Career Insight - James Mobbs - Senior BBC Designer

james portrait Introduction
We have over 50 interviews with very successful creatives from all corners of the media world and it never ceases to amaze me how many found a passion for their chosen career very early in life, sometimes even during their earliest school years. James is no exception, having discovered whilst he was at primary school that he was more interested in how and what joined TV programmes together rather than the programmes themselves. Also very strong amongst our interviewees is a drive to find out more about their passion. Here James tells us how he reached out to industry professionals to learn and how this kick-started his career which has ultimately led to working as a senior designer on some of the BBC's high-profile news programmes.

Where did your interest begin?
I have been fascinated by design from a very young age. Often I would spot that shopfronts have new signs or logos have changed even when I was at primary school. I also have had a fascination with television along as I can remember. Although unlike most people I enjoyed the bits ‘between the programmes’ as opposed to the programmes themselves! I was glued to watching the broom-cupboard continuity links on CBBC and CITV as a child and was fascinated with how television was made. I distinctly remember the big BBC rebrand in 1997 by Martin Lambie-Nairn launching, that is probably my first conscious memory of broadcast design and identity. I knew after seeing the wonderful simplicity of the BBC ‘blocks’ and how they were executed across the BBC portfolio from the now iconic BBC One ‘balloon’ idents to the CBBC animated ‘black and yellow’ stings, that I wanted to make those things between the programmes one day. Thus, I followed my dream of working in television and design. Dreams can come true!

Did you have a formal graphics-based education?
Yes, at secondary school, my art teacher suggested that, despite my rather average paintings, I could possibly have a streak in me that could suit graphic design. I have no idea how he spotted my potential and I thank him massively for setting me off on my way to a career in design.

He coached me after school most weeks for a GCSE in Graphic Design, in addition to my GCSE in Fine Art. Following on from that, I went on to study Graphic Design at A-Level and then studied Advertising Design at University. This felt to me like a really strong grounding for a career in design, putting my creative skills to the test with real life briefs and timescales, mixed in with the language, branding and strategy elements that fill in the bigger picture of identity and campaigns.

Can you describe your career progression after finishing your education?
Throughout my time at university, I worked for an agency as a junior designer. This was a really great way to learn artworking skills, typesetting and most importantly working within super short deadlines. I was surrounded and supported by some really talented people and I was able to learn so much in such a short space of time by having real hands on experience of agency life. It was challenging juggling this alongside my studies, but somehow I made it work. I am an incredibly driven, and design is my passion. I’m always curious to learn more and more about other design disciplines, so I guess that is what those combined gave me the energy to juggle both studying and starting my career at the same time.

How did you land your first graphics role at the BBC?
My dissertation for my finals was about broadcast design within news. As part of this quite niche subject matter, I emailed several key figures within broadcasting for an interview to find out more on the subject. To my surprise, most people got back to me and offered me a trip to their studios. This straight away opened doors for me, getting to meet people who kindly gave up their time to meet me, information about the industry and what they do and most importantly they offered me some brilliant guidance and advice.

Most notably, I have the design director at Sky News to thank for my first break into TV by allowing me to spend some time with his team of designers. This was my first experience of a live news environment. It was buzzing, energetic and challenging but I knew from that moment that this is the kind of career I wanted.

I was able to show that I was hungry for a job in broadcast design. My first paid work in television was for Blue Peter. I emailed the programme editor asking if I could come in and shadow their team, and within an hour of firing off the email I had my first paid job, to make some graphics for a film they were making for next week’s programme. I am so thankful to those who took a risk on a 19 year old designer, still at university. I am still in touch with many of those who I met along the way. All of these opportunities helped me build a very basic portfolio that showed I had the skills, albeit a rough diamond for the job at the BBC!

What skills do you need to work as a designer?
Number one key skill for me would be just having a great eye and flare for design. Technology and software evolves all the time and you can always teach that. I believe the very best designers have a love for design which gives them that edge.

I also think you need to be a great people person. A lot of my job is working with clients, journalists and producers who may not always be as visually literate with graphic design and timescales or maybe just need a guiding hand with how to make something look great. So if you can work with a range of character types, understand their brief, unlock their idea and develop the vision with them, that’s the hardest bit of the job nailed! Communication is everything.

How do you learn your craft?
I strived to get every opportunity I could when I was studying and still strive to experience more parts of design. Along the way, I wasn’t afraid to ask for advice, guidance or just get in touch with graphic designers or design directors that I really admired to meet for a coffee and find out how they got to where they are and understand how they worked.

What is your role within a broadcast team as a senior designer?
Day to day, I work across our daily output, producing infographics for the programme. This can range from graphics to go behind the presenters in screens in the studio, or to insert within a news report. Increasingly these days it may even be a short video or GIF for our social media channels.

Longer term, I look at our programmes branding. I’ve been lucky enough to lead the redesign of Newsround, the BBC’s flagship news programme, along with the refresh of the flagship Breakfast programme. I’m always looking for new ways we can evolve and push our design output forward.

Times can get really busy when a big news event occurs, in my seven years at the BBC, we’ve had two general elections and two referendums. These are huge events for all broadcasters, it is our job to break down the key election issues and explain them in a digestible, engaging and beautiful way.

This can involve directing shoots with presenters for films with 3D tracked graphics, or making titles and branding for the televised debates. One of the projects I am most proud of was my designs for ‘Newsbeat: The Final Debate’ which was broadcast live on BBC One 48 Hours before the country voted. A huge TV moment in the campaign and I had to get the look and the feel of the design looking distinctive from other outlets, consistent across tv, social and online. A feat I am really proud of.

How do you progress to the role of senior designer?
Drive and determination, followed by a love for design. Always be curious, as questions and challenge the status quo. I’ve been lucky enough to work on several larger projects from rebranding our programmes to big news stories. This has allowed me to take a bigger picture view of our output and really consider the wider design or look. For example with the Newsround rebrand I worked closely with a set designer and composer to get the brand looking and sounding right. This was a really rewarding and inspiring experience working with two other creatives from other disciplines to see how they respond to a brief. I also strive to improve everything we do. I want to meet designers, artists and creatives from across the industry and I think because of my constant curiosity and passion for design, I’ve been able to grow as a designer not only from my own experiences, but by hearing about their experiences too.

Describe a typical day.
It could be a typical day or night depending on what show I am working on! Normally the shift starts with a meeting of what is happening within that day’s show, what graphics will be required and in what format. Then throughout the day I will be liaising with producers and journalists to visualise their stories with graphics. Sometimes it can be really picture challenging, especially on shows like Newsround when sometimes the story can have distressing imagery associated with it. This is where we rely heavily on using illustration to tell a story with as little distress as possible for the audience. For Breakfast news, we work through the night to get on air at 6AM every day. Working late and into the early hours brings their own challenges of creative block, tiredness and wellbeing. I find it really important to eat healthy and find time after the shifts to de-stress so I can perform my best.

Can you briefly describe the workflow for designing new on-screen graphics?
The process for designing new on screen graphics will start with a brief from the editorial lead of the programme. They may want a new coming-up sequence, top of the hour ident. It’s then my job to interpret that brief and I’ll spend some time off rota coming up with ideas to present. Often my designs will be collaboration with the editorial lead, a TV director who will be able to advise on how the graphics should function within the gallery and running orders and other members of the team. I have to design within constraints of a particular brand, or technical limitations we may have with our hardware and live graphics layout within the control room or gallery.

"I still after nearly seven years in TV news get a buzz when I see my graphics being broadcast to millions around the world." What are the highs and lows of the job?
There are so many highs, I still after nearly seven years in TV news get a buzz when I see my graphics being broadcast to millions around the world. It is a huge privilege to help tell stories and work with some great people at the BBC. There isn’t really a low, but the hours can be demanding and sometimes you have to make sacrifices in your personal life to accommodate breaking news events. Our job in broadcast is to be reactionary to what happens in the world on any given day. That is very unpredictable! I love it. I'm also lucky enough I've been asked to mentor students from a number of different universities around the UK. This is a hugely rewarding high that I get from my job, seeing other designers grow, develop and flourish.

What does your unique vision bring to your work?
I’m a self-confessed brand nerd, I love all things television presentation, which gives me a slightly different perspective to some. I watch a lot of output from broadcasters around the globe. Seeing what others do always inspires me to see if I can take it to the next level. I also have friends all over the design and arts industry, within advertising, print and TV. Hearing how they may have responded to a brief can certainly help me steer my own approach. I also have an obsession with how my graphics sound. I think people can forget how important audio is within a visual experience. I really enjoy working directly with composers, most notably David Lowe and David Connolly at Molecular Sound on projects. I will often give them a brief first, and they'll come back to me with a music track that can really help me spark off a visual idea. We often bounce visuals and graphics back and forth a few times until we feel it’s right, it's a really fun way to work.

What are the tools of the trade?
We predominantly use Adobe After Effects, Photoshop and Illustrator for making our motion graphics. On longer term projects or where appropriate we also use Cinema 4D for 3D motion graphics.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting a design career?
Be passionate, show a willingness to learn and be prepared to work really hard! Love what you do and really have fun with exploring software, techniques or self-initiated projects.

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All images © James Mobbs and used with permission
Article Date - September 2018
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