in conversation with richard seymour

19th January 2015

Interview in association with Richard's appearance at the Sleep Event, the leading European Hotel Design Conference and the European Hotel Design Awards (21st-22nd November 2012, London)

1. What are emotional ergonomics and how do they fit into your vision for a new world order?

The concept of "emotional ergonomics" recognises that the functionality of an object is both physical and emotional, and that these aspects are equally relevant to its value. For example, as our favourite pair of jeans becomes more distressed with age, we grow more attached to them. So as designers, we need to determine how the appearance and behaviour of something factors into our emotional connection with it. This is especially interesting to consider when this product is intangible, such as service delivery, a website that appeals on an emotional level, or the ambience felt within a hotel. It's the little intuitive touches that are supremely important.

The "new world order" is essentially the way in which we appreciate what is around us. With the viral nature of today's digital communications, the credo has become "if you lie you die". Advertising claims no longer sway us the way they did 30 years ago; now it's the opinions of those around us - via Twitter, TripAdvisor, blogs, etc...- which shape our truths. We are back to the Middle Ages in the way we communicate now. If the blacksmith was crap in the village, everyone knew about it - except that now the "village" is actually the world. Truth is the new social currency, and the more the world's collective consciousness validates it, the higher its worth. Of course this is critically important in the hospitality industry - getting a hotel's emotional ergonomics right is what will determine its perceived value, and therefore its reputation.

2. What are some examples of how service, product and communication will converge in the 21st Century?

A brilliant example is the Nest learning thermostat developed by a team of former Apple employees. Its wifi-enabled technology self-adjusts according to the usage patterns of those living in a home, raising and lowering room temperatures based upon past and current data. Calibrations will also be determined by Nest's external communications, for example, with a weather station that advises of upwind temperature changes approaching from 20 miles away, which then triggers the fine-tuning of a home's temperature. It can also be controlled via a smart phone, allowing for one-off adjustments, and its settings can be programmed online. We'll be seeing much more prescient technology such as Nest in the years to come.

3. How do you see design as a catalyst for change - both in general and also specifically in the hotel industry?

Change is stimulated not just by a product's design, but rather by the act of designing - the process of understanding how to best satisfy people's physical and emotional needs and then creating something new. This may not be the cheapest or most convenient solution. However, a feature that is utterly compelling - for instance, an incredibly comfortable bed in a hotel room - leads people to tell others about it because their experience was so delightful. Change starts by convincing clients that this utterly compelling element is where they can make money. It's looking at the performance-to-cost ratio and giving clients the best that is possible for their investment.

4. Who are the "young" and "very young" groups and what are we learning from their behaviours?

There are no exact socio-demographics for these age groups, but in general the "young" are those under 20-25 years old who grew-up in a world with internet access, and the "very young" are children around the age of 7 or 8 who already have a strong command of digital products and services. The internet is not a "thing", it is a "how"- a means for satisfying a need. Yet the degree to which new digital applications are integrated into our daily routines goes hand-in-hand with society's comfort levels. Facebook successfully combines our anthropological proclivity for social interaction with the internet. On the other hand, look at Siri, the iPhone's speech recognition feature; those who use it tend to do so in private, as it feels foolish in public. By tracking the behaviours of the young and very young, we can see what activities feel comfortable for them having known no other way of living. If anthropology can catch-up with technological inventions, then the world will accept them because they can offer so many benefits.

5. The seemingly infinite number of choices brought about a digitally connected world can feel overwhelming. How is good design humanising technology and encouraging face-to-face interactions?

Good design understands people's emotional needs and fulfills them - but it's not encouraging face-to-face communications. Of course the digital revolution doesn't remove our fundamental need for person-to-person connections though. The way this is manifested through technology can be problematic: we don't want to have a discussion with someone at a call centre halfway around the world who is trying to sell us insurance. But on the plus side, the young have embraced group conversations via texts, tweets, Facebook, etc...; their natural inclination is to be involved simultaneously with more people. They have an increased tendency for what I like to call "side streaming", or composite communications in which a person's focus is divided. This is actually altering the anatomy of their brain's hippocampus - technology is changing how we function as human beings. At the same time, there's been an increase in demand for luxury holidays where there are no mobile and broadband connections. Some people are feeling the need to "defrag" their brains from the whirlwind of technology that envelops their daily lives.

6. Which of your designs are you most proud of and why?

I can't really pick a favourite. In fact, the act of creating something can sometimes completely exhaust my interest in it. Designing is one of the most intimate things we can do as a human being. I am proudest of our unique process for creating "the new" - being able to accurately deliver something into the future that doesn't exist yet. I tried to add-up the total number of all the new things we've created over the last 30 years; I'm not sure exactly how many this is, but it's in the thousands.

7. If you weren't a founder of Seymourpowell, what else would you be doing now?

I'd probably still be doing what I do now. The legacy of our work over the last 30 years runs the gamut from spaceships to kettles. This has rewarded me with a wide "bandwidth" - a "helicopter view" of where the world is going. A person can't research the future, but if you are a collaborator in creating it within a 5-10 year perspective, you are privy to the privileged insights shared only with those who are part of the process. I've always been fascinated with trying to figure out the shape of things to come.