Designing the weather
1 August 2011
Fantastic customer service has always been a high priority for the Met Office. So when someone stands out and makes a real difference in this field they are quick to recognise the achievement.
In December last year, Met Office's Media Designer, David Robinson, won the Outstanding Customer Service award at the Met Office Awards for Excellence. It was awarded for the positive difference he makes to the look and design of weather forecasts, both in the UK and abroad.
In effect, David's work acts as a middleman between the forecasters and the TV viewers - turning the complex information forecasters see on their charts, into forecasts that are relevant, informative and enjoyable. David gives his work the edge by designing superior graphics and training the presenters in ways to really engage with viewers, as David explains:
"Forecasters work from very complex weather charts, and often want to put all of that detail on to the map seen on TV. As a designer it's my role to convey that detail, designing clear and informative weather graphics that simplify the information, leaving viewers with a clear understanding of the weather situation."
With over 20 years working in TV weather, David has helped to de-clutter the graphics and by using new technologies make the weather forecasts more accessible across a wide range of programmes. His work can be seen every day on ITV, Daybreak, STV, UTV, Channel 4 and the Met Office online video weather service.
Although this award recognises the ongoing improvements David has made in the UK, it also celebrates his work in developing countries.
David is also now part of a team that helps developing countries set up their own national weather broadcasts. These overseas projects are part of the World Meteorological Organization's Voluntary Cooperation Programme (VCP) that aims to get viewers to engage with the weather - especially when broadcasts could save lives.
"I originally went to Africa with the VCP team seven years ago to improve the graphics on TV and the general look of the weather, by training people to use Met Office weather graphics software, 'WeatherEye'. This software contains my designs for the map backgrounds, weather symbols and data layers to display satellite images, temperature contours, pressure and wind speeds. The software is a specially adapted version of the WeatherEye software that I have been using for many years here in the UK. Over the years, I've broadened my skills to involve the studio technical production side of building and running a studio too," says David.
It may seem surprising that television broadcast is the best medium to share information about the weather in poorer countries, but as David says, you find TV sets in most homes, even in the most unlikely of places. "You may see a 27" TV hanging on the wall, even in the poorest of communities."
To get these broadcasts up and running the VCP team installs TV weather studios within national meteorological organisations to record then deliver broadcasts to the national television broadcasters. Alternatively the production of the graphics are produced within the national meteorological organisations and sent to the country's national television broadcasters to be recorded and broadcast.
David also provides presentational training skills, giving new TV weather presenters encouragement and guidance in presenting skills that are needed for a polished performance in front of the camera. As he explains, presenting is all about engaging with viewers, remembering who you are talking to and how the viewer might use the forecast.
"It really helps when presenters explain if today's weather is colder, warmer, wetter or dryer than yesterday, and the reason behind this. Then viewers can understand by comparison. If the presenter just stands there and describes what's on the weather map, you might as well just show the basic graphics. The presenter should be there to add extra value through storytelling and making links between the maps."
Using a ChromaKey Studio, the presenter has to stand in front of a plain blue or green background, only seeing an image of themselves standing in front of the weather map on a TV monitor out of shot from the camera, when they turn and look to their right or left. It can be difficult to teach someone how to present without a map behind them, so presenters must be aware of how the final shot will look when they're super-imposed on the map. David explains, it's quite awkward for people who haven't tried it before:
"Usually, on the first attempts to record a broadcast, most presenters record a good broadcast of the side of their face, as they turn to look at the weather map displaying themselves on the TV monitors to the side, never looking back at the camera. On a trip to Guyana, I had the extra challenge of training experienced news presenters to present the weather. News presenters usually have an autocue system mounted on the camera which they read so they generally look straight into the camera. In presenting the weather we do not autocue, as the weather presenter needs to turn and interact with the weather graphics. Weather presenters rely on memory and prompts from the graphics behind them. It was interesting watching experienced news presenters trying to tell a weather story without an autocue. It can be difficult to talk for three minutes, sometimes describing a complex weather story, without the aid of autocue."
Weather in Guyana
In April 2009 David set up the first TV weather broadcasts in Guyana - where low-lying coastal regions, high tides and storms can have disastrous impacts on the country's population.
The Ministry of Agriculture in Guyana also wanted to use the new broadcast to give information to workers affected by the weather - such as fishermen and farmers. David created extra graphics and gave more information, such as tide times for the fishing industry and warnings of prolonged periods of dry weather so farmers could plan their crops ahead.
When the new broadcasts were up and running, the Ministry of Agriculture received numerous letters from farmers and fishermen thanking them for this new service. A service that is now saving lives.
Next, David is set to travel to Comoros, an island off the coast of Madagascar, to set up their very first TV weather studio. But he has his work cut out closer to home too as the Met Office has now asked him to build a new studio at its head quarters in Exeter.
"The new studio will be used to produce a range of video content - including content for web and smart phones. This could be anything from a climate scientist explaining a complicated phenomenon, to a new video download aimed at a younger generation."
David is in no doubt that new media will help get the weather to more and more people. But one thing remains true - it takes great graphics and presentation to make people really sit up and listen