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Creative spotlight: James Goldsworthy, Head of Digital at Punch Taverns

This month, we chatted to James Goldsworthy from Punch Taverns, one of the UK’s leading, independent pub companies, with around 1300 pubs across the UK. He spoke about what’s important for creating UX-friendly design, his career-long loyalty to Apple, and how Adobe XD has been inspiring him recently.


Becki Crossley
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into design?

I've always been interested in design. I got into it towards the tail end of school and then I studied graphic design at college. I've never been an artist though, I can't hand draw anything to save my life. So when I discovered Mac and desktop publishing software, I really fell in love with it. I was working on some of the early Macs and versions of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, and the technology was a big thing – it's that kind of space where technology and art mix.


What does a typical day look like for you?

I don't really have a typical day, as every day is different. I run an in-house digital team who are all from different backgrounds and specialities, from marketing and analytics to content creators, product management and design. My role is more about big picture stuff, even though I do try and get my hands dirty as much as I can. I think that's important.

We have business meetings around how we communicate with our field teams or our customers, and in my eyes a lot of those things are design problems because you've got to understand how messages land, when the best opportunity to communicate is, and discover things that people might be dealing with. I’m also involved in conversations with developers in-house or externally about technical solutions. That might just be scrawling wireframes and flows rather than pixel perfect design. It could be team development, working to help them achieve what they need on their different projects, or it could be something like today where I'm actually doing proper design, translating something that I've been working on in Adobe XD into code.


How do you stay inspired?

Honestly, it's pretty hard! Earlier on in your career, you naturally find yourself more immersed in design culture. You have a lot more free time, but nowadays I don't have that kind of time to leisurely browse the stuff I used to, to soak up that inspiration. I read a lot of design books, particularly psychology-based, and bring those ideas into work.

Also, going to conferences and meeting other creatives, people who do similar roles to me in different companies. I go to a yearly UX conference which is full of workshops and get to check out the emerging trends, and share ideas with other creative folks. A fresh pair of eyes really helps; I'm on my own a lot of the time as far as creative input goes, so it's not something that happens all the time.


How did you stay creative when working in a large company?

Punch Taverns was a bigger company, it used to be a PLC and about a year ago got bought and split in half. Now we're a smaller company, still about 1300 pubs, and the team is smaller but it's not massively different. As my career has progressed, you look at creativity and see it in different areas – looking at how we achieve our business goals and create value for the business, and for our customers, is what interests me more nowadays. It's quite often a creative challenge to do that with the most impact across the board. 


How do you balance designing for different audiences – for publicans (such as the Punch Buying Club) and for customer-facing sites?

I suppose it always comes back to the brief and what we're trying to achieve overall. While the creative parts and the language might look different for various audiences, you don't really require a different approach to either. It's all about understanding what’s going to work for the customer and aligning it with what we need to do corporately. If we can align that with our available options as far as delivery goes, so whether that's technical or creative, in the middle of that space is where we need to be. The output will be different but the way to get there is always pretty much the same. 


How do you find working with different teams, and with external agencies?

It's very different. Internal teams are great because it feels like a family. We've got a pretty stable team so we know an awful lot without needing meetings and things, we work that closely that we all know what parts we need to play. It's really good because it allows us to deliver stuff at speed, without too much administration. I imagine in any kind of workspace you get a lot of time spent on things that aren't adding to the final product, whether that's emails or endless meetings, and we can get away from a lot of that by being close and familiar with each other.

External agencies are like a breath of fresh air, because you’re seeing something through their eyes and they can prod you and ask questions, which you either easily take for granted already or they show you something that you haven't seen, which again is really useful. It's completely different but equally important to get both perspectives. 


What do you feel is most important for creating UX-friendly design?

It's about understanding the problem. When I was a younger designer I would try and figure stuff out working in Photoshop or InDesign, and now it's more about understanding what that problem is, playing with the idea and spending time in that space, really understanding why you're doing the activity and what actions you want to elicit out of it.

You also need to know your audience – and that can't be underestimated as well I think, to make stuff really land you need to understand who you're designing for – how much time have you got to do this, what technical options have you got, and what your budget is. Because you can have completely different answers to the same question knowing those things. If you know all the constraints, you've got a safe space to play in and be creative.


What creative tools do you use, and how to they help you work flexibly? 

I've always been an Apple user, ever since I started designing at 17. I take them for granted really. They're just a tool at the end of the day, but the special thing for me is that it becomes invisible as a tool. The more it becomes invisible, the more it doesn't get in the way. You're not thinking about the tool, you're thinking about the problem you're solving. The fact that everything just integrates into one ecosystem and you just don't have to think about anything is the main reason I've stuck with Apple over the years. If you want to get something done creatively, you want a tool that just gets out of the way, and that for me is Apple. 

Currently I use a MacBook Pro, and software-wise I use a mix of stuff from Adobe Creative Cloud to Microsoft products, because I work in a corporate environment ­– and they work fine on my Mac.


Is there a particular Adobe Creative Cloud app you couldn’t live without?

I'd say Photoshop obviously, but also recently I've been using XD. It's been loads and loads of fun. It's just a product that really seems to have come into its own, the time is right for it. It allows you to create designs for screens, and prototype and show people flows and things. It's something I would have previously just done in a sketchbook straight into code, and I've found that with XD it allows me to be a lot faster. I can show designs and get people's feedback, and for myself get a real idea about how those things might be coded as well. 


What productivity tips would you give other creatives?

I find, and I'm sure anybody does who works in a busy building with lots of people, you can spend all your day on email. It always feels like you're solving someone else's problem rather than doing your own work. So, I've tried to be a lot more disciplined recently. First thing in the morning I spend an hour on my email and try and tick off everything I need to tick off, then turn it off. I let people know I'm out of the office but if I'm needed, someone can call me. And if it's not that urgent I can check the email in the morning or last thing at night.

I've also been playing with things like the Pomodoro Technique, where you cut your time into thirty minute blocks, and you have a little timer. You get 25 minutes of deep concentration, then you get a little 'ding!', and you get five minutes at the end to take a break to check your emails or get a cup of tea. And then you have another 25 minutes of concentration. We're in an environment that's always asking for your attention, your phone, all your social feeds, and it's all distracting and stops you concentrating. It really helps.


Looking forward, are there any creative or technology trends you’re excited about?

For a designer, it's a strange time. You've got things like voice search happening now, with Siri and Alexa, and they're interfaces that need designing. You can't do that in Photoshop, and that can be a little bit scary for people who spend a lot of time in Photoshop. But designers have got the skillsets to be able to see those things and design how those conversations flow, and how do we get that inherent bias in these systems out by more cleverly designing those conversations. 

Smart technology is also becoming cheaper and cheaper, and easier to program. Previously inanimate things can have sensors in them now, without increasing their cost massively, and if we design how these things interact and how they can help us, there's a lot of opportunities to create things that really have value. It's different to designing on a piece of paper or for a screen, but it's a really exciting time for designers. 


Check out some of James’s work at Punch Taverns!

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