For Rob Hamblen, his passion is and always has been designing. Designing user-centric yet industry-leading digital experiences is what it’s all about.
In recent years, he has been mistaken for being more processes focussed rather than being an actual designer. What some don’t see is that he is using the Design Sprint and Design Thinking to make better digital product experiences for the world. Through LEAP. he is providing a service to not only create brilliantly user-centric products but to also execute those products to market, that customers want to use and that businesses can not survive without.
That being said, Rob emphasises that as a designer, building these user-focused products needs to be supplemented by also being business-minded. This is vital as a benchmark of a products’ success in ensuring the business objectives are met. A quarter of a decade later, Rob has developed an impressive corporate resume and is in an incredible position to coalesce these requirements while still retaining a real boy-like passion for design.
Art School — Becoming a Designer
Rob was in a unique position in that he always knew he wanted to be a designer. At the young age of 7, his art teacher picked up on his talent when he drew the famous photo of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s engagement photo, making a point that she knew Rob would grow up to be creative. At 12 this dream of being an artist had grown into wanting to become a designer, of either skateboard graphics, LEGO models or t-shirt designs. He knew that nothing else was calling him, he just wanted to create.
At the age of 15, after a stern conversation with his art teacher John Mathieson, Rob realised that his creative talent alone wouldn’t be enough to get into art school and that he would need qualifications that go alongside. 6 years at art school at Nene University, Northampton ensured this talent was honed. He understood that wanting to excel in a design career, wasn’t enough to just be a designer, you need to nurture the skills that also supplement this career. He reflects on that being the foundation when he is now hiring talent for his boutique agency, LEAP. based in Berlin.
Though he describes it as serendipitous, achieving his first design role at Triad. a creative digital agency was no mean feat. After two weeks of work experience, the partner's Steve Andrews and David Sandell offered Rob a full-time role as a junior designer. Out of 44 students, he was the only one to qualify with the OND in Graphic Design with a job in the industry before the course had finished. At the time, he was acutely aware that this was the first of many crossroads where he would have to make a decision. This first one would be to go on to pursue a Degree in Design and Communication at The University for the Creative Arts in Epsom or take an industry job as a junior designer.
From here, his design career went from strength to strength, as he progressed quickly from being a junior to a middleweight designer. When pitted against senior designers, and his concepts were being chosen, it is safe to say his career was being accelerated. Rob saw his concepts being chosen for companies like Nationwide Building Society with their first Online banking experience and DeMontfort University for their radical new prospectus design, to name but a few!
Specialising in small screen design
After 9 years in a senior design role at Triad., Rob moved to Cambridge based, 3G LAB in 2003, specialising in a niche market for small-screen and mobile custom user interfaces. This was during the time that small screen design was as revolutionary as the Macintosh Computer was in the late eighties. Customising mobile handsets and processes like paper prototyping, usability testing and Design Thinking were considered revolutionary and ahead of their time as much as the mobile hardware that became obsolete the minute they were released. The market was incredibly niche and 3G Lab were at the forefront of this technology. They were actually enabling the mobile phones to render things like custom menus or render menu icons by actually tapping into the APIs of the handset. This is when Rob got his first exposure to working with global mobile phone operators like Hutchison Whampoa (3), O2, Vodafone, Nokia, T-Mobile and Orange from the UK and Europe.
With 3G Lab then struggling in the recession of 2003/2004, Rob survived a number of rounds of redundancies, salary sacrifices and a business renames from 3G Lab to Trigenix. An exercise which ended up, harrowingly, in the employees being split into two rooms, those being let go and those being kept (basically everything the dot-com boom presented back then). The joke was if you sat at the same desk but worked for several companies, then this was the dot-com era!
Without knowing, Rob was selected for the ‘being kept’ group which saw Trigenix being acquired by the chipmaker giant Qualcomm Inc. based in San Diego, this was a huge turning point for Rob. The new age of mobile or ‘visual’ designers (the term UX became more ubiquitous some years later) saw them being flown out to California and San Diego in Virgin Upper, picked up in limos and their salaries doubled overnight, they were literally being treated like they were rockstars! He was now working on crazy, amazing projects and was witnessing digital acceleration not only in this company but in mobile design as a whole. Developing his skills further as a Senior Design Manager, he was then positioned to manage a team of UX and UI designers based in Cambridge, UK whilst art directing a team of creatives all over the US too.
With the launch of the App Store from Apple in July 2008 and then in October that same year Google launched the Android Market, which changed to Google Play in 2012, this was now defined as the mobile apps era, and everyone wanted apps!
Freelance design and consulting era
Rob resigned from the safety and security of Qualcomm Inc. in November 2009 and relocated with his family to the South of France to explore more creative mobile opportunities. This would see him move into a freelance design consultant role, eventually working for companies such as Vodafone Group PLC in London and Deutsche Telekom Product Design and Innovation in Bonn and Darmstadt.
Word had already got out that Rob was leaving Qualcomm, and before he’d even packed the house up, he was asked to collaborate on some new projects, mostly in the start-up space. These were exciting enterprises such as Blendology founded by the genius of Bill Munday which enabled a patented technology to connect seamlessly to people at events with a ‘tap’.
At the same time, Martin Dickens also presented Rob with his brainchild, Trax. Martin’s love for Lotus’ cars coupled with performance driving, he wanted to create a digital experience that would see all his passions come together in an app. Designed for the performance car enthusiast Trax would enable you to replay your recorded track laps around famous racing circuits of the UK, and offer suggestions for performance improvement. Martin is a brilliant coder and inspiring project manager, but truth be told a frustrated creative, so Rob was honoured to help materialise Martin’s vision.
He had originally asked Rob for some UX guidance, but the pair ended up joining forces as co-founders to create the perfect digital experience. So much so when they showcased it at The Auto Show in Birmingham, even had Tag Heuer questioning how accurate their own digital app timings were… or could be.
This was another turning point for Rob, once he’d been responsible for the design and UX of a whole app that had actually launched on the App Store his skills were much sought after. Especially at this time, in 2010 the App Store really wasn’t that old and apps were perceived as the emperor’s new clothes.
During this time, Rob was consulting for companies like Arieso (now VIAVI Solutions) and larger global tech companies like Snapdragon by Qualcomm, Equal Experts and ITHR assisting them to materialise mobile-centric digital product visions and customer experiences.
He was working in a way that is akin to the modern Sprint without really knowing it. His own version involved custom tailoring workshops to get the core team i.e. product managers, product owners, developers and marketing working more closely with each other and with the stakeholders where they had their undivided attention for a few days. Mapping out a product was easier with the team who were going to be responsible for it, and they had never iterated with this much accuracy or this fast before.
Rob also consulted for Vodafone Group PLC, based in Paddington, London but ended up staying for much longer than the 3 months he had originally planned, working on products like Vodafone Protect for iOS and Android and many more like; Vodafone Cloud 2.0, Vodafone Smart Video, Vodafone Music, and Vodafone Roaming), before eventually moving to Deutsche Telekom (DT).
When Rob started at DT, Rob was hired as a ‘Konceptor’ or Interaction Designer, initially hired in Bonn, Rob was assigned the responsibility to work on the re-skin of Telekom’s Self Repair Client, a white label Wireless LAN PC product that Telekom had acquired. In 7 weeks Rob turned the product upside down and proved that a re-skin wouldn’t see the product succeed, instead, he initiated a redesign from the ground up and covered everything from the IA (Information Architecture), wireframes and visual design).
During this time Rob met design genius, Michael Smart, co-founder of a new Berlin-based boutique agency, AJ&Smart which was barely 6 months old. However, Rob had already been working on mobile apps for both iOS and Android, as an avid Mac user, it was ironic that Telekom has asked Rob to design a new product for PC users. That product would help them connect more seamlessly to their home or office wifi. What was interesting was that the Telekom Product Design and Innovation Centre in Bonn was so the state of the art, with key code entry and electric height adjustable desks (this was 2012, so way ahead of its time), it was the studio of all studios… but everyone had to work on PCs. So when Telekom asked him to return to oversee phase 2, he turned them down politely citing the metaphor that for a designer, ‘working on a PC was the equivalent of you, the interviewer writing the exit notes with your opposite hand. I mean you can do it, it might feel a little uncomfortable and it may take you a little longer.’ Rob also provided some time/cost-saving stats which also couldn’t be ignored.
3 months later Rob was back at Telekom, he turned down The Self Repair Client — phase 2 in Bonn, so they offered him the opportunity to contribute to the epic project of Entertain to Go an entertainment platform that was designed to seamlessly provide content from your TV, laptop, smartphone or tablet, much more akin to Rob's mobile background. Based in Darmstadt, and with his Mac this time, Rob was able to offer his expertise to implement across all mobile versions of this home entertainment experience.
Beyond Entertain to Go, a new project called Mobile TV united Rob with creative geniuses Andreas Volz and Robin Prado who together, completely redesigned what was originally a TV product experience to be a new Telekom Bundesliga App. This product went on to win German awards for a customer experience but also redefined internally how Telekom would create new digital product experiences.
Rob built up such a relationship with Michael Smart and Jonathan Courtney from AJ&Smart that he ended up freelancing for them on several product initiatives. He was asked by both founders to join them on a permanent basis, but with Rob being based in the South of France, to then be based in Berlin full time, this wasn’t part of his plan.
Rob had considered creating his own agency with his existing clients with the inspiration of meeting Michael and seeing what AJ was doing (Pre-Sprint) had been hugely inspirational. Rob had even tested the water to see if an agency model would be appealing for his existing clients. In short, what would happen next would see these plans be put on hold, with something way more tactical to come back and revisit.
It was around the end of Q4 in 2014, Rob had been asked again to join the AJ team, this time in a more senior capacity, however, Rob had another opportunity on the cards. He was headhunted by IBM to be Creative Director of UX and help establish their new Studio in Dubai. Again, this wasn’t part of his plan, but the situation presented itself, take the corporate opportunity in Dubai or move to a kooky boutique agency with AJ&Smart, or start operating as an agency in the South of France.
The opportunity with IBM won through as he knew this would most likely not only be an incredible career opportunity, but it would also only be a temporary role, tempted with a shiny new relationship that joined Apple with IBM, Rob got fully immersed into IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking which was IBM’s way of getting cross-functional teams to think differently about creative problem solving, but with more focus on the end-user. Working with global companies including Unilever and Etihad, and local Government, Dubai Health Authority creating Tifli, the pregnancy app and Hayati, the diabetes app which both won the prestigious Hamdan Award two years consecutively for best ‘Government Service on Mobile’. ADIB, also entrusted IBM to help them create the first digital-only bank for the region. All these companies wanted to disrupt with new digital app experiences and they would do this quicker than anywhere else!
As Creative Director UX, he was integral in setting up and establishing new talent for IBM iX (Interactive Experience’s) new studio, with a focus on human-centred design and disruption within the region. Furthermore, his role would see him guiding and educating the value of design and why it would be an enabler for disrupting. Three months in would see him agree to a role at AJ&Smart and a relocation not only from Dubai but also from France to take on the role as Product Design Director. Michael and Jonathan wanted to secure Rob and basically told him to join them when the time was right for him.
17 months later, and two years in Dubai at IBM, Rob relocated his family to Berlin and joined Michael and Jon at AJ&Smart, where he was responsible primarily for managing the client experience which also included, managing the Sprint team, constantly evolving the AJ&Smart 4 Day Sprint product with the genius of Tim Höfer, and being responsible for the product outcome for the client Sprints.
This was an insane rollercoaster couple of years as AJ&Smart was scaling up on their version of the Sprint, with the added endorsement of Jake Knapp the author of ‘Sprint – How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Five Days’. Rob also assisted the AJ&Smart Bootcamps with Jake for companies like Uber and Lyft to McKinsey, from San Francisco to Berlin. By now AJ&Smart’s reputation had Google asking them to train their internal teams whilst also running Sprints for Fortune 500 companies like Adidas in Germany, American Express (AMEX) in New York, AMG, HSBC in the UK, Mercedes-Benz AG and Twitter, in the US.
In 2019, he decided that he was going to go back to his original dream of actually creating his own boutique agency. Taking his learnings from AJ&Smart and the corporate design consultancy exposure from IBM and somehow combining the two is exactly where he sees LEAP.
So LEAP. is where he’s happiest, he gets full control over the conversation, the remote working culture and team dynamics, but most importantly how the team engage with their customers to provide a truly unique service offering. Enabling first and foremost design, but also unique and personalised strategies that empower companies to encompass design into their products. With an emphasis on conceptualizing, means that teams execute more successful customer-centric products to market. Basically, reinventing how Product Design and Innovation companies should work and empower their customers more and include them in the process of ‘design’. It’s not just about the ideation of a product and then handing it over, it’s also about the journey in producing and executing to market that vision once it has achieved product-market fit, that’s the hard part.
Rob takes pride in what LEAP. offers their customers, customising most engagements beyond the Sprint to encompass a more Design Thinking approach, in a way that enables his product team to create products based not just on assumptions, but with real customer data, and that’s before Sprint has even started.
Within LEAPs first year, global companies like American Express and McKinsey were approaching Rob requesting to collaborate and in the two subsequent years, LEAP. has gone from strength to strength with an impressive client list. Having interest from such big players it was clear they were on the path to bigger things, LEAP. in the second year boasted five employees who operate internationally and a client list that includes, Publicis Sapient, Santander and Engel & Volkers Smart Money GmbH.
For Rob, however, it’s not just about the Fortune 500’s. Working with global start-ups and especially Berlin-based start-ups who have a genuinely creative and disruptive product idea — helping them go to market, successfully, or to help them leap ahead of their competitors, is why LEAP. continues to go from strength to strength.
This article was written by Bella King.