My Digital Life: Tom Banks, Editor at Design Week
We chat to Design Week's Tom Banks about all things digital, from prolific tweeting to misbehaving avatars.
Regarded as the leading authority on design news and commentary, Design Week boasts an output that is as diverse as it is prolific. As well as publishing multiple daily editorial features, the magazine organises the annual Design Week Awards (now in its 30th year), provides valuable industry insight via topical reports and curates a leading and comprehensive jobs board. Oh, and then there's the nearly 700k social media followers to keep topped up with fresh content, too.
The person making all of this happen is Tom Banks, who has helmed the Design Week stable for over four years. Having started as a reporter at the title in 2008, he has seen the magazine migrate from print to digital, spearheaded a site redesign and developed major brand partnerships. You'll also find him at many of the design industry's leading events, hosting talks, judging awards and moderating panels.
I know what you're thinking; he must have either managed to squeeze more hours into the day or mastered supreme calm. As a friend of Tom's, I can attest to his unflappability, though it was only through this interview that I learned the secret to his zen-like attitude. Hint: it's an app, but you'll have to read on to find out exactly which one.
NH: Give us a brief career history: how did you come to be Editor at Design Week? TB: I had an English degree from Lancaster and followed that with a journalism diploma at London College of Communication. I couldn't really afford to get on the internship carousel, so a period of unglamorous work to pay the bills followed while relentlessly banging on doors. I was holding out for music journalism but didn't have any contacts. Constant rejection made me resilient (which is surprising with hindsight). As soon as I got a break things moved quickly. I never stopped writing and was picking up work from independent mags. Eventually I got a full time job on one as writer. It was a really exciting time but quite chaotic and only sustainable in my early 20s. I got an opportunity to interview for junior reporter on Design Week when I was 24, got the job and worked my way up on the news desk as senior reporter, news editor and eventually editor. NH: How has digital and social media changed journalism, over the course of your career? TB: How long have you got? When I joined Design Week in 2008 it was a weekly print trade magazine for the design industry. We ran a site concurrently at that time but back then we used to talk about "web stories" and for some reason there was only one computer which had access to the site's CMS. By 2011 we were a digital only magazine, we'd printed the last Design Week issue and at that moment everything changed overnight. Suddenly all these stories we were publishing needed a new means of distribution. We placed more emphasis on our daily and weekly newsletters while experimenting with social to drive engagement. Twitter is our heartland now where we're nearly up to 600,000 followers, and we've had varying levels of success on the other platforms. Sadly, despite its importance, we don't have the resource to have someone solely dedicated to social. NH: What is the feature/s you're most proud to have penned? TB: As well as content strategy, commissioning and hands on editorial stuff, editing Design Week involves a lot of strategic planning and other management bits, plus hosting talks and panels so I don't actually get to write that much these days. Having said that, at the end of February, just before the pandemic shitstorm took flight I met Bas Timmer, a young fashion- turned product-designer when I was in Capetown for Design Indaba. I'm really glad I got to tell his story a few weeks ago. It's about a social design project (design for good), which is making a real difference to the lives of homeless people all over the world. He was very open and generous with his story thankfully as it's a very personal one. NH: What are your favourite digital tools at work, if any? TB: Well, social-wise I think I've tried all the shortcut tools. Tweetdeck becomes this grotesque internet fruit machine after a while — vertical bars of content, which spin constantly and scream for your attention. Hootsuite is more purposeful and useful but at the moment we're using the inexplicably named Meet Edgar, which is for posting across different social platforms and allows you to do so with a bit of variety. The various Adobe programs are useful depending on what we're doing and I find I use Adobe Analytics more and more but try not to to get too sucked into it.
NH: Design Week has nearly 600k Twitter followers, impressive! How did you grow on the channel?
TB: I’m really not sure. It’s the only platform we ever put the time into. I think perhaps early on we engaged quite a lot. (These days we’re fairly passive tweeters, we just push a lot of content out). When it got to about 300k it just took off. I guess by that point it takes on a life of its own and taps into unseen algorithms, but it has snowballed with the design community too. NH: What are the most interesting/novel ways the design world is embracing digital? TB: I "went" to a VR press conference the other day. It was in an amphitheater in the sky. I had to make an avatar of myself and I think I was told off for standing up at one point. It did lead to one of my reporters writing this great piece on how designers are collaborating within VR workspaces on the same projects. Speaking more generally some of the most successful digital design agencies have ended up designing their own digital products alongside services for clients — Ustwo for example came up with gig booking app Dice and computer game Monument Valley. Today digital designers are helping brands drive rapid digital change as they adapt to the pandemic but designers in general are doing all sorts of things that could barely have been conceived a few months ago. We've covered a lot of it here. NH: What are your favourite social media accounts to follow, for work and inspiration? TB: Its title sounds quite sneering and snooty but Ugly Design is good humoured, well curated and great for a quick chuckle on Instagram. If I'm actually seeking inspiration I love the Insta pages of print mags that are well put together. They're not always well curated accounts but it's good to know what they're up to. Elephant Magazine, Delayed Gratification, New York Times Magazine, The Happy Reader etc. All those new women's mags like Riposte, The Gentlewoman and Gal-Dem are really well conceived and designed so also worth a follow. On Twitter I mainly look at news outlets, design institutions and design agencies. NH: What was your first email address? TB: Special_t83@hotmail.com. Maybe it's still working. It's named after a questionable and rather potent recreational drink that I used to make at parties in my formative years. NH: What is your earliest memory of social media? TB: MySpace of course. An expressive, creative platform where you could learn basic code and fall victim to a brutal ranking system every time you befriended someone. Despite this harrowing feature it was a paradise for music lovers and genuinely had a community feel. Sometimes I wonder what founder Tom From MySpace is doing now. NH: Which apps have you recently downloaded? TB: Mesmerize, a trippy psychedelic audio visual experience, designed to get you off to sleep at night and sold as a "meditation experience". I think it might have borderline psychoactive or mystical properties. I'm rinsing a free trial at the moment but worried I've joined a cult. I put EarthCam on my phone too. It allows you to look at cameras of street scenes around the world in well known places. Very cathartic at the moment as you soon realise nobody is having fun. NH: What podcasts are you currently listening to? TB: I'm very late to the party on S Town, which I started ages ago and am now finishing. An investigative journalism doc with a slow pace and lots of colour. Perfect for lockdown. It's hardly a hot tip but I find Gossipmongers funny and light; it's Joe Wilkinson, Poppy Hillstead and David Earl reading out well-told rumours that listeners send in. NH: Are there any physical things you would never, ever swap for their digital counterparts? TB: Without getting too philosophical, since I joined the legions of homeworkers a couple of months ago I've probably developed a new view on this. Digital has moved from being a convenience to an essential. The only solutions to a lot of questions right now exist in this space. It's the only way brands and businesses can reach their customers in many cases. Digital products and services are adapting to customers' needs and new ones are popping up where needed. Then there are the scores of great examples of brands, organisations and individuals using digital to act with a social and public consciousness that hasn't really been seen before. Having said this, from a personal, operational point of view, editing and running a magazine from my living room in deafening silence is making me miss the hum of the office, its routine and all the people.
Interview by Natalie Hughes