Rob Ford is an industry icon, best-selling author and champion of ground-breaking digital creativity. In 2000, Rob founded the FWA (Favourite Website Awards). For 20 years, the FWA has been a beacon for challenging, celebrating and highlighting the best of the industry.  Today, the FWA boasts more 300+ jurors from 35+ countries and it remains the global standard for showcasing the most progressive and forward-thinking digital projects from individuals, agencies and brands. Rob is also the author of four best-selling books. His most recent is an epic chronicle of creativity and the digital revolution: Web Design. The Evolution of the Digital World 1990-Today. SoDA’s Executive Director, Tom Beck, caught up with Rob to chat about the book, the current state of digital design, the personal challenges of being a creator and why it’s high time for the industry to get its mojo back.

How did you decide to start FWA and what drove you, personally, to champion digital creativity over these past two decades?

The 1990s became a time in my life where I wondered why I was here on Earth. My father buying a Windows 95 PC in 1997 took me away from my Amiga 500 games into a world of downloading screensavers and anything else the web had to offer. This door to a new world blew my mind and totally captivated me.

Looking for affirmation for my work, something I have always mentally needed, I stumbled upon internet awards and a huge awards community who enforced rules and criteria and were passionate, but were also more focused on their awards and award ratings than the work they were awarding.

It was my time as a member of this community that inspired me to set up my own award where the focus would be all of the amazing work I was seeing, instead of becoming embroiled in a world of rules, criteria and score sheets.

Treecity Favourite Website Awards very quickly became FWA in May of 2000, at a time when web design with Flash was exploding. The buzz I got from seeing or finding a new and cool web experience is what drove me and still does to this day. I always felt if I found a website that gave me goosebumps, I wanted to share it with the world and that’s pretty much the FWA ethos.

An image of a television set for the FWA
Treecity Favourite Website Awards, 2000. Image credit Rob Ford.

While you write about, chronicle and champion digital creativity you are, of course, a brilliant creator yourself and writing a book such as yours is no small feat. What’s something new you learned about yourself in tackling this project?

Well, Web Design. The Evolution of the Digital World 1990-Today is my fourth book with Taschen and the most challenging in a big way. I actually started writing it, in February 2008 after Nokia invited me to their HQ in Finland to do a talk on cutting edge web design. Due to anxiety, I couldn’t face the thought of doing the talk and offered to write an article detailing the last decade of web design. This became the starting point and I continued to write a summary of each year of the best web work, including writing a monthly cutting-edge web design round-up for Adobe’s flagship newsletter for 7 years.

Rob Ford's book cover for Web Design
Rob Ford’s book on web design. Image credit Rob Ford.

The main thing I learned about myself was that I continue to fear rejection, and this drove me to give the book everything I had, both physically and mentally. I had many counselling sessions where they were solely about the book and the anguish I was struggling with at any one time. This fear of rejection and getting things wrong continues to drive me to perfection with everything I do. It’s a very sharp double-edged sword.

As you began writing the book, were there any surprises or big ah-has, things you’d forgotten or perhaps didn’t recognize as so important at the time?

It’s actually really interesting because writing the book made me realize we have gone full circle and are back to page 1 of creativity, well, in websites at least. My book clearly shows how Flash was responsible for the web’s most creative era, an era that no longer seems to exist. Due to timescales alone, we now have new generations coming into digital who have no idea what came before so this new world of cookie cutter websites, single page scrolling parallax websites and total lack of personality is the norm.

I always knew how important it was for websites to have personality (think tokyoplastic), especially the work of individuals and that seems to have just vanished. It saddens me but the good news is it can change immediately.

A graphic illustration with the Chinese flag at the center
Tokyoplastic website, 2003. Image credit Tokyoplastic.

A massive shout out to anyone creating a personal portfolio site, don’t worry about showcasing those super cool big tech brands as clients in your portfolio, that will unlikely get you a great job at the likes of MediaMonks or Jam3, just go crazy creating something that is an extension of your imagination and load it up to your personal domain. Execute it well and you will be getting job offers!

What’s your perspective on the current state of digital design?

Actually, IMO, there isn’t a lot of great digital design out there today and the volume is at its lowest ever. In the heady days of Flash, circa 2001-2003, multiple times a day we would see ground-breaking work or a new project that compelled you to want to share. That might happen a handful of time per year now.

There used to be agencies like Group94 and 2Advanced Studios that would launch, what seemed like an incredible website every month. Now, the agencies that still exist seem to work on just a few massive projects per year and it feels like they are no longer household names within the industry as we barely hear from them.

There remain a few, with the likes of MediaMonks being the prime example, who continue to push things forward and innovate with almost every project, and they somehow maintain a frequent flow of high quality FWA winning projects.

How do you think the industry can get some of its mojo back? As you look back on the digital design revolution, are there lessons or principles that we’ve already lost?

If I was an agency Founder, I would be encouraging individuals to create personal projects on their own. Just let their personalities and imaginations go wild on agency time.

As I look back, all I see is that we have absolutely lost the fun and cool factor. Maybe, as a 50 year old man, it’s easy for me to find the buzz from nostalgia. I just want the current generation, when they are 50, to look back and get the same buzz I do from nostalgia, I want the next generation to be the new rebels of digital, stop looking up to us middle aged folk telling you how great things were. Be different, be yourself and give “it” everything you have without any focus on monetary reward, Likes, RTs etc.

As you think about digital creativity and innovation in storytelling (or experience design), what most excites you about the coming decade – where do you see the biggest promise?

Without a shadow of doubt, the excitement is outside of the browser. It’s not on your desktop. It’s not on your phone. It’s in the world around you. It’s the big interactive installations and experiential work where the buzz is happening again.

A digital media piece of art by the agency Media Monks
The Hive Drive by Media Monks and Google, 2019. Image credit Media Monks.

Websites themselves, IMO, have gone full circle and are back to the early 1990s becoming pure informational portals loaded with annoying advertising and, now, legal policies taking over every web experience. Personally, I think that websites are now the worst they have ever been and I find browsing websites to be painful on many levels.

I did a quick inventory of agencies and projects featured in the book and it looks like around 25 SoDA member agencies (past and present) representing around 50 projects made the cut. Can you comment on some of the contributions SoDA members have made to the industry over the years?

Before SoDA was founded in 2007, I had been showcasing the work of agencies from around the world for seven years and was delighted to be a part, in a tiny way, to help SoDA launch by running a free banner slot on the FWA to help with the launch. Working with the likes of Richard Lent (AgencyNet), Michael Lebowitz (Big Spaceship), Freddie Laker (ichameleon group) and others at the time was a privilege and, over twelve years later I remain in awe of how SoDA agencies remain at the forefront of the industry.

I feel what is most relevant is that SoDA members, past and present have left a historical and pioneering footprint since the 1990s and that spirit still reigns strong. With SoDA members being responsible for some of the best web work of all time, including North Kingdom’s Get the Glass; B-Reel’s The Wilderness Downtown and EVB’s Elf Yourself, what more can one say?!

There is a lot of talk in the industry about “design ethics.” As digital technology becomes pervasive and more and more powerful (and increasingly fueled by AI and data – both personal and private), how should designers think about their responsibility and the future/potential future impact of their work?

What’s interesting in my world, a lone wolf working in an office space alone for over twenty years is that I am not amongst the issues and talk of the industry. I’ve always been a watcher from afar and it’s amazing how the phrase “an onlooker always sees more” stands up.

We don’t need to suddenly be talking about design ethics. Ethics is the core to FWA’s success and should be one of the most important moral principles of individuals, brands, agencies and yep, politicians too! The world would be a better place in every avenue of our lives, the world of digital too, if we all employed high ethics. Just do what’s right.

If you hadn’t created the FWA, what do you think you’d be doing today?

Before I founded FWA I was suffering and signed off work with major depression. I had worked in a bank, in a travel agent, as a car salesman, and all sorts of other random jobs. I was the classic young man, not understanding why I was here and feeling insignificant with no self-worth. So, if I hadn’t created FWA, maybe I would still be searching for UFOs and aliens… a topic I was reading about whilst searching for a meaning to life. This is somewhat tongue in cheek now, but it wasn’t back them. Thankfully, I can look back and see the journey I have been on and can thank Flash for saving me.