Success Ideas from Master Designer, Clive Piercy

Success Secrets from Clive Piercy:

  • You really need to identify who you want to work with. I don’t think you should start your own business too early.
  • If you do really good work, you get good work coming to you. I believe that’s the best thing you can do.
  • The way to do good work is to attract clients who push you to do what you do best and know the difference between you and somebody else.

About Clive and Air Conditioned:

Air Conditioned is the Santa Monica-based design office of Clive Piercy. For the previous twenty years, Clive was founder, partner and Creative Director of Ph.D, a studio internationally recognized for work characterized by its appropriateness, character, style and wit.

A|C’s mission is to work together with smart, creative clients, on projects large and small, to produce idea-driven solutions that engage, enrich and resonate. Would you like to work with them?

Early beginnings:

I got a job while I was still in college, a great job at BBC Television in London. I got recommended for the job by the only tutor that I got on well with. It was a very glamorous job, but I realized afterwards that they really only hired me because I was a good soccer player, and I could play for their soccer team.

It’s the truth. The guy said to me, “I’m going to hire you. I really like your attitude, but I don’t particularly like your work.” I was very cocky. I thought I was really something. It was a good awakening.

Apprenticing with one of the greats:

I worked as an assistant there for 2 years for the guy who was generally regarded as the resident genius there. His name, Graham McCallum. And he was fantastic, but he was a lazy devil. He’d done it all really. And so he would give me his work to do, and because he was getting all the best work, as an assistant I was getting better work than all the designers there.

They very quickly made me a graphic designer, and I was actually the youngest designer, but when they made me a designer I went to the bottom of the designer rung. So I was getting worse work as a designer than I was as an assistant. (Laughter.)

Since I was kind of hotheaded, I just said, “I’m done with this. I don’t want to do this. I’m better than this,” that kind of thing. I was brash. I just left.

I’d always wanted to work in print. I kind of stumbled into BBC graphics, just because they offered me the work. I didn’t know anything about film or animation or live action or anything, but I survived fine. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was one of the greatest work experiences I’ve had.

Moving to America:

My wife, Ann Field, and I had previously been to America on a couple of jobs and we thought, “Let’s give America a shot.” You know? We came for six months and we we’ve been here 26 years.

I’d always wanted to come to Los Angeles. I’m a big fan. I tell everyone that I was surprised Los Angeles was in color when I got here. (Chuckling.)

I grew up watching Billy Wilder films and looking at Max Yavno photographs. I liked the notion of Los Angeles in the 40’s. I wanted it to be like James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Nathaniel West and all that.

It’s a very glamorous place for anybody. If you ask most people, they’d like to come to California.

Starting out in Los Angeles:

When I came here, I went to work for Rod Dyer. I went to him because everybody great has worked for Rod. And so from my reputation, he said, “Oh, I’ll hire you. I’ll give you some work if you come over.” I became the creative director there, and stayed for 5 years.

As you know, Rod does entertainment graphics. Over time I realized I was not cut out for that. And so I decided I was going to start my own company, but I didn’t want to do entertainment graphics which kind of cuts out 90% of the work. But I knew I wasn’t right for it.

Thoughts on the dangers of charging too little:

When I worked for Rod, I had a slew of freelance clients. And because I had a full-time job, I was charging my clients virtually nothing. The minute I started my own company, I started charging properly and they all dumped me. (Laughter.) Right off. They all just dumped me. They were using me primarily because I was cheap, and not because I was good. There was another factor in it. It made me realize that you have to make sure that the financial side is in place before you do any work.

Going into business:

Since entertainment wasn’t my preference, I decided to go into business with my partner Michael Hodgson. We formed the company, Ph.D.. We’d known each other from college in England. But, there was no logic or rationale in it. It was just, “Oh, let’s…”

I found an old studio. But I still wasn’t sure I wanted to make the move. So, I went on holiday and said, “If I come back and this studio is still for lease, I’m gonna’ take it.”

New business acquisition at first:

At first, our business came mostly from word of mouth. I had managed to start getting a good reputation by doing good work, and people just referred clients to us.

We had no business plan or anything. But work started coming very quickly and we realized we needed to get a little bit more serious about it. So we consolidated and turned it into a real business. We worked together successfully for about 20 years.

Starting business as Air Conditioned:

After 20 years, Michael and I split up.

I essentially had a mid-life crisis and just did not want to do what I did anymore. We had a biggish company and I realized I’d been the creative director all the time. I basically had done the vast majority of the work and I found myself giving work to designers that I wasn’t proud enough to do myself, just to keep a big office open.

That’s a very typical dilemma that you run into when you become more established. As we grew, so did our staff. I felt that I had lost the me, if you know what I mean. I just stopped being a designer and I was finding myself doing less and less of what I wanted to do. I came to the realization that I really wanted to do something about the types of clients we were getting. I didn’t really want to do more corporate work.

I’d always enjoyed working with other creative companies. That’s really how I became successful, by working with other creative companies. And we were moving away from that. So after 20 years, we drifted apart. He had a family, and was more involved with other things. Besides, our chemistry had changed, and I wanted to see if I could operate in a more enjoyable way.

Thoughts on choosing projects:

By now, I’d been around a long time and lot of good will was being shown towards me from the community. And I really, really love that. I think I’m a popular guy in the business.

I could do a ton of work, now, but I really just want to take on the jobs I feel I’m appropriate for. And I’m able to see it in a slightly clearer light now.

I’m the creative director of a big clothing company, Roxy. So I have that as a massive monthly commitment. And then I’m able to choose the jobs I want to work on, and I have a small group – 5 people. At the moment that’s all I want. I really feel like this is the way. This is what I should be doing for a while.

New business acquisition today:

The fact I have a new company with a new name and a little bit of a new image helps. I call the company Air Conditioned because I want to have a very kind of light touch on the work. I don’t want to be a show off designer.

I’ve done a new website and that seems to be very popular, but I’m not sending out pieces or doing brochures and all that stuff. I feel that’s kind of old hat.

As the creative director at Ph.D., I was on the front end, so I knew all the clients. And a lot of them just followed me when I moved. Also, I’ve never had a problem with repeat work. We never had much attrition, or falling off rate.

Design influences:

Tibor Kalman, influenced my work, for sure. And, more importantly the people who’ve worked through his offices have too. Steven Doyle, for example, is my favorite designer. And we’re good friends. I think there’s a mutual respect there, but I love his work. He’s the one person who I’m most envious of in this business, talent wise.

Also, I‘ve always had a great love of work of Pentagram. When I started being interested in graphic design, it was in the late 60’s, you know, the Fletcher/Forbes/Gill, Robert Brownjohn and all that great classic 60’s English design.

Classic work. Simple, idea-driven work. I loved all that. And I still really respect the integrity of the majority of Pentagram’s work. Paula (Scher) is the embodiment of a great designer whose work continues to develop and inspire.

Favorite accomplishments:

Teaching is a very big part of what I do. I only do it one day a week, but it’s an integral part of my life, and it has fueled my creative soul in a big way.

It’s allowed me to connect with students. I love doing that and it tests me every week. I’ll tell you another thing, in a selfish way, I get to see good students and sometimes they come and work with me. So that’s been great. And, to balance teaching with my work is the thing that I enjoy the most.

Thoughts on doing things differently:

I went into partnership with a friend who was a fellow designer, and neither of us had much business sense. And because I was the “better” designer, Michael said, “Well, let me try and do the business side.” And that ended up being a frustration all around.

I don’t think he particularly would’ve wanted to do that, but he knew he could be better served in that area than being entirely on the design side. So I guess that was a major error, not having much business sense. In the long run, it didn’t hurt us, but it was frustrating.

Other designers may have done better financially than I have, but I still have a nice little house, a beautiful wife, and I think I get great jobs and all of that.

Clive’s Toughest Challenge:

Well, undoubtedly the toughest thing I’ve had to face in life is the loss of my parents back in England, with me being in California. I’m not sure I’ve been able to translate those experiences into positives that I can bring into my business. I do think that I’ve gained a new perspective on what I consider to be important to me. My beautiful wife, the amazing Ann Field, illustrious illustrator and Chair of Illustration at Art Center College of Design is the reason I’ve made it through.

Tips for people just starting out:

If you do really good work, you get good work coming to you. I believe that’s the best thing you can do.

You shouldn’t be thinking, “We’ll do this. We’ll try our best on the next job.” You’ve really got to be turning out good work in order to get it, in order to attract it. And, by definition, that means then that you’ll get good designers coming in your doors who want to work with you. All those things help.

Thoughts on getting good clients:

I would say the same thing. Just do good work. I do feel that that is the key.

It took me a long time to realize this, because I used to think that the way to do good work was to find a client that you could force into accepting the things you want to do for them.

I used to joke that the client brief should be, “Give me a logo and make it look like I spent a lot of money on it.” That was it. And I realized that there are plenty of people that can do that, but it wasn’t for me.

It took me a long time to realize that the way to do good work is to attract clients that know the difference, who push you to do what you do best and know the difference between you and somebody else. That’s been the most enjoyable thing. It’s the most worrying too, because we all have egos and anxieties and everything. And you just keep wondering, “Can I do it this time around?” But that’s what keeps me going. I love that.

I’m looking for clients that are better than me.

Clive’s thoughts on careers:

You really need to identify who you want to work with. I don’t think you should start your own business too early. There are many pitfalls that you’ll go through. As I said, I teach at Art Center College of Design. I see all the graduating students and they still need a lot of mentoring. They need to go to work for a really good art director for a while and see how it’s done. That’s what I would urge and not to diverge too much from where they think they should be.

First off, they should know who they want to work for, and I find most of them don’t. The majority of them have never heard of the good people. And so you need to identify who you think you’d be right for and they need to bone up on what those people do and then really, really target the kinds of places they want to work. Then, they should gear their portfolio towards that. And I don’t see that. They’re often like lemmings pushed off a cliff most of the time.

Additional Thoughts:

I tell all students that the first day when I’m teaching them, “There are already enough graphic designers in the world. We do not need you.”

“But the difference is there aren’t enough great graphic designers. And that should be your aim.” I like saying that. I feel like that gets them into the spirit. It charges them up a little bit, most of them, if they can be bothered to get out of bed.


This article is published by Will Sherwood | The Sherwood Group |Website Design | Graphic Design | Marketing Communications: The Sherwood Group has over 30 years of experience working with all sorts of companies, small and large. Our clients range from entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 firms, in nearly every business sector, from across the street to around the world (and yes, even Europe, China, and South America). Our goal is to create advertising,  graphic design, website design, and marketing communication that still looks fresh and relevant 10-15 years later. Our mission is to stir your imagination and leave your competition shaken and wondering,  Now what do we do?”  We are located in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

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  • By Heidi Parr Kerner 09 Aug 2008

    It’ s not what course you’ ve taken that’ s the big deal, it’ s what you’ ve done with it that counts. When reading the courses and books by copywriters, they rarely, if ever attribute their success to university learning or the years spent in a cubicle… It’s from getting out and among people. Clive Piercy is one of those sorts of people. Thank you for your ongoing work helping people achieve greater success, Will Sherwood!

  • By Exploring the hidden artists 04 Nov 2011

    I love this thought from Clive: “You really need to identify who you want to work with. I don’t think you should start your own business too early.”

  • By Emily Fletcher 01 Dec 2011

    Great interview with Clive Piercy!

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