January 2012

Interview with Ben Bodien, Naomi Atkinson and Robbie Manson

For the final interview, UK designers Ben Bodien, Naomi Atkinson, and Robbie Manson joined Simon to discuss processes, challenges, the principles they work by, and the increasing pull of US tech companies.

SIMON: More and more designers and even whole agencies are heading off to the US to work at Facebook or other big companies. Is this something you’d ever consider?

BEN: It gets talked about a lot. There’s definitely more of a start-up culture in places like San Francisco and New York than there is here. I don’t think that’s really affected the way I’ve approached anything but I’m not averse to moving. Whatever comes, comes.

ROBBIE: I can’t really imagine the core FreeAgent team being based anywhere other than the UK, to be honest. We do have US users, and our plans for scaling the app certainly includes improving the experience for people outside of the UK, but nothing that would warrant a wholesale team move over there. FreeAgent is five years old this year — I’ve been with them for two — and Edinburgh is a bit like our spiritual home. I do like the idea of getting a proper summer though!

If you don’t collaborate you don’t improve; it’s as simple as that.

Naomi Atkinson

NAOMI: I do leave the door open. I’ve been thinking about it more so with regard to Animateable. Putting together a start-up is interesting because a lot of the funding is in San Francisco and New York, but we tend to forget that there’s funding in the UK. It’s not only in London; even in the North-east there’s quite a lot available. So I haven’t really felt the pull. I’ve felt the pull for clients more than anything else. There’s some great start-ups who really like UK input, especially from designers.

SIMON: So there are actually good possibilities for start-up funding in the UK?

NAOMI: Absolutely, and some great incubators. I was asked recently to be a mentor for an incubator in the North East. Funding is there, but we don’t look for it as much as we should.

SIMON: The web is borderless, but do you feel proud to be based in the UK?

BEN: I think there’s pride in being a web business in the UK. Half of our clients have almost always been US-based, but I never really think about why. Maybe there’s just more going on over there. You mentioned it’s a borderless world and that’s certainly true because we treat our clients the same during conference calls; we just have different accents. And paying each other is tricky of course but everything else is the same; we speak the language of the web.

SIMON: Do you find it easier working with US clients? Is there a greater level of trust from them?

NAOMI: I think that people in the US don’t think about how local you are. I actually don’t have any local clients because I imagine most of them will think of me in a local sense; they wouldn’t take your advice as the best they can get. I don’t know why that happens but in my experience it does.

I like working with the US market; they like the accent so that helps! They seem to have a respect for us already, so it works to our advantage, especially when you’re a smaller studio. The trust and respect is already there, you don’t have to gain it.

Recently I was in Düsseldorf, with a group of Germans who were talking about how the UK and US are very much ‘together’ in the web industry. They feel it’s the rest of the world vs. them, which is a very interesting thought coming from a European point of view, and I was quite surprised to hear that they were grouping us with the US.

SIMON: Robbie, with FreeAgent, you’re working with one product. What attracts you to that?

ROBBIE: What originally attracted me is still more or less the same reason I love it. A lot of designers and developers — even some I’ve interviewed for FreeAgent — say that they feel trapped by agency environments, where the feedback loop is just too open. You put everything you can into a project and it goes out the door and you don’t hear that much back from it. It’s only natural for designers who care to want to create lasting things and do more meaningful work. For me, the way to do that was to start working on a product, a long-term project.

SIMON: Is there a level of perfectionism in that process, or an eagerness to get stuff out there?

ROBBIE: There’s a strong level of design-care across the company that I’ve never really experienced before. There are engineers who care just as much as about one or two pixels as I do. The most important thing is cultivating a culture of respect for design. Every couple of weeks, we get together and demo what we’ve made. Everyone opens up their process and there’s greater respect for every discipline. We have a lot of freedom because of the way we’re structured. We prototype and design whole sections or new features before there’s any technical input whatsoever, so there’s great freedom for a designer; it’s very liberating to be a part of that.

SIMON: Ben, you work very closely with Cameron Moll for Authentic Jobs. Do you have a lot of design input?

It’s only natural for designers who care to want to create lasting things and do more meaningful work.

Robbie Manson

BEN: We do. It’s definitely the most design-led a project can get. It’s Cameron’s baby and he lives and breathes it. Every single modification or feature he’ll design to some degree first, then we’ll have a discussion about how it’s going to work. There’s been a few cases where we’ve had to change the direction of certain features from a technical point of view, and we’ve worked with him to alter the design, or how a particular interaction is going to work. That happened a lot with the most recent update to the home page, where the design was largely finished in the browser; and we had to figure out how we were going to make it responsive. So, we were involved quite heavily in the process of figuring out how it would look and feel.

SIMON: Is collaboration an important part of your process?

NAOMI: If you don’t collaborate you don’t improve; it’s as simple as that. Working on your own or in smaller teams, you don’t have people around you everyday to bat things to, which is imperative.

ROBBIE: Yes, I think there’s two ways to look at that. One is about mentoring. And one is just being mindful of your own approach. Roan [Lavery, FreeAgent co-founder] has a very different approach to me; I learn things from him every day. The best thing about collaboration is listening to the opinions of people who think differently; about being proved wrong on your assumptions, not being proved right. In two seconds Roan can change the way I think about something. I find that quite hard sometimes; not to get stuck in a certain way of thinking or a way of approaching a problem.

Everyone should be around other really smart people who really care and interact with them; step away from the computer and just have a rich conversation with someone.

BEN: We’ve been in the fortunate position that many of our recent clients have been hands-on people themselves, whether they’re a freelancer with their own project or the client is a start-up with their own in-house team and we’re coming in to bolster that; we get to collaborate with those people so everyone’s really super-passionate about that product.

SIMON: What were the biggest challenges with starting your own agency?

BEN: It didn’t take a huge amount of courage because we’d just been made redundant at the height of the credit crunch, so it was a case of looking for a new job or start something of our own; the latter seemed like more fun.

People often ask us how we get clients, and that isn’t that difficult; there are always people out there who’ll pay you to do some kind of job. The bigger challenge is finding quality clients who will appreciate you as an expert. You can create a more professional working relationship rather than just someone who happens to have some money and an idea and just wants you to go off and build it and come back in a few months.

NAOMI: It was quite a brave decision for me. I was comfortable in my job, doing well at a London agency, and pretty much overnight I decided to go out on my own, thinking it was the best time to just go and do it. Working in three agencies I saw the things I wouldn’t think are the best processes, and I’ve used that to my advantage. Things like designing more than one route for someone; I wouldn’t do multiple approaches now. I’ll show them my thought process, but I’ll show them one thing at the end. Also, there was a lot of un-required documentation which was done to simply bring in more money, so that’s something that again, I’d never do.

SIMON: Let’s talk about principles. Ben, you’re a big believer in craftsmanship.

BEN: We are now. We made some mistakes before; we didn’t quite have that same ethic. Quality clients give you the chance to have some thinking time and work outside the box. We started moving away from repeating ourselves and doing ‘cookie cutter’ processes again and again. We started slowing things down; keeping things simple but not trying to focus on creating something stupidly beautiful and amazing from the outset — that’s a by-product of a good working process. There was a quote by Buckminster Fuller who said something like “when I’m working on something I never try to make it beautiful. I’m only thinking about the best way to solve the problem I’m working on. But then at the end if I look at it and I see the solution isn’t beautiful then I know we’ve done something wrong”.

So I think that applies very much to any engineering, back and front. By focusing on the problem and coming up with the best way of solving it, and shifting your focus away from wow factor, you inherently start creating things that are of better quality as a result.

We started slowing things down; keeping things simple but not trying to focus on creating something stupidly beautiful and amazing from the outset.

Ben Bodien

ROBBIE: I’ve worked in agencies too, and to begin with there’s a lot of stuff you learn; a lot about what you don’t want to do and how much process you don’t want to introduce because you’ll end up drowning out the good aspects.

I think there’s a naïvety with anyone who gets their first big job. They can be crushed; the purity of a big idea for a project can be easily over-ridden by someone who doesn’t care internally, or a client who doesn’t understand, and there’s nobody internally to talk them around. That naïvety is something we should never lose as we gather more experience; it’s our gut thinking, and it’s easy to think too much and not feel. It’s a hard balance to get right.

SIMON: Robbie, you speak about being a mindful designer. What are the key ingredients to that?

ROBBIE: Our obsession with tools gets in the way of good thinking. It’s so easy to just get started in web design and easy to get absorbed with these tools and accidentally focus on things at a micro level and neglect the power of really good thinking; to almost distance yourself from tools. It’s something that comes with maturity. I think we make a lot of mistakes with those processes when we’re young — it’s only natural — and that’s something a good creative director or mentor should help with. It was always emphasised to me to step away from the computer; don’t get too absorbed in it when you’ve got so much around you to bounce ideas off. As long as we’re mindful of what we’re doing, then we can actually start to counteract a lot of the distractions.

NAOMI: There’s an obsession with tools, and I agree it’s about maturity. One of the principles I go by now is making sure that I get to know the client and their objectives the best I can before doing any work. Even if that means taking time off — unpaid time — I’ll do it because I want to make sure I fully understand them and their personality and what they stand for. By doing that I make sure I don’t rely on tools or re-use any work or thinking that went into another project. I saw that a lot in agencies where ideas were re-used a lot, and I think that’s disgraceful.

SIMON: What is your new adventure for 2012?

BEN: We’ve achieved three years of blood, sweat and tears and have good clients that we’re happy with. We have this delicious problem of having too many of them, so my new adventure is to grow Neutron Creations and take on more wonderful clients and have more fun in the process.

NAOMI: Getting Animateable to market.

ROBBIE: We’re growing FreeAgent very fast, so maintaining quality as we grow — growing well — is important. I’ll also be launching a side project, and finishing an album.


This article was commissioned for our January 2012 magazine. Like it? View all articles, grab our RSS feed, and subscribe to our newsletter.