last five years or so, we’ve had to understand that we need all these devices to work in harmony. Can you actually do one thing that is going to work well on all those devices?

All the devices are different sizes and are smaller, so responsiveness has been a critical issue in constantly making sure things are working well. In the same way, we as creatives need to be thinking in different dimensions. As we think about an idea, how is it going to work on a computer screen and then on your phone? How can we leverage the same idea in a completely different environment? Thinking about all the pieces is one of the keys to success.

Q: What are the big communications trends you see happening right now – key trends or elements in being successful?

SG: Both mobile and social media are going to continue to grow. I think things evolve depending on the generations. What continues to happen is that younger people like something and that’s where the trend goes. In music, as much as people don’t like the new music that comes out and the young generation does, the music comes and it stays forever. It defines the generations.

I see social media as being being part of that. Social media comes in and a lot of us who are older in years don’t understand why someone would want to do things a certain way and the younger generation embraces it and likes it. Then we find that’s how the world starts to move regardless of people liking it or not.

Websites were an example when they first came out. Folks didn’t understand why you would need it, spend time doing it, and then they found out you absolutely need to have a website. I see that happening with social media now. You have to figure out how to use the various social media channels because that’s where your audience is spending time. In some way that will be a vital part of your business.

It’s also interesting to understand how sharing thoughts is affecting the generations. Not only they are embracing it, but certain generations are using it to persuade. How is it affecting the younger generation? Is it doing different things to them in terms of psychology – making them more secure or more insecure; what kind of emotions and impact does it actually make in their lives in terms of doing things differently?

It is interesting to think about the psychology behind the media we deal with, understanding how we embrace and push the technology forward, but also how the technology actually changes us.

Q: What do you see as the biggest developments happening during the next couple of years?

SG: I think it will continue to be location-based analysis and the understanding of what messaging I’m getting when and where. Google glasses gives you a device that allows you to be plugged in, see a projection in your glasses and get messaging – data on the fly instantly.

A lot of it is who I am and that database behind me that someone can access to know where I am at what time. Am I moving fast through a location, am I in a certain store? What’s near me? Is another person I know near me? Or another person with similar interests to mine? Is this someone I’d like to meet?

The next step is plugging into what my hopes, dreams and desires are and whether people around me can help support that in some way. Is it the car I’m looking for that happens to be in a dealership I’m driving by? That will be the next big step.

Thanks, Seth! We appreciate your thoughtful design and the difference it’s making for our clients!

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