Never try and be an entrepreneur and never actively try and sit around a table to invent an idea. It just won't work. Ideas happen, they are not created!

You have many Swedish entries for the FWA, including Farfar, Acne and Forsman+Bodenfors. What do you think of Swedish design?

Yes, we have huge representation for Sweden on the FWA. In fact, over 50 listings for agencies/designers. Also, in The FWA Hall of Fame, out of 9 members, 3 are from Sweden, that’s Fi, North Kingdom and B-Reel.

One thing I have noticed about Swedish design is the level of production quality. Sites like Get the Glass from North Kingdom and Hotel 626 from B-Reel are perfect examples. In some ways, sites like these are defining the future of the web so Sweden is pioneering in a great way.

I am always excited to see a new site submission to FWA from a Swedish agency. Farfar and Acne recently have put out some really cool and original work as well. Farfar’s work for Bjorn Borg is always very creative and sometimes verging on being risky, perfect for the target audience. Whilst Acne, with Lowe Brindfors, behind the recent SOTM winning site for Saab – Change Perspective left us all at FWA wowed.

What are your current competitors in digital design awards? Do you follow the general design award scene, ADC and D&AD etc?

I have been around internet awards since 1997 and closely follow all aspects of it. I feel we have internet awards and award shows. Back in the late 90s internet awards were by the thousand in numbers and I was guilty of chasing them, even if they had no value. After all, who doesn’t like to say they have an award winning site? However, it soon hits home that a site that gives you an “award” for just submitting your work really is valueless and all you are doing is giving credibility to something that might not deserve it. Luckily, those type of internet awards have declined sharply. I was even involved for a short time in an organisation that rated web awards. However, I was appalled at the way they operated as it was more about the award giving body than the work. I created many waves in that and another organisation and feel I opened many people’s eyes at that time as to what awards should be.

Since starting FWA in May of 2000 I have seen many others come and go and even to this day new “awards” are popping up. I am still amazed how many base their model on FWA, even helping themselves to our content and, even better, our legal terms and conditions – which is not a good way to start in this field which requires impeccable standards, honesty and the highest ethics.

With award shows, like Cannes, Webby etc, I feel they fail on one important level, the way the web operates itself... i.e. it’s a 24/7 medium. Having an award show once per year really doesn’t cut it anymore. Whilst I was establishing FWA I tried to talk with some of the award shows to see if there was any way we could work together. Almost all of them ignored my interest. What is interesting now though is how I am regularly approached by those same organisations to see what we can now do for them. I think this definitely signals how they have begun to wake up and realise there is more to give than a one hit wonder award show. Having a successful brand in the 21st century is all about engaging an audience on a daily basis. Content needs to be by the day, not by the year.

The FWA is growing as a business, and is self-funded since 2006. Do you think that online advertising is underestimated?

Yes, FWA is growing year on year, with our best year yet right through this recession. I think the key to the success is the lack of staff and resources. Building things by yourself means you are totally focused and dedicated, almost obsessed. I live FWA 24 hours per day and I’m constantly thinking of ways to improve things, with the focus on what the audience gets first and how I can flip that to a business advantage, mostly by way of advertising. When you look at how the big companies operate, I am amazed they even get to unlock the office doors... so much red tape for the simplest of tasks. I also feel that there are too many people in these big corps just doing a “job”, they have no passion and live for the weekend. People with passion get their buzz during the week.

So, yes, online advertising is hugely underestimated. My advice to anyone selling advertising space is to follow your own ideas, use your own model. Don’t be greedy and sell your space directly to companies within your niche.

I have always avoided advertising services... I pitch directly to major brands like Adobe and Nokia and try and avoid middle men all of the time. Getting your foot in the door is very difficult. It took me seven or eight years to be able to talk to the likes of the aforementioned. Having said that, once you have established an industry recognised website, things do start to get slightly easier. The definitive word being ‘slightly’ and certainly never ‘easy’.

Your background is in finance, sales and project management. How did you get started in the field of creative web design?

In all honesty, I hated the restrictions placed on me as an employee. Maybe I have a lack of respect for authority, I don’t know. Maybe my creative side was busting to get out. Either way, the freedom the internet brought was incredible. I was like a kid in a candy shop when I first had a web connection. 33.3 K modem and I was ready to take over the world! But then I stared at the screen and thought “what next?!”

I soon realised that downloading screensavers and game demos was not all that, and also took ages. This is when I actually had to think of what I could do with this new opportunity... the internet. I downloaded an HTML manual and started to create an HTML site. Man, that was tough! Flash made a huge difference to me as it meant I could place anything, anywhere I wanted to on screen. Now I was a “webmaster”. Hehe, everyone was a webmaster in the 90s!

Tell us more about the Yell UK Web awards in the late 90's, would you say that getting nominated yourself inspired you to start your own awards site? What category were you nominated in, and did you win?

For sure, getting nominated for the Yell awards was a huge buzz, more than I’d had from any of the other meaningless awards I had been applying for. The best part was that they contacted me (which later helped me with scouting for sites for FWA). I had a small agency type website called treecity and was nominated in the category for best Web Design Agency. I can remember deepend being on the shortlist as well. I didn’t win, but didn’t expect to, the nomination was enough for me, I was happy.

What I realised though, with the Yell awards and all the others online at that time was that they didn’t seem to give enough focus to the winners and that’s where I thought I could make a difference. The seed was sown for FWA as I focused on showcasing great work and not my own site. This is still the ethos today, almost 10 years later.

Where in England are you from? What did you want to be when you grow up?

I am just north of London, in Hertfordshire. My parents are Londoners and my Grandfather was Polish. He fled Poland during WW1, using another man’s name to get out of the country.

I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. In fact, asking kids that question at school is a total joke. It’s almost like asking a weather forecaster to predict what the weather with be the next day... they never get it right!

I left school at 16, with 6 GCEs, nothing special. I hated school with a passion and stopped applying myself when I hit puberty. Up until then I was straight ‘A’s. I guess I had no control past that point. I then worked in a bank and did well but it was so boring, pen pushing all day long. I then did numerous other jobs including a stint at American Express but I hated going to work, it just wasn’t me.

I can remember one job, where I lasted 2 days and walked out. Went to a friend’s house and was talking to his dad. He could see all the jobs I was getting through and the shorter durations of them and said to me that I would never work for anyone ever again. It’s only now that I realise how right he was. It was possibly a defining time in my life as I have always been my own boss ever since. I now work harder than ever and love it. Even though the stress sometimes does get to you.

Bottom line here is that you should always follow your heart and do something you enjoy.

Tell us about the first website you designed, I heard (read in previous interviews) there was gif-animations and lake applets...

It was on some free hosting site, called something like altern8webdesign, a bit of a rip of the band altern8 which I was into at the time. Animated gifs all over, including a neon flashing “open 24 hours” sign. The virtual tarantula walking all over the screen has to be the best though doesn’t it? Can you seriously imagine it? Especially from someone who is scared of spiders!

Flash changed all of this though and I started to make some half decent sites. However, I soon realised that so was everyone else and my natural progression away from being a designer to showcasing design is the best thing I have ever done. TheFWA.com has served up around 70 million site visits since.

You are currently working on the new FWA site, how did you decide the time was right for a re-design / re-brand of FWA?

The whole project has grown so huge that I even considered selling FWA as it’s a huge responsibility to cope with. The buck always ends with me and I don’t have the business, financial or legal resources that I really need. I have had 3 failed acquisition attempts in recent years. However, these have helped me focus and continue to build rather than selling out.

The new FWA website is long overdue, with the current site being almost 4 years old now. The current site has been superb but the web is so fast moving that a lot has changed since 2005 and we need a site that is more progressive and user based. We won’t be rebranding as the FWA brand is strong and well known globally but the new site will be a big shift upwards.

You're adding a community function to the new site – how important do you think user-generated content is for the FWA as your traffic is already high?

Yes, our traffic is high, nudging 3 million site visits per month from over 400,000 unique users. It’s the amount of users we have who can’t actually interact that has troubled me for so long. I had a simple idea earlier this year which will give our audience an exciting new way of getting involved with FWA. I am very confident they will love the new feature and can’t wait to get the new site launched.

You had to introduce submission charges in 2006, when FWA was receiving over 200 entries per day and you were the only one working on judging. Do you think people have got used to paying for stuff on the internet, since Napster was shut down in 2001?

Exactly that, I came from an internet world where everything was free. Times are starting to change and moving to a paid submission process was a must for FWA. If I hadn’t, I’m pretty sure the project would have closed by now. You can’t work 40 hours per day looking at sites for nothing. I now have a team of 40 judges on SOTD judging and they sometimes struggle to cope with the relentless daily routine of judging sites, which is naturally much lower due to submissions being a paid for process.

Content for money is the future of the web. The tricky bit is introducing it. If you have unique content, you are on to a winner. This is why news sites will always struggle to charge for content as sites like BBC will almost certainly always provide news for free, so everyone will migrate to the free content.

With FWA, we are able to charge a submission fee for a number of reasons, the most important being that if you win you will get massive global exposure – some companies still thank us to this day for putting them on the world stage.

The FWA has thirty judges for SOTD, and over hundred industry experts judging SOTY. How do you choose who judges the awards?

For SOTY it’s invitation only. Over the last 10 years I have built up a massive network of contacts. The most difficult thing when putting together each year’s panel is who to leave out!

SOTD judging is what FWA is all about so these guys are the most important to me. We don’t name them on site as I don’t want them to take any flack when a site wins that someone doesn’t like. But I will say they are an incredible team, from all over the world and all levels in the interactive field. The only requirement to be considered for SOTD judging is that you must have at least 1 FWA win, either personally or as part of a team.

Every so often a judge will pull out due to lack of time and I usually post a request up on my twitter account at http://twitter.com/fwa. It amazes me how powerful twitter is as I usually receive 20 or 30 replies within 10 minutes and have to take down the initial request to stop even more coming through.

You mentioned in a previous interview (adverblog.com dec 2008) that clearing your mind is the best tonic and source of inspiration. Isn't it contradicting to the whole idea of FWA, where visitors search for inspiration amongst the massive amount of creative web projects?

Hehe, nice try! My inspiration comes when I’m either walking the dog, taking a shower or just about to fall asleep. So, yes, clearing your mind is the best way, IMO, to find inspiration, for anything in life.

Does that mean that people shouldn’t be looking at other websites for inspiration? No, not at all. The majority of people who follow FWA winners do so regularly and even if they don’t find inspiration when they are actively looking for it, they will still be seeding their subconscious mind with what they are looking at. This will allow their subconscious mind to give them the inspiration they need, maybe later that day, or even later at another time.

A classic example is if you try and remember a name of someone and you just can’t. All of a sudden, later the name comes into your mind, even though you were not thinking about it. Inspiration works the same way. Sow the seed and wait for germination.

Will digital media lead to the death of publishing? It can be argued that the internet has been around long enough, if publishing was to become extinct it would have happened a long time ago.

I hate to say it but print is dead. If I ever receive a web magazine now, I only look at the pictures, they have become fodder for dentist and doctor’s waiting rooms. I think books will still have a place but topical print, like newspapers and monthly magazines will become the dinosaurs of this generation. The lead time for publishing something makes it impossible to compete with the web’s NOW generation. I would hazard a guess that FWA receives more visits in one day (120,000) that most leading web magazines sell in an entire year. Having said that, people still love to see their work in print but the whole print way of life is so archaic, much like TV, which is also on a downward spiral. Advertising on TV has to change. The days of allowing someone to watch something and then stopping their enjoyment and forcing them to watch an advert has got to change. People are now in charge of what they want to look at and this is why the web is so popular.

What do you think of the latest issue of Colors magazine, that uses QR code to make the reader interact the printed material to digital content on their website (http://teenagers.colorsmagazine.com/tutorial.php)?

I am hearing a lot about QR codes, much like Augmented Reality. I am sceptical but ready to see how this all develops. At the moment, it seems gimmicky but I am sure some talented individuals will take both to levels that could make them become a part of the way we look at things.

What do you think of the idea of using dark backgrounds on websites for enrivonmental reasons? For example if a popular website like Google had a black background instead of white, screens across the world would use less electricity and therefore save energy? Is the internet a threat to the environment?

OMG, how deep is that as a question?! :) The climate is a big topic right now for sure. It’s good that we are all talking about it. We need global action, that’s for sure but I hope it’s not a chance for governments to tax us more whilst making out it’s for the greener good of us all. We all need to do our bit but I think right now we have the headless chicken syndrome, thrashing about, pointing at everything, especially us, the consumer and general public. There are some huge polluters in this world but we all need to do our bit as well.

As for black backgrounds... I think we would end up with a lot of people with eyesight problems. White text on black backgrounds is a killer on the eyes.

Is the internet a threat to the environment? Who knows... it’s a great education tool so it might be the opposite. Only time will tell.

The recession is affecting all areas of business and creative fields. But it also opens the market to aspiring entrepeneurs. How do you think the recession has effected the internet?

For FWA, all aspects have grown through this recession and I firmly believe the internet is the safest place to be for a long time yet. The market is wide open to aspiring entrepreneurs but not those who call themselves entrepreneurs. True entrepreneurs never use the term as they don’t think in that mindset. People become entrepreneurs without knowing it, mostly by following a passion, dream or idea and fulfilling it to the max.

Never try and be an entrepreneur and never actively try and sit around a table to invent an idea. It just won’t work. Ideas happen, they are not created!


Rob Ford
Rob Ford

Presenting Website Of The Year at The Guardian Student Media Awards 2009, in Camden, London.
Presenting Website Of The Year at The Guardian Student Media Awards 2009, in Camden, London.

Animated logo opener by Timo Boese, with audio by Michael Fakesch.

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