Designing graphics for BBC News

James Mobbs creates graphics for BBC News, Newsbeat and Newsround. We asked him what it’s like and how he uses design and illustration to explain complex news events to viewers of all ages

If you watch BBC Breakfast, then you’ll have come across James Mobbs‘ work. Mobbs is a Senior Graphic Designer at BBC and one of a small team that creates visuals for the daily news show. He also designs graphics for children’s news programme Newsround and led a rebrand of the show in 2014.

Mobbs studied advertising design at university and landed a job at the BBC in 2012 after doing work experience at Sky, ITV and Blue Peter. Here he talks us through creating graphics for breaking news and using design to help younger viewers understand complex and harrowing events…

CR: What kind of things do you design for the BBC’s News coverage?

James Mobbs: We work on a range of graphics on any given day. From daily graphics that go within a news package to longer-term projects. A daily graphic might be [something] for a presenter to stand next to with some facts and figures on explaining a story. A longer-term project can be a graphics-led film such as one explaining complex election or referendum issues.

Occasionally we look at the bigger branding picture. In 2014, I led the rebrand for Newsround. It was a nice break from the daily output to actually re-think a brand from the ground up.

We use a lot of animation and illustration at Newsround which allows us to inform the audience about world events without using distressing footage. When designing the overall brand, I was keen to introduce a new ‘infographic’-driven visual language across the programme. This is so the daily graphics can translate well from linear TV bulletins to an online sphere.

It was a real collaborative effort with editorial teams and technical teams…. For me, it was really important to make sure the brand was consistent across all output.

CR: What’s a normal day like in your job?

JM: It can depend what kind of output we might be working on. News is a 24-hour operation. A team of journalists, editors and a designer work through the night to deliver the breakfast programme in time to be on air at 6am.

Other programmes such as Newsround are more regular ‘office hours’. Often the shift will start with a meeting with editorial staff where we go through the programme running order, find out what stories needs graphics and discuss possible ideas for using the studio screens. Then we will work through and design a range of graphics to be read live by presenters and edited into pre-filmed reports.

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CR: What’s the most unusual or challenging thing you’ve had to work on?

JM: We have to react to the news agenda. One of the most unusual days I’ve had recently was the day after the Manchester attack. I was working on Newsround. We were tasked with telling this story to a younger audience. It was a prime example of a team collaborating to write, produce and design the piece. We turned the explainer around in about three to four hours from script to storyboarding and then designing the graphics. As soon as it had been broadcast and posted on social media, it went viral. It was a huge honour and privilege to play a small part in making a difference in telling this story to a young audience. (See the story on Newsround’s website here.)

CR: What kind of things do you have to think about when you’re trying to explain harrowing events like Grenfell or the Manchester Arena attack to a young audience?

JM: We try and be sensitive when designing news graphics for a younger audience. We don’t want to be using any disturbing imagery so we tend to use infographic-led designs with brief lines of copy to help explain and inform. We also try not to assume any existing knowledge, so it’s a very back to basics approach, explaining the background context to a story, perhaps starting with a location map to show where a story is taking place in relation to the UK as a whole. It’s always a collaboration between a producer and designer to break down the story into two or three simple key ideas we can visualise for a younger audience.

CR: And how might you approach explaining something complex like an election?

JM: For Radio 1 Newsbeat’s election coverage I designed a brand based around a distinct, stripped back illustration style [to help explain] key election issues. My aim was to make sure the graphics were engaging and different from other outlets. I wanted to achieve a bold and striking look to stand out on busy social feeds.

CR: How does your approach differ when creating news graphics for adult viewers? And are there any other things you have to think about when designing graphics for BBC News?

JM: We tend to use more photography from stories for graphics aimed at a mainstream audience, therefore relying less on illustrations. Often this proves to be its own challenge – finding the best photographs that make a strong graphic composition for a news report graphic or some screens in the studio behind the presenters. We also try and find a way to unify the designs and tie them into a core programme brand. For example, we use Helvetica across all our core news output to ensure a clean and consistent look and [remain] in line with the core BBC News brand.

CR: How big is the design/motion graphics team that you work on?

JM: We have around six designers who rotate on a shift rota across programming at MediaCityUK.

CR: What’s the most challenging aspect of your job?

JM: The most challenging of days is when the whole running order gets thrown out of the window due to a breaking story and I’ve got to design a whole load of graphic assets for a breaking story. This has happened on a number of occasions in recent times. Grenfell Tower and the Manchester Arena attack to name just two. When breaking stories happen, we drop what we were working on and set up location maps and graphics explainers in a really short amount of time – often to get on air in minutes. Another challenge of the role is using design to aid the storytelling of those news events to reach a much younger audience.

CR: What’s the most rewarding?

JM: Seeing my work go out to millions of people every day on TV is hugely rewarding. People often don’t realise how much work goes in to making once piece of television or digital content. It’s a novelty that doesn’t wear off! It’s also great to work as part of a team, especially when things don’t always go to plan. We’re part of an amazing team in Salford that work round the clock to produce television and that is something to be really proud of.

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