Tags: clearleft



On the side

My role at Clearleft is something along the lines of being a technical director. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it seems to be a way of being involved in front-end development, without necessarily writing much actual code. That’s probably for the best. My colleagues Mark, Graham, and Charlotte are far more efficient at doing that. In return, I do my best to support them and make sure that they’ve got whatever they need (in terms of resources, time, and space) to get on with their work.

I’m continuously impressed not only by the quality of their output on client projects, but also by their output on the side.

Mark is working a project called Fractal. It’s a tool for creating component libraries, something he has written about before. The next steps involve getting the code to version 1.0 and completing the documentation. Then you’ll be hearing a lot more about this. The tricky thing right now is fitting it in around client work. It’s going to be very exciting though—everyone who has been beta-testing Fractal has had very kind words to say. It’s quite an impressive piece of work, especially considering that it’s the work of one person.

Graham is continuing on his crazily-ambitious project to recreate the classic NES game Legend Of Zelda using web technology. His documentation of his process is practically a book:

  1. Introduction,
  2. The Game Loop,
  3. Drawing to the Screen,
  4. Handling User Input,
  5. Scaling the Canvas,
  6. Animation — Part 1,
  7. Levels & Collision — part 1, and most recently
  8. Levels — part 2.

It’s simultaneously a project that involves the past—retro gaming—and the future—playing with the latest additions to JavaScript in modern browsers (something that feeds directly back into client work).

Charlotte has been speaking up a storm. She spoke at the Up Front conference in Manchester about component libraries:

The process of building a pattern library or any kind of modular design system requires a different approach to delivering a set of finished pages. Even when the final deliverable is a pattern library, we often still have to design pages for approval. When everyone is so used to working with pages, it can be difficult to adopt a new way of thinking—particularly for those who are not designers and developers.

This talk will look at how we can help everyone in the team adopt pattern thinking. This includes anyone with a decision to make—not just designers and developers. Everyone in the team can start building a shared vocabulary and attempt to make the challenge of naming things a little easier.

Then she spoke at Dot York about her learning process:

As a web developer, I’m learning all the time. I need to know how to make my code work, but more importantly, I want to understand why my code works. I’ve learnt most of what I know from people sharing what they know and I love that I can now do the same. In my talk I want to share my highlights and frustrations of continuous learning, my experiences of working with a mentor and fitting it into my first year at Clearleft.

She’ll also be speaking at Beyond Tellerrand in Berlin later this year. Oh, and she’s also now a co-organiser of the brilliant Codebar events that happen every Tuesday here in Brighton.

Altogether that’s an impressive amount of output from Clearleft’s developers. And all of that doesn’t include the client work that Mark, Graham, and Charlotte are doing. They inspire me!

Content Buddy

I have a new role at Clearleft. It’s not a full-time role. It’s in addition to my existing role of …um …whatever it is I do at Clearleft.

Anyway, my new part-time role is that of being a content buddy. Sounds a little dismissive when I put it like that. Let me put in capitals…

My new part-time role is that of being a Content Buddy.

This is Ellen’s idea. She’s been recruiting Content Guardians and Content Buddies. The Guardians will be responsible for coaxing content out of people, encouraging to write that blog post, article, or case study. The role of the Content Buddy is to help shepherd those pieces into the world.

I have let it be known throughout the office that I am available—day or night, rain or shine—for proof-reading, editing, and general brain-storming and rubber-ducking.

On my first official day as a Content Buddy on Friday I helped Ben polish off a really good blog post (watch this space), listened to a first run-through of Charlotte’s upcoming talk at the Up Front conference in Manchester (which is shaping up to be most excellent), and got together with Paul for a mutual brainstorming session for future conference talks. The fact that Paul is no longer a full-time employee at Clearleft is a mere technicality—Content Buddies for life!

Paul is preparing a talk on design systems for Smashing Conference in Freiburg in September. I’m preparing a talk on the A element for the HTML Special part of CSS Day in Amsterdam in just one month’s time (gulp!). We had both already done a bit of mind-mapping to get a jumble of ideas down on paper. We learned that from Ellen’s excellent workshop.

Talk prep, phase 1: doodling.

Then we started throwing ideas back and forth, offering suggestions, and spotting patterns. Once we had lots of discrete chunks of stuff outlined (but no idea how to piece them together), we did some short intense spurts of writing using the fiendish TheMostDangerousWritingApp.com. I looked at Paul’s mind map, chose a topic from it for him, and he had to write on that non-stop for three to five minutes. Meanwhile he picked a topic from my mind map and I had to do the same. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. Very quickly we had chunks of content that we could experiment with, putting them in together in different ways to find different narrative threads. I might experiment with publishing them as short standalone blog posts.

The point was not to have polished, finished content but rather to get to the “shitty first draft” stage quickly. We were following Hemingway’s advice:

Write drunk, edit sober.

…but not literally. Mind you, I could certainly imagine combining beer o’clock on Fridays with Content Buddiness. That wasn’t an option on this particular Friday though, as I had to run off to band practice with Salter Cane. A very different, and altogether darker form of content creation.

Design sprinting

James and I went to Ipswich last week for work. But this wasn’t part of an ongoing project—this was a short intense one-week feasibility study.

Leon from Suffolk Libraries got in touch with us about a project they’re planning to carry out soon: replacing their self-service machines with something more up-to-date. But rather than dive into commissioning the project straight away, he wisely decided to start with a one-week sprint to figure out exactly what the project would need to go ahead.

So that’s what James and I did. It was somewhat similar to the design sprint popularised by GV. We ensconced ourselves in the Ipswich library and packed a whole lot of work into five days. There was lots of collaboration, lots of sketching, lots of iterative design, and some rough’n’ready code. It was challenging, but a lot of fun. Also: we stayed in a pretty sweet AirBnB.

Our home for the week. This is a nice AirBnB.

You can read all about it in our case study. You can also read all about from Leon’s point of view on his blog:

I can’t recommend this kind of research sprint enough. We got a report, detailed technical validation of an idea, mock ups and a plan for how to proceed, while getting staff and stakeholders involved in the project – all in the space of 5 days.

I think this approach makes a lot of sense. By the end of the week, James and I felt pretty confident about estimating times and costs for the full project. Normally trying to estimate that kind of thing can be a real guessing game. But with the small of investment of one week’s worth of effort, you get a whole lot more certainty and confidence.

Have a look for yourself.

One day in London

I don’t get up to London all that often—maybe once every few weeks; just long enough for the city’s skyline to have changed again. Yesterday was one of those days out in the big smoke.

I started with a visit to the Royal College of Art to see the work in progress exhibition that’s running until Sunday. Specifically, I wanted to see the project by Monika, who was one third of the immensely talented internship collaboration at Clearleft that produced notice.city. Her current project is called Watching the Watchers, all about undersea cables, surveillance, and audio—right up my alley. I think Ingrid, James, Dan, and Georgina would like it.

Checking out Monika’s work in progress at the RCA. Watching the watchers

After that, I entered a metal tube to be whisked across the city to the Hospital Club, where a room had been booked for a most enjoyable Clearleft event. Anna had organised a second of her roundtable gatherings. This time the theme was “going responsive.”

The idea is to gather people together for one afternoon to share experiences and challenges. Anna invited people from all sorts of organisations, from newspapers to e-commerce and everything in between. Some of them were people we already knew, but most of them had no connection to Clearleft at all.

Everything happened the Chatham House Rule so I can’t tell you the details of who said what, but I can tell you that it was very productive afternoon. Some of the companies represented were in the process of switching to responsive, some had already done it, and some were planning it, so it was a perfect mix.

We began with a variation on the lean coffee technique. Splitting into groups, everyone jotted down some topics that they wanted to discuss. We shared those, grouped them, and voted on which order we would discuss them. Each topic got 5 to 10 minutes of discussion. In my group, we discussed strategy, workflow, tools, and more. We could’ve easily talked for longer. Some outcomes (very badly summarised):

  • The vision and strategy for a responsive redesign needs to be communicated (and sold) up the chain to stakeholders as well as to the designers and developers in the trenches.
  • “Mobile-first” For The Win! Solve the harder problems first.
  • Multi-disciplinary teams For The Win! Works well with Agile too.
  • A pattern libraries is probably the best tool you can have. So pattern libraries For The Win too!

After a break, we switched over in to a sort of open space exercise. Anyone who has a burning question they want answered writes that question down on an oversize post-it and slaps it on the wall. Now we’ve got a room with questions written on different parts of the wall. If you want to take a stab at answering any of those questions, you write it down on a post it note and slap it next to the question. Everyone does this for a while, going from question to question and having lots of good discussion. Then, at the end, we go from question to question, with the person who originally posted the question taking ownership of summarising the answers.

Some of the questions were:

  • How to help people to stop thinking “desktop first”?
  • Should designers code? Should developers design? Or Both?
  • How do you start to deploy a responsive version of an existing site?
  • How do you do responsive ads?
  • What is the best tool to use to create responsive designs?
  • Would every project benefit from a design system? Is it always worth the investment?

You get the idea. The format worked really well; it was the first time any of us had tried it. We slightly over-ran the time we had allotted for the afternoon, but that’s mostly because there was so much meaty stuff to discuss.


With that productive afternoon done, I made my way to the Bricklayer’s Arms, where by lucky coincidence, a Pub Standards meet-up was happening. I went along for a pint and a chat while I waited for rush hour to ease off: I wanted to avoid the crush before I started making my way back to Brighton. See you next time, Londinium.

A year of learning

An anniversary occurred last week that I don’t want to let pass by unremarked. On November 24th of last year, I made this note:

Welcoming @LotteJackson on her first day at @Clearleft.

Charlotte’s start at Clearleft didn’t just mark a new chapter for her—it also marked a big change for me. I’ve spent the last year being Charlotte’s mentor. I had no idea what I was doing.

Lyza wrote a post about mentorship a while back that really resonated with me:

I had no idea what I was doing. But I was going to do it anyway.

Hiring Charlotte coincided with me going through one of those periods when I ask myself, “Just what is it that I do anyway?” (actually, that’s pretty much a permanent state of being but sometimes it weighs heavier than others).

Let me back up a bit and explain how Charlotte ended up at Clearleft in the first place.

Clearleft has always been a small agency, deliberately so. Over the course of ten years, we might hire one, maybe two people a year. Because of that small size, anyone joining the company had to be able to hit the ground running. To put it into jobspeak, we could only hire “senior” level people—we just didn’t have the resources to devote to training up anyone less experienced.

That worked pretty well for a while but as the numbers at Clearleft began to creep into the upper teens, it became clear that it wasn’t a sustainable hiring policy—most of the “senior” people are already quite happily employed. So we began to consider the possibility of taking on somebody in a “junior” role. But we knew we could only do that if it were somebody else’s role to train them. Like I said, this was ‘round about the time I was questioning exactly what my role was anyway, so I felt ready to give it a shot.

Hiring Charlotte was an experiment for Clearleft—could we hire someone in a “junior” position, and then devote enough time and resources to bring them up to a “senior” level? (those quotes are air quotes—I find the practice of labelling people or positions “junior” or “senior” to be laughably reductionist; you might as well try to divide the entire web into “apps” and “sites”).

Well, it might only be one data point, but this experiment was a resounding success. Charlotte is a fantastic front-end developer.

Now I wish I could take credit for that, but I can’t. I’ve done my best to support, encourage, and teach Charlotte but none of that would matter if it weren’t for Charlotte’s spirit: she’s eager to learn, eager to improve, and crucially, eager to understand.

Christian wrote something a while back that stuck in my mind. He talked about the Full Stack Overflow Developer:

Full Stack Overflow developers work almost entirely by copying and pasting code from Stack Overflow instead of understanding what they are doing. Instead of researching a topic, they go there first to ask a question hoping people will just give them the result.

When we were hiring for the junior developer role that Charlotte ended up filling, I knew exactly what I didn’t want and Christian described it perfectly.

Conversely, I wasn’t looking for someone with plenty of knowledge—after all, knowledge was one of the things that I could perhaps pass on (stop sniggering). As Philip Walton puts it:

The longer I work on the web, the more I realize that what separates the good people from the really good people isn’t what they know; it’s how they think. Obviously knowledge is important—critical in some cases—but in a field that changes so quickly, how you go about acquiring that knowledge is always going to be more important (at least in the long term) than what you know at any given time. And perhaps most important of all: how you use that knowledge to solve everyday problems.

What I was looking for was a willingness—nay, an eagerness—to learn. That’s what I got with Charlotte. She isn’t content to copy and paste a solution; she wants to know why something works.

So a lot of my work for the past year has been providing a framework for Charlotte to learn within. It’s been less of me teaching her, and more of me pointing her in the right direction to teach herself.

There has been some traditional instruction along the way: code reviews, pair programming, and all of that stuff, but often the best way for Charlotte to learn is for me to get out of the way. Still, I’m always on hand to try to answer any questions or point her in the direction of a solution. I think sometimes Charlotte might regret asking me things, like a simple question about the box model.

I’ve really enjoyed those moments of teaching. I haven’t always been good at it. Sometimes, especially at the beginning, I’d lose patience. When that happened, I’d basically be an asshole. Then I’d realise I was being an asshole, apologise, and try not to do it again. Over time, I think I got better. I hope that those bursts of assholery are gone for good.

Now that Charlotte has graduated into a fully-fledged front-end developer, it’s time for me to ask myself once again, “Just what is it that I do anyway?”

But at least now I have some more understanding about what I like to do. I like to share. I like to teach.

I can very much relate to Chen Hui Jing’s feelings:

I suppose for some developers, the job is a just a means to earn a paycheck. But I truly hope that most of us are in it because this is what we love to do. And that we can raise awareness amongst developers who are earlier in their journey than ourselves on the importance of best practices. Together, we can all contribute to building a better web.

I’m writing this to mark a rewarding year of teaching and learning. Now I need to figure out how to take the best parts of that journey and apply it to the ongoing front-end development work at Clearleft with Mark, Graham, and now, Charlotte.

I have no idea what I’m doing. But I’m going to do it anyway.


We’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching at Clearleft recently; examining our values; trying to make implicit unspoken assumptions explicit and spoken. That process has unearthed some activities that have been at the heart of our company from the very start—sharing, teaching, and nurturing. After all, Clearleft would never have been formed if it weren’t for the generosity of people out there on the web sharing with myself, Andy, and Richard.

One of the values/mottos/watchwords that’s emerging is “Share what you learn.” I like that a lot. It echoes the original slogan of the World Wide Web project, “Share what you know.” It’s been a driving force behind our writing, speaking, and events.

In the same spirit, we’ve been running internship programmes for many years now. John is the latest of a long line of alumni that includes Anna, Emil, and James.

By the way—and this should go without saying, but apparently it still needs to be said—the internships are always, always paid. I know that there are other industries where unpaid internships are the norm. I’ve even heard otherwise-intelligent people defend those unpaid internships for the experience they offer. But what kind of message does it send to someone about the worth of their work when you withhold payment for it? Our industry is young. Let’s not fall foul of the pernicious traps set by older industries that have habitualised exploitation.

In the past couple of years, Andy concocted a new internship scheme:

So this year we decided to try a different approach by scouring the end of year degree shows for hot new talent. We found them not in the interaction courses as we’d expected, but from the worlds of Product Design, Digital Design and Robotics. We assembled a team of three interns , with a range of complementary skills, gave them a space on the mezzanine floor of our new building, and set them a high level brief.

The first such programme resulted in Chüne. The latest Clearleft internship project has just come to an end. The result is Notice.

This time ‘round, the three young graduates were Chloe, Chris and Monika. They each have differing but complementary skill sets: Chloe is a user interface designer; Chris is a product designer; Monika is an artist who knows her way around hardware hacking and coding.

I’ll miss having this lot in the Clearleft office.

Once again, they were set a fairly loose brief. They should come up with something “to enrich the lives of local residents” and it should have a physical and digital component to it.

They got stuck in to researching and brainstorming ideas. At the end of each week, we’d all gather together to get a playback of what they were coming up with. It was at these playbacks that the interns were introduced to a concept that they will no doubt encounter again in their professional lives: seagulling AKA the swoop and poop. For once, it was the Clearlefties who were in the position of being swoop-and-poopers, rather than swoop-and-poopies.

Playback at Clearleft

As the midway point of the internship approached, there were some interesting ideas, but no clear “winner” to pursue. Something else was happening around this time too: dConstruct 2015.

Chloe, Monika and Chris at dConstruct

The interns pitched in with helping out at the event, and in return, we kidnapped some of the speakers—namely John Willshire and Chris Noessel—to offer them some guidance.

There was also plenty of inspiration to be had from the dConstruct talks themselves. One talk in particular struck a chord: Dan Hill’s The City Of Things …especially the bit where he railed against the terrible state of planning application notices:

Most of the time, it ends up down the bottom of the lamppost—soiled and soggy and forgotten. This should be an amazing thing!

Hmm… sounds like something that could enrich the lives of local residents.

Not long after that, Matt Webb came to visit. He encouraged the interns to focus in on just the two ideas that really excited them rather then the 5 or 6 that they were considering. So at the next playback, they presented two potential projects—one about biking and the other about city planning. They put it to a vote and the second project won by a landslide.

That was the genesis of Notice. After that, they pulled out all the stops.

Exciting things are afoot with the @Clearleftintern project.

Not content with designing one device, they came up with a range of three devices to match the differing scope of planning applications. They set about making a working prototype of the device intended for the most common applications.

Monika and Chris, hacking

Last week marked the end of the project and the grand unveiling.

Playing with the @notice_city prototype. Chris breaks it down. Playback time. Unveiling.

They’ve done a great job. All the details are on the website, including this little note I wrote about the project:

This internship programme was an experiment for Clearleft. We wanted to see what would happen if you put through talented young people in a room together for three months to work on a fairly loose brief. Crucially, we wanted to see work that wasn’t directly related to our day-­to-­day dealings with web design.

We offered feedback and advice, but we received so much more in return. Monika, Chloe, and Chris brought an energy and enthusiasm to the Clearleft office that was invigorating. And the quality of the work they produced together exceeded our wildest expectations.

We hereby declare this experiment a success!

Personally, I think the work they’ve produced is very strong indeed. It would be a shame for it to end now. Perhaps there’s a way that it could be funded for further development. Here’s hoping.

Out on the streets of Brighton Prototype

As impressed as I am with the work, I’m even more impressed with the people. They’re not just talented and hard work—they’re a jolly nice bunch to have around.

I’m going to miss them.

The terrific trio!

Brighton device lab

People of Brighton (and environs), I have a reminder for you. Did you know that there is an open device lab in the Clearleft office?

That’s right! You can simply pop in at any time and test your websites on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Kindles, and more.

The address is 68 Middle Street. Ring the “Clearleft” buzzer and say you’re there to use the device lab.. There’ll always be somebody in the office. They’ll buzz you in and you can take the lift to the first floor. No need to make a prior appointment—feel free to swing by whenever you like.

There is no catch. You show up, test your sites on whatever devices you want, and maybe even stick around for a cup of tea.

Tell your friends.

I was doing a little testing this morning, helping Charlotte with a pesky bug that was cropping up on an iPad running iOS 8. To get the bottom of the issue, I needed to be able to inspect the DOM on the iPad. That turns out to be fairly straightforward (as of iOS 6):

  1. Plug the device into a USB port on your laptop using a lightning cable.
  2. Open Safari on the device and navigate to the page you want to test.
  3. Open Safari on your laptop.
  4. From the “Develop” menu in your laptop’s Safari, select the device.
  5. Use the web inspector on your laptop’s Safari to inspect elements to your heart’s content.

It’s a similar flow for Android devices:

  1. Plug the device into a USB port on your laptop.
  2. Open Chrome on the device and navigate to the page you want to test.
  3. Open Chrome on your laptop.
  4. Type chrome://inspect into the URL bar of Chrome on your laptop.
  5. Select the device.
  6. On the device, grant permission (a dialogue will have appeared by now).
  7. Use developer tools on your laptop’s Chrome to inspect elements to your heart’s content.

Using web inspector in Safari to inspect elements on a web page open on an iOS device. Using developer tools in Chrome to inspect elements on a web page open on an Android device.


It was only last week that myself and Ellen were brainstorming ideas for a combined workshop. Our enthusiasm got the better of us, and we said “Let’s just do it!” Before we could think better of it, the room was booked, and the calendar invitations were sent.


The topic was “story.”

No wait, maybe it was …”narrative.”

That’s not quite right either.

“Content,” perhaps?

Basically, here’s the issue: at some point everyone at Clearleft needs to communicate something by telling a story. It might be a blog post. It might be a conference talk. It might be a proposal for a potential client. It might be a case study of our work. Whatever form it might take, it involves getting a message across …using words. Words are hard. We wanted to make them a little bit easier.

We did two workshops. Ellen’s was yesterday. Mine was today. They were both just about two hours in length.

Get out of my head!

Ellen’s workshop was all about getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper. But before we could even start to do that, we had to confront our first adversary: the inner critic.

You know the inner critic. It’s that voice inside you that says “You’ve got nothing new to say”, or “You’re rubbish at writing.” Ellen encouraged each of us to drag this inner critic out into the light—much like Paul Ford did with his AnxietyBox.

Each of us drew a cartoon of our inner critic, complete with speech bubbles of things our inner critic says to us.

Drawing our inner critic inner critics

In a bizarre coincidence, Chloe and I had exactly the same inner critic, complete with top hat and monocle.

With that foe vanquished, we proceeded with a mind map. The idea was to just dump everything out of our heads and onto paper, without worrying about what order to arrange things in.

I found it to be an immensely valuable exercise. Whenever I’ve tried to do this before, I’d open up a blank text file and start jotting stuff down. But because of the linear nature of a text file, there’s still going to be an order to what gets jotted down; without meaning to, I’ve imposed some kind of priority onto the still-unformed thoughts. Using a mind map allowed me get everything down first, and then form the connections later.

mind mapping

There were plenty of other exercises, but the other one that really struck me was a simple framework of five questions. Whatever it is that you’re trying to say, write down the answers to these questions about your audience:

  1. What are they sceptical about?
  2. What problems do they have?
  3. What’s different now that you’ve communicated your message?
  4. Paint a pretty picture of life for them now that you’ve done that.
  5. Finally, what do they need to do next?

They’re straightforward questions, but the answers can really help to make sure you’re covering everything you need to.

There were many more exercises, and by the end of the two hours, everyone had masses of raw material, albeit in an unstructured form. My workshop was supposed to help them take that content and give it some kind of shape.

The structure of stories

Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.

This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.

So I was interested in separating the plot of a story from the narrative device used to tell the story.

To start with, I gave some examples of well-known stories with relatively straightforward plots:

  • Star Wars,
  • Little Red Riding Hood,
  • Your CV,
  • Jurassic Park, and
  • Ghostbusters.

I asked everyone to take a story (either from that list, or think of another one) and write the plot down on post-it notes, one plot point per post-it. Before long, the walls were covered with post-its detailing the plot lines of:

  • Robocop,
  • Toy Story,
  • Back To The Future,
  • Elf,
  • E.T.,
  • The Three Little Pigs, and
  • Pretty Woman.

Okay. That’s plot. Next we looked at narrative frameworks.

Narrative frameworks as Oblique Strategies.


Begin at a crucial moment, then back up to explain how you ended up there.

e.g. Citizen Kane “Rosebud!”


Instead of describing the action directly, have characters tell it to one another.

e.g. The Dialogues of Plato …or The Breakfast Club (or one of my favourite sci-fi short stories).

In Media Res

Begin in the middle of the action. No exposition allowed, but you can drop hints.

e.g. Mad Max: Fury Road (or Star Wars, if it didn’t have the opening crawl).


Begin with a looooong zooooom into the past before taking up the story today.

e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Distancing Effect

Just the facts with no embellishment.

e.g. A police report.

You get the idea.

In a random draw, everyone received a card with a narrative device on it. Now they had to retell the story they chose using that framing. That led to some great results:

  • Toy Story, retold as a conversation between Andy and his psychiatrist (dialogue),
  • E.T., retold as a missing person’s report on an alien planet (distancing effect),
  • Elf, retold with an introduction about the very first Christmas (backstory),
  • Robocop, retold with Murphy already a cyborg, remembering his past (flashback),
  • The Three Little Pigs, retold with the wolf already at the door and no explanation as to why there’s straw everywhere (in media res).

Once everyone had the hang of it, I asked them to revisit their mind maps and other materials from the previous day’s workshop. Next, they arranged the “chunks” of that story into a linear narrative …but without worrying about getting it right—it’s not going to stay linear for long. Then, everyone is once again given a narrative structure. Now try rearranging and restructuring your story to use that framework. If something valuable comes out of that, great! If not, well, it’s still a fun creative exercise.

And that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I was doing, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t really about me. It was about helping others take their existing material and play with it.

That said, I’m glad I finally got this process out into the world in some kind of semi-formalised way. I’ve been preparing talks and articles using these narrative exercises for a while, but this workshop was just the motivation I needed to put some structure on the process.

I think I might try to create a proper deck of cards—along the lines of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies or Stephen Andersons’s Mental Notes—so that everyone has the option of injecting a random narrative structural idea into the mix whenever they’re stuck.

At the very least, it would be a distraction from listening to that pesky inner critic.

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Clearleft is ten years old this year (and yes, we do have some celebrations planned). It’s funny to think back to 2005 when Andy, Richard, and myself joined forces to make a little design agency with no clients and no office.

Here we are in 2015 and we have our own building, we’re working with great clients, and there are 21 of us now …not that growth is any indicator of success—we’ve always stayed cautious in that regard.

Andy, Richard, and myself got together for dinner this evening—a surprisingly rare event these days. It felt like old times.

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Today was dogtastic at Clearleft. I knew in advance that Daphne the dachshund was going to be coming by—Kate had given us all the heads-up. But when I arrived in the office, who should greet me but …Poppy the beagle!

I hadn’t seen Poppy in years. But she remembered me. See, when Poppy was just a young dog, we’d play together. I’d get the dog all worked up into a frenzy and then say goodbye, leaving Richard to deal with a hyperactive puppy. That’s why, even now, Poppy’s reaction to me is to howl in a “let’s play!” way.

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We had an epic front-end pow-wow today. With plenty of Beerleft Goldenrods on hand we ploughed through discussing current client work and then turned to our guests. Today we were joined by Tracy Osborn, who told us all about her lovely new self-published book, Hello Web App. Then we got a demo from our friends at the confusingly named Ind.ie—no relation to the indie web—who gave us a demo of what they’ve been working on. We gave our feedback, including a heartfelt plea to dial down the rhetoric in their public pronouncements.

Then we went to the beach.

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Today was a day full of meetings, as so many Mondays are these days. But they weren’t bad meetings. These were necessary meetings. Not a single one of them was a client meeting. Instead I spent the day bouncing from one Clearleft meeting to another.

There was the weekly Monday morning meeting. We even managed to have that outside, before the raindrops started to fall. Then there was a resourcing meeting. Then I had a meeting with Anna about some potential upcoming work. Then there was the director’s meeting with Andy and Rich. Sounds cabalistic but it’s actually quite pedestrian.

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Today was a bittersweet day at Clearleft. It was Sophie’s last day. She’s moving on to pastures new, where I have no doubt she will kick ass as finely as she has done for the past few years here at our little agency.

She guided us through quite a tricky time; our move into our new building was a scary transition that coincided with some uncertain financial waters. If it hadn’t been for Sophie, I’m not sure how we would have coped.

And so tonight we broke bread together and toasted her time with us. I’ll miss having her around.

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It’s UX London week. That’s always a crazy busy time at Clearleft. But it’s also an opportunity. We have this sneaky tactic of kidnapping a speaker from UX London and making them give a workshop just for us. We did it a few years ago with Dave Grey and we got a fantastic few days of sketching out of it.

This time we grabbed Jeff Patton. He spent this afternoon locked in the auditorium at 68 Middle Street teaching us all about user story mapping. ‘Twas most enlightening and really helped validate some of the stuff we’ve been doing lately.

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At Clearleft, we’ve been running internships for quite a while now (paid internships, of course; there’s no justification for unpaid internships—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise). In that time we’ve been incredibly fortunate in getting fantastic people to jump on board our agency train for a few months.

The newest member of our pantheon is James Madson. He took time out of his globetrotting travels to become a temporary Clearlefty. It was great having him around. He’s a smart, humble, talented guy. I’m very glad that he enjoyed his time with us.

And his 100 days project is wonderful.

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We have a regular gathering at Clearleft every Thursday at 4pm. It’s our front-end pow-wow (there’s a corresponding “UX Laundromat” on Thursdays at 3pm, and every Friday at 4pm there’s a “Design …Thing”).

It’s basically like a design crit, but for code. People show what they’ve been working, whether it’s client work or personal projects. It leads to some great cross-pollination of ideas and solutions.

I wrap it up by going through links I’ve tagged with “frontend”.

Everyone’s welcome to come along, whether they’re a front-end developer or not. If any clients are in the office, they’re invited along too.

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We had a houseguest yesterday evening—Emil was back in Brighton. Emil was the first ever intern at Clearleft. He’s back in the country for Cennydd and Anna’s housewarming party tomorrow. Anna was also an intern at Clearleft; that’s where Anna and Cennydd first met.

Jon was also an intern at Clearleft. He enjoyed the experience so much that he ended up moving to Brighton. Good thing too: this is where he met Hannah, the love of his life. Today, Hannah and Jon got married. It was all rather lovely.

And now they’re off to San Sebastian on their honeymoon.

Hackfarming Blood Buddies

Every year at Clearleft, there’s a week where we step away from client work, go off the grid, and disappear into the countryside to work on something fun. We call it Hack Farm.

Hack Farm usually takes place around November, but due to various complexities, Hack Farm 2014 wound up getting pushed back to the start of 2015. Last week we formed a convoy, stocked up on the bare essentials (food, post-it notes, and booze), and drove west for four hours until we were in Herefordshire at a place called The Colloquy—a return to the site of the first ever Hack Farm.

Arrival at The Colloquy.

I kept notes on each day.

Day Zero

We arrive in the late afternoon, settle into our respective rooms, and eat some wonderful home-cooked food. After dinner, even though everyone’s pretty knackered, we agree that it’s best to figure out what everyone will be working on for the next few days.

Everyone gets a chance to pitch their ideas, and then we all do some dot-voting to whittle down the options. In short order, we arrive at four different projects for four different teams.

One of my ideas is chosen. This is something I’ve been pitching every single year at Hack Farm, and every single year it ends up narrowly missing out. This year, it’s finally going to happen!

On my team I’ve got Rich, Batesy, Andy P, and Tessa.

Day One

We choose a room to use as our home base and begin.

We start by agreeing on a hypothesis—more of an assumption, really—that we’ll be basing everything upon:

People are more like to give blood if they are not alone.


We start writing down questions that people might ask related to giving blood. Some of these questions might well turn out to be out of scope for this project, or can already be better answered by an existing service like blood.co.uk e.g.:

  • Can I give blood?
  • How often can I give blood?
  • Will it hurt?
  • How long will it take?

Other questions are potentially open to us providing answers:

  • Where can I give blood?
  • When I can I give blood?
  • Who else is giving blood?

That last one is a question that doesn’t seem to be answered anywhere else.

We brain-dump potential data sources that answered the “who”, “when”, and “where” questions? The data from blood.co.uk could potentially answer the “when” and “where” questions e.g. when and where is the next donation? Data from Twitter, Facebook, or your address book could answer the “who” questions e.g. who are you, and who are your friends?

We brainstorm potential outputs of the project. The obvious choices are a website or a native app, but there could also potentially be email, SMS, or even posters and postcards.

We think about potential incentives for the users of this service: peer pressure, gamification, bragging rights, reassurance, etc.

So there’s a lot of divergent thinking going on: at this stage, there are no bad ideas (no, really!).

We also establish the goals of the project—what we would like to see happen as a result of this service existing. The very minimum success criteria is:

Someone gives blood who hasn’t given blood before.

There’s a follow-on criteria for measuring longer-term success:

A group gives blood regularly.

We split into two groups to work on a propositional statement, then come together to merge what we came up with. Here it is:

For people who want to give blood, who need encouragement and motivation, Blood Buddies brings together people you know to make it a shared experience. That way, you’re more likely to give blood.

Unlike blood.co.uk, it frames giving blood as a shared, rewarding activity.

Proposition James and Tessa

Blood Buddies is a codename for now. The final service might have a different name, like Bluddies maybe.

After lunch, we start to work on user stories and personas. After a while, we think we’ve got a pretty clear idea for the minimal viable user journey.

Now we take a little break and stretch our legs.

A stroll through the fields.

When we regroup, we start researching technical possibilities (like Twitter authentication, GMail address book, Facebook contacts, etc.), while also throwing ideas around to do with branding, tone of voice, etc. James Box comes in and helps us out with a handy branding exercise.

In an effort the name the thing, we create a page filled with relevant words that might be combined into a name. Eventually we reach the “just fucking end it!” moment. The service is called “Blood Buddies” after all. The tagline is …drumroll… “Get plastered together!”

Meanwhile, having investigated the technical possibilities, it looks like Twitter’s API will be the easiest (relatively) to start with.

Vocabulary Kanban

We write out our epics and create a little kanban board. We have our tasks figured out:

  • implement sign-in with Twitter,
  • create a style guide,
  • mock up the homepage,
  • mock up a sign-up form,
  • and more.

Tomorrow everyone can assign a task to themselves and get cracking (some people have started already).

Day Two

After a late Superbowl night, we arise and begin tackling the day’s tasks.

I managed to get a very rudimentary Twitter sign-in working (eventually!) so now my task is to do something with the data that Twitter is returning …namely, storing it in a database. And because this relies on signing in with Twitter to get any results, this needs to get on to an actual web server as soon as possible.

Cue a day of wrangling with PHP, MySQL, OAuth, Git, Apache, SSH keys, and DNS settings …with an intermittent internet connection that drops out at the most inconvenient of times.

Andy is storyboarding the promo video that will help sell the story of Blood Buddies.


Meanwhile James and Tessa are hammering out a visual language for Blood Buddies. So the work is being approached from two different ends: the server side (how it works behind the scenes) and the interface (how it looks to the end user). In the middle is the user flow, and that’s what Richard is working on, also looking ahead past the minimal viable product to include features that can be added later.

By late afternoon the most basic server-side functionality is done, and the site is live at bloodbuddies.co.uk. Of course, there’s very, very, very little to see there, but at least our team can start adding themselves to the database.

So now the task is to join up the back-end functionality with the visual design and copy. As these strands come together, it feels like we’re getting back to a more collaborative phase: whereas yesterday involved lots of group activity, today was more splintered. But that’s going to change now that we’re going to join up the individual pieces into a unified interface.

Today felt quite productive considering that three out of the five people on our team are on cooking duty.

Spaghetti and meatballs Dinnertime

Day Three

Today is a day of rest. It’s a beautiful day. We go for a drive through the countryside, pop into a pub for some grub, and go walking on the hills.

Walking west to Wales.

Day Four

We’re down to just three team members today. Tessa is working on a different project and Andy is spending the day sleeping, puking, and generally recovering from a heavy night. N00b.

We get cracking on with integrating the visual design with the back-end functionality. That means bashing out some CSS. After an hour or two, we’ve got something basic in place.

While James works on refining the visuals—including a kick-ass logo—Richard is writing lots and lots of copy, and figuring out user flows.

Meanwhile I’m trying to get server-side stuff in place, fiddling with DNS and email; not my favourite activity.

Once the DNS is pointed to the Digital Ocean server, and with the Twitter sign-in working okay, we realise that we’ve actually launched! Admittedly it’s very basic and it needs plenty of refinement, but it’s a start.

We head out for the evening meal together. Just one more day to go.

The Stagg Inn

Day Five

James starts the day by finishing up his kick-ass Blood Buddies logo.

Richard is writing and editing lots of witty copy.

Andy is storyboarding a promotional video.

Rich, me, James, and Andy

I’m trying to get emails working, so that when someone you know signs up to Blood Buddies, we can email you to let you know. By lunchtime, we’ve got it all working.

Lots of the details are in place now: the logo, web fonts, an error page, a favicon …it feels good to be iterating on a live site.

Kanban progress Final day tasks

Device testing

After lunch, James, Richard, and I work on expanding out the home page. Once everything is in pretty good shape, we all come together (with Andy and Tessa) to talk about what the next steps could be after this minimum viable product.

There’s consensus that the most important step would be adding more ways of signing into the site, instead of just Twitter. Also, there’s a lot of functionality we could add if we can scrape the data from blood.co.uk

But that’s for another day. Right now we’ve got a barebones site, but it’s working.

We shipped.


As something of a science geek, I’m a big fan of the work of the Wellcome Trust:

We support the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. Our breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health.

I was very excited when Clearleft had the opportunity to work with them—we redesigned the Wellcome Library a while back. That was a fun responsive project, and an early use of a pattern portfolio as the deliverable.

We’ve been working with them on some other projects since then. We helped out with Mosaic, their terrific magazine site. I really enjoyed popping in to their fantastic building to chat with their talented designers.

The most recent Clearleft/Wellcome collaboration is something called Mindcraft. This started as a completely open-ended project—no one was quite sure what form the finished result would take. Over time it developed into a narrative-based series of historical events brought to life with browser technologies.

I didn’t work on this project but I loved watching it come together. The source material made for an interesting work environment.

Crazy wall Maps and legends.

Graham and Danielle did the front-end development, bringing Mikey’s designs to life, once Rich and Ben figured out the flow (all overseen by Jess).

The press release for Mindcraft describes it as “immersive” which immediately sets alarm bells ringing in expectation of big, scrolljacking pages …and to be honest, Mindcraft does have elements of that. It’s primarily intended to be visited on a large screen with a fast connection (although it’ll work on any sized-screen). But I think it manages to strike a pretty healthy balance of performance and “richness.” It certainly doesn’t feel gratuitous. The use of sound, imagery, and interaction is all in service to the story.

And boy, what a story!

Mindcraft explores a century of madness, murder and mental healing, from the arrival in Paris of Franz Anton Mesmer with his theories of ‘animal magnetism’ to the therapeutic power of hypnotism used by Freud.

I suggest you put on some headphones, make your browser window fullscreen, and start your journey.

It’s creepy, atmospheric, entertaining, and educational, all at the same time. I really like it. And I’m not just saying that because of Clearleft’s involvement. Like I said, I’m a science geek.

Cake for America

The Code for America project at Clearleft was fun for everyone involved. And because the code for the site is open to anyone to contribute to, the fun didn’t have to stop when the project officially wrapped up.

Because of her experience with front-end styleguides, we had hired Anna to work as a front-end developer on the Code for America project. But even when she was officially discharged of her duties, she decided to keep contributing to the public codebase.

For this service above and beyond the call of duty, Mike rewarded her in the time-honoured way: cake! In this case, the cake was inspired by the unofficial project theme song we blasted out every morning in the Clearleft HQ.

Anna's cake Anna's cake