In Conversation With Scott McNamee, Design Director

Scott McNamee, Design Director

8 February 2021

Kendra RogersHead of Insight & Strategy 375 6465

I know what you’re thinking: everyone loves music. And yes, that is true, but Scott looooves music – and his sophisticated palette for all things musical is both awe-inspiring (how does he fit all those band names into his brain!?) and useful (he takes his keen understanding of many different genres and uses them to make our creative outputs better).

Our conversation started with the basics— Scott’s role at psLondon and why he loves it.

SM: I've been Design Director for a number of years, more or less from the agency’s inception. Some people would probably ask, why haven’t I pushed to become a Creative Director or something equivalent. And I guess the answer is that I love being hands on. Once you move up into that kind of management role, you end up spending less and less time on actual design work. I guess this is the most senior position I can be in while still being hands on. I kind of stole that from Wolff Olins—that’s how they describe their Design Directors. Of course, I also oversee our amazing team of creatives. I make sure we create great concepts, great layouts, great typography, and great design. Typography is a particular interest of mine; I guess I’d describe myself as having a wide range of creative skills and interests rather than being a specialist in any one area.

Of course, one of Scott’s creative skills AND interests is music. I asked him to explain his history with this creative outlet and how it’s been a constant in his life.

SM: Well, I’ve been an enthusiast pretty much from birth. My parents love music: my mum’s a massive David Bowie fan and my dad was always into prog rock. I grew up with bands like Genesis, back when Peter Gabriel was the front man and Phil Collins was the drummer – and let me tell you, he is one awesome drummer! There were always records around the house and when we went on family car trips we'd always be like singing along to things like the Beatles, Madonna, and David Bowie—stuff like that.

I started out playing in bands when I was fifteen or sixteen. Over time you end up naturally drifting apart—people have families or move away, or have other priorities—but I’ve recently got back into creating music after a hiatus of five or six years. This year felt like a good time to get back into writing and recording, be that on guitar, piano or electronics.

Scott’s too modest: he’s probably the closest thing we have to a resident rock star. I certainly don’t know of anyone else at psLondon who’s been in a band, let alone multiple bands. What strikes me about his relationship with music is that it’s multifaceted: his taste is eclectic, both as a maker and listener. I was interested to know more about how music influences his work as a designer.

SM: A few days ago, I was reading an article on Pitchforkwhich was about how your brain rewards you for listening to music that you already know and love. As I read that I thought, actually, my brain doesn’t seem to be wired like that; in fact, my brain rewards me for seeking out new music and new sounds. I get that sort of dopamine hit if I find something new that I think is great, and then share it with my friends.

Every month since the start of lockdown, I’ve made a themed playlist, adding one song to it each day, which is a good way to get me out of my comfort zone. I’d like to think that it feeds into my creativity as well— I don’t really have a set way that I think about concepts, or how I design and layout or create branding. I always try to come up with different approaches, instead of sticking with the same “comfortable” styles.

“It’s that thrill, the thrill of experiencing new things, that drives me forwards.”

It struck me that Scott is constantly looking around, gaining inspiration from a variety of places. In our business, if we stick only to what we know, we stagnate and risk becoming irrelevant. I asked him if he felt that was a fair assessment.

SM: Yeah, I think so. It’s especially the case with design. Tapping into culture for inspiration is crucial, but if you stay within the design space you risk forming a kind of feedback loop: as designers, we tend to use resources like Designspiration to spark creativity, but I've noticed that the same kind of imagery and styles end up cropping up a lot. If you’ve got every designer going onto a platform and posting the stuff that they like, then you’re inevitably going to end up with a common language across brands – and I don’t think that echo chamber is good for our industry or our clients.

“It’s important to try and get out of the design industry and draw from other influences, whether that’s music or art, or a counterculture of some kind.”

Having a seven-year-old son helps me with that. I’ve formed new relationships with music that I might not necessarily have kind of come across. He’ll listen to songs like “Old Town Road”, which was a big, big hit on TikTok, and to artists like Skrillex, who I wouldn't necessarily have looked at because of some preconceived notion of who they are. Young people are a good barometer of the current cultural Zeitgeist and it’s important to be receptive to that too. It’s all about experiencing different things.

How about when design and music collide? We discussed the visual elements of music, be that videos or album covers, as well as the stories that underpin artists.

SM: Music was really my first introduction to the world of brands. If you think about it, a lot of bands have their own story, their own brand ethos, values and forms of expression, not to mention the design language behind their logos, merchandise, videos, and album covers. Bands like the Beatles, Metallica, Blur, you know, they’re instantly recognisable. If you take a band like Depeche Mode, for instance, they partnered up with Anton Corbijn who ensured that everything from their photography through to their music videos, through to how the clothes they wear feels on brand. And people buy into that: fans are incredibly loyal, especially to the artists that stay true to who they are.

I stopped myself from asking Scott to name his favourite band—it’s an unfair question, especially for someone with such a range of musical interests. Instead, I asked what his favourite albums are to listen to while he’s creating.

SM: It depends what I’m working on. If it relates to concepts and campaigns, then I’m normally drawn to something more ambient or classical that can wash over me, rather than drawing my attention away from the matter at hand. There’s an album by a guy called Abel Mogard, and it's called “We Are Passing Through Silently”, which is a pretentious kind of title, but I find this guy interesting: he seems to be a fictitious kind of creation. He says that he grew up in Serbia in the 1970s working in a metal factory, and he’s now outputting music in his old age – incredibly contemporary tones and music. So, I'm pretty sure it’s a total fabrication, an alter ego that creates the desired ‘brand world’.

If I’m in more of a design mode, I need a bit more energy from the music I listen to. Then it might be something like Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”, which has more drive, even aggression, to it. Equally, I might go for something fun and poppy like Erasure—something that has a bit of energy to it that I can match my mood to.

Off the back of our discussion, Scott pulled together a couple of playlists just for you… There’s one specifically for thinking and one for designing – and if you find either of them titillating or your brain rewards you, you can drop Scott a line at for more music repartee!

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