John Ellison

Day 50: Kicking Off The Clearleft Brand Refresh Project

8 min read

I had the pleasure of joining James Bates, Ellen de Vries, Jeremy Keith, Clare Kirkland and James Box in the kick off for the Clearleft Rebrand Project. It was interesting to hear the backstory about the project and how much Clearleft employees value their brand.

It was great to see James Bates taking ownership of the Clearleft brand identity. It was immediately apparent that he cared deeply about his role here and wanted to create better alignment between who he believed Clearleft was and who Clearleft represented itself to be.

James said that he had been wanting to do a rebrand project for years but there hadn't been the time or the bandwidth until now. This is definitely an exciting time to be working here at Clearleft.

Starting With Values

We kicked off the meeting with Ellen walking us through her process of generating the Clearleft Values. I had a lot of exposure to these values early on. The first time I saw the values was on Day 3.

James was on holiday for the Day 12: Clearleft Values Workshop and so thought it important for him to understand the evolution of the values through Ellen's eyes.

We all read through the most recent iteration of the values that Ellen and Rich had been working on.


Unexpected Emergency

I had a bit of an unexpected emergency and actually had to leave the meeting abruptly to meet my wife at the hospital. So unfortunately I missed the rest of the kick-off meeting.


Picking Back Up

Later that afternoon, the Clearleft Rebrand Working Group reconvened to setup a project canvas to talk define the project more clearly for all members and stakeholders.

james bates project canvas clearleft rebrand

We started using Andy T's Project Canvas but found that we were frequently butting up against the canvas structure. So we decided to step back and re-design a canvas that contained only the elements that we needed.

We decided to go with these seven elements:

  • Outcomes
  • Audiences
    • Problems
  • Activities
  • Team
  • Stakeholders

Beginning With Real Human Needs

We decided to start by segmenting our audiences into different groups. Here are the audiences we came up with:

  • Clearleft staff
  • Potential clients
  • Existing clients
  • Learning Community
  • Partners

Then we went through each audience one-by-one and fleshed out their needs.

Consistent Themes

During this exercise there were several problems that surfaced and represented themes that I had experienced elsewhere. During the NVC workshop on Day 43 there were several problems discussed around internal communication at Clearleft. It was fascinating to see that there were direct parallels to the problems posed by the brand.

I realized that the internal communication problems were manifesting externally through Clearleft's brand. That means that somewhere in the organization there are small problems that exist and manifest through several different mediums.

The fact that Clearleft is aware of these problems and is committed to solving these problems is a great thing. It seems like everywhere else I turn there are a myriad problems within organizations and there is very little shared understanding about what those problems are and how to fix it.

The problems have surfaced at Clearleft and the leadership has listened. They have initiated a rebrand project and an internal communication project. Again, what a wonderful testament to continous improvement. Kudos to Rich, Andy and Jeremy. You guys are doing a great job...

Project Outcomes

In discussing the range of audience needs, we came up with a pretty clear project outcome:

To understand Clearleft's purpose and consistently express it through a new brand identity.

What's In A Name?

There were several manifestations of the brand's current misalignment between the way Clearleft staff perceives itself and the way that external people perceive Clearleft, but one of them in particular seemed to be vibrating with tension and conflict: The name Clearleft.

As soon as the topic of the brand's name was brought into the conversation, the energy in the room rose tenfold. Everyone seemed to be talking at once—replying to each other's comments and saying things that had not yet been said.

There seemed to be a general consensus that the name Clearleft was a very accurate representation of the company's identity when it was founded and for the 10-year journey afterwards. But every person in the room seemed to have experienced moments where they tell people the name of the company where they work. The conversation that people recalled seemed to go like this:

"Where do you work?" Someone asks.

"I work at a company called Clearleft, it's a user experience design agency in Brighton." the Lefty replies.

"Clear left? What's that? It is some political thing?"

"No. It's a CSS thing."

"Oh. I see..."

Even though I'm not an employee here I've had this conversation at least five times.

While this conversation did rear its head in the context of the rebrand project, none of us felt like it would be an easy thing to approach. Changing a name has so many complex implications. We are all intimately familiar with the 10-years of hard work that Andy, Jeremy and Rich have invested in this brand. I don't think any of us were trying to disregard that. The conversation held a deep respect for the co-founders, for their brand and for their needs.

We just wondered whether or not Clearleft was the best expression of the current identity of the company.

I personally don't think it is. The Clearleft name and its current 'box model'-inspired logo seems to represent a tactical web design agency rooted in the belief that the web should be accessible and usable for all. The value of that brand seems to lie in designing websites.

In working here for less than two months, I've already witnessed that Clearleft perceives its value as stretching far beyond the world of websites. They've learned incredible things in their 10-year journey as a web design agency. Now they want to take those learnings and do something great with it. I'm sure websites will always play a big role in the work that this company performs, but I wonder what will become the central premise of their value proposition.

A lot of different phrases have been bouncing around lately:

  • UX Design Maturity
  • Culture Change
  • Design-Led Organizations
  • Design Thinking
  • Digital-First
  • Cross-Discipline Teams

Reflecting on My Experience Thus Far

I am really fortunate to be working here at Clearleft at this time. While I would learn loads from working on real client projects I think there is a profound benefit in working internally on a understanding and defining a company's culture. In some ways I think the range of projects I've experienced here might provide me with some leverage that I can use as service offerings to Clearleft's clients.

The Unexpected Value of Understanding

I feel as though I have come to a place of deep understanding about Clearleft's identity, it's values and its struggles. I feel like I know the people here and their problems. I've seen communication fail at an individual level and an organizational level. I've seen the highest levels of professional respect shared amongst co-workers.

In all of this I feel like I've been able to contribute something of great value to this company, but I think it was miles away from the value I envisioned I would offer.

I came here thinking I would learn the ropes of user experience design. I needed skills and the experience to apply those skills.

Instead I came here with a wide range of life experiences that have prepared me for learning the language of a new culture. Since learning the language of Clearleft I have been able to understand their problems at an individual and organizational level and I have been able to participate in a collaborative dance towards helping solve those problems.

This seems to be very different to the tactical dynamics of creating a website, but in many ways I think I prefer working with problems at a higher level. I'm not sure that I am a gifted interaction designer by any means, but I think I have definitely learned how to immerse myself in a new culture and quickly become a contributing member.

Looking Forward

I am really looking forward to participating in the rebrand project and continuing to flesh out the value propositions that have arisen from the Training Project. I have a feeling that there is a much bigger idea that is coming to life through the Training Project and I can't wait to see what shape and form it takes.

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