This is how I work… give or take
I’ve read a few of these and decided to have a stab at my own. If you’re reading this, please share yours!
- London and Colchester, UK
- Current Gig:
- Lead Designer at dxw digital
- Current mobile device:
- iPhone X
- Current computer:
- MacBook Pro 13"
- One word that best describes how you work:
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today
When I was 14, I wanted to be a veterinarian. School was a pretty rubbish establishment in a former mining/cotton mill town in Greater Manchester. The headmaster got caught dipping into school funds to pay for a Lotus sports car. One day my biology teacher took me aside and said I just wasn’t academic enough to be a vet. I agreed with her.
By the time I left school, music – playing the guitar in particular – was my everything. I did a part-time college course in sound engineering, rang around dozens of recording studios in Manchester and eventually got myself a gig as a tape operator (aka tea and butties executive).
When that came to and end, I got a job in a record shop, which I ended up managing. One night I was hanging out at a friend’s house while he was doing his college homework. He studied graphic design, and was designing the artwork for a pizza box. I thought it looked like much more fun than flogging Take That cassette singles and keeping kids from nicking t-shirts.
I hastily assembled a portfolio — that featured several pieces borrowed from friends — and took it to an interview to join the BTEC ND Advertising Design course at Wigan College. I’m certain the tutor knew the work was not entirely my own, but I think he was a) impressed with my desire to blag my way onto the course, and b) needed to get some bodies in.
The course was great and I got some valuable work experience at the incredibly swanky McCann Erickson agency. I followed the ND with an HND in Graphic Design & Communication, where things got serious. The HND differed to the BA in that the classroom was run like a studio, and the emphasis was very much on making things and building a portfolio.
In the mid-90s, graphic design was one of the most oversubscribed courses in the UK which made getting a job in the industry hard. Over the course of the next two years, I did a few jobs to pay the bills; entomologist, barperson, deck chair attendant (living in Bournemouth for the summer, sleeping on a floor and paying £10 a week rent while cashing a council cheque each Friday lunchtime). I also made it to the final round of interviews to become an RSPCA inspector.
I was happy but realised the four years I spent studying were increasingly looking like a wasted effort. Despite several knock-backs, I decided it was time to barge my way into the design industry. At the tail end of 1999 I eventually got a job with a small agency in Colchester, had a fun couple of years and made some friends for life.
From there I moved to an agency that had a team of seven when I started, and 40+ when I left eight years later. I got to work on a huge variety of things including newspaper, outdoor, radio and TV ads. I taught myself how to use a pro video camera and editing software and we made interactive DVDs (2006!) and later, video for the web.
I learned how to turn my own static designs into HTML and CSS, and made my first Wordpress blog. I joined that company as a middleweight designer and worked my way up to creative director, managing a team of 13 designers, artworkers and developers.
After the global financial crisis of 2008, things took a bit of a hit and in 2010 I was one of a few people made redundant. I decided to go freelance and work exclusively doing interaction design and front-end development. I spent a few years jobbing my way around agencies, startups and publishing companies, all the while getting more into human-centred design.
I enjoyed the variety that freelancing brought, but I longed to do work with meaning; work with a positive social outcome. Through a chance exchange on Twitter, I ended up spending time working at a startup called The Amazings, which was a marketplace for retirees to trade their skills. Through folks I met there, I did a couple of small gigs at Sidekick Studios and the “startup for startups” that was Makeshift.
Around that time I became aware of of a product/service called Casserole Club — a way to reduce social isolation and improve food provision among older people, and the work of a company called FutureGov. I decided I had to work at this place — and I did, for the next three-and-a-half years.
With a fully-formed appetite for public sector work, in the summer of 2017 I joined dxw digital as a designer. We have a few multi-disciplinary teams who largely co-locate with our public sector clients to design and deliver excellent digital public services. Recently I became Lead Designer, and I’m totally relishing being back in the managing people side of things after years of being an individual contributor.
Take us through a recent workday
At dxw we don’t do client work on Fridays; we use them for self-development, working on little internal hacks and the like. So I’m going to talk about two days; one describing client work, another describing a dxw Friday.
A client day Wherever I’m working my alarm goes off at 6am, but I’m usually awake before then. I leave home at 07:15 to get the train into London. Since February I’ve been working on the Teaching Vacancies service at the Department for Education, where I usually arrive at around 09:45.
We’ll have a team standup at 10:00, I’ll get a coffee and some banana loaf (yum) from the DfE canteen, then get down to work. A day will usually be a combination of interaction design, front-end development, and meetings.
We try to have a “How might we?” session each week. There are user research playbacks. I’ll do some bits of visual design, like posters and mission patches. Recently I put together some motion graphics as a service demonstration tool. There’ll be the usual show-and-tell, sprint planning and retro every other week.
I’ll leave Westminster and head back over to Liverpool St for the train just before 6pm, getting home just after 8pm.
A dxw Friday Last Friday I left home early and caught the 07:01, arriving at the dxw digital office in Hoxton Square office at around 08:30. We had a busy, buzzy office, and I had a full day in my calendar.
After our company standup at 10:00, we had our Friday kickoff meeting where we all say what we’re working on for the day, or try to find something interesting to get involved with.
Mid-morning we held our fortnightly dxw design community meetup, during which we had a WIP demo of a prototype from one of our designers, and a debrief of the event we held during the Service Design Fringe Festival. Immediately after this, I had a 12 week check-in with one of our new designers.
Next up, our tech team forum — the fortnightly meeting for folks from our design, development and operations teams. Then I had a 1:1 with another of our design team, and a random coffee with one of our developers.
I had just enough time to help out with a tiny internal project — designing a template for printing out and writing short reviews that can be stuck inside our growing library of books.
At 4:30pm we reassembled for a show-and-tell of everybody’s Friday work, with glasses of fizz to celebrate winning some new business. The day ended with some chat, drinks and snacks around the kitchen table.
What apps, gadgets, or tools can’t you live without?
Spotify, Notion, Realtime Board, Trello, Kindle Oasis, iPhone, Muji pens, Moleskine notebooks, Post-it notes.
I recently discovered readwise.io, a service that plays back your Kindle highlights. I have it send me an email each morning with a random handful of my saved tracts, which keeps resurfacing the most interesting or useful things I read and helps me remember them. Very cool.
What’s your best shortcut or life hack?
Nothing revolutionary, but I always try to make an extra portion when I cook an evening meal. Leftovers are convenient and delicious, and it’s nice to have a “proper” meal at hand after a busy day and a long commute.
Take us through an interesting, unusual, or finicky process you have in place at work
Our recruitment process at dxw is the best I’ve been involved with. It’s open and inclusive, and we’re constantly trying to make it even better. Before someone joins us, they’ll have had a screening call, first interview, and work simulation, across which they’ll have been exposed to several people from different disciplines within the company. Everyone involved in the process gets their voice heard when it comes to hiring decisions. It’s ace.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Trello, Apple Reminders, email snoozes in Canary. Also, the brains of delivery leads and product managers.
What’s your favourite side project?
I don’t have any time for side projects these days, sadly. I recently redesigned this website using CSS Grid, which was fun. And not strictly a side project as it was made on a Friday at dxw, but I made a small app (still WIP) that takes pull requests with a certain label from a GitHub repo and lays the contents out nicely — removing all the GitHub UI — as a way of documenting and presenting certain decisions.
What are you currently reading, or what do you recommend?
I recently finished Org Design for Design Orgs by Peter Merholz and Kristin Skinner. Highly recommended.
The number one book I recommend to people is A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
Who else would you like to see answer these questions?
Everybody I work with, or have worked with, please :)