I miss Teehan+Lax
Just last year, Geoff Teehan, Jon Lax, and David Gillis announced to the world that they were shutting the doors to their Toronto office and joining Facebook’s design team. This was big news in the industry, and as a Canadian designer, this was massive—it’s not every day that design agencies make headlines in The Globe and Mail (a site they helped build).
When they broke the news, my heart sank. I imagine this was pretty close to the emotion felt when Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. We lost one of our own.
I discovered the company in 2008. At first glance, they looked like a cool web design firm doing interesting work. When I dug deeper, I could see there was something very different about them. They had an attitude. They were opinionated. They shared knowledge. They didn’t appear like a typical advertising or web agency.
Looking at their work, I was impressed. I could see that they weren’t slinging banner ads, developing marketing campaigns, or designing small business sites. To be honest, I didn’t quite understand what exactly they were doing. The term product design or experience design wasn’t part of my vocabulary back then. All I could tell was that they were making really cool stuff, working mostly with American tech companies, shaping and building what felt like the future. To see a Canadian company with that kind of reach was inspiring to a young designer like me.
As Canadians, we often feel like America’s little brother. We’re a little goofier. Our dollar is usually worth less. We’re culturally less significant. As a country, we’re largely influenced by American music, TV, and pop culture. We’re used to being in America’s shadow. Most Americans couldn’t tell you what the capital of Canada is, let alone the name of our Prime Minister (maybe different with Trudeau!). But the international design community knew who Teehan+Lax were. When it came to digital, T+L was our answer to IDEO, Frog, Fantasy, Rally, etc. They represented us on the world stage, and it was remarkable. Hell, they even won the 2014 Net Awards Agency of the Year award.
Punk Rock Ethos
When it came to business, T+L were quite punk rock. They questioned the billable hour, started conversations about the state of in-car UX, and shared their learnings in their legendary case studies. Check out their write-ups for Prismatic or Medium, still up on their site today.
They had a do-it-yourself mentality, consistently gave back to the design and development community, whether that be with design tools, code on GitHub, or with their Labs projects like the timelapse exploration. It’s nice to see that they’ve brought this same spirit to Facebook’s design team and are using their scale to create more tools for the world to use.
During a talk at Valiocon, Geoff mentioned that giving back to the community was always one of the company’s priorities, and that doing so always paid back in ways that were unimaginable. In an industry where we’re constantly reminded to value our time and not to give things away for free, T+L offered a refreshing perspective.
You can’t talk about T+L without bringing up their portfolio. Just stunning, usable, and wonderful projects. Each of them had great big-picture thinking, as well as nuances that made them special. With that said, it’s easy to get caught up in interesting visuals and cute interactions—what struck me most about their work was their deep understanding of web typography. The type size on their site was massive compared to average web type, but after a bit of reflection, and actually using it, it made so much sense, and that we didn’t need to continue squeezing 8pt type into tiny little boxes. Web typography could breathe. We didn’t need to fear large type on the web anymore.
If you’ve dug around their site, you’ve likely read their story. I always appreciated the honesty in sharing the hardships they endured, like losing Telus as a client, as well as their successes—running the company since 2002. It was after reading through each line of text on their site that I understood the difference between designing platforms and programs, and that I was designing programs.
One article in particular that always stuck in my head was Great Digital Products Don’t Happen By Accident. Much like the story of the Golden Buddha, once you start to pick the clay and uncover the gold, it’s difficult to accept the clay again. I had discovered the world of digital products and wanted out of doing program work. Thanks to T+L’s influence, I decided to leave the advertising world behind and focus on UI/UX design. The transition wasn’t easy, but I’m so much happier now. I decided to shut down my company and move to California to work at digital product agency Edenspiekermann. So thanks guys.
Just like when number 99 went Hollywood, he still represented Canada on international ice. You’ll always be one of ours in the design community.
Geoff, Jon, and David, thank you for keeping Canada’s design torch lit on the international stage at Facebook. I can’t wait to see what your next act is.