A design ethos that touched everyone’s lives – Fitch chairman Tim Greenhalgh remembers Rodney Fitch
Tim Greenhalgh, chairman and chief creative officer at Fitch, pays tribute to the late retail design visionary Rodney Fitch, who passed away at the weekend.
Rodney was a truly great man and someone to whom we, the global design kinsfolk, owe a huge debt of gratitude.
He formed Fitch in 1972 and, in doing so, created a design firm that was to be at the vanguard of what we now call the design industry.
The portents for a new creative enterprise in London were far from ideal. This was the year of the miner’s strike and three-day week in Britain – top UK tax rates were at 75 per cent and the average US salary stood at $7,600. There was little sign either of the information age; the hottest technology story was the birth of the pocket calculator and the death of the slide rule. The only home video game to make it to the market was called Pong and there was no retail revolution.
But despite this backcloth of economic uncertainty, political unrest and technological inhibition, the new Fitch design company bravely announced its presence with a series of bold projects and fresh creative thinking.
From its expansive department stores of the 1980s to smart global brands in the 2000s, Rodney and his firm always instinctively understood that being popular didn’t mean pandering to the lowest common denominator – there was a fine line to tread in leading popular taste – and that authentic experiences would always win out over ersatz ones
He created a firm that was one of the first multi-disciplinary consultancies providing a haven for remarkable talent, whether that was designing fashion stores for Topshop, seating for Heathrow Airport, shavers for Boots or the identity for the Liberal Democrat Party. Working at Fitch and with Rodney was a pleasure, not at all like going to work. It was, and is, the most professional playground I have ever had the pleasure to spend time in, and this mood was set from the top – he sought expression and ambition from everyone that stepped over the Fitch threshold.
A creative visionary and one of the most charming men you could ever wish to meet. He was both irascible and unbelievably tolerant in equal measure – I would often hear him bemoaning the queues at passport control in Heathrow as a ‘national disgrace’ and in the same breath describe ways the layout and circulation in the duty free area could be improved.
He loved designers, creating a culture for them that has endured over many years. One that celebrated endeavour and the determination to change the world for the better. We were always encouraged to get ‘out there’ and read the signs of the street, not remain in an insular creative cocoon. A long-term interest in understanding patterns of consumer behaviour – what makes people tick – created insights on which imaginative and robust design proposals could be built.
Rodney was someone who believed strongly in the principles of customer centric design (a phrase he would, of course, never use) and hated it when people/clients referred to them as ‘punters’ – he believed they deserved much more respect than that and importantly great design. Not for one moment under his leadership was our purpose to design ‘pretty shops’ but rather search tirelessly for ways design could make people's lives better, and as he said himself: “I have always felt I had a mission in life to deliver to ordinary people better places to shop."
Rodney distrusted the ‘expert’ and advised us all to follow our emotions long before it was fashionable in business circles to do so. Indeed one could find the idea of emotional intelligence embodied in Fitch schemes long before it was written up in management textbooks.
His work and influence can be seen across many continents – there are few UK high street brands that he has not influenced but he also spent much time in Europe, America and across Asia advising both established and emerging retailers on the best ways to create distinct shopping experiences.
A keen cricketer, fisherman, horseback rider in Arizona, the list goes on... spending time with him was an enriching and eye opening experience – but as a designer he saw things in the world of brand and retail that others simply missed and he had a way of expressing his ideas that others fell in love with.
Rodney Fitch always subscribed to the doctrine of the path of least resistance to the marketplace, a democratic design philosophy of the good things in life open to all. Along the way, we have been entertained, intrigued and rewarded by the diverse customer experiences that he has created. You wouldn’t have predicted it back in 1972.
‘Rodders’ will be missed greatly.
Professor Rodney Fitch CBE
1938 – 2014
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