Interview with BNG Mentor Sami Lill
When it comes to design “doing the safe thing is actually the most risky thing you can do” says Sami Lill, founder of award-winning Hamilton based creative agency Uber Super Duper.
The creative director, who counts Sony and IKEA amongst his clients alongside numerous local businesses, stresses the importance of taking risks and connecting with people in order to stand out in today’s competitive landscape.
We caught up with Sami, a judge and mentor for the first annual BNG x Goslings Annual Wrapping Paper Design Competition, to discuss how young designers can get their foot in the door and why mentorship and practical experience are key to a career in the creative field.
BNG: Uber Super Duper is a multi-disciplinary creative agency. Could you please tell us a little bit about the company and what you do?
SL: Uber Super Duper is a creatively focused, strategically driven, modern version of an ad agency. Gone are the days when brands can simply make a few generic print ads, basic web banners and a couple of spots on TV. Today we have a fragmented media market, where consumer touchpoints can be anything – the list of ingredients on the back of your bottle, your monthly newsletter, the clothing design of your staff, the wall by your parking lot, the look of your delivery vans, your packaging, as well as all the traditional touchpoints. It’s all fair game and it takes confidence on behalf of a client to dare to change things up to stand out.
We work with strategy, design and communication (as well as many related fields – like murals, animation, sculpture, digital, video, installations), to help brands stand out in a today’s crowded marketplace. As competition has grown in Bermuda, it has shifted things from long term monopolies to a dog eat dog world. Today it’s a zero sum game – where one brand’s gain is another’s loss. This means it’s even more important to view the process of storytelling and marketing from the right perspective to start with – the consumers point of view.
Traditionally clients tend to simply see things from their own viewpoint – a fundamental marketing mistake, where they don’t spend enough effort to understand their audience’s needs. Instead, they consider their story from the inside out. Yet the consumer today is actively choosing brands that share their mindset and can engage them on a human level. This is why most marketing efforts fail and are wasted opportunities. The customary, bland corporate mumbo jumbo is not fooling anyone, yet it is often what the board of directors feels comfortable approving. In this respect, doing the ‘safe’ thing is actually the most risky thing a brand can do.
At Uber Super Duper we identify the unique selling proposition and use psychology and insights to find opportunities to connect with people, and to deliver an emotional message in the most creative way we can. Ultimately, the consumer only changes their behavior through emotional triggers. Information alone makes for very ineffective and forgettable communication.
BNG: You originally set up Uber Super Duper after moving from London to Sweden. The company then moved to Bermuda several years ago. How does the design landscape differ in each of these locations and in what ways has this influenced you?
SL: In Sweden we worked with big clients – like Sony and IKEA. It afforded us the luxury of bigger resources and bigger, more global productions. Pushing the envelope is easier when the is more time to experiment and when the clients are more experienced in buying creativity.
In Bermuda we naturally have a smaller market and more limited scope. But we are excited to have gotten some great clients on our roster, who value the creative output and appreciate going against the grain. It can be strangely liberating to have to adapt to restrictions. It forces one to think outside the box and use creative leverage instead.
BNG: You were on the selection committee for the first annual Goslings X BNG Holiday Wrapping Paper Design Competition. What were the judges looking for?
SL: The judges looked for a mix of suitably strong graphics and good branding. Wrapping paper is a traditionally bland area, but one that is rife for innovation. It was a tough call, and there were many good designs.
BNG: What made the two winning designs stand out?
SL: Understandably, we had many similar entries, using the famous seal icon to rather similar effect. The winning entries stood out because they had a combination of meeting the brief and being produced in a way that was suitable for the occasion.
BNG: Do you have any tips for people who may be interested in applying for the competition next year?
SL: For people entering next year, I’d say go big. Don’t just go for the obvious solutions, try something different. You know many others will probably go for the same obvious idea as you – and they’ll probably execute it better than you. Fight your own battle.
We had several designs that were based on strong ideas, but in some cases the production skills weren’t quite there. There are lots of free resources online, that can guide the production of a design – YouTube tutorials, online forums, masterclasses, etc. If you can afford it, Photoshop and Illustrator are great canvases for making something awesome.
BNG: What do designers need to take into account when designing for a specific client?
SL: In general, a good starting point for designers is to think of the outcome first and work backwards. What do I want to achieve? How can I position myself differently against the competitors? What would make me stand out to customers? What would I as a human being like to see? What engages me and makes me laugh?
Surprisingly often, I meet designers who don’t really like their own work. They ashamedly skim through a portfolio, prefixing their own work with an excuse, saying something like “Well, this is what the client wanted…” Or “We were told to do what the competitors did”.
The truth is that if it doesn’t tickle you, it probably won’t tickle anyone else either. This is where gut instinct and brutal honesty comes in. At the end of the day, it’s our job as designers to not only come up with a great solution, but also to persuade the client to buy into it. Many designers simply give up too soon, when faced with resistance from a risk-averse or unsure client.
BNG: How do you and your team approach a brief?
SL: We have an unapologetically opportunistic approach. As restless, curious thinkers we do a lot of talking, experimenting, research and sketching. We try hard and fail a lot. Then we fail better. We spend the time to explore. We try hard to generate a large quantity of ideas – because there is nothing quite as destructive as settling on the first solution that fits the bill. Good really is the enemy of great.
Details matter. In a world where the consumer is inundated with an endless stream of brand messages and mechanically scrolls past 99% of content – you really need something simple and impactful to make them stop.
Technology is great. The digital world is truly mesmerizing, but it requires a new kind of finesse in crafting. Granted, it can make good things grow faster. But it also makes a bad story worse (look at how a single bad online review can break a business). It really pays for brands to get this right.
BNG: Design is the meeting point between art and commerce. How does good design strike that balance?
SL: In communication, design is just the vehicle for the idea, for conveying an emotion or feeling. Most of the time it’s simply a means to an end. It’s the strength of the idea that ultimately resonates and builds connection and loyalty. For a very long time, design in itself has been put on a pedestal and has been used as a substitute for solid, strategic thinking.
The most valuable thing creative agencies can ever give clients are good ideas (which, of course, need to be executed in suitably good ways).
BNG: Part of the prize for the winner of the 18-25 category is a mentorship with BNG and Goslings. You will be working with them as one of the mentors. Why is mentorship so important?
SL: Mentorship is really the bridge between theory and practice. I’ve met countless Bermudian graduates who are back in town, bright eyed and bushy tailed, but who have quickly realized how limited their local creative options are. Art college and university are vital boosts of inspiration and provides impetus and time to build a first portfolio. But without practical experience of working on real life briefs, processes and productions, it can be very hard to get a foot in the door. It can be a rude awakening. And it often pushes new creatives into other employment.
Which is why a good mentor can be invaluable. Through honest advice and empathy, they can cut to the chase about how to stand out and what skills to hone. At Uber Super Duper we get many people contacting us about work, and we always try to make time to help others. We occasionally take on interns, to provide a real-life opportunity to gain insight and practical experience. The good news is that the ones that have the skillsets and mindsets will do well.
BNG: Have you had any mentors during your career? Who are they and how have they influenced you?
SL: After graduating art college, I did internships and placements in a number of top agencies before I got my first job in London. Getting the chance to work on live briefs, and to observe the process from start to finish made a huge impression on me. I learned the craft in these work scenarios.
In London ad agencies the Creative Directors and senior creatives were our de facto in-house mentors, often taking us under their wing and throwing challenges our way. How we responded, how hungry we were, was entirely up to us. The moral of the story here is – when you get a real opportunity, jump into it with energy and passion.
BNG: Why is collaboration such a key part of design?
SL: Strategic design and problem solving requires a particular mindset. Working with likeminded others is key to bounce ideas, and to experiment with various angles. The reason why agencies use creative teams, rather than individuals, is that 1 + 1 = 3. Often the process means we build upon the ideas of others. Without that ongoing, spontaneous input, the final idea might never have happened. Besides, being creative in a vacuum just isn’t as much fun!
I wish the very best for the next generation of creative thinkers. The rules have changed dramatically and it’s vital for their success to be open minded and remain opportunistic. If anyone wants advice, my door is always open.
Find out more about Uber Super Duper here.