North v South on starting a design podcast

Designers Rob Turpin and Jonathan Elliman are the voices behind the fabulous design podcast, North v South. Cutting through all the usual dogma and hyperbole of the creative industries, each week they chat candidly about all the latest design news, kickstartings, books, websites and pies. We asked them about the philosophical, technical and culinary challenges of design-podcasting, and what advice they might have for anyone wishing to follow them onto the airwaves.

How did NvS come about?

Rob Turpin: Jon and I used to work together at a little design agency in St Margaret’s near Twickenham. We got on very well straight away and found we shared a lot of the same interests – whether in design terms or anything else. We’ve both ended up working, predominantly, alone now and missed the chat and discussion we had over the top of our iMacs in the office. Jon suggested the idea of a podcast to try and replicate that relationship - talking about design, but also all the other stuff that interested us.

Jonathan Elliman: The name came from an idea I’d had ages ago for a new studio where everything was about contrast and contradiction. Like many of my plans it went the way of the dodo but I always liked the name. With the podcast, I liked the idea that it would be easy to get going and, more importantly, keep going. More than a blog anyway. Rob was the obvious choice as a presenter as he’s very curious in things and how they work. Oh, and he’s northern. I like the punk idea of podcasts. It’s very fanzine/lo-fi and that appeals to me enormously. I don’t want to be measuring its success or numbers of visitors. It’s just a distillation of the chats Rob and I used to have in the studio. Nothing’s really changed.

You cover all aspects of design, designing, designs, designers, designiness – how do you choose what you’re going to discuss each week?

RT: We have a couple of lists bouncing around of episode ideas, some have been on that list for months – we might get around to them at some point – and some just spring to mind and make it straight to the next episode. We try to have a design slant to our main discussion each week, even if it’s only vaguely connected. News can be anything from recent branding stories, interesting (or terrible) Kickstarters we’ve seen, or just odd stuff we’ve read about that week.

JE: This is way harder than I thought it would be. It turns out that the better episodes are when we riff on a loose subject. No one wants to listen to a lecture from two old farts. I wasn’t sure about the news section at first but the items are so random that I really like them now.

Give us a tour behind the scenes – how is an episode of NvS put together?

RT: We use Dropbox Paper as our collaborative document for each episode now. We started off using Basecamp, which was great but a bit over the top for a weekly podcast. We tried Apple Notes for a while as recent updates have made that pretty capable, but we both loved Dropbox Paper as soon as it came out. It does everything we need and is nice and simple to use. We have a couple of documents there for episode ideas, and then each individual episode gets its own doc.

We each add content broken down in to our podcast items; what we’ve been up to, news, our main topic, Website of the Week, and finally the pie review! We’ll both add to the document, text, images, links etc throughout the week (or occasionally hurriedly in the five minutes before we record the show). We record on a Thursday evening using Skype and Call Recorder. After the show, Jon will edit and we take it in turns to design the episode icon.

JE: It’s normally a real rush getting from putting my daughter to bed to setting up the recording equipment and bunging the pie in the oven, etc. But the limited time stops any procrastination! Some weeks I am well prepared but mostly it’s me winging it which is why I come across as such a dimwit.

Photo by João Silas

It’s wonderfully conversational and you meander down all sorts of interesting tangents. Is there much editing involved?

RT: I think we’re incredibly professional and eloquent, so I imagine editing takes a couple of minutes. Jon does the editing though, so he may have a different take.

JE: There’s only a bit of editing. It takes about an hour to do but it took me ages to figure out how to do it at first. The recording is done in Call Recorder through Skype. The advantage with this method is that you can export the two voices as individual sound files. I’ve set up a template in Audition so all I have to do is drop in the voices. I add markers to the live recording when we make any noticeable gaffs or if someone has to leave the room etc.

I then work backwards through the list of time markers and edit them out. Once that’s done I remove any random errs, sniffs and ums – I can recognise those now by the shape of the soundwave. I don’t remove them all; it’s not Radio 4. I then take out any noises off, and silence one half of any overlapping speech.

Finally I run a noise reduction filter to get rid of excessive background hiss. I then balance voice levels so each voice is the same level for playback (I set ours to -16 LUFS). Then I listen through once while running or walking the dog, edit any further gaffs and come up with a title from something stupid one of us said (usually me).

What hardware/software do you use for recording and editing?

RT: I’ll leave this to Jon, he’s the tech one. Did I mention that?

JE: We both use Samson C01U condenser USB microphones and use Call Recorder and Skype to record the show. I then edit it in Audition and encode it as a mono MP3 in Media Encoder (Both Adobe CS apps).

How do you get it out there into the world – Soundcloud, iTunes, elsewhere? What’s the process?

RT: We currently host on Soundcloud - although due to the news coming out about their financial struggles that will change soon.

JE: We use Soundcloud to host the show and run that through Feedburner for the XML feed which then plugs into iTunes Connect – I normally force the update as it can take a few hours to appear in iTunes. Having the feed in Feedburner allows us to move the location of the sound files without upsetting iTunes. This process will change once we get a website made. (Yeah right). We’ll probably go onto Amazon S3 as it’s way cheaper. Soundcloud is outrageous for what it offers... i.e. not much.

“I like the punk idea of podcasts. It’s very fanzine/lo-fi and that appeals to me enormously. I don’t want to be measuring its success or numbers of visitors.”

Do you pay much attention to play-counts? How conscious are you of who’s actually listening – do you have any idea who your audience is?

RT: We have some listeners in Guam! I always find that exciting. Tracking listens, downloads and subscribers doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as it should. iTunes doesn’t seem to have much in the way of analytics at all. We do have some numbers from Soundcloud, but dues to people listening to streams in different ways across different apps I’m not sure how much use they are.

JE: I’m not fussed with stats but I am thrilled that we have any listeners at all. The more we become obsessed with stats the less I will want to get involved. It’s really just for us to stay in touch as friends and I enjoy the whole process of making it. I also love the fact that some people are outraged that we don’t do show notes very regularly. This is very much Rob’s fault.

You’re both designers by day. Has the podcast had an impact – good or bad – on your jobs? Have you picked up new work or accidentally burnt any bridges?

RT: I think we’re reasonably careful to be a bit vague when talking about clients or current work, we can be a bit more forthright when discussing stuff from our career histories! Work-wise the podcast doesn’t really have an impact, and I’m pretty happy about that. I look forward to recording the podcast each week as a bit of an escape from work, and a nice chance to catch up with Jon. We live over an hour apart now so don’t get to meet up for a beer in person very often, so the podcast is a virtual night at the pub for us both.

JE: None at all. My clients have little interest in design! I did have one client listen and they said it was really boring! I feel the same as Rob in that it’s a chance to have a good chat with a good friend and learn something new.

Do you listen to any other design podcasts?

RT: I go through phases of listening to other podcasts. Make It Then Tell Everybody by Dan Berry is great - he has THE most soothing voice. Do By Friday is a good laugh, although it is incredibly American so can sometimes be a bit difficult to relate to. Arrest All Mimics is a great podcast about illustration and commercial art and design by Ben Tallon. In all honestly though, I’m more likely to be found listening to an obscure documentary on Radio 4 while I work than any podcast.

JE: Dan Berry for president. I used to listen to Unfinished Business by Andy Clarke, and Boagworld by Paul Boag. Many other design podcasts are very serious so I tend to avoid them. I also like Back to Work with Merlin Mann, but mostly I listen to music. I can’t listen to speech when I am working.

What tips would you give to anyone thinking of starting their own podcast?

RT: Go seek the advice of a professional, rather than asking us amateurs! Seriously though, I’d say pick a subject you love and have a bit of passion for, and don’t nail yourself in to a format you can’t replicate every week.

JE: Buy a proper microphone. Take it week by week. Try not to talk to the “audience”. Have a running list of topics so you’ve got some structure. Repeat the structure each episode. Ignore old farts’ advice in interviews.

What are your future plans for NvS? Is “vod” the natural progression of pod?

RT: Nobody wants to watch two middle aged blokes talking rubbish every week, so I think we can rule out a vod or vlog. We have plans for more NvS field trips which are always fun, and we definitely want to have some more guests on the show, either as a guest presenter for an episode or just as an interviewee. We had the super talented Aled Lewis on episode 41 which was great fun.

JE: Video? Have you seen us in the flesh? Christ no. Field trips, yes. Guests, yes. Perhaps some silly products to help pay for the hosting. My main goal is building a website where it can live independently. In terms of the future of podcasts, Apple will soon add stats to iTunes and this probably means that they will release a standalone podcast app or add functionality to Garageband.

Hopefully this makes it even easier to get into podcasts by just using a tablet or phone. I still think that podcasts will remain pretty indie though because it’s incredibly hard to track feeds and users and therefore off-putting to advertisers.

One last thing: every episode ends with a pie review. Fifty-plus episodes in now, do you have any all-time favourites?

RT: I started off thinking that really you couldn’t have a bad pie, that has been proved very wrong indeed. Jon’s much more stingey with his scoring than me though. I think my highlight has to be the venison pies that designer Mike Sullivan made for us both. Having a listener send in a home-made pie is really quite a spectacular thing, and something we never expected. Mike’s pies were absolutely delicious too, a ten out of ten from me.

JE: Jake’s Artisan Foods pie was fabulous. Mike’s venison pie was delicious too. My wife delights in finding really nasty pies for me to eat. You should see what horrors lurk in our freezer.

Thanks gents! To listen to North v South, go to iTunes, Soundcloud or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts from.