7 tips for design success from Sir Paul Smith

Renowned fashion designer Sir Paul Smith recently shared wisdom concerning any and all designers at the D&AD Festival.


Paul Smith is about as ordinary a British name as you can get (at least half as ordinary as that peak-of-ordinariness, placeholder name John Smith), but Paul Smith is an extraordinary man.

In an inspiring talk at this year’s D&AD Festival, we discover how one distinctive, distinguished fashion designer forged his unremarkable beginnings and identity into a household, global brand. 

Here, we’ve cherry-picked tips from Sir Paul Smith’s down-to-earth, illuminating and absolutely packed-out talk that will inspire all creatives, whatever their discipline.

Image: Flickr/Wikimedia Commons/Huhbakker

Hard work pays       

It's not often a cycling accident can be said to be a good thing, but the fashion world should be glad that one bike-mad 17-year-old found himself hospitalised after smashing into the back of a car, met a bunch of friends to soften the ward hours, and later shared a pint with them in a pub frequented by art students who he got chatting to. 

It's hard to imagine the colour-loving, art-collecting, internationally known Paul Smith discovering the creatives he would come to love from a bunch of students, but we all have to start somewhere and Paul had particularly modest beginnings (and has remained modest since).

 “Effort is free of charge," says Paul. Gorgeous, well-crafted finished products are designed to dazzle, but Paul doesn't let them blind anyone from his modest beginnings and the long journey from a Nottingham pub to speaking at D&AD. 

Image: Nic Taylor via Flickr. Paul Smith Exhibition, Design Museum, London. 


Within two years, Paul was cramming his designs into his new shop - 3mx3m, windowless and only open on Fridays and Saturdays. After all, even brilliant creatives have their rent to pay (even if 50p/week sounds pitiful now) and Paul had a full-time job the rest of the week. You have to "balance your dream and the reality of what you have to do," says Paul.

Eventually, he crafted a collection and took it to Paris. “I waited there and nobody came. The next day, nobody came. The next day, nobody came. The day after that, one person came,” he said with a smile.  

When you start out, the chances are it won’t go your way. Paul could have given up, but wouldn’t have the fashion empire spanning 66 countries he has today. 

Image: Thomas Lowe via Flickr. Paul Smith advert. 

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Get your hands dirty

When Paul first started in fashion, as well as taking tailoring lessons in the evening, he was coached by his then girlfriend and fashion student, Pauline Denyer - and his now wife and driving force behind his empire, Lady Pauline Smith - who more than made up for his lack of formal training when it came to quality, proper cut and construction.

Technical prowess, of course, applies to all design. “You can’t do it without doing it,” says Paul. Though it’s easy to progress in the industry and use fewer bog standard tools such as Photoshop or even a pencil, keeping in touch with them keeps you on the ball.“Make things properly,” Paul says. 

Image: Nic Taylor via Flickr. Paul Smith Exhibition, Design Museum, London. 


“Sometimes it’s better to use a watercolour or pencil in tandem with a computer,” says Paul. The smudged pink of a watercolour or the accidental pencil line can spark off something new. Mistakes should be cherished, not avoided – and they’re harder to make on a computer. Three dimensions can also give a lot: using yarn instead of computer prints for colour palettes, as Paul Smith always does, means it’s “3D and it reflects”. 

Image: Simon Collison via Flickr. Some of Paul Smith's shops. 


Keep your eyes peeled

Put your hands up if you’ve Googled ‘how to get ideas’, ‘how to be inspired’ or simply ‘help I’ve run out creativity because the world is a black hole of nothingness’. Well, I don't think Paul has. 

“You can take inspiration from everything. If you can’t, then please look again,” says Paul. His talk was absolutely brimming with ideas he’s gleaned from anywhere and everywhere– but travel and architecture in particular. Lifting the woody browns and faded greens from a beach hut can transform a dull jumper. Oh, and that Lithuanian church is clearly a striped shirt.

And his office is just as inspiring and engaging. Paul’s workspace is, as he puts it, “pretty full of stuff” and, as I would put it, absolutely jam-packed with crazy colours, global design specimens and plenty of books. 

Image: Thomas Lowe via Flickr. Paul Smith advert. 

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“You can find inspiration in everything. If you can’t then you’re not looking properly.” 

You don’t need to travel or even have a cool office to be inspired: just go outside and absorb the mish-mash of graffiti battling for space, the textures and colours of brickwork and, of course, the architecture – good, bad, plain, interesting. “Don’t just look. Absorb what you see." 

Not that a suit cut to make you look like a lamppost or a wall would be any good. Nor would ripping off patterns from other cultures. “Look at things you think you can use, but not exactly as they are”. 

Even the blue of a Chinese security guard’s uniform inspired one collection – “but I called it Yves Klein blue, not security guard blue,” he joked. “Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.”

 Image: Nigel Paine via Flickr. Paul Smith skirt.


Be different

Understanding the industry is crucial. Paul believes that “the job changes you. You never change the job.” To sell clothes, Paul had to change what he sold in his first shop: streamlining his odd, unique creations into more sellable pieces. 

Don’t forget, though, that Paul is the designer who hinted coined the phrase ‘classic with a twist’ and doesn’t shy away from putting his own stamp on things – sometimes literally, when it comes to his stamp-inspired union jack collection.

"What exists already exists," says Paul. “In a stuffed world where everything looks the same, individualism has never been so important” and, as a designer, you must “make room to break the rules”. Paul is quick to point out that he’s not advocating becoming a wild, joyriding, murderous criminal – just an interesting designer.

Image: Elijay via Flickr. 


Humour is a wonderful way to surprise people. As well as sprinking a healthy dose in his talk, Paul’s work is well seasoned with irreverent fun that reflects his gentle, enchanting nature of not taking himself too seriously.

Not that all this fooling around doesn't create serious business. Rocco the Rabbit might not have the physique of a usual catwalk model (in fact, I doubt he'd walk anywhere near cats if he had a choice), but he hopped right to it when leading Paul's Autumn/Winter 2015 campaign.

And Paul's 'screw you' pink store (shown) livened up the grey flats of LA enough to become one of the most Instagrammed walls in the city. But nothing quite beats Paul Smith's ingenious coat of arms, which he chose when knighted in 2000. You might notice it's emblazoned with 'never assume'. Read on for why. 

Image: iStock. Paul Smith store, Los Angeles.  

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Never assume

"Never assume: these two words have helped me so much and saved me time, money, effort, heartbreak." Not a surprise, then, that Paul has designed a load of products under that motto. Right, but what does it mean?

"Check it out, consider it, think about it." Never assume everything is okay (have you checked that crucial parcel you've ordered is coming?), never assume you'll be able to do it (have you definitely checked you have time before saying 'yes' to that demand?") and never assume that you can't do something without looking at a project with a fresh set of eyes. “Give yourself time to breathe.”

Image: Robert Sheie via Flickr. 


Be nice

Just like you should never assume you have time for yet another project (sometimes it's best to choose quality over quantity), and you should give yourself a break, you should do the same to others. 

“Learn to love what you do, learn to say please and thank you, learn to ask not tell." Design is all about communication - and that means knowing when "to listen instead of talk, be interested instead of interesting". 

Image: Marlinchen via Flickr. 


Never think you’ve ‘made it’

At no point did Paul ever put his feet up and order enough DVD box sets to fill the rest of his life, thinking 'ah, I've made it'.

First, he doesn't seem to think there's such thing. Second, he is always looking to the future: "no one cares how good you used to be," he says (leaving no room for misunderstanding there). If you think you've made it, "someone in the fast lane will overtake". Know what competitors are up to, of course, but then speed to the "left or the right of them", so you're always doing something different. 

If anyone has made it though, I can with certainty say it's Paul. And, in a world that values money and ambition, that Paul’s quirky, down-to-earth approach took him to the horizon and beyond is inspiration to us all - whether fashion designer, graphic designer or bloke down the street. 

Image: Jeremy Brooks via Flickr. 

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