Gravitywho? Tom Foster
In this series, I interview the award-winning team of creative geeks, thinkers and grafters, one by one.
Hey Tom! Where are you from and how long have you been at Gravitywell?
I’ve literally just joined Gravitywell; I started in mid-July this year (2022). I’m taking on a new role in the business as Head of Commercial, the idea is that I bring my background in design to the business development process to frame the work that Gravitywell does, and develop the way in which we ‘coach’ clients to achieve better outcomes.
Technically, I hail from Taunton but I grew up in Kent before relocating from London to Bristol (via India) in 2017.
Wow, that's one hell of a diversion! What’s the best thing about working here (so far)?
Well, it’s very early days indeed, but I’m so impressed by the culture, capability and trust within the team. Simon’s built a company with integrity and a reputation to match, so there’s a lot to work with commercially. I can sense that the company is evolving to become the 'go-to' startup studio or technical partner for early-stage businesses in Bristol. We know what it takes to grow a solid digital business, and that means we can choose to build products that solve problems we really care about.
Absolutely. Who would be your dream client and what would you like to work on for them?
Blimey. I mean there really is no greater challenge (and therefore opportunity) than addressing the climate emergency. If we’re not all clear on this by now, then I really think we’re up shit creek without a paddle. So anything which is directly focused on climate solutions would ease my already substantial anxiety.
Well, that's a blow for Exxon Mobil then. How did you get into your role?
How long have you got?! My path to Gravitywell has taken many twists and turns – all of which make sense to me in hindsight, but which didn’t feel particularly valid at the time.
I began in television journalism as a ‘Shooting Junior Researcher’ for “Who do you think you are?” where I documented BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce’s family tree. Then after a while, I took an opportunity to jump into a news industry startup, where I learned about user-centred design and decided to commit to a full career change into UX and Service Design.
Design is a much broader church than many people realise, and I’ve always been drawn to the ethnography end of the spectrum. I think the discipline of journalistic thinking (which values evidence, clarity of communication and empathy) is a superpower for designers.
Now I apply these skills to help Gravitywell to empathise with, understand and guide our customers to focus their resources on answering the right questions.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to get into design?
Well, as I mentioned above - design is a very broad church, with lots of specialisms that could each be a career in their own right. You can claim to be a ‘full stack designer’ but most often you will have inclinations to a key skill or even theme of work that will define your contribution.
There’s no shortage of this kind of work either, with the World Economic Forum naming ‘critical thinking’ as a top skill for the workplace. On this basis, my advice for someone starting out is to focus on cultivating a practice of design.
This means, finding a role that provides you with:
- a diversity of work to experience
- a collaborative community of cross-functional colleagues
- a supportive community of practice
- the freedom to experiment and try different tools and methods that work for you
- the psychological safety required to experiment and fail constructively
In terms of core skills, besides problem-solving, some of the best designers I’ve worked with have been visual thinkers that can explore or bring a concept to life instantly. So practise drawing whilst you’re young; I wish I had!
Finally, you should also focus on growing your tolerance for ambiguity initially, and get comfortable making sense of complexity: not easy to do, but made easier by collaboration.
Sage advice. Now, what’s the worst thing about the industry?
Like all developed industries, there is an underlying tendency to over-complicate the work. Design thinkers tend to be too eager to geek out on ‘tools’ and ‘methodologies’ which can sometimes make the job feel inaccessible.
The truth is that the essence of our work is simple: to cut through the noise, find the essence of a problem, and do just enough to solve or improve it. The trick is to find what works for you to achieve this and start from there rather than try to learn best practice from scratch.
Keep it simple, yet effective. What’s your favourite piece of tech and why?
To be honest, in my old age I’m becoming more and more of a Luddite outside of my job. I really get so much out of a non-digital day now - recently I went to a festival in north Norfolk with an appalling phone signal and came away feeling like I’d broken the magic spell of phone addiction. So, controversially, I’m going to say my running shoes as they represent something analogue that’s very important to me: exercise and exploration in the great outdoors.
The Forrest Gump of tech. Love it. Right, the most important question: Your Hackathon dream destination would be..?
Well, now we’re talking… It’s got to be mountains or sea - bonus points for both. Off the top of my head, if the carbon impact of travel is discounted, I’ll say Tulum in Mexico. Perhaps we could rent a villa on the sea, and the rest writes itself.
Finally, what’s the best-kept secret in Bristol?
Well, it would be self-defeating to shout about it here, but the view from Troopers Hill is a stunner. A great spot to have a quiet moment to yourself with one of the best views in the city. Then you can pop to Beese’s on the River Avon for a pint afterwards. See you there.
Many thanks to Tom for being interviewed.
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