Bob Calvano is the VP of Design and UX at A+E Networks – a global entertainment media company with six original brands: A&E, HISTORY, Lifetime, LMN, FYI, and VICELAND. He began to pursue his love for design somewhere around the time he let go of his childhood dream of being a rock star. He’s been designing long enough to know how to use a wax machine, which has nothing to do with bikini lines or hair removal, and is currently focused on digital media across various platforms. Chances are, you’ve visited a website or used one of the apps he and his team have designed.
Bob has spent the majority of his career working in New York City, but he’s technically a “Jersey boy”. He never totally gave up on his first love, and can still be heard banging on his drums in the burbs of historical Morristown. His wife would like you to know he is an amazing, wonderful, and interesting person. If you don’t believe her, you can ask his mother.
Your full name
As far as the government is concerned I’m Robert James Calvano. But please, call me Bob.
Where do you work? What does your company do?
I work at A+E Networks. A+E is a global entertainment media company with six original brands: A&E®, HISTORY®, Lifetime®, LMN®, FYI™ and VICELANDSM. We reach 330 million people worldwide, can be found in eight out of 10 American homes and have 500 million digital users.
What types of services does your team specialize in?
My team and I work on the digital side of the business, so we specialize in creating products to distribute our content digitally across multiple platforms. Let me explain that a little better… We create apps for smartphones, tablets, and emerging platforms like Apple TV, Roku, Xbox, Amazon Fire TV and whatever comes next. We also create responsive websites and interactive experiences for desktop that translate to tablet and mobile devices. We are visual designers, interactive designers, mobile designers, user experience designers, and some folks are at the point where they are designing in code (CSS).
How many people make up your team?
We are an incredibly small team for the number of products we have and the amount of work we do. There are only 12 of us! We have a few freelancers that help out and take care of some of the production work when it gets out of control.
Your title/role within the company?
I’m the vice president of design (and UX). Let me unpack that a bit… I oversee all creative and UX design for A+E’s digital platforms. I’m tasked with establishing and developing a creative structure, process, and team to deliver innovative solutions that result in engaging, user friendly, and intuitive digital products. On top of making sure that consumers enjoy using our products, I make sure we are addressing and meeting business needs. I’m also focused on strategy as well as generating a holistic design approach that fits A+E’s portfolio of properties. In many ways I’m a dot connector: I connect dots across the design team, across the digital product teams, across brands, and across other departments in the company such as marketing and analytics.
What was your very first job in this field?
My first real design gig was working as a graphic designer for Panasonic – I think the job title was “Graphic Artist”. I started there as an intern – it was my first taste of working in-house.
Share a best-practice leadership experience
It’s hard to narrow this down to an “experience”, there are many facets that make up a best practice experience… As a leader, I believe one of the most important things you need to do is listen. Most of us think we listen, but we need to listen and observe free of judgment – this isn’t easy and it takes practice. As a leader I also believe it’s important to put the needs of others first, be supportive, provide the team with everything they need to be successful, and support a continuous learning environment. Add all of that stuff up and you have a best practice leadership experience.
What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
One of the projects I’m really excited about is product called “HISTORY Vault”. It’s a new subscription video app with hundreds of hours of video about the greatest stories in history. It’s been a lot of fun, as well as a challenge, for the team to design a custom interface that will scale across multiple platforms. It recently launched exclusively on Roku players. iOS, Apple TV, Android, and web platforms are rolling out soon.
I’m also really excited about the complete re-design of our existing TV everywhere apps. Aside from it looking totally different with an improved UI, we are adding in a layer of personalization that will totally change the user experience.
If you could share one piece of advice for an up-and-coming creative leader what would it be?
Never become complacent, always stay curious, read everything you can. You have to fully dive in and be committed. You also need to be confident. That’s more than one, but they were short.
What inspires you?
I don’t have one source for inspiration. I look everywhere, constantly. It’s something I’m aware of everyday – the looking for inspiration, I just never know where it’s going to come from. Working in Manhattan offers infinite sources for inspiration, but sometimes the pattern of cut grass on an athletic field inspires me. I have been guilty of not noticing what’s right in front of my face in the past, so now I take the time to notice everything my mind can take in. It can be people (famous designers or homeless people, etc), examples of great design, architecture, music, ripples in a pond – I never know what is going to spark an idea.
What is the first thing you do each day to organize yourself?
I’m a list maker, and my list is always in front of me – I use sticky notes and they are organized on a section of my desk. It gives me a quick reference to the big projects and smaller tasks I need to take care of and what time frame I’m dealing with. I don’t like the sticky notes on my desk, so each day I look at those notes and figure out which ones need to be removed, which ones I would like to remove, which ones I can delegate, and fantasize about a few I’d like to throw away. Then I allow myself to go on a bit of a tangent that has nothing to do with those sticky notes. It’s a 15 minute tangent that usually has to do with looking for inspiration. Then I’m ready for the day and those sticky notes.
Have you noticed any changes or trends for in-house creatives in the past year?
Corporations are relying on the in-house team more and more and the result is that teams are getting bigger. Corporations want more from the in-house team, and the in-house team has been adapting to those demands. They are either hiring full time employees or bringing in freelancers because they are taking on more responsibility. When you take on more responsibility, you notice you have a few gaps on the team and need to figure out how to fill those gaps quickly. The quality of the work has been improving as well.
What has been your greatest challenge as a creative leader?
Being a creative leader isn’t an easy gig. You have to be good at a lot of things, and many of these things were not part of my curriculum while getting a fine art degree. I continuously find myself knee deep in change. Getting everyone on board with that change is difficult. Even when you get people on board, the execution of change can be messy. If the change extends outside of your creative team and effects other departments, and perhaps how you work with your clients, well, the complexity increases. That said, managing change is difficult. When in doubt call in an expert.
Describe the career path you have taken and where you see yourself next.
My career path seems like an eclectic mix of non-sequiturs. I can’t say that it has really been all that planned, except for my current job – I knew I wanted to get back into the entertainment industry. I’ve spent most of my career working in-house, however, I did have a short stint at an agency, and I had my own company for a little while. I’ve worked at a start-up, and somehow landed in big pharma for a few years, but the majority of time has been spent in the entertainment industry. One thing I cherish is that I’ve been at this long enough to have had the pleasure of working across various mediums.
As far as what’s next, well, I have no idea. I fantasize about going back to working with my hands and getting away from all these screens and digital stuff. Sculpting, painting, and making tangible things sounds like fun, but I don’t think it’s a career move. Stay tuned.