Rob is Studio Manager at Bluegg and author of Designing the Invisible. Journalism graduate and former BBC Audience Researcher.
Rob has written articles for .NET, 24ways and Smashing Magazine. Venturing into the world of conference speaking to share his love of content, design and audiences.
It is with great pleasure that we are able to share with you the chat we had with Studio Manager at Bluegg and Author of Designing the Invisible, Rob Mills.
Rob will be talking at our upcoming New Adventures pre-conference event on Wednesday 23rd January 2013.
So, first of all what do you prefer? Robert, Robbie, Rob?
I prefer Rob when I’m just having conversations. But I always use Robert when I’m speaking or doing things in a professional sense. That or I only ever really get called Robert when I’ve been a naughty boy
Give us a bit of a background, how did you start out and get to where you are now, what made you want to design the invisible?
It’s a bit of a strange one really. I never originally had plans to work in the web industry. I did media studies at GCSE and A-level and it was just a subject that I found really easy to do. Out of all the subjects I studied, it came the most naturally to me. I really enjoyed the deconstructing of media texts and analysing codes that we were exposed to without realising. So that kind of triggered it all off but you know way back then, I never really had a plan at all. From here, I fell into a Journalism degree at Cardiff University because I thought: “Well, I seem to be alright at media studies” so I studied Journalism Film & Broadcasting.
By the time I left, I hated the media and was just completely bored of the whole subject so I went travelling and lived in New Zealand for a year. After I came back, I needed any old job to start paying off some travelling debts so ended up with Cardiff Council. While I was at the Council, I got a job dealing with pupil data. It’s as dull as it sounds – essentially it’s analysing school data for teams. It was pretty rubbish but from this experience I managed to get a job in the BBC working with audience research data. I did this for a year while covering a maternity leave. It was brilliant and I absolutely loved it and that’s when I first started getting involved in web audiences but obviously it was a multi-platform job – dealing with TV, Web and Radio.
One of the people who I worked with in this team was the one and only Emma Boulton. So a bit later on in life, Emma’s husband Mark Boulton was looking for a Studio Manager and they knew I was looking for a job after being made redundant. And luckily enough, he asked me. I said yes and that’s when I first got involved in the web. I think it was 2008/9.
So how did you find the jump from the BBC to Mark Boulton design?
It was hard. I was at Mark Boulton design for a year but I gained so much from it, the contacts that I made and the experience that I got from it was invaluable. The year spent with them was the steepest learning curve of my working life. At that time, there was only Mark, myself and one other designer and he took me on just before they started the Drupal.org redesign. That was my first project that I’d been involved in and, as you can imagine, it was intense, but amazing at the same time. So even though I’ve never really had a career plan, every job has kind of lead to the next and I’ve managed to progress and have been in the web world for about 4/5 years now.
Wow that’s fantastic, so the place you’re at now? Bluegg?
Yes! I’m studio manager there now. So, I was studio manager at Mark Boulton Design then I went to Carsonified for a 5 week contract - just to manage a project for Vodafone, then another agency in South Wales.
I’ve been at Bluegg for just over 2 years now. I’ve always done studio/project manager roles within those 4 companies but it varies with cultures and ways of doing things. At Bluegg, I’m lucky really because they see the value of my background with managing and writing and try to squeeze that in as much as we can - alongside the running of the studio. This mainly involves answering the phones, sorting schedules and meetings, prioritising the guys work and picking up what they need to do on a day-to-day basis. So it’s a pretty varied role but that’s why it’s so good!
Mark Boulton once said to me: “write for yourself” and I’ve been keeping that in mind, it’s really helped and if people read it… well that’s a bonus!
So what are you plans for 2013? What have you got lined up?
Depending on how my talk goes at Second Wednesday there might be more of that. Public speaking is certainly something I want to do. I’ve been crying wolf for a while and saying I need to get into public speaking but the nerves always got the better of me. So I gave myself a kick and started last year with a local event. This was nice because it was on home turf and I was really comfortable so that was a good start. The 3 talks I’ve done have all been local – in Newport and Cardiff. The second was a very small one, about 30 people which was great because it was intimate. The third in November was at Handheld Conference which was 170 people – brilliant but intimidating. Each time I’ve gained a bit more confidence so I think by the time I get Second Wednesday under my belt I’ll want to continue public speaking regularly.
Also I’m also pretty excited about the day job at Bluegg. We’ve got some pretty big things lined up which are building on from last year so we are looking forward to 2013. I’m doing a few projects with Keir Whitaker and Elliot Jay Stocks, that - I know it sounds really cliché but, I’m not able to speak about at the minute. Rest assured, they're going to be keeping me busy as well. Other than that, I’ve got an article to write for Smashing Magazine and who knows what else!
I seem to be getting opportunities coming left right and centre at the minute which is a great position to be in so I just have to see what comes my way.
I’m just wondering, where did writing Designing the Invisible come into your career?
I was working at Mark Boulton Design and I was there when we launched Mark’s first book and the first of the Five Simple Steps series – Designing for the Web, the yellow one. I was the production editor on this project. By this point, the team had grown a bit by then and Mark’s brother had come on board so I was helping with the fulfilment. When Five Simple Steps first came out, we were literally carrying books in sacks down to the Post Office for the launch and sending them off. My involvement in five simple steps encouraged me to suggest my own book idea so I sent it through to Mark.
Designing the Invisible isn’t actually the book I proposed. It changed quite a lot as I was writing it as I came to realise it wasn’t really the book I wanted to, and should have been, writing. We stuck with it, fleshed out the plans and then it was all down to me to write it. Unfortunately, due to various personal reasons it took longer than I would of liked but the PDF version has been available for 2 years now and the print copy came out in June last year.
What does your average day look like? What does Rob Mills get up to?
There is and there isn’t an average day. What I mean is I don’t walk in and know exactly what I’m doing every day and this is one of the reasons why I love working at Bluegg.
So, normally, I’ll come in, check my emails and update everybody’s Wunderlist and then we’ll have a morning catch-up and tell the guys what their priorities are that day. That happens every morning and this is really valuable time for us as a studio. Between there and 5pm when we finish – who knows? I might be doing researching, copywriting or doing work on internal projects. At the minute I’m writing all the copy for the new Bluegg website which has been occupying a large amount of my time. But there isn’t really a typical day!
So this is a pretty complex question but do you think having such a range of skills is a benefit when working in such a fluid industry?
I find myself in a really strange position in our industry and I often get pangs of imposter syndrome where I just think “Oh god I don’t belong here!” because I’m not a designer or a developer. But it’s obviously something that I write and talk about so I get quite paranoid that people are going to be like: “oh who are you?!”
But for me, I like to think that my background gives me a good grounding in the industry. I mean, we’re lucky we work in an industry where there are lots of routes in anyway so I’d like to think my background is a good thing. Even though I can’t sit down and design a website, I’m able to analyse and deconstruct websites in terms of are we saying the right story to the right people and in the best way and so on.
Do you think things like storytelling and copy etc. are becoming more important and are people are more aware of it on the web?
Without a shadow of a doubt. I’ve been in the industry 5 years and we’ve now got conferences on copy and there are far more books available now than 5 years ago. These were things that people were talking about before. However, I’m not really sure when the phrase 'Content First' was coined and by who but, you can really tell with the blogs and social media that people are talking more about content.
You don’t see every agency going for a content-first approach but we’ve adopted it here at Bluegg and we’re getting good results from it. I hope that this continues really. I know I’m biased as I’m a massive advocate of content but it needs to continue to get the treatment it deserves.
So your talk is going to be called Designing the Invisible and we want to know, how important is it to communicate through design?
It’s absolutely essential. It really is everything. For example, I’ve recently been to see Phantom of the Opera, the stage show, and I was sat thinking about how many little decisions have gone into making this entire show so visually stunning – the lighting, the costumes etc. All those decisions had to be made with the audience in mind.
This is kind of what Designing the Invisible is about – breaking down websites and not looking at them as a whole, but observing all the different components that make that whole. l-grid-our is a really powerful story-telling tool – different values, personalities, cultural aspects. Branding too! So this is kind of what both the book and the talk are about.
All of these tiny aspects go into telling the whole story and is this the right story for the right audience?
This is kind of what Designing the Invisible is about – breaking down websites and not looking at them as a whole, but observing all the different components that make that whole.
So what are you looking to gain from speaking at 2W?
I’m looking to gain confidence ultimately. I’ve been tracking the event on Lanyrd and there is some big people going that I really admire so getting up in front of them and sharing my experiences is a big deal. I’m looking to be challenged and go outside my comfort zone but I really I want to talk about this topic. I find it really important and I hope it’s a bit of a conversation starter so when I catch up with people afterwards we can discuss in depth and spread the word.
Now traditionally at 2W, what we like to do is have an open bar tab for each of our speakers, what are you going to be spending your bar tab on?
There are 3 answers to this judging on what time of the night you catch me. When I get there, whatever Lager is on offer at Antenna. Mid-way through I’ll move onto vodka and cokes, just to make sure I don’t get too lairy but at the end of the night I’ll be on the Jagerbombs so it all depends on what time of the night you bump into me!