The past nine months have been a blur, haven’t they? Following Brexit and the political turmoil of a general election here in the UK, we thought things would start looking up. Haha! COVID-19 hit and the world seemed to stop.

Jon Aizlewood
Jon Aizlewood
15th December 2020

Like many companies we parked almost everything to react to the coronavirus situation. We put measures in place to weather the storm financially. We maintained our high level of client services (albeit remotely). We adapted to the world of virtual events by putting on Sofa Conf.

On the precipice of another wave (or another lockdown), the only certainty is uncertainty. Instead of fixating on how difficult things are now, we’ve adapted and dusted ourselves off. We’ve revisited many of those things we parked before coronavirus struck because, as the old adage goes, the show must go on.

A strong pedigree

Being around for 1.5 decades as a digital agency is no small feat. We recently celebrated our 15th birthday twice, like the queen. First internally, as a remote team during summer lockdown. Then externally, in September, with our future postcards and timeline. Rich eloquently sums up the landmark in his recent post.

To herald that 15 year milestone, we took the brave step of moving to an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT). Andy and Rich started the ball rolling back in 2019, and announced the decision to the Clearleft team just before lockdown.

Moving to an EOT is fitting for an agency like Clearleft. We’ve always been big on autonomy and flat structures. We’ve always prided ourselves as trailblazers. It felt only natural to give more ownership back to the staff. Andy does a much better job describing the EOT and what it means for Clearleft in his post.

Yet before the EOT, before coronavirus and in the lead-up to our birthday, we started to ask ourselves something. Are the things we say we do in fact the things we do? As a world-renowned UX & Design studio we’ve always had a reputation, but for what exactly?

After some soul-searching before, during and after coronavirus we’ve come to some conclusions that we hope better articulate what we do, and why.

Growing up

For the past 15 years Clearleft has been at the forefront of all things digital design. We were in the trenches during the web standards movement. We helped organisations better understand UX and how it can transform their businesses for the better. We led the charge on modular, systematic design. Recently we’ve fostered a growing design leadership community through our events, retreats and meet-ups. At Clearleft we’ve always put a lot of effort into sharing back with our community. We run world-renowned events to bring speakers from other countries and skill sets together, to share their knowledge and their expertise.

For the most part, our purpose and vision have remained the same over the last several years. In my opinion that’s a great thing. Sticking to our purpose means we haven’t wavered from our larger goals, and we’re still (cue the cliche klaxon) following our North Star:

We believe in advancing the practice of design to transform organisations and impact people’s lives for the better.

We really do believe deeply in design. Past, present and future Clearlefties know that design can have incredible effects on people’s lives. Working with purposeful brands on meaningful projects is what gets us up in the morning. Similarly our vision has stayed the course:

We want to be the most influential and respected independent boutique design consultancy in the UK.

Our heritage, pedigree and experience blend into something unique. We’re known for being highly collaborative which, in its own right, is nothing exceptional. But when paired with our ability to ask tough questions and challenge the status quo, we bring a bold curiosity to our clients and their thorny problems. When partnering with clients we always strive to make them champions. We make them the heroes, not us. As committed allies we form long-term partnerships and friendships with our clients to create change.

A slide summarising Clearleft's purpose

We realised that though our core mission and vision hasn’t changed, our core proposition has changed. In some quarters Clearleft are still seen as a web development agency or a website design studio. Neither of these things are bad; they just don’t reflect what we actually do today.

As teenagers tend to face identity crises, so have we. In truth we’re far more grown up than we realised. The services we’ve been providing our clients have gone far beyond websites for some time. Though we might have been hired to redesign a website years ago, the effects we had on our client’s organisations were long-lasting. We were agents for creating change, helping our clients maintain momentum. Over the last several years we’ve been doing that and so much more. So we asked ourselves what a grown-up Clearleft looks like. What had to be done to make that change known?

Closing the gap between strategy and delivery

Time and again our clients have procured the services of large consultancies to help them devise ‘a strategy’. Lots of stuff happens in those engagements. Hand waving, talking, promising and dreaming. But nothing material gets created, except a fancy slide deck of ideas.

Over time that deck collects virtual dust. Nothing gets done because the client wasn’t given any support to make their new vision a reality. Instead, they’re left to their own devices. Other priorities and initiatives crop up and compete for their attention. Before long that slide deck is a very expensive artefact. This is the strategy-delivery gap.

A slide summarising Clearleft's ability to close the gap between strategy and delivery

The above scenario isn’t a one-off. It’s a pattern we’ve recognised many times. As an agency we’ve always been purveyors of our craft: from web standards and development to great UX & design. But we’ve always provided strategic design thinking to help our clients think differently. By closing the gap we combine strategic and creative design thinking with great skill and execution. We help make our clients’ visions a reality by working with them to act—not talk—with user-centred design practices and quality techniques.

Connecting with the best in the industry

Ever since the first dConstruct back in 2005, we’ve lived one of our core values: to learn and share knowledge with all. From those humble dConstruct beginnings we’ve built a portfolio of world-renowned events, from UX London and Ampersand to Leading Design. Though coronavirus created an obstacle for all in-person events, we’re still providing fantastic opportunities for learning and sharing knowledge. In June we launched Sofaconf, our first fully-online conference. In March 2021 we’ll be putting our fantastic Leading Design brand online with the new LDFest, followed closely by UXFest, a month-long version of UXLondon.

A slide summarising Clearleft's ability to connect clients with the best in the industry

We have a unique connection with the industry’s leading provocateurs, thought leaders and respected experts. We curate and create conferences that help people improve their skills, their careers and the industry as a whole. Using those same connections, we provide our clients with access to respected industry experts who would otherwise be out of reach. Whether it’s specialists in agile and product development that’s needed, or leaders in training and learning, we can form ‘super teams’ to provide specialist services for our clients that help them achieve their vision.

Meeting in the middle (of the double diamond)

For those already familiar with the double diamond approach to design, Clearleft has historically been spread across the second diamond: helping to design the thing right by delivering or making something.

As we have evolved we focus more on the middle of the two diamonds, with a strong emphasis on strategy and design. That mid-diamond pinch point is precisely where we work best with our clients. We help explore turning insights into ideas, and turn those ideas into a reality by exploring and shaping potential solutions. We thrive in that messy middle area, where things aren’t often clear, nor are they foregone conclusions. We ask tough questions to feed our appetite for thorny problems and work with our clients to help solve them.

A diagram of the double diamond, with Clearleft in the middle of the two

To make our new approach a reality, we’ve also made some changes internally. Alongside the new EOT structure (that installs both a trust and board), myself and Andy Thornton have taken on new roles to help our clients bring their ideas and insights to life.

Strategy services

As Strategy Director, Andy will identify and explore new opportunities with our clients. Digital transformation has been rapidly accelerated by coronavirus, so now more than ever companies are recognising that design can offer a genuine competitive advantage. Andy will explore how we can help our clients advance the practice of design by changing behaviours, workflows, approaches and culture.

Design services

As Design Director I’ll help our clients bring world-class products and services to market, or improve existing experiences by advocating and demonstrating the power of a human-centred, design-led approach. From digital-first branding and rapid prototyping to systematic and modular design and user experience, we’ll always imprint a Clearleft way of working with the product teams we partner with.

Across both services we’ll continue to provide training and coaching for product and design teams and executives, to grow their capabilities and ensure design is better represented in their organisations.

Stay tuned

We’re all still experiencing the effects that coronavirus, Brexit and more are having on us and our clients. Adaptability is the name of the game. We’re here to help like-minded and purposeful brands thrive in these strange times. So if you want to have a (virtual) coffee and a chat, get in touch.