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Why you should ask a difficult question – Norwich networking

Rachel Buck
Digital Marketing Consultant

There’re many things about Norwich which make it a good place to live and work, but it’s the people and networks which really make it a great place to start out on your career path. It was local connections which helped Peter Abbott land his first job as a Junior Designer at Foolproof, and how he came to be on the winning team for Sync the City, a speaker at SyncNorwich, and to lead a group at Infohackit.

You studied at NUA for a degree in Graphic Communication, what did you find most interesting during your studies?

Design is one of the few occupations where there is an abundance of satisfaction in your work. I love problem solving, and it’s the process of finding the most appropriate solution which I find most rewarding. The real satisfaction comes from ‘shower moments’. That moment when you’ve spent time thinking about something and have gone in a hundred different directions to land on the solution. As a young designer, it doesn’t happen very often but it starts to happen more and more as you form your own design thinking. I also like the detailing in work, when you adjust the type by a point size and it all comes together. It’s a craft.

Can you think back to a time during your studies when you felt that moment of satisfaction?

I remember one module about how to promote yourself and get work in; we were tasked with getting in contact with an agency to ask for a creative brief. Me and one of the guys on the course with me decided to collaborate on something fun and get a brief from a company which we wanted to work with – NASA, why not? We knew we’d never get through to anyone high up in NASA, the closest we’d get is the mail room. That was when we realised we needed to appeal to the person who opened the letter so we designed an origami space shuttle. No-one believed we’d get anything back from NASA, but the letter got opened and we got a reply which was satisfying – didn’t get any work though.

Pete gets ready to pitch his ideas at Sync the City 2016.

Technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) I know are a passion of yours and something you focused on in your final project. Can you tell me more about the work?

Nick Thomson from Knit gave a presentation at the NUA and I went along. I asked him the most difficult question I could think of: what was his opinion on the use of AR as an interface for Internet of Things (IoT). That led to my self-directed project called ‘Interface of Everything’. I had played with AR for a while and found it easy to get the tech working, but what wasn’t so easy was finding a really appropriate use for it, and leveraging some of the unique benefits it offers.

In my project, I decided to explore what it could be used for and what its benefits were – like using it as an interface for IoT. I wanted to find a way of gathering all the objects up to create a consistent, joined up experience. I distilled the concept into the question: Can it be used and how can I appropriately communicate this to the general public that it has value and in a way they can understand? This led to the design of everyday household objects, each one drawing on a different category of data and each of the objects represented how a tertiary piece of tech could be added into them e.g. the kettle had NFC tags, parcel had GPS, saucepan had heat sensors.

How did you come to meet Foolproof?

I met Foolproof at the final degree show. AR and IoT were technologies that Foolproof were also interested in. Darren Leader, my course tutor, suggested to Foolproof that they come to the show. Norwich is a bit like that. Darren knew of Foolproof through Norfolk Network and other local groups. A couple of people from Foolproof came along and liked my work which led to me being invited to go to meet them at their office and from there into a job.

How did it feel as a student meeting with professionals from industry?

Intimidating but exciting. It was great to talk to people who understood the work on a deeper level.

Did you feel prepared from being a student to enter the world of work?

One of the nice things was that I went straight from uni into a creative environment which meant the engine never stopped, there was no downtime. When you graduate the work really ramps up and you do more than you ever have; what does students a disservice is the time between graduating and entering industry. I felt prepared to handle the workload but the culture was a big change.

As a student were you starting to form any of your own opinions about design, have these changed since entering work?

I think as a student you very often have strong opinions about what good design is and how things should look. As you progress through education and out into the industry it becomes more of a case of learning how to challenge your pre-conceptions of how things should be. It is ultimately through doing this that you continue to learn and improve as a designer.

Reflecting on your time as a student, do you have any advice for current students which will help them when they come to look for work?

First own your education, it’s your thing. Just because someone is telling you what to do doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong to you. In your last year if you don’t have to work, don’t, because what you’re paying for in education is time. A lot of people don’t know what they want to do in design, what you’re paying for is for the time to be free to explore the things you want to do. Even if you don’t later end up doing what you went to uni to do.

After uni, even if you’re not producing any work, going along to talks and being invested in other’s work and the industry in which you want to work, is as valuable. There’re a lot of small events in Norwich and NUA support you in going to those events. One of the most valuable aspects of my education was going to events – from hackathons to tech start-up events like Sync the City. It gives you the chance to do something different, in a short space of time, and meet a lot of interesting people. That’s how I met Lucy from Norfolk Network – who went out of her way to introduce me to people – and how I met some of the guys from Foolproof, Whitespace, Proxama and Axon Vibe. You don’t know at the time what these people do, they’re often quite humble. Ask them the most difficult question you can think of, don’t make small talk – people in the industry don’t have time for small talk. They’ll remember you though for asking a really difficult question.

Photos: Tim Stephenson Photography