Creative Lives — Creative technologist Mathieu Triay on ‘new’ news, computers and working at the BBC

Posted 08 August 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

How do you make online news accessible to a new generation? As a creative technologist at the BBC, it’s Mathieu Triay’s job to find out. Part of the company’s R&D (Research and Development) department, Mathieu is tasked with turning the team’s ideas into fully fledged prototypes, in a role that blends product, UX and interaction design. Having previously worked at Penguin on digital and physical hybrids, for Mathieu, working digitally was always a given: “As soon as I understood you could make a career out of making computers do cool things, I’ve wanted to do that,” he tells us. Here, he talks knowing your audience, mashing ideas together and getting to do ‘absolutely everything’ in his personal work.

Mathieu Triay

Job Title

Creative Technologist, BBC R&D (2017–present)
Director, Atelier Triay (2017–present)

Based

London

Previous Employment

Creative Developer (part-time), Penguin Books (2015 –2017) Founder and Technical Director (full-time) , Night Zookeeper (2011–2016)

Education

MSc Computer Science and Management, Polytech Montpellier (France), with a year abroad at UCL (University College London)

Website
Social Media

Mathieu Triay

Mathieu’s library

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Day-to-Day

How would you describe your job?
I work at the BBC in the Research and Development (R&D) department. We research all sorts of things, from new broadcast technologies to machine learning. My team is focused on new experiences and services. 

It’s really important for a company like the BBC to understand why it sometimes struggles to reach a wider audience. This past year we’ve been looking at new formats for online news: we ask questions such as “How do we make news more understandable? More approachable? Less anxiety inducing?” Then we come up with new ways of presenting information to reach underserved audiences. As a creative technologist, I take our ideas and turn them into fully fledged prototypes. We then give these to users, get feedback and improve on them. 

When I’m not at the BBC, I run a creative practice focused on web, typography and editorial work. This is my outlet for anything and everything that isn’t exactly creative technology. 

“It’s really important for a company like the BBC to understand why it sometimes struggles to reach a wider audience.”

What does a typical working day look like?
The day usually starts early, at home, doing work for myself. It can be designing a typeface, sending a few emails or programming. I usually get about an hour to myself before I have to go to the office at around 10.

At the beginning of the week, a lot of what I do is on paper: sketching, brainstorming, coming up with ideas and interactions. As the week progresses, I spend more time in front of the computer, turning the sketches into prototypes. I don’t have a lot of meetings because I spend 90% of my time with my team. If can isolate myself if I need to, but I like having people around for fast feedback. 

When work is done, I usually set aside a good stretch of time for my own creative work in the evening.

 “New News”  , 2018. Tristan Ferne, Thomas Mould, Zoë Murphy, Mathieu Triay

 “New News” ,  2018. Tristan Ferne, Thomas Mould, Zoë Murphy, Mathieu Triay

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What do you like about working in London?
You get to meet tonnes of interesting people. There’s always a meet up, talk or exhibition to go to. The downside is probably the rent; it’s impossibly expensive and you have to hunt for a long time to find something decent. 

As a technologist, I don’t need to be anywhere in particular to work. Remote working is getting more and more popular, but I like to work with people around me. I see the future as a half-and-half sort of deal, where you have days where you work from home, and others with your team. 

How did you land your current job?
I had just finished my contract at Penguin, loosely searching for a new job while freelancing, and toying with the idea of starting my creative practice full-time. I was already familiar with BBC R&D, and when I saw the job advertised in a newsletter, I just applied.

I was thrilled when I was invited to come in for an interview. It’s hard to say what made the difference and got me the job, but my work at Penguin certainly played a part. My experience of collaborating, my ability to prototype and my knowledge and interest in UX and design probably made me stand out from the other applicants.

How collaborative is your role?
Extremely. I work with three other people on a daily basis. Together, we make a ‘minimum viable’ BBC News team: a producer, a journalist, a designer and a developer. We come up with ideas together, and although I’m alone in executing them, I have to catalyse everyone’s opinions and expertise into a prototype. 

In my personal work, things vary more. I rely a lot on the feedback of my friends because I’m not the best judge of my own work (who is?). 

Richard Dawkins Reissue,  2016. Matthew Young, Mathieu Triay. Unique covers generated by inputing Richard Dawkin's 30-year-old code in a browser for the first time.

Richard Dawkins Reissue,  2016. Matthew Young, Mathieu Triay. Unique covers generated by inputing Richard Dawkin's 30-year-old code in a browser for the first time.

Richard Dawkins Reissue,  2016. Matthew Young, Mathieu Triay, Claudia Toia. Unique covers generated by inputing Richard Dawkin's 30-year-old code in a browser for the first time.

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I get to work with some of the smartest, most creative bunch in the industry and I’m continuously inspired by their work. There’s also a very good work-life balance, with flexible hours and the possibility to work from home. Plus, deadlines account for the creative research part of the work, not just the time it would take to execute it. I get to do everything I enjoy: a bit of product design, interaction design and of course, prototyping. That’s what led me to creative technology.

The least fun part, and I don’t think it’s a surprise, is that the BBC is a big machine. There are a lot of stakeholders to convince, so getting the machine to move is a long process. 

As for my personal venture, the most and least enjoyable aspects are one and the same thing: I get to do absolutely everything. It’s great that I can do everything I want, the way I want it, but it’s also a terribly daunting thing to do on your own (besides having to do all the admin, taxes and whatnot). On the flip side, I don’t have a lot of pressure to make money out of these because I have a day job, so I’ve bought that freedom in a way.

Little Black Classics , 2014. Claudia Toia, Matthew Young, Mathieu Triay

Little Black Classics , 2014. Claudia Toia, Matthew Young, Mathieu Triay

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’ve been working on the same project with the same team since I started. The long term goal is coming up with news formats that might influence how a new generation understands the world around them. We strive to make things clearer so they can make up their own minds and become better citizens. In the short term, being able to work with a journalist on these sorts of prototypes is incredibly enlightening and makes our propositions more tangible. We came up with over 40 prototypes in less than a year, some of which we have already written about and one of them has already been piloted on the main website.

In terms of my own practice, the most exciting thing is probably the upcoming release of the first issue of Visions, a new science fiction I’ve been working on. We had nearly 500 submissions and I got to commission content, translate a novel and even design a typeface for the identity of the mag.

What skills are essential to your job?
An understanding of design and front end programming (HTML, CSS, JavaScript) can get you a long way into prototyping. But most importantly, knowing your audience – that’s nearly half the battle. It’s not about getting your audience to tell you what they want, but rather what they need. 

 “ Know your audience – that’s nearly half the battle. It’s not about getting them to tell you what they want, but what they need.”

Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
I’ve already mentioned my own creative practice that lead me to make fonts and a magazine. When I started designing typefaces, I realised how scarce learning resources were, and the people to get feedback from seemed fairly inaccessible. I even wrote my own introduction to type design that I would have liked to have available when I started. With the help of some friends (Tom Etherington, Francisca Monteiro, Matthew Young), I’m also running a little type focused meet-up called Diacritics. I really wanted a place where you could share your enthusiasm about type, give and take feedback on work in progress face-to-face. 

What tools do you use most for your work?
Sheets of printer paper, post-it notes and Sharpies. When I work alone, I use an iPad with the pencil and the Paper app to sketch interfaces and flows. The Notes app on my iPhone and iPad is where I jot down almost everything that comes to mind. Otherwise, any old notebook and black biro will do the trick.

For the rest, I have a MacBook Pro with an external keyboard and trackpad. I also use a foldable laptop stand, which all fit together into a practical tote bag. I use the Adobe suite quite extensively for design work, iA Writer for writing, Google Docs for editing, Glyphs to make fonts. For writing code, I use Sublime Text or Visual Studio Code (which has some great integrations for JavaScript). Can’t live without Dropbox and iCloud, particularly when you have multiple devices.

 “Rogue Visions” , 2018 a typeface by Mathieu

 “Marvin Visions” , 2018 typeface by Mathieu; designs by Tom Etherington, Claudia Toia, Matthew Young, Mathieu Triay

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A vet, then a banker, writer or philosopher. But as soon as I understood you could make a career out of making computers do cool things, I’ve wanted to do that. I didn’t know that it would be ‘creative technology’, and it took me a while to work that out even after university. I guess I just trusted that if I learned how to program, I’d be free to choose my exact path later.

What influence has your upbringing had on your work?

I’m very lucky to have a mum who used to constantly make new stuff out of old stuff in the garden and around the house. My dad used to be a dentist, but weekends and evenings were music, drawing, and tinkering. My parents gave me an education that encouraged me to be creative, and where making mistakes was part of the process. Even though I’m not sure they completely understood my fascination for computers, they supported me and never made fun of me for being a nerd. So all in all, I’d say it had a major influence.

How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role? 
University gave me a strong theoretical background and pushed me to understand, analyse and unpack a problem before starting to code. But right now, you don’t need a degree in computer science to become a programmer. I think that’s kind of amazing. 

After graduating (or first starting out), what were your initial jobs?
My first job was pretty atypical; I started a company, Night Zookeeper, with friends, inheriting all of the technical challenges in one go. Having to deal with all the technical pressure of a company – the livelihood of which depends on your success – was a very scary thought. 

“Right now, you don’t need a degree in computer science to become a programmer. I think that’s kind of amazing.”

Was there a particular step that helped your development?
My time at Night Zookeeper. I don’t think there are many jobs where you can get a 360 view of a company, and participate in shaping it as you go. Together with creative director, Buzz Burman, we designed and produced award-winning interfaces that walked the line between child-friendly and beautiful. That’s what cemented my desire to learn more about design and creative technology.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
I love what I do, I get a lot of enjoyment out of it and it’s extremely rewarding. As a result, it can be a little addictive. Although this might make you better in the short term, it’s very detrimental in the long run. I’ve had a few run-ins with burn-out in the past and where doing something else other than work was a big challenge. But a well-rested brain is much more creative and efficient. You won’t see me push myself past my limits again because the price is too high and nobody’s handing medals at the end.

Is your job what you thought it would be?
In large parts, yes. I’m problem-solving using a computer, which is pretty much what I thought a computer science degree would lead to. 

You’re never equipped with all the tools to face every situation. There will be problems that you don’t have an intuitive solution to, and sometimes you’ll have to build new tools to tackle them. You rarely know how you’re going to solve a problem ahead of time. I’ve got the basics down but I’m still not sure what I’m doing a lot of the time. 

Night Zookeeper ,  “Night Zookeeper”  (2011–2016) Simon “Buzz” Burman, Mathieu Triay. A website to help children to be more creative online. A writing tool, it takes the shape of a game that students can play and teachers can monitor.

Night Zookeeper ,  “Night Zookeeper”  (2011–2016) Simon “Buzz” Burman, Mathieu Triay. A website to help children to be more creative online. A writing tool, it takes the shape of a game that students can play and teachers can monitor.

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Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
At some point I’d like to go back to being independent again, but in the immediate future, once the magazine is published, I’d like to try my hand at books. I’ve always been fascinated by hybrids of digital and physical, a lot of which we tried to explore at Penguin. There are still some things to discover in that space: physical and digital should work together, you don’t have to choose one over the other, they’re complementary.

Could you do this job forever?
I can definitely see myself using the computer as a production and problem-solving tool for as long as I can. It has endless creative possibilities; features keep getting added, techniques keep improving and processing power keeps increasing. Surely there’ll still be something left to do by the time I’m older that I can keep fiddling with computers well into retirement.

What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
That’s a question I ask myself and I don’t quite have a definite answer. Unless you’re in a small structure, if you step up and become a producer or director, things become about management, stakeholders and PowerPoints pretty quickly. I don’t know how I can maintain a level of creative output and control whilst advancing in my career, short of jumping the gun and starting my own studio.

“Re-Issued” , 2018, website for Burberry  with UFO Studio. UFO Studio/Ben Walker, Mathieu Triay.

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same kind of work?
If you consider yourself a programmer, find a design partner. If you consider yourself a designer, find a programming partner. Exchange these skills, be interested in each other’s craft and learn from each other’s way of doing things. With or without a partner, keep exploring and trying new stuff, get out of your comfort zone, mash two ideas together and make them into one.

Posted 08 August 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Digital, Design
Mentions: Mathieu Triay, Penguin General, BBC
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