Interview: Rob Alderson, Editor In Chief of It’s Nice That.com

In the next of our informal interviews questioning design industry heads that you perhaps may not have heard of we talked to Rob Alderson, Editor-in-Chief of leading art & design showcase website ItsNiceThat.com.

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Ego: What was the career path that led you to the editor role for INT.com?

Rob Alderson: After I left university I worked at an art gallery in Mayfair for a couple of years before retraining as a journalist in 2008. The original plan was to work in newspapers and initially I joined a small local paper on the south coast to cut my teeth; an intense but invaluable introduction to being a hack! During that time I came up to freelance for It’s Nice That, copy-editing their early magazines and one evening got into a conversation with the founder Will Hudson about how they could move the blog forward editorially. That turned into a different conversation which turned into me joining as online editor in 2011.


What informed your decision to move into design journalism?

I never expected to be a design journalist. I was intrigued and excited by the challenges of joining a small, independent and dynamic media company after a couple of years working in pretty much the opposite of that. I also came in to learn about design; it was interesting being an outsider at first because I could focus on the journalism side.


Do you have formal design training and if so do you still design i.e as freelance, with self-led projects etc?

Absolutely none. Over three years I think I have picked up some knowledge but I surround myself with people who do come from that background and am very aware of what I know and what I don’t. I like to think it works quite well; some design journalism can be quite impenetrable but I always come to it from a slightly different perspective and (hopefully) ask questions that non-designers might ask. It’s always a balance but one of our key values is accessibility and we don’t want our platforms to be aimed only at those in the creative industries.  


How did INT.com come into being, I believe it may started as an offshoot from an agency?

No it was the other way round. It’s Nice That started as a university project when our founder Will Hudson was at Brighton. They were asked to create something that would make the world better and he had this idea for a blog that was purely positive. It grew from there, and after a while people started to come to Will and (co-director) Alex Bec asking about design work. So the two sides grew side-by-side really. Now, although it’s technically two companies (the agency is INT Works) there is a good symbiosis between the two.


Could you describe the INT.com editorial process, from idea to published article?

It starts with an editorial meeting on a Monday morning where the entire ed team (myself, online editor Liv Siddall, magazine editor James Cartwright, assistant editor Maisie Skidmore and one or two freelancers) sit down to discuss either work we have found or work that has been submitted. It’s a democratic process but the discussions can be quite lively; is it original in idea or execution? Is it exciting? If it’s design work does it fulfil its brief? Our four key content pillars are graphic design, illustration, photography and art so we try and get a spread of those across the articles. I’d say about two thirds of stuff gets through and Liv then plans out the coming days on the big content posters we have on the walls. Things move if something new crops up that is very time sensitive but that gives us a shape to our week. Once written the posts get sent to Liv who checks over and publishes in either the am (8:45) or pm (12:30) content tranche.


You say that you publish a base of 9 articles that champion creativity. What are the criteria for the work that you feature?  Is it simply perhaps how good you and your team believes it to be or are you dictated by industry trends to maintain relevance for a wider audience?

There is no checklist as such but the three things I mentioned above are pretty key. Over and above that, we have three overarching values. Firstly we’re positive – we want to celebrate great work and the people who make it above everything else. Secondly we like to be eclectic; I think the site works best when we have different kinds of content all coming together, the common thread being the quality of the work. Thirdly we’re meritocratic; if someone is good enough, they’re old enough and we love showcasing students’ work. But that meritocracy cuts both ways and if a big company does something great, that deserves to be on the site as well. For instance, I think it’s at its best when we have a second year illustration students alongside a Nike project.

We work very hard to try and ensure it’s not just dictated by our whims or personal tastes, if something doesn’t immediately excite us we do spend some time considering it from other angles. As for trends we try to be aware of them but not led by them. 


How much work do you search out? How much comes direct to you via submissions?

I can never be quite sure about the exact percentages but I’d say maybe 60-40 found to sent as a ratio. It’s great getting sent stuff but often we receive the same portfolio updates or press releases as every other art and design site. It’s important to mix that up with things people might not have seen elsewhere. It never fails to amaze me what my editorial team discover given enough time to root around the internet.


What has been INT.com’s most/least successful feature in the last year?

This year it has been short videos Daniel Hashimoto made for his son. He works in CGI and added some incredible effects into small films of his son having breakfast or playing in the living room. They’re fun, they’re charming, they’re extremely well done and they’re between ten and 15 seconds long so very shareable. I couldn’t really say what the least successful article was. Some things may not connect quite as immediately as others but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be on the site; not everything should be chasing hits.


In your role as editor what have been the most personally rewarding experiences/achievements?

I think it’s how we’ve grown over the three years I’ve been here whilst retaining a clear sense of what we’re trying to do and why we come to work each morning. On a personal level it’s amazing when someone emails you to say they got a commission from a major magazine or picked up by a gallery because of an article on the site.  


15 years ago Design Week and Creative Review were the places to look for visual culture information but with the growth of the Net blogs and magazine sites like INT.com have become just as important if not more so. Do you agree?

I think a lot of us are trying to do different things so there’s room for everyone. Design Week and Creative Review are like the “paper of record” equivalents, a lot of people look to them for an overview of the industry. Newer sites like ours have different approaches and I think plurality can only be a good thing, for readers and for the creative industries. But as more and more sites appear I think trust becomes really key. If people trust in your taste and your integrity then they’re more likely to stick with you even if there’s more and more platforms competing for their attention. 


Do you see INT's role as more relevant? I would say your coverage pulls in from a wider catchment of work for example?

It depends how you define relevant I suppose. Breadth is a really key part of what we do and that works for us but other sites have built themselves as the specialist place for a certain disciplines. We’re very relaxed about what other art and design sites are doing; we stay up-to-date with them of course and learn things if and when we can buy we don’t fret about being outflanked or anything like that. We believe in what we’re doing and what we stand for. 


Do you see this democratisation of design critique as positive or negative? Perhaps less informed people now have more of a say?

I don’t think it’s about dumbing down and I’m a big believer that content can be intelligent/informed and accessible. There will always be a place for Design Observer which is brilliant but a site like It’s Nice That adds context and insight in a different way. I don’t think one threatens the other. And if you really don’t know what you’re talking about you’ll get found out sooner or later. 


How do you see INT.com’s role in comparison to theirs? Is there room for both?

It’s Nice That is slightly different because we have the magazine (Printed Pages) which is all about depth and discovery, with 2,000+ word interviews, features etc. But particularly online we don’t claim to be design critics so I don’t see how we can undermine design criticism.


In your view what is the USP that makes is successful?

Apart from some of the things I’ve mentioned I’d say it’s the tone. We’re serious about what we do but we don’t take ourselves too seriously and that shines through in the writing. Art and design coverage can sometimes feel so hushed and reverential and exclusive; I love that our writing is all about enthusiasm, irreverence and a bit of fun. 


How do you publicise, if at all or is your success simply the content?

We try and get out to meet people, giving talks and that kind of thing. Other than that our energy is focussed on making sure what we do is as good as it can be.  


What do you see as the INT.com role in the design community and in wider society?

We’re mindful that we’ve been going seven years now and so our role has changed and will change in that time. In the design community we bring a slightly different voice to some other outlets and we’re looking at ways we can mature as an organisation without losing our identity. For wider society we hope we’re a bit of a way in to the design community, where people can come and have a poke about and not feel intimidated or out of their depth. Beyond that the internet can be a very cynical, hostile place and I like that we have staked out a little corner that is always upbeat.    


Have you noticed any trends in the work now being produced?

This isn’t a trend per se but something I’ve really noticed is designers taking much greater care across the board in how they document their work. I am sure this is with the blogosphere etc. in mind but I don’t think that’s a bad thing because I don’t get the sense people are designing for that sphere, rather once they’ve completed a project they are mindful of showing it off to maximum effect. 


With such a wide amount of channels available it can feel that work is being designed for social media success i.e fan art that follows memes, simple graspable concepts, less rigour perhaps? Would you agree to any extent?

Yes to some extent and it’s something we’re aware of. It comes down to how you cover something; we wouldn’t praise something of that ilk in the same way we would some great branding work or a beautiful publication.


A popular criticism of mainstream publications such as Design Week, Creative Review and now INT.com is that they are not representative of the whole design community, rather that the focus is always only ever with a small coterie of designers and agencies and a certain type of work. This creates a canon of work that becomes seen as 'the best' but ultimately follows the same process and perhaps even a similar aesthetic. Do you believe this to be a fair judgement, is this even a problem in your view?

I went to the Design Business Effectiveness Awards recently and wrote this piece about a commercial/creative split (for want of less simplistic terminology) in the design world. We don’t claim to “represent the whole design community” and we credit our readers to understand there’s a whole world of design out there we don’t cover. If something is particularly on trend we do try and mention that so that even people with less of a design background understand it’s not what all design looks like.  

Also this is where multiplicity comes in. I don’t think Design Week, Creative Review and us all cover the same kinds of designers so straightaway the “coterie” we are promoting is pretty splintered.