February 2, 2024 in Noteworthy

I’ve been following along with the progress of Matt’s fab AI clock idea for a while and excitingly it’s now gone live on Kickstarter. I’ve backed and assuming it goes all the way, really look forward to getting one in my hands.

Poem/1
Poem/1

If you’ve not seen it, it’s an AI rhyming clock — a clock that uses ChatGPT to generate a new poetic description of the time, every minute. A slightly mad, and very cute way to use AI. And just look at that hardware design, lovely work by Approach.

Check out poem.town.

January 30, 2024 in Exploration

One of my recent fave things to do, is screenshot a website, drop it into ChatGPT and ask for a design crit. It’s actually surprisingly insightful in a lot of cases.

I’ve only done this as a quick bit of fun, but it occurred to me that it could genuinely be useful. Next time I could use a little feedback on some work I’m doing, I might try this out for some work in progress. With the slight caveat that I will be careful what I share — OpenAI is fairly unscrupulous about what it hoovers up to train it’s models…

December 16, 2023 in Work updates

It feels great to be getting close to putting live a version of this site that I’m happy enough with to then iterate on in the wild. I’m not quite there, but nearly. So it gave me pause to think about my existing site that’s been live since 2018.

Archived version of my portfolio

This site served me well and rather than chuck it in the bin, I’ve decided to keep it live for posterity. So here’s an archived version for future reference. Farewell old friend.

October 31, 2023 in Exploration

Like a lot of folks, I’ve been using ChatGPT quite a bit recently, experimenting and playing around to see what it can do. This is partly from wanting an awareness of its capabilities and an understanding of its potential impact on what I do for a living. But primarily, it’s because I am curious and suspect it’s going to offer me ways to superpower my own creativity.

Despite my motivations though, I’ve not really felt inspired with a specific use case beyond the odd open question to see what it’s capable of, or getting it to write the odd line of JavaScript for me, and have found that one way or another it hasn’t hugely helped me.

Or at least it hadn’t until I saw this great suggestion from Alex Wang, on LinkedIn of all places. The approach essentially uses ChatGPT to create a personalised learning roadmap for a subject of your choice, based on the 80/20 principle. Below is the template this follows and sample prompts which can be used directly in ChatGPT, based on a topic of your choice.

Example prompts

Prompt 1

I want to learn about [insert topic].

Based on the 80/20 Principle, please share the most crucial 20% of information that will give me a solid understanding of 80% of the subject.

Prompt 2

Based on this crucial 20% of information, please create a 30-day learning roadmap for me, including the subtopics that I need to learn.

I’ve since gone on to try this out for a variety of different subjects and found it to be a really potent way to get started with learning something new.

For example, I’ve wanted to learn Unity for a while, to be able to do rich prototyping for mobile/web apps and games, but I’ve never really got over the initial steep learning curve and need to install software and dependencies to get going.

But having since taken the approach outlined above (and applying it to a game idea I’ve had floating around since forever), ChatGPT gave me the following starter for ten, which has been hugely helpful…

A screenshot from ChatGPT showing my first prompt
A screenshot from ChatGPT showing my second prompt

While I’ve not necessarily followed the entirety of the course structure over the period of time specified, this approach has blown away the blockers for me and got me to a point very quickly where I can move forward. It’s exposed me to a lot of the edges and ‘unknown unknowns’, which has massively sped up my ability to learn and helps gives me cues as to what to ask next.

A short term outcome

Off the back of this, in the space of a few hours I’ve learnt the core Unity concepts and with ChatGPT’s help and C# code suggestions have managed to get a barebones iOS ‘game’ up and running on my device as seen below.

OK, it’s not really a game (yet), but it’s a proper start and it’s actually running on my iPhone. I’m really excited to see where I can take it next.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn that might benefit from this sort of approach? If so, I’d love to hear how you get on if you end up trying it out.

September 13, 2023 in Noteworthy

I recently bought this book by Russell (and friends) and in a slightly meta way, having noticed and collected it, I’m now sharing it with you here. It’s a really nice, light read with a lovely reminder throughout that creativity is a habit, a muscle that needs working. And there’s some great little activities to help nurture that habit and your creative instincts in general. Recommended. Get yourself a copy.

Do Interesting. Notice. Collect. Share. A book by Russell Davies

I also recommended this fairly recently in my newsletter, Converge, which gives you a monthly-ish round up of interesting and creative things. You know what to do.

April 6, 2019 in Work updates

Screenshots of the SuperHi Creative Coding course

I recently collaborated with the brilliant SuperHi code school to design and develop a course on creative coding.

The course will teach you the basics of JavaScript coding in the browser to create your own patterns and code powered animations and will be good for you even if you are a beginner to JavaScript. You can find out more at www.superhi.com/courses/creative-coding.

You can also read a bit more about the background to the course in my project case study.

June 5, 2018 in Thoughts

Over time I’ve realised there’s a whole host of things that are important to me in my working life. This is a post to capture those things for myself for future reference.

Working on things that matter

I like to work on projects that actively benefit people and the world at large and will not take on projects that are knowingly detrimental to others or negatively impactful.

Getting involved in projects early

I like to be involved with an organisation or product early enough that I can help shape what it becomes. I’m much more of a creator and inventor than a maintainer and prefer to be on a team doing this sort of work.

Working on small, autonomous teams

I really like working as part of a small team. For me, good work happens when there’s very short feedback loops and the communication is regular and transparent. Discrete work done by a small cross-functional team ftw.

Substantial work

I’m interested in long running contracts – work that’s going to involve proper thinking and effort over time as it’s normally only this work that tends to have any substance or meaning. Quick turnaround projects over a few days or weeks are not rewarding in my experience.

User needs and research

I’m not interested in designing in a vacuum. I want to make things that solve real problems for people and aren’t built on guesswork. I love working with design researchers to make this happen.

Creativity and visual flair

I need to produce work that I can be proud of. I understand the value of an MVP to validate an idea, but too often the MVP ends up being the shipped product. The best products and services go much further than just the functional and are beautiful and memorable.

Short feedback loops

I believe there should be a very short feedback loop between design and engineering. The bigger that gap, the more problems appear. This makes breaking work into small, but meaningful chunks critical and puts the emphasis on making over meeting.

Being decisive

Lingering over decisions for too long is paralysing. We need to make the best decisions we can as quickly as possible with the information we have right now. And then move on. A ‘bad’ decision is better than no decision because at least you have something to learn from and that still gives a team momentum.

More making, less meeting

The best teams are teams of smart people with enough autonomy to get on and build what needs to be built. With good conscientious people working as a team, there’s no need for too much process or endless meetings. Let them get on with what they are good at. This relies on having great leadership, as below.

Designing with content and data

We should design and build around real data and content. If we don’t have that, our work as designers should start with pushing to shape and understand that content.

Strong, effective leadership

A bit of a no brainer, but good digital products and services live and die by the quality of their leadership. Good design only happens in the context of good leadership imo – rubbish in, rubbish out. I’m very happy to do the hard yards to deliver great design work if I’m working alongside leadership that has equally done the hard yards to articulate and deliver an inspiring and clear goal.

Working hard, not burning out

I’m a dad with three kids and a wife. Work is very important to me, but so is family and my mental well being. I’d like to work somewhere that understands that it’s a marathon not a sprint. The best work happens when people are happy and respected. I’ve been working a four day week at most for a few years now and it’s a game changer.

Flexibility

The best employers I’ve worked for have always offered flexibility and favoured outputs over presenteeism. Since long before the pandemic, I’ve been working remotely for a substantial part of the week and I’d like to continue to do so as it’s good for the work, the environment and a balanced life.

Equality and fairness

Diverse teams with people from a mix of backgrounds always make for more vibrant, effective teams in my experience. The users of our products are all sorts of varied, different people, so it should go without saying that all sorts of varied, different people should play a hand in making those products.

April 20, 2018 in Work updates

I freelanced at Facebook for most of 2017 (I know, I know). While there, I co-wrote and illustrated a piece on design pairing. You can see the illustration below. To read the post which I wrote alongside design partner, Amy Whitney, head over to Medium.

Designing in pairs

July 7, 2017 in Work updates

I was recently interviewed by the lovely folk over at Creative Boom. You can read my ramblings in the full interview with Katy Cowan over at Creative Boom on their nicely designed new site.

Photo of me in my old home studio

January 22, 2014 in Thoughts

Sometimes I read things that really elegantly crystallise what I’ve been thinking myself. Thoughts that until that moment I haven’t been able to articulate.

Most recently, this happened with a new personal piece by Jonathan Harris on overcoming creative block, entitled ’Navigating stuckness’. I really recommend reading the entire article, but this is the take away that resonates with me and feels like a natural extension of my previous post.

We have these brief lives, and our only real choice is how we will fill them. Your attention is precious. Don’t squander it. Don’t throw it away. Don’t let companies and products steal it from you… Own your attention, it’s all you really have.

Jonathan Harris in ’Navigating stuckness

It pays to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have the freedom to choose how we spend our time. It’s a privilege we shouldn’t waste.

Own your attention, it’s all you really have.

January 6, 2014 in Thoughts

I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but a recent rousing post by Michael Lopp has reminded me to focus more on creating in 2014.

Like most people in the design and tech industry, I’m online almost constantly. Dipping in and out of social media channels as I work, commute and relax, it’s great to stay on top of what’s happening around me in the wider world. But it’s also really easy to get distracted and caught up in what everyone else is doing rather than focusing on my own creative output. Now, I’m not going to be one of those people who starts ranting about how damaging all this screen time is, because I don’t believe it is.

And I’m not about to do something rash like give up Twitter.

But what I have found is that over time the constant connection with what everyone else is doing is detrimental to my creativity. On his blog, Rands in Repose, Lopp distilled something I’ve been unconsciously aware of for a while…

You’re swimming in everyone else’s moments, likes, and tweets and during these moments of consumption you are coming to believe that their brief interestingness to others makes it somehow relevant to you and worth your time.

Yes.

My time is finite, but the stream of tweets, emails, blog posts and sites all vying for my attention is not. Being tuned into so much creative output from others also makes me over analyse what I’m creating. To the extent that it can lead to a weird kind of self-conscious paralysis. It’s subtle, but I can feel my concentration span getting crushed. My ability to focus on one thing deeply and creatively is not as strong as it was and I want it back.

I am going to give more time to getting on with doing and making this year. It always makes me feel good.

When you choose to create, you’re bucking the trend because you’re choosing to take the time to build.

October 15, 2012 in Work updates

For most of the year, I’ve been contracting with the talented folk at the Government Digital Service (GDS), helping to design the new single government domain, GOV.UK.

Ahead of it’s public release on 17th October, I thought I’d share a bit about my experience so far and some of the reasons it’s been such a great project to be involved in.

GOV.UK will replace Directgov from October 17

A bit of background

If you’ve not heard of GOV.UK, you can get a good background on the GDS blog. In short though it’s about bringing government run public services together under one roof online. It’s about doing away with costly, disparate government websites and inconsistent design/interaction in favour of consolidating everything to put users first.

It’s a difficult, but exciting challenge — to make the web work harder for the public and in turn to make their (well, our) lives easier.

My involvement

I was initially brought on board by Ben Terrett to create a family of icons for the project back in January. When I started I didn’t really know what to expect, but I guess I had imagined working in part of the Cabinet Office could wind up being a bit dry and bureaucratic.

I was wrong.

The atmosphere and energy at GDS reminds me of that of Airside and one or two startups I’ve worked for. Lots of smart, positive people, wanting to make Good Things. Hopeful that they’ll make a difference.

The team I've been working with at GDS

The way of working is also very transparent — regular updates from different teams, show and tell sessions and workshops, walls covered in work in progress and design ideas/inspiration, design crits, brilliant design principles, public APIs, a public codebase. I could go on. It’s more reminiscent of a creative company than a government department.

I also realised pretty quickly that this was not going to be somewhere bureaucratic. Quite the opposite. I’ve discovered it’s all about cutting through the bureaucracy. Refreshingly, the senior management have the power to make big changes and that spirit of change can be felt throughout the whole organisation.

A few things I’ve learnt

During my time at GDS, I’ve been involved in quite a few different areas from prototyping and sketching to graphic design and illustration. These are things I normally do, but the key difference here has been the size of the task at hand.

When working at scale, everything gets a lot harder. Especially with a broad and diverse audience which essentially equates to the British population.

Designing for over 60 million people across the whole spectrum of abilities and requirements, means your working processes have to adapt accordingly.

These are some of the things that I’ve realised working on the project…

In order to scale, an iterative, agile approach is essential

A project as ambitious as GOV.UK cannot be planned out in minute detail at the beginning; there are just too many moving parts. The way we make sure we are consistently putting users first and staying on track is to take smaller problems and tackle them iteratively over short time periods or sprints. An agile approach like this accepts we don’t know everything at any given moment in time and gives us the ability to change direction quickly.

Graphic design comes second, at the beginning

As a designer, I’ve always placed a premium on graphic design as a key differentiator between good and bad products. Which it often is. But in the process of making a large scale product with so many unknowns, treating graphic design as a priority makes absolutely no sense. At least in the beginning. The first goal must be to have working software that fulfils users’ needs. Only then does it make sense to properly apply a layer of graphic design to elevate the product further.

Accessibility has to be integral, not an afterthought

The GOV.UK audience is the British population. This includes people from all walks of life and with vastly varied requirements and understanding of the web. It’s really important to remember these are real people and to never assume everyone understands and uses the internet as we do. We have to build for inclusion, catering for a wide range of abilities and specific needs to make sure the site is accessible for all.

Collaboration

We achieve much more through collaboration. That the ‘total is greater than the sum of its parts’ is a cliché for a reason. Regularly passing our work in front of each other also helps to remove any assumptions we make as individuals and to force us to justify the design choices we make. The more people see it and poke it with a stick the better.

There is no ‘finished’

We have to remove the idea of ‘finishing’ a product like this — it cannot be finished. Over time it will need to evolve and change, just as society and people’s needs change.

Design is reckoning

A team of people with many years background designing for the web is still just a team putting forward what feels right based on experience. Until real people begin to use the product, we can’t say anything is right with much certainty.

October 15, 2012 in Thoughts

It’s almost a year to the day since I left the salaried world behind me and started out working for myself as a designer/developer. This feels like a good time to reflect and think about what I’ve learnt during that time.

I’ve tried to distil things down to a list of ten key points in the hope that there’ll be some things in here that are of use to anyone else thinking of making the leap.

Embrace fear

Before taking the plunge, there was inevitably a little fear. I had the security of a creative, full-time job and all the securities that that brings. Leaving that behind can feel a bit scary and risky, especially if you have kids and a family relying on you not to fuck up like I do. But I think this fear is largely psychological. Society conditions us not to take risks as though they are something negative to be avoided. But in my experience, the occasions when my life has really improved can be directly connected to when I took a risk.

And anyway, if leaving your job is so risky, then how come so many other people seem to get along fine doing just that and then working for themselves? Surely it’s not really risky, maybe it just requires a bit of planning?

Well it turns out this is true. You just need to be a bit organised. Firstly you need to save up a buffer of money to last you a few months (more on that below), so that if it takes a while to get a job or an invoice paid, you can at least cover your rent/mortgage, etc.

You then need to gently start spreading the word with peers and friends that you respect that you are planning to go it alone. It is very likely that it’ll be through these people that you get your first job.

I’ve been amazed how powerful word of mouth is. I’ve had one or two cold enquiries, but in the main all the interesting work that I’ve done has been through word of mouth and because ‘I know her, and she knows him and they’re looking for a designer’. So, if fear is holding you back, don’t let it. Embrace it and use it to give you the energy to be organised to get your shit together to make the leap.

It’s a really envigorating feeling when you do.

More money, more responsibility

I’ve never really been motivated by money. My chief motivation is to try to do good, creative work that hopefully has a positive impact in some way.

But that said, when working for yourself, you cannot afford to be flaky or vague about the question of money — it is integral to running a business, which is what you are doing if you work for yourself.

There’s a great chapter on this by Mike Monteiro in his book, Design Is A Job which I highly recommend.

So what should you be charging for the skills you have? If you don’t have the faintest idea, the best place to start is to ask your peers that are already doing it. That’s what I did and it proved really useful as a starting point.

Creative Review recently put up an interesting post about the earning potential of different roles in the design industry. It’s worth a read.

Working for yourself you have more things to manage — corporation tax (if you are a limited company), accountancy fees, business insurance, software subscriptions and so on, but I have found you also earn more money. Since going it alone, I have doubled my full time salary :)

All I would say is that all this stuff feels more complicated beforehand than it ultimately really is. You just need to get yourself a good accountant and a good bit of bookkeeping software and the rest will follow.

Surround yourself with smart people

The projects I’ve been happiest on over the past year have been those where I’m working with clever, open people — people who just want to get on and do their best work and aren’t hung up on trying to be cool. GDS was a wonderful place for this kind of atmosphere.

Surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you means you learn and develop faster and your work will get better for it. I’ve found it’s always better to feel slightly out of your depth, it gives you the kick up the arse you need to get better at what you do.

You can’t blame your tools

Working as a designer, you basically are what you make; your output is what people see and judge.

So you deserve to have good tools. Tools that work and that you can rely on when you’re busy.

Recently I was working on a project using an old, flaky version of Illustrator and when the project ramped up and I had to create proper finished artwork, it kept crashing.

Over and over again.

This is not what you need in the middle of a hard job nearing a deadline. It’s definitely worth not compromising and spending proper money on this stuff and thanking yourself for it later.

I recently bit the bullet and subscribed to Creative Cloud and haven’t looked back.

It does make me feel a bit nauseous linking to Adobe, but this software is genuinely very good and they have got their shit together to make it affordable for small businesses.

Proper tools to do proper work.

Build a good safety net

The only thing there is to fear really in working for yourself is not having any money to pay yourself at the end of the month.

So when you start out, make sure you’ve saved a buffer of money first.

I made sure I had 3-4 months (around £12K) worth of my full-time salary before I made the leap and while I’ve been lucky enough not to have had to dip into that, it still helped for a short period when one or two invoices took a while to be paid.

Even though I haven’t spent my contingency money, the mental freedom it gave me to have this safety net was invaluable. I don’t know about you, but I’d really struggle to do anything very creative if I was constantly worried about my bank balance.

Ultimately how much of a safety net you need depends on your situation. If like me, you have a mortgage and kids, you probably need to overcompensate and save more than you really need.

But if on the other hand you only have rent on a flat to pay and not many other great commitments, you could get away with starting with very little.

Think about the projects you take on.

We all need work to pay the bills, but good creative work should be doing much more than that.

Beyond whether it offers you a chance to be creative, before taking on a project it’s worth thinking about what it’s legacy will be if it’s successful. Will it be doing something new or remarkable? Is it an original idea? Is it likely to actually make peoples’ lives easier/better by existing?

If the answer to all these questions is ‘no’, I’d probably have my reservations and walk away.

After all, how the project fares will reflect on you and good projects beget good projects, while bad beget bad. Or in plain English — you’re only as good as the last project you worked on.

If a job does look interesting, do you know who owns the project? How many steps removed from them will you be? This is an important thing to think about as it will directly affect the outcome of the job.

When your contact is the owner and decision maker of the business you’re working with, you stand a much better chance of getting good results through design than when you work with someone from the company lower down the pecking order.

I’ve had good work crushed in the past due to working with a client where I didn’t get the chance to sell in my ideas to someone senior. Never again.

Not every job is a portfolio piece

I’ve done quite a few jobs that I wouldn’t put on my website. Not because I’m ashamed of them or think that they’re bad as such.

It’s more that I don’t think they reflect exactly what I want to be doing and that’s really what a portfolio should be — a demonstration of the work you can and should be doing.

The law of averages says that you are most likely to get more of the kind of work that you have done before. So craft and shape your portfolio to show the best sides of what you’ve done and hopefully you’ll get more of the same.

It’s also not a bad thing to occasionally do work that you know is not for your portfolio. Maybe a particular project will pay very well, but is not hugely exciting. That could be useful to help fund you through a time working on another project that isn’t paid so well, but is a brilliant opportunity.

Communicate and be nice

This is really simple. If you’re nice and you do a good job, people will recommend you and they will want you back. If you aren’t and you don’t, they won’t.

Anthony Burrill said this best a long time ago — ‘Work Hard and Be Nice To People.’

Home, Desk, Studio?

Where you work is important. It can seem trivial when you’re busy in the middle of a project, but I think your workplace has a profound effect on you.

Personally I need to have natural daylight, windows and space to think and move. Pretty obvious stuff really.

But it’s also not realistic to be in your dream studio space from the off. You don’t want big rental overheads when you are just starting out.

For me day one of Futurefabric began at home in my then three year old son’s bedroom, working at a desk at the foot of his bed. (He wasn’t there of course, he was at nursery!)

That was back when I was working on the Airside Nippon website with Henki and it was a perfect start. I had zero overheads, a kettle downstairs for endless cups of tea and coffee and a desk with a screen. I didn’t need much more.

As time went on though, the cracks started to show. The blurred line between home and work life caused it’s own problems.

I’ve since realised for me at least, it’s important to have a distinct place where I go to work. That’s not to say I never work at home, I do occasionally, but I think it’s good to have a separation from home mode and work mode. I’ve also seen the benefit of a commute because of this — the journey helps break up these two modes of being.

So since November I’ve been working from a studio in Shoreditch which is great and a good reason to get out of the house. The only issue now is the journey, I wish I could shorten the distance between my home and studio somehow!

Beyond freelance — building a business

Working as a freelance designer/developer is a fruitful and fulfilling way to work. The digital industry is really buoyant right now and with the surge of investment in tech and start up culture it’s a really good time to ply your wares.

But while it’s a good job, for me I’m not sure that in itself it is the best career. If you go on indefinitely working as a supplier for others, where is the value for yourself? What equity do you have for the future?

This is a question I’ve been pondering.

It’s early days, but I’d like to build a profitable business using the skills I have. I don’t know what this could be yet, but no doubt it will be somewhere at the point David Hieatt calls the “sweet spot” — where my interests, home life and work life meet.

If and when I work out what that is, I’ll let you know :)