It’s true, I’m moving on.
Working at Clearleft was one of the best decisions I ever made. 6 years of some work that I’m most proud of, amongst some of the finest thinkers I’ve ever met. Last year was particularly amazing (I know — have a great year and then leave?). From the AI retreat in Juvet, Norway, to flying all over the place giving talks on voice UI, it’s been quite a ride.
So let’s get the reason for leaving Clearleft out of the way.
In short, I was getting comfortable. Someone has already put this better than I can —call it ‘protecting the cake’. Whenever you feel yourself protecting what you have to stay comfortable, that’s when you know you’re not growing. And I had reached that point a while ago. The fact that the job was so much fun kept me there longer than I intended.
Should you ever choose to work with, or work for Clearleft, I hope these words will give you some encouragement — it is an exceptional place to be.
Here are a handful of highlights from throughout the years. I wish I could list them all, this is only but a few.
This is the hardest loss. I can’t do them all justice in words — the smart, trusting, compassionate, hard-working crew that is Clearleft. As I struggle to think of how to describe the atmosphere, I’ll just say this… a few years ago a local freelance designer joined the crew, and after a month or so I asked him how it was different. He said he couldn’t believe the quality of the conversation about design. That’s about as good a complement as I can pay Clearleft. Rich, Andy and Jeremy have outdone themselves in creating the team and atmosphere that they have.
Brighton and Hove City Council
In my first few months at Clearleft, I won the council as a client: a short bit of prototyping and fixing the IA. It’s pretty rare that a designer can look at every citizen in their city and know they’ve helped them in a tiny way, but that’s how the project rewarded me. Re-thinking the site on a small budget reduced the average journey time by around a minute. Add that up in aggregate, and you know you’ve saved your city years of time, in a subtle, imperceptible way. I later helped them allocate a multi-million pound budget for digital transformation — a big win.
I know this will sound like marketing hogwash, but it’s 110% true: UX London was my favourite conference before I joined the company. It only got better when we started running it at Laban. Andy is that rare conference curator: someone who gathers the best speakers (his own speaking career means he’s seen the best from around the world), and really, truly designs the event. It’s inspiring and enlightening — I can’t recommend it enough.
UX London is also the scene of my personal ‘oh shit’ moment. Glen Keane (lead Disney animator) who designed many of our favourite Disney characters, did some live animation on stage, and I had to go on shortly after. People were in tears. How do you follow that?
Juvet AI Retreat
Speaking of Andy’s excellent taste: last year I went along to the Juvet retreat in Norway. The Juvet landscape hotel is where Ex Machina was filmed— a ‘bucket list’ type place to visit. You can read more about what we worked on, who was there, and what I took from it.
At the end of 2014’s Hack Farm (where we’d disappear for a week and make things just… because), I turned to Andy Dennis and asked him: “how can we do this all the time?” In the immortal words of Steve Jobs: “I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done”. Hack Farm produced some wonderful ideas that should have seen the light of day. Who knows, in future I may have time to make one of them a reality.
In my time at Clearleft, I traveled and worked in San Francisco, New York, Chennai, Chicago, Berlin, and so many more eye-opening places, I think I’ve slightly lost track. It’s been a hell of a ride.
What did I learn?
With such an emphasis on learning and events, I learned far too much at Clearleft to narrow it down. Instead I’ll focus on some of the values at Clearleft that I will take with me.
Writing and speaking will make you a better thinker and designer.
The act of doing it forces you to be clear, to question your assumptions and beliefs. All three of the founders set a precedent for this, and gave us lots of time and support to work on how we expressed our thoughts and shared what we’ve learned.
An obvious one from Dan Ariely’s school of thought, but leaders: take heed. Set your goals, and then leave people alone, except to support where needed. My experience at Clearleft showed me again and again that a small number of people with autonomy can out-perform a bigger team with little or none.
At events, people are often surprised by the small size of the company. Achieving a lot with so few people is the result of a willingness to take things on beyond the call of duty. People are quite ‘unicorny’ at Clearleft, but it’s not talked about much, we get on with stuff that needs doing, whenever it arises. No one’s afraid to learn and jump into new things.
I can remember before I started, I thought I’d be raising my design game just by being there. When you’re joining a company who makes products that NASA and the Obama campaign uses, you start to think bigger. As much as that is Clearleft teaching me things, it’s also the expectations of higher standards. I began to self-impose a way of aiming higher. Teams that don’t maintain this culture, beware. Mediocrity can be infectious, even amongst very talented people.
Thanks to Clearleft
To the founders and everyone I’ve worked with — thanks for all the great conversation, the food, the beer we brewed, the creative environment, all the encouragement I received, the design critique, and most of all, the opportunities you’ve brought me.
I’m going independent, at least for a while. I’m looking to further my voice UI practise: speaking at events and running workshops, with some consulting as well. if all goes well I can write a book; I have an itch to write on a topic that won’t go away (watch this space).