Ben made a music video of the recent Clearleft outing to New York.
Friday, February 17th, 2017
Monday, January 23rd, 2017
Over the eleven-year (and counting) lifespan of Clearleft, people have come and gone—great people like Nat, Andy, Paul and many more. It’s always a bittersweet feeling. On the one hand, I know I’ll miss having them around, but on the other hand, I totally get why they’d want to try their hand at something different.
It was Charlotte’s last day at Clearleft last Friday. Her husband Tom is being relocated to work in Sydney, which is quite the exciting opportunity for both of them. Charlotte’s already set up with a job at Atlassian—they’re very lucky to have her.
So once again there’s the excitement of seeing someone set out on a new adventure. But this one feels particularly bittersweet to me. Charlotte wasn’t just a co-worker. For a while there, I was her teacher …or coach …or mentor …I’m not really sure what to call it. I wrote about the first year of learning and how it wasn’t just a learning experience for Charlotte, it was very much a learning experience for me.
For the last year though, there’s been less and less of that direct transfer of skills and knowledge. Charlotte is definitely not a “junior” developer any more (whatever that means), which is really good but it’s left a bit of a gap for me when it comes to finding fulfilment.
Just last week I was checking in with Charlotte at the end of a long day she had spent tirelessly working on the new Clearleft site. Mostly I was making sure that she was going to go home and not stay late (something that had happened the week before which I wanted to nip in the bud—that’s not how we do things ‘round here). She was working on a particularly gnarly cross-browser issue and I ended up sitting with her, trying to help work through it. At the end, I remember thinking “I’ve missed this.”
I can’t describe the immense swell of pride I felt when Charlotte spoke on stage. Watching her deliver her talk at Dot York was one my highlights of the year.
Thinking about it, this is probably the perfect time for Charlotte to leave the Clearleft nest. After all, I’m not sure there’s anything more I can teach her. But this feels like a particularly sad parting, maybe because she’s going all the way to Australia and not, y’know, starting a new job in London.
In our final one-to-one, my stiff upper lip may have had a slight wobble as I told Charlotte what I thought was her greatest strength. It wasn’t her work ethic (which is incredibly strong), and it wasn’t her CSS skills (‘though she is now an absolute wizard). No, her greatest strength, in my opinion, is her kindness.
I saw her kindness in how she behaved with her colleagues, her peers, and of course in all the fantastic work she’s done at Codebar Brighton.
Thursday, January 19th, 2017
Looking beyond launch
It’s all go, go, go at Clearleft while we’re working on a new version of our website …accompanied by a brand new identity. It’s an exciting time in the studio, tinged with the slight stress that comes with any kind of unveiling like this.
I think it’s good to remember that this is the web. I keep telling myself that we’re not unveiling something carved in stone. Even after the launch we can keep making the site better. In fact, if we wait until everything is perfect before we launch, we’ll probably never launch at all.
On the other hand, you only get one chance to make a first impression, right? So it’s got to be good …but it doesn’t have to be done. A website is never done.
I’ve got to get comfortable with that. There’s lots of things that I’d like to be done in time for launch, but realistically it’s fine if those things are completed in the subsequent days or weeks.
Adding a service worker and making a nice offline experience? I really want to do that …but it can wait.
What about other performance tweaks? Yes, we’ll to try have every asset—images, fonts—optimised …but maybe not from day one.
Making sure that each page has good metadata—Open Graph? Twitter Cards? Microformats? Maybe even AMP? Sure …but not just yet.
Having gorgeous animations? Again, I really want to have them but as Val rightly points out, animations are an enhancement—a really, really great enhancement.
If anything, putting the site live before doing all these things acts as an incentive to make sure they get done.
So when you see the new site, if you view source or run it through Web Page Test and spot areas for improvement, rest assured we’re on it.
Sunday, December 4th, 2016
The site is looking lovely as always. There’s also a component library to to accompany it: Bits, the front-end component library for 24 ways. Nice work, courtesy of Paul. (I particularly like the comment component example).
The component library is built with Fractal, the magnificent tool that Mark has open-sourced. We’ve been using at Clearleft for a while now, but we haven’t had a chance to make any of the component libraries public so it’s really great to be able to point to the 24 Ways example. The code is all on Github too.
There’s a really good buzz around Fractal right now. Lots of people in the design systems Slack channel are talking about it. There’s also a dedicated Fractal Slack channel for people getting into the nitty-gritty of using the tool.
If you’re currently wrestling with the challenges of putting a front-end component library together, be sure to give Fractal a whirl.
Thursday, November 10th, 2016
The video of Charlotte’s excellent pattern library talk that she presented yesterday in Berlin.
Thursday, October 6th, 2016
Benjamin’s retrospective on three years of volunteering at web conferences, some of them run by Clearleft.
Friday, July 22nd, 2016
Monday, June 27th, 2016
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:
- The Game Loop,
- Drawing to the Screen,
- Handling User Input,
- Scaling the Canvas,
- Animation — Part 1,
- Levels & Collision — part 1, and most recently
- Levels — part 2.
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.
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!
Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
Charlotte outlines the process she used in creating her talk at Dot York. It was a real joy to see it come together.
Sunday, May 15th, 2016
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.
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.
Saturday, April 30th, 2016
Mark has dumped his brains!
Seriously, there is a lot of thought that has gone into this, and it’s just the beginning: Mark recounts the experience that Clearleft has had with delivering pattern libraries, laying the groundwork for releasing the library-generating tool that he has been building.
Watch this space.
Thursday, March 10th, 2016
Jon outlines his technique for keeping “the 30,000 foot” view when patterns are coalescing during a project.
See also: Andy P.’s experience of working with Jon this way.
Wednesday, March 2nd, 2016
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.
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.
Monday, February 29th, 2016
Myself and Batesy spent last week in Ipswich doing an intense design sprint with Suffolk Libraries. Leon has written up process from his perspective as the client—I’ll try to get a case study up on the Clearleft website soon.
This is really great write-up; it captures the sense of organised chaos:
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.
Friday, January 15th, 2016
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.
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.
Wednesday, January 6th, 2016
I got a little verklempt reading this.
Friday, December 18th, 2015
Charlotte talks through some of the techniques she used when she was building the site for this year’s UX London, with a particular emphasis on improving perceived performance.
Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015
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:
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.
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.
Saturday, November 21st, 2015
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Last week marked the end of the project and the grand 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.
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.