First Hand — How do you design for the weather? Met Office’s Ross Middleham explains

Posted 15 January 2020 Introduction by Ayla Angelos
Written by Ross Middleham

More often than not, we wake up in the morning, inhale some coffee and then check the weather before we head out for the day. No one wants to rashly run out the house without an umbrella only to find that it’s chucking it down. Founded all the way back in 1854, the UK's national weather service, the Met Office, has long kept us informed of what to expect from the skies, but now it increasingly broadcasts its predictions through social media and graphics, as well as TV and radio. As the Met Office's content and social lead, Ross Middleham is responsible for masterminding this material. He tells us all about working at such an “incredibly scientific” organisation, what it’s like delivering content 24/7 and how he specifically designs for weather, come rain or shine.

The Met Office website

Designing the Weather

Wayfarers or waterproofs? Bicycle or bus? Cardigan or coat? The Met Office is on hand to prepare you. I work as the content and social lead at the Met Office, based in Exeter, Devon. My team is part of the wider marketing and communications team and we oversee design and video production as well as the publishing across our social channels. Yes, the Met Office really does have a content team, full of designers, animators and video producers.

Examples of Stories for the Met Office Instagram Account

Keeping up with Change

A big part of my role is to make sure that we're producing timely, accurate and creatively brilliant content. Our information is important, and can even be vital when conditions are life-threatening – so communication needs to be clear and easy-to-understand.

My work spans the whole office. From internal communications, to marketing campaigns and other digital products. We’re working hard to pull together and deliver a consistent ‘brand experience’ that people get when they visit our website or social channels.

“Our information can be vital when conditions are life-threatening – so communication needs to be clear and easy-to-understand.”

I help to lead our ever-evolving brand framework and toolkits. Our brand DNA, positioning and tone-of-voice underpin everything we create. UX, visual design, video production, editing, storyboarding and customer experience are all elements I’m working to align in order to help build familiarity for users.

We are obsessed by design, content and social media, and we recognise that all of these things increasingly collide and overlap. No longer are the majority of people watching weather forecasts on TV, at the same time, once a day. That world has changed. It’s noisy, disruptive and disjointed; we need to be aware of that and constantly adapt the ways that we’re serving up our information.

“It’s noisy, disruptive and disjointed; we need to be aware of that and constantly adapt the ways that we’re serving up our information.”

Ross at Work

A Medley of Skills

The ability to take complex scientific research and facts and turn them into engaging and easy-to-understand messages, is fundamental to the job. I find that using pen and paper really helps those conversations. Scribbling, storyboarding and sketching helps to bridge any knowledge gaps between my designer brain and our expert scientists to ensure there are no misunderstandings. It also helps to get stuff signed off and out of the door quickly. Weather information is time-sensitive, so we need to be able to react fast.

Rather than specialising in one particular area, we’re multi-skilled content producers in our team. As and when needed, the designers can cover and edit in the Media Studio, ensuring Channel 5 weather is delivered; script writers can animate to help hit tight deadlines; and presenters can write and create storyboards to kick-start projects.

Continuously Learning

When weighing up whether to work for an agency or an in-house team, the agency side is often seen as being the much more attractive option. When I moved from agency to in-house, I was worried that the work was going to lack in variety – soon I realised that I wasn’t just going to be designing weather symbols and sticking them on maps.

Working in-house brings with it a whole host of other opportunities, none of which I considered when I was growing up drawing stuff and creating things just for fun. I wasn’t sure what direction my skills would take me. After getting a variety of design-based qualifications at school, I trained as a new media designer at Bournemouth University, learning about interactive design, UI and UX, as well as training in stuff like Adobe Director (now discontinued) and Flash. I then worked at a local design and print agency, rebranding small businesses, designing book covers and collaborating on tourism guides. One day I spotted that the Met Office were advertising for a new media designer – it seemed weird not to apply considering that was the name of my degree, but I never imagined that such a huge establishment would want me.

“Soon I realised that I wasn’t just going to be designing weather symbols and sticking them on maps.”

Ross' sketches

Designing for an Organisation

People need showing and reminding that creativity is more than just a bunch of visuals. It’s the thinking, the ideas, the connecting of conversations and embracing change that all make a difference.

It’s important to throw yourself in at every opportunity across an organisation. It doesn’t have to be visual design, you can still be useful by bringing a different perspective to a problem.

Everything an organisation creates is a form of communication and you can apply design skills to help those things become more effective. Whether it’s a strategy, a form, some slides or a simple email, core design principles can help make improvements. For example, always thinking about the audience and what channel communications will be delivered on might sound obvious, but it’s often overlooked.

Ross' whiteboard

Work Hard and Focus on the Details

We can’t say it’s snowing on Instagram and that it’s sunny on Twitter. To help with this, we’ve adopted a newsroom approach to how we create content.

We gather a team of experts twice a day from across the office and run an editorial meeting to work out when and why people are caring about the weather. I run the meeting using a whiteboard – this makes it easy to capture ideas and change plans quickly. We then log this into a live spreadsheet and assign tasks to make bespoke content, tailored per channel to tell one consistent story. That story could include presented explainer videos on Facebook, bespoke explainer graphics on Twitter, behind-the-scenes footage on Snapchat or longer, reusable education animations – like the stuff that sits on our YouTube channel, Learn About Weather.

“My favourite colour might be neon pink but that’s irrelevant if I’m designing to represent our brand.”

We've developed a strong visual identity which helps make things familiar and recognisable, enabling us to work from a series of format templates to help speed up the production. It’s worth remembering though, it's not about personal preference once a decision has been made. Of course you need to continually review guidelines, but it’s all about ensuring consistency as well as giving people the tools and resources to help them follow suit. My favourite colour might be neon pink but that’s irrelevant if I’m designing to represent our brand.

Make Things Happen

What I love about the Met Office is that if you’ve got a good idea and enough drive, you can make it happen. The important thing is to be aware of the drivers of the business and the value the idea could bring. You have to think, “does this crazy idea ultimately help what the business is trying to achieve?” If not, ditch it, or work back from the craziness to make sure the idea is useful.

I’ve led numerous design sessions at universities, set a You Can Now (YCN) brief, organised and run a day-long event in a bowling alley as part of D&AD New Blood (including sessions with Twitter, Taxi Studio, innocent and DixonBaxi), created a huge coin river to raise money for WaterAid, turned a ShelterBox into a giant money box, plus designed and worked on a disco rhino as part of an international arts project. Drive, determination and positivity are key to making things happen. And remember, you don’t have to do it all yourself.

Be Prepared to Evolve

It’s really important to help your brand remain relevant and move with the times. You probably do it naturally, but if not then force yourself to keep up with trends and new technology.

I’d be lying if I said that it was all plain sailing though – it’s tough. Some days it feels like you’re making no progress, and most of the time you feel out of your depth. But that’s important; we’re trying to work at the cutting edge of social media to produce the best and most useful content we possibly can, and that means we’re having to constantly learn by testing, trying, getting stuff wrong and, hopefully, getting more stuff right.

“As long as I’m enjoying what I do and feel like I’m making a difference, then I’m happy.”

I’m very conscious of remaining relevant and to me that means keeping close connections with the ‘real world’ – such as agencies, universities, students, social media, fashion, art and trends. I’m still massively enjoying the opportunities and challenges in-house, but agency work or academia can never be ruled out should the right position come along. As long as I’m enjoying what I do and feel like I’m making a difference, then I’m happy.

Posted 15 January 2020 Introduction by Ayla Angelos
Written by Ross Middleham
Introduction: Ayla Angelos
Collection: First Hand
Disciplines: Digital

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