Profile: Neil Hirst

Christian Davis meets Neil Hirst, design director of 3D branding for packaging design specialists Seymourpowell

Nothing in my life was ever planned,” was the answer to my first question to top drinks packaging designer Neil Hirst. Quiet, very laid back, the 52-year-old comes across as someone who is his own man but also a man who strolls through life unfazed by most things.

Yet asked if he is lucky, Hirst responds: “Anyone who knows me would say that I am incredibly unlucky – the lightening rod of bad luck, you could say. I grew up in house number 13. Although I am not superstitious, I have wondered if this may have anything to do with it.

“At school I was good at drawing so, typically I went into art and design. My father was an architect. In fact, the school was one of his buildings.” In those days it was probably a prerequisite to be able to draw. With the advent of Apple Macs and computer-aided design (CAD), the ability to draw may now be unnecessary.

“I was not satisfied with 2D (two dimensional). I needed 3D. I like problem solving,” he says.

It was while studying at Manchester in the UK that he got into product design. “Then, there were about five or six courses. Now there are probably 50. There were 12 people in my course and some were engineers. But there is the aesthetic side. But even after three years I was not convinced as to what I wanted to do.”

He dabbled in textile design, then kit cars. “I realised in my heart that I wanted to do product design. I was in Manchester still – I decided I needed to be in London.”

He worked for various agencies – Applied Products, Grey Matter, Hall & Co. This was still in the days of drawing boards and pencils. The latter two companies merged but, like so many other mergers, the companies each had a different ethos and culture.

Hirst found himself wanting to work for the ‘other company’, Grey Matter. He fell out with Hall and, what with all the internal politics, he found himself out of a job.

But sometimes good can come out of bad. Hirst found himself at Planet Design in west London working on Unilever products. “What was interesting about the packaging design was the challenge of integrating
delivery systems, such as a spray that did not use an aerosol,” he says.

Hirst says he still was not sure what he wanted to do. But along the way he had got married and his wife was pregnant. “I have never been fond of London and I did not want to bring up children in London.”

He went down to Somerset. New house, new car. Then the recession hit and the office was closed down. Hirst was stuck. 

He gravitated back to Manchester and did some lecturing and some freelance work. He returned to London but “hated every minute of it”. The owner of the agency was in the midst of a personal crisis and the office atmosphere was “poisonous”.