John Ellison

Day 62: Working on The Refugee Community Landing Page

1 min read

I spent most of Day 62 (Sunday) working on the landing page for the Refugee.Community site. I'd gotten pretty far the week before, but still there was a lot of work to do so I headed to my favorite Brighton cafe (Redwood Coffee House on Trafalgar Street) and got to work.

Here are some screenshots of mobile and large screen. I need to fix some styling of course (especially on large screen), but the core wireframe of the site is layed out. All I need to do is get some imagery, typography and interaction design details in place and I'll push it live.

It's been a fun project but I'm aware of the urgency of this situation and want to get it out to the public as soon as possible. It doesn't need to be perfect, just good enough.












John Ellison

Day 61: Dinner at Silo Restaurant in Brighton

A 6-course small-plate meal here on Saturday night was one of the best meals I've ever had in my life. Silo is a zero-waste post-industrial restaurant with a great atmosphere and really cool staff. I couldn't recommend it any more.

John Ellison

Day 60: Writing Content For Training Project Playback

3 min read

On Day 60, I spent most of the day distilling the Problemscape and writing content for the upcoming training project playback on Day 63. James Box had kindly provided us with a series of questions that each concept should address during the playback, and I setup a template so we could structure our content accordingly.

Here were the questions James asked us to answer:

  • Who are we trying to help?
  • What problems are we trying to solve?
  • How could we respond to these problems (value propositions)?
  • Why are we the right people to pursue this?
  • What is the opportunity size? (Competitors, market size)
  • If we wanted to take this further, what would we do next?
  • Where might this lead us eventually? (What's the vision?)
  • Why should we do this?

This task was also a good opportunity for me to read through all the content that Andy P had written regarding the concepts he had been focusing on, and it allowed me to make another pass through our competitor research to validate assumptions we were making about competitor offerings.

Setting The Problem Stage

Last week I spent most of my time focusing on how to articulate the concepts in form of a value proposition or elevator pitch. Upon presenting the concepts in that manner, I received a lot of feedback about the value of setting an appropriate context for the problems we are proposing to solve.

This was great feedback and one that I sorely needed. In writing about the problems I was trying to solve, it seemed like everything became much more clear and made total sense.

Finding Inspiration

During my research, I had stashed a few TED talks in my Evernote notebook, and so I used this opportunity to read through the talks' transcriptions and extract relevant language. There was one talk in particular that seemed to be very helpful in framing the problem.

It is a talk by a guy named Sugata Mitra, called Build a School in the Cloud. I've embedded it here because I think it is an amazing video that deserves to be watched by anyone interested in the world of education.

Why Us?

One of the questions James rightly asked us to answer in our concept pitches was "Why Us?". Here's a snippet of what I wrote for one of our concepts:

Clearleft was founded by individuals who learn by doing; Clearleft was founded with a belief in sharing what you learn. The combination of experiential learning and knowledge sharing has positioned Clearleft as a pioneer within the industry time and time again.

In the first era, Clearleft emerged as a leader in accessibility and web standards. But then the mission of usability and user experience design took reigns.

On the precipice of a new era, Clearleft has an opportunity to pioneer unchartered territory once again.

What would happen if we applied the learning from our 10-year journey to the world of design education? What would happen if we migrated away from doing great things to teaching others how to do great things?

Over the past few weeks, we have asked ourselves these questions time and time again. Out of a human-centered design process came an answer that rang loud and clear and resonated deeply within in our bones: Chorus.


I think I should have explored these questions far earlier in the project process because I found them immensely helpful. Maybe the work I did to clarify the concepts in the form of a proposition paid off, but it was definitely difficult to find the right combination of phrasing, positioning and tone.


John Ellison

Day 59: Discovering The Problemscape

6 min read

When James, Andy P and I sat down to discuss on Day 58, I used a word that I've never used before: Problemscape.

James chuckled at the word and we both thought it sounded funny. I'm not sure what he thought at first impression, but seeing as I used the word as a natural expression of a concept I was trying to articulate, I thought it was interesting at least. I'm not the biggest fan of smashing two words together and making it a word, but this word held something that I chose to explore on Day 59.

After Andy P and I finished our conversation on the morning of Day 59, I was left feeling quite confused and unsettled. It wasn't as if loads of conflict arose throughout the conversation, it was simply that our attempt of creating shared understanding seemed to obfuscated the concepts that I felt were otherwise clear (and maybe flawed, but clear at least).

Going Back To 10,000 Feet

During the conversation, I told Andy that I thought we were running over paths we've tread before and I was concerned we'd lost direction. I asked him if he'd bare with me for a moment while I tried to illustrate an idea that I had while he was talking. I hope he'll accept my apologies as I admit that my eyes may have glazed over a bit while I conceived this.

introducing the problemscape with andy p

Assembling The Problemscape

I felt our conversation began within the domain of one specific concept but quickly traversed into the broader territory of the bigger problems that we were trying to solve in this project. I began scribbling words on sticky notes and assembling them as I spoke. I wasn't exactly sure what I was after but I knew I wanted to visually represent the problemscape and verify whether or not we were talking about the same thing.

I broke down the whole project as we knew it into different categories. Here were the categories as I saw them:


There were several different audiences we were targeting: From individuals to organizations—each with their own type and flavor.

problemscape audiences


We had a range of problems that we were looking to solve.

problemscape problems

Context of Offering

We had two different contexts for offering: Public and private.

problemscape offering contexts

How Value Is Delivered

We had different methods of delivering value:

  • Training (topical)
  • Mentoring / Coaching (application)
  • Project (doing it for you...)

problemscape value delivery method


We had different durations in which the value could be delivered:

  • ⅛ Day
  • ¼ Day
  • ½ Day
  • 1 Day
  • 12 Weeks (6 sprints)

problemscape value delivery durations


We had different methodologies which we could apply to the delivery of value:

  • Design Thinking
  • Agile
  • Lean

Frequency of Delivery

We had a range of frequences at which the value could be delivered:

  • Once
  • Monthly
  • Weekly
  • Daily (Full-Time Immersive)


We had a range of disciplines that allowed us to strategically and tactically define and solve problems (that is, how we approach delivering our value):

  • UX
  • UI
  • Front-End Development
  • Project Management

problemscape method frequency of delivery and disciplines

Modes of Engagement

We had different modes of engagement:

  • One-on-one
  • One-on-many
  • Many-on-many

Outcomes, Not Outputs

When I started exploring the outputs, I listed a range of items, but realized at the end that the output doesn't really matter for the context of this project. Whether the output is a website, a web app, a physical product, a startup, or a social enterprise, as long as the problem is being solved and the desired outcome is met, the output could be anything...

problemscape engagement outcome and output

Read this awesome article by Ben Sauer for more details on why I chose to frame it this way: Outcomes, not outputs.

What Are Proposed Solutions?

In looking at the Problemscape by myself, I realized that the proposed solutions (value propositions) are just different packages of the following elements:

  • Target Audience
  • Audience's Problems
  • Our approach to solving the problem
  • The focus of the value
  • The outcome

When I looked at the Problemscape on my desk, I realized that I could select the individual elements and piece them together into a package. That package would be the core elements of the value proposition. Additional language and framing was necessary of course, but the core elements were there.

I think this exercise allowed me to step outside of each individual problem-solution pairing and look at the broader landscape of the problems and solutions we were proposing. This enabled me to reflect on the project as a whole and make sure that we were solving the problems we set out to solve and that we were meeting the needs of the audiences we defined in our research. It allowed me to think through each of the individual personas that represented broader groups of people and walk through their problems from their perspective.

It gave me the confidence to know that nothing was being left out. I could now see all the individual packages (value propositions) and make sure that we had total coverage over the Problemscape. We had a bunch of packaged solutions and some of them overlapped, but I needed to see how they all fit into the bigger picture of the project that we first set out to explore.

The Purposes of Canvases In General

One thing I've discovered as I've attempted to use things like the Business Model Canvas, the Value Proposition Canvas and Andy T's Project Canvas, is that I like concept but I often find myself butting up against the structure of the canvas. I like to design the categories of the canvas as pertains to the project and its specific domain (DSL if you like). I think that calling this exercise a 'Problemscape' might be overly grandiose, but maybe not. Maybe the elements together are helpful in other contexts. I think that the idea of using a canvas to break a problem or project into smaller parts is the main concept. How you do it and what you call each section is dependent on the DSL of the project.

What Do You Think?

I think this exercise was very effective and am curious to hear other people's thoughts. Have you done anything like this before? Have you embarked on an exploratory project and found yourself struggling through the details of many different concepts? Have you battled against blurred boundaries within concept definition? How did you approach the problem?

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts and learn from your process.

Tagged: ,

John Ellison

Day 59: Thoughts on Creating Shared Understanding

6 min read

On Day 59, I spent almost my entire day on a single task: Creating shared understanding for the Training Project. Andy P and I started off with an hour and a half chat. What began as a productive conversation where we were narrowing in on shared language and shared understanding soon spiraled into obfuscation and I was left at the end of the conversation with a fog of confusion and ambiguity.

Rather than talk about the specifics of the conversation, I'd like to step back and reflect about everything I've observed and learned about creating shared understanding in a project.


James Box told me that one of the primary roles of design leadership is to create shared understanding. He said that it is a communication role rather than a craft role. It is more about discerning where dissonance lies in a project (misunderstanding) and performing activities to create resonance (shared understanding).

While all of this is completely valid and true as far as I've observed, I think there is something missing in this depiction of what it takes to create shared understanding. I am sure that if I sat down with James we could talk for hours on this topic and cover all the nuances and subtleties. But I thought it would be a good process for me to unearth what I've learned.

Developing A Shared Domain Specific Language

On the projects that I've worked on and observed thus far (at Clearleft and as a freelancer), I think that language plays an immensely important role. In every business, team project and conversation there is a domain specific language ("DSL") that evolves.

Now I know that DSL is a computer science concept, but I think it applies to design and business as well. My understanding of a DSL is that it is a subset of language that pertains to a specific domain. It has vocabulary, grammar, sentence structures and concepts that take on new meaning within the domain.

I think a huge part of design is creating a DSL for each project where each participant is intimately familiar with each term, concept and structure that is used within the project's conversation.

As a UX consultant, our job is often to uncover the DSL of our clients and to teach them the relevant DSL of our craft so that we can move together towards creating the outcomes we've defined. The faster we come to terms with them and understand specific divisions of language and thought, the better.

While this is a skill that is learned with time and experience, I think that maturity can also be gained through introspection and retrospection.

Elements of Shared Understanding

I've listed a few elements that I believe are important when creating shared understanding. They are presented in no specific order other than how they came to mind.

1. Coming To Terms

There is a dance in creating and understanding a DSL that Mortimer J. Adler calls "coming to terms" in his work How To Read A Book. While Adler's concept of coming to terms applies to a conversation between a reader and an author, I think it has massive implications within the context of business, technology and design as well.

Part of coming to terms is being able to discern when a person uses a term that you understand but have a hunch that they might understand it slightly differently. That moment of discernment is a massive opportunity to create shared understanding. If you do not capitalize on that moment to ask "What do you mean by [term]?" that opportunity is lost and dissonance remains.

When I had my first conversation with Andy Budd on Skype I realized that Clearleft made a unique distinction between UX and UI in the company. I think within the industry, each company and each individual draws unique boundaries around disciplines and fields of thought. While these might create subtle nuances for some (and may be negligible), they might create serious chasms for others that create potential for misunderstanding, dissonance and conflict.

2. Removing The Ego

From what I've observed, another element of creating shared understanding is about removing the ego. Egotism and its manifestation of pride are two of the most detrimental forces inhibiting shared understanding. If one person is too prideful to admit they don't understand something, or too prideful to insist that they do (when they don't), this creates huge holes in the fragile landscape of understanding.

3. Identifying Jargon

All of use terms in our work that act effectively as jargon. Whether you're in sales, IT, HR, development or design, you've got a pocketbag full of terms that no one else understands. When faced with contention, you reach into your bag and pull out a high-brow word that will assert your dominance over your contender.

Okay, maybe I'm dramatizing a bit, but I think I've illustrated my point.

It is crucial as an individual to eradicate your vocabulary of jargon. Whenever jargon comes up in a conversation it is imperative to identify and eliminate the word from the conversation. Jargon is another enemy to shared understanding.

4. Empathy

I know designers love this word and it might even broach into cliche territory now adays, I still think that empathy for others is the single most important force in creating shared understanding. In order to successfully understand another person (or a problem), you must care more about understanding than being understood. In order to do that, you have to feel for the other person and try and see things from their perspective. This is the whole user-centered design lens of putting yourself in your user's shoes (perpetually).

5. Determination

Creating shared understanding is hard. You've got to be determined to do it. You're going to run into obstacles along the way and the only thing that will get you past them is sheer desire to make it happen.

A Challenge

I haven't done this challenge myself but I figure it would be a good way to practice the above:

Identify a social or political issue that you passionately care about. Look up to see if there are any meetups in your area of people who support that issue on the opposite side (whom you disagree with). Go to the event with a goal to understand their point of view. See if you can make it happen. See if you can't come to terms, remove your ego, identify some jargon and put yourself in their shoes for the duration of the event.

Kudos if you succeed.

Tagged: ,

John Ellison

Day 58: Training Project Chat & Clearleft Interns Playback

4 min read

Training Project Chat

James Box, Andy P and I sat down for a chat about how we were going to present the training project concepts to the stakeholders. We discussed the presentation structure as well as the questions that we needed to address with each concept. We explored the different objections or obstacles that we might have to address in stakeholder's minds.

possible training project structure


By the end of the session we had a shared understanding of how we were going to approach the presentation and the content that we needed to create as inputs for that discussion. In the meantime, Andy P and I had some catching up to do. We had effectively split to work on two separate concept paths and now needed to come back together and reconvene.

Creating Shared Understanding w/ Andy P

Andy P and I took a short break after our session with James and dedicated an hour and a half to discussing the concepts that we'd created. There were some gaps in our shared understanding and so we decided to do our best to fill those gaps.

We started off with the concept that I had been focusing on, since that was the area where Andy P felt like we didn't have the same understanding.

Looking through the value propositions and the '1-2-3' statements I'd generated for the concept as our base, we discussed the concept at a high-level and in detail.





Coming Together

In asking questions and providing answers, we had a twenty-minute period of back and forth. We were bouncing around different ideas and different languages, but then something happened and we started to click. I don't know exactly what happened but it was a sort of 'Aha!' moment between us and we knew that we were coming closer to the same page.

Andy P sketched his ideas in his sketchbook so that we could think out loud and reference ideas later in our conversation. This, above all things, is probably the most useful process that designers exhibit as opposed to other professionals. Thinking out loud is crucial to creating shared understanding, but thinking on paper (or a whiteboard, sticky note, index card— however you like it), is another level.

There is something about getting ideas out of your head and into the world that makes a huge difference. A lot of people are afraid of sketching because they can't draw well, but sketching isn't about being able to draw pretty pictures, it's about being able to communicate ideas.

That is definitely a big lesson I've taken from my time at Clearleft. Not many people here can draw, but everybody can sketch and articulate their ideas visually. I feel like I've gained a lot of confidence in this area and am happy to exercise this sketching muscle more and more each day...

Moving Forward

At the end of our session, we had a quite abrupt break point and decided to continue our conversation later that day or the next. We had covered a lot of groud but there was still a fair amount of ground to cover. We were definitely making progress...

Clearleft Interns Playback

After lunch I worked on the training concepts a bit more on my own and then jumped into the Clearleft Interns Playback session where they were pitching two product concepts to the team. The purpose of the session was to decide on which concept to pursue for the remaining 6-weeks of their internship.

The conference room held a high energy as we walked in, and as Chris began presenting their concepts with beautiful videos that demonstrated their ideas, I think we were all really impressed at their work.

clearleft interns playback 1

clearleft interns playback 2

clearleft interns playback 3

You can read more about their project and the concept that they've chosen to pursue on their blog:

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John Ellison

Day 57: Clearleft Brand Refresh Playback

At the end of Day 57 James Bates gave a playback of the first week of the Clearleft Brand Refresh project. In the first week, we mostly covered planning and project setup because James was pulled into client work for most of the week, but we had made some assumptions about the project that we wanted to test with the project stakeholders and the steering group.


John Ellison

Day 57: Working on Training Concepts & Talking Next Steps

3 min read

In between the Purpose Workshop and Brand Refresh Playback on Day 57, I had some time to work on the concepts for the training project. I know it seems like I have been working on these concepts for a while now and I should have it nailed down, but the concepts have had such an intense evolution since their inception as a synthesis of the Training Stories Workshop on Day 44.

From the initial idea to the idea in its current state, the concept has transformed and taken many different shapes. It has been an intense game of ping pong between converging and diverging. Every time it is pitched to someone new problems arise, every time we look back at our user journeys and our personas for guidance and calibration something new comes into quesiton.

I think this project has suffered from a lack of a consistent working team. If we would have dedicated a much shorter amount of time to the project and had three people working on it from beginning to end I think we could have been much more efficient.

But nonetheless I understand that in an agency setting with multiple initiatives and projects going on at one time, resources need to be allocated according to priority.

Working on Concepts

As I sat down to work on the concepts before our 2:30pm meeting to discuss next steps, I had two separate products that worked together to solve a variety of problems that we defined in our research and discovery phase. It felt like we had past the point of invention and we were working towards a clearer, distilled and articulated concept.

Knowing that I had to pitch the concept to James, Andy P and Clare in less than an hour, I sat down and did my best to incorporate the feedback that I'd gotten from Mikey and Andy T since I'd last worked on the propositions. I sat down and completed the following

  • Sticky note value proposition exercise
  • Choosing the most articulate combination of components
  • Pitching the concept out loud and iterating
  • Creating three cards that each broke down one nuance of the idea into a simple phrase and illustration

working on concepts 1

chorus card 1

chorus card 3

chorus card 3 option 2

quire card 1

Talking Next Steps

As I mentioned earlier, James, Clare, Andy P and I sat down to talk about the status of the project. We each defined what we felt the purpose of the session was. We concluded by the end we had three main questions we wanted to cover in the course of the session:

  • Where are we?
  • Do we have shared understanding?
  • What are the next steps?

chat 1

chat 2


By the end of the session we had at least touched on each of the questions and we knew that we wanted to set up a meeting between James, Andy P and I the next day to talk about how we would present the concepts in a unified format next week to the project stakeholders. Clare kindly booked a 1.5 hour slot in the calendar and invited Andy B, Rich and Jeremy. We finally had a deadline to pitch our ideas to Clearleft's cofounders and had a set amount of time to work on the pitch.

sticky takeaway 1

sticky takeaway 2

sticky takeaway 3

sticky takeaway 4


John Ellison

Day 57: Purpose Workshop

3 min read

On the morning of Day 57, we kicked off the day with a workshop for the Clearleft Brand Refresh project. James Box, Ellen and I had spent a few sessions designing the workshop and we ran a test session with Wolfcub Digital the day before.

Defining purpose is a difficult task. Purpose seems to be a force rather than a thing. We wanted to facilitate a session that fostered individuals to uncover their professional purpose. From those individual professional purpose statements, we wanted to look at the space between the lines and design an organizational purpose statement that reflected both the needs of the individual as well as the organization as a whole.

Even though we tested the workshop the day before, the task was daunting enough to create some palpable tension in the room.


We introduced the workshop and divided the room into pairs. We told them that we were going to ask them to answer a question with the first thing that came into their heads. They would then take turns asking "Why?" to their partner. We wanted the partner to try and elicit the reasons why the person wrote down the thing that they did and what it meant to them.

We prefaced the questions by saying that While they might seem vague and cringe-worthy, they would help move us in the direction we wanted to go.

What Is Your Enemy?

The first question we asked people was: "What—not who—is your enemy?"

Each person wrote down their instinctual reaction onto a note card.

We then gave each person three minutes to ask "Why?" and dig deeper into the essence of their answer.

We asked participants to then come up with a list of problems that their enemy causes.

So on the front of the card we had a thing that the person perceived to be their enemy, and on the back of the card we had a list of problems that the person felt this enemy created.




More Questions

We then repeated this sequence of tasks with several more questions:

  • Who is your professional inspiration?
  • What is your enemy?
  • What is you fighting for?

Framing The Concept

As the workshop progressed, James continued to frame our concept of a purpose statement. We felt that a purpose statement should answer two fundamental questions:

  • What is the change you are trying to make?
  • What are you fighting against?

purpose-workshop what are you fighting against?

And that the purpose statement should either answer them explicitly or implicitly. A good purpose statement needed to have chutspa, gusto.


Coming To A Close

Towards the end of our 1.5 hour session, we realized we didn't have enough time to write individual professional purpose statements. So instead we asked for feedback about the workshop and tasked individuals with taking the outputs of the workshop as inputs for their purpose statements. We asked if people would be willing to spend some time writing their purpose statements and that we would like to use those statements as inputs for creating a 'straw man' of the organizational purpose statement of Clearleft.



John Ellison

Day 56: Testing The Purpose Workshop & Working On Concepts

3 min read

Purpose Workshop With Wolfcub Digital


The awesome crew over at Wolfcub Digital was kind enough to join us in a dress rehearsal for a workshop centered around finding your organizational purpose. It was really cool to see the character and charisma of their agency.

I think Wolfcub Digital were the perfect people to experiment with this workshop. They came with an open mind and a strong sense of their purpose as an organization and as individuals. They'd spent a fair amount of time uncovering their brand in recent months and so a lot of these thoughts were close to the forefront of their mind.


Along with purpose, social change, creativity and positivity, we talked about Rocky Balboa a few times (check out the blog post behind it). Other than getting to know an awesome group of people a little bit better, I think we had ourselves a good time...

Having explored their website before the workshop, I was quite familiar with the quality and breadth of their work. It was inspiring to see how a team of three people could have such a massive impact on a wide range of projects with big clients:


The workshop went well (I hope it provided some value to John, Dominic and Fran over at Wolfcub), and we spent a fair amount of time reflecting upon what worked and didn't work. In addition to the feedback we received from Wolfcub Digital, we had a few insights of our own as well.

James took the reigns on deconstructing and reconstructing the workshop. He brought Ellen and I into the recap session to test his conclusions. It was amazing to see the velocity with which James works. Diverging and converging with such momentum and intensity takes a lot of energy but I guess like many masters of their craft, James seems to make it look easy...



Working on Training Project Concepts

In between the Purpose Workshop and our little workshop recaps, I spent my time working on training project concepts. I employed the use of my sticky-note proposition exercise along with sketches on note cards to help articulate and refine the concepts.

I've definitely gotten better at using an idea to further the project and then throwing that idea away without any attachment. It's become a more liberal and fruitful process when I am not emotionally tied to each individual idea along the process.




Tagged: ,

John Ellison

Day 55: Working on Refugee.Community

1 min read

On Day 55 (Sunday), I spent almost a solid half-day working on the Refugee.Community website.

Here's what I accomplished:

Crafted a progressively-enhanced mobile navigation menu from scratch

(pure HTML/CSS/JS—no framework)


my first progressively-enhanced mobile navigation menu from scratch open


my first progressively-enhanced mobile navigation menu from scratch closed


my first progressively-enhanced mobile navigation menu from scratch non-mobile

Refactored content and styled basic layout for mobile



Built accessible web form from scratch and styled for mobile




Tested reading the content aloud with a few users




Another few half-days of work and I should have this site live and ready for the public. I'm really looking forward to launching this and building a community around people who want to help refugees.

Let me know if you want to get involved!


John Ellison

Day 54: Rest

1 min read

As usual, I take a full day of rest and hide all my tempting digital devices whilst trying to spend as much time as possible outside and hanging with my lovely wife.

Here's a poem by John Keats (courtesty of Poetry Foundation) that I have really admired since I was a kid:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

John Ellison

Day 53: Purpose Workshop Brainstorming

2 min read

purpose workshop brainstorming

After re-writing Sam's story, I joined James Box and Ellen de Vries on a workshop brainstorming session. The purpose of the workshop was to help generate professional purpose statements for individuals within an organization and to use those individual statements as the seed for forming an organizational purpose statement.

This was a really exciting brainstorming session because we got to explore some amazing questions, some of which include:

  • How do we define purpose?
  • What makes up a good purpose statement?
  • Is there anything that we can use to form a purpose statement from the 'negative space' of an activities outputs?
  • How do individual purpose statements relate to organizational purpose?
  • How does personal purpose relate to professional purpose?
  • What role does time play in the formation / perception of purpose?

We are going to be running a mock workshop with some amazing folks from Wolfcub Digital, along with Curtis James and his partner.

Here are some of the sketches James used to help give definition to our brainstorming session:

purpose workshop brainstorming sketch 1

purpose workshop brainstorming sketch 2

purpose workshop brainstorming sketch 3

purpose workshop brainstorming sketch 4

Workshop Outline

By the end, we had a rough workshop outline:

purpose workshop outline brainstorming sketch 5

I'm really looking forward to trying this out on Day 56. It's been a really fun exploration and has gifted all of us with interesting insights into the world of purpose and the role that it plays in a brand.


John Ellison

Day 53: Rewriting Sam's Story

14 min read

I kicked off Day 53 with a short meeting regarding the trajectory of the Training Project with Andy P and James Box. We had a long discussion on Day 52 about the project, but we needed some final clarifying notes in order for us all to be on the same page headed forward.

I have really appreciated the pragmatism with which Andy P has approached this project. While I can launch off into rather grandiose brainstorming, Andy P seems to have a much more critical and analytical eye on what would be the most feasible and practical option. This has definitely created a positive conflict which I think is keeping the project on track.

Re-Writing Sam's Story

In writing my 90 Days blog post, I felt a stream of prose running through me that would allow me to define the Training Project product/service concepts within the context of the user stories from which they arose. I started writing and the words kept flowing. I was meant to have a session with James to work on further defining the product/service concepts, but I had loads of momentum so I asked if we could reschedule for later in the day.

Here's the story:


Sam was stuck. He just lost his job as a print designer in a small agency in Warsaw because he couldn’t keep up with the demand for ‘web design’ amidst all that was going on in his personal life: His daughter was born prematurely and spent several weeks in the hospital before she was released; his wife was dealing with severe post-partum depression and he couldn’t figure out how to keep up with it all.

He tried to tell his boss and co-workers that he just needed a little more time, that he was learning and that he’d be able to deliver what they’d asked if they’d just give him more time. They listened to him and gave him one extension after another, but when he began falling asleep at his desk at work—they had to make a stand.

Upon giving him his notice, he had two weeks to pack up all his stuff. He peeled sticky notes off his monitor. Each note was a scene from a comic that he was working on. The sound of soft adhesive peeling off his monitor got louder and louder.

At first he thought he should save them and began sticking them neatly to one another. But as he looked at the stack of web design books on his desk—some of them opened and some of them closed—he began crumpling the notes in his hand and throwing them in the bin.

He looked at the wooden photo frames of his young daughter on the shelf in his cubicle. He shook his head as he tossed the frames loosely into a brown cardboard box. Pens, rulers, markers and triangles formed the next layer in the box.

He didn’t care if the rulers bent or if the triangles cut holes into the sides of the box. He didn’t care about this stupid job. He came here to design beautiful layouts on paper that he could touch and feel. He came to make simplicity out of complexity and to run his fingertips across the surface of his work.

Instead they wanted him to ‘design’ pages that looked like a tangled mess on a screen. There was no structure, no order, no control. He didn’t like to code. The software he was using was buggy and slow. He hated having to stare at a screen all day. He just wanted to go back to what he loved...

Victoria Station

The train conductor announced the next stop ‘Victoria Station is approaching’. Sam grabbed his rucksack and felt the rustling of feet standing and moving towards the carriage door. Everyone looked like a robot. Nobody was smiling. Sam swallowed and mustered up the courage to translate his perfect Polish into broken English.

“How do I get to Farringdon?” He asked a man at the platform. The man spoke quickly. He pointed and moved his hands a lot. His accent was think and he slurred his words together. “Thanks” Sam said, having no idea where to go.

Design School Informational

Sam looked up from his map and saw [the name of the street] at last. He recognized the designSchool logo from the website and rung the bell. He walked into a lobby full of people with drinks in their hands. He looked for somewhere to drop his luggage and felt the burden of all his things as he removed the rucksack strap from his shoulders.

His voice quivered as he introduced himself. His hands were cold and clammy and he felt sick. He glanced back at the door and saw several other people walk in. They smiled and called out to their friends in the room. Everyone seemed to know each other.

The speaker was a woman with short brown hair that curled down around her face. There wasn’t a single hair that was out of place. Her blouse was tucked tightly into her black skirt.

She introduced herself as Asha, an instructor for the upcoming UX course. She spoke confidently and used sentences that she’d obviously said hundreds of times before.

Sam looked at the other people in the room as they made their way to their chairs. Each person had a certain look and held a confident swagger in their step. They knew why they were here. Sam wasn’t so sure.

Sam listened to Asha talk about the UX course. It sounded like a special place. They had instructors coming from great companies that Sam stumbled upon in his research about UX. Asha showed photos from some of the previous courses. There were lots of sharpies, pieces of paper, wireframes and students working late into the night.

There didn’t seem to be much comraderie between the students. There was a lot of focus on the individual and the end goal of getting a job in UX. Asha showed how the course was a much better investment than going to university and how you were basically guaranteed a job. She showed pictures of the fair at the end of the course. Each student had a stall and recruiters from designSchool’s partners all over London were looking for talent.

Sam felt warm black oil drop through his chest and ripple through the pool of his stomach. He couldn’t imagine anything more terrifying than showing his work in front of a bunch of London recruiters and competing with all the other students for places at a UX job role...

But the figures Asha mentioned about starting salaries were really strong. Sam knew it was expensive to live in London, but if he could only get a few years working as a UX’er in London, he’d be able to move back to Warsaw and provide a much better life for his family.

The 10-week immersive course was a lot of money and it was a big commitment, but it seemed like he could be pretty confident that he’d end up with a job that would allow him to start a good career and provide for his family. If this was something that he’d be happy doing was another story...

Talking To Celina

Sam called his wife Celina after he checked into his hostel. He told her everything about the trip and told her about the course. They had a long discussion about how it would work: Whether he’d move to London while they stayed in Warsaw or if she would try and get a part-time job to help them cover the London wages. She had some inheritance money from her grandfather, but neither of them wanted to eat into their savings.

Celina asked, “Isn’t there some way you can learn this stuff without spending so much time and money? Can’t you do something online? What about taking those free online courses while you work another job? That way we wouldn’t have to fork out X,000 Euros and not have any income for three months. The cost of moving…”

Sam tried to convice Celina that it just wan’t the same. It would take him a year to learn online what he could learn in an immersive course like General Assembly.

She asked him to at least look into it and see what else was out there. He had a few more days left in his trip anyway. Sam had scheduled a few job interviews in London and one of them had cancelled on him so he decided to sacrifice his day of sight seeing and explore other options…

Exploring Other Options

In exploring design schools on the internet, Sam found something really interesting. It must have been new because he had performed similar searches and never saw anything like this.

It was an open-source design curriculum full of activities, principles, mindsets and project briefs. In scrolling through the website he felt a sensation rise in his chest. This was amazing.

There were designers from all over the world contributing to this. Some of them were students and some were Heads of UX at big companies. There were long discussions at the bottom of many of these projects.

Each project was composed of a bunch of smaller activities along with a few key mindsets and principles. Sam was able to read through a range of design projects and understand the problems they were facing, how they approached solving those problems and the principles they used to move the project forward.

He blinked and realized his whole body was leaning forward into the screen. He looked out the window of the cafe and saw dozens of people passing by without looking at one another. His eyes glazed over and his thoughts took the place of what he was seeing.

Sam shook his head and looked back at the screen. He realized that for the first time he understood this concept of human-centered design. He’d heard about UX before and all of these terms that were being thrown around, but he’d never been able to see at a glance how all of these ideas worked together to solve real problems for real people.

That was the tagline of the site “Helping Designers Solve Real Problems for Real People”. It suddenly made sense to him.

The way that these problems were being defined was in the context of real human needs&mdahsh;not within the context of technology.

That’s why he never ‘got’ web design. It was all about the technology. It was all about the code and the software and the tools.

This was different. This made it seem incredibly simple.

He read through a few more projects and looked in one of the conversations. Based on the conversation he could tell that there was some kind of design school where they were using this platform to discuss their project.

A few clicks later and he found himself staring at a website of a new kind of design school: A place where everyone is a student and everyone is a teacher. They believed in highly-empowered cross-functional teams and radical collaboration. They believed in conversation over documentation and they believed in helping each of their students achieve their personal goals. The curriculum was different for each student. Instead of placing their students on a rigid curriculum, they spent the first week mentoring the student and trying to help them define a personal purpose statement. Each student had a mentor who was dedicated to helping them succeed.

Sam read through the testimonials of students who had been through the course. Some of the students weren’t beginners, some of them were successful professionals who wanted to take a different path or take their career to the next level. They used words like “changed my life”, “unlike any other school” ,“working on real startups makes all the difference”, and “the community is everything”.

Sam clicked the ‘Contact’ button and looked up the school’s address. Apparently there was a train that went from Victoria Station to Brighton in roughly an hour. And they ran throughout the day. Sam looked at the black hands of the white-faced clock on the cafe wall. It was 2:30. The next train was at 3:45.

He looked back at the screen and wondered if he needed to call them. There was a little blurb on the contact page that said they had open days with free beer on Friday afternoons after 4pm.

Everything was falling into place. He closed his laptop and wrapped up his charger. As he shoved the last of his things into his rucksack he headed for the door. Outside there was a little girl that reminded him of his daughter Hope. She was blond-haired and blue eyed with little pig tails and pink hair ties. This girl was a few months older than Hope. He looked at her and saw her father bring her into his arms. She giggled and smiled as he held her above his head.

Sam realized that he was staring and didn’t want to seem rude. So he put his head down and walked out the cafe towards the nearest tube station. As he walked away he couldn’t help but turn around and get one last glance of the young girl and her father.

He looked at the father’s eyes and saw something Sam had never know before: Purpose. A deep sense of purpose emanated from his smile. He was confident, but not in an arrogant way—confident in the way of knowing “why am I here?”. Sam walked swiftly towards the station and felt the strange tingle of the unknown reach out to him from a distance. After he purchased his ticket and found the right platform he walked down the train to find a seat with a table so that he could draw on the train ride.

Sam looked up from his sketchbook several pages later and saw a passenger sitting across from him. She nodded his head and said that she liked his drawing. He said, “Thanks.”

She asked, “So why are you headed to Brighton?”

He couldn’t help but smile...


I know that a 6-page short story isn't going to be an effective way of communicating a product / service concept to project stakeholders, but it was an effective exercise for me to return to the hero and the hero's journey that sparked this idea. It only made sense to plug the value propositions back into the story and see if it made sense.

What role was this product or service playing in this hero's journey? What obstacles does this hero need to overcome in order to engage with the product or service we're proposing?

It seemed like the project at the value proposition design stage was all about words, positioning and concepts. I wanted to strip that back and return to the people for which it was originally designed and initially conceived.

I asked Ellen de Vries to read the story from the lens of a 'formative' artifact that was designed to help clarify the proudct / service to the team members. We'll see what kind of feedback I get from Ellen about the effectiveness of the artifact from that perspective.

In case you can't tell, I'm really having fun with this story / ux mashup process. I'd be interested to hear your opinion as well. Drop me a line or send me a tweet.


John Ellison

Day 52: Detectives of Human-Centered Design

3 min read

Project Recap

The concepts that have arisen out of the Training Project have surpassed anything I imagined when we first set off to explore opportunities for Clearleft to provide training. When we first envisioned the outputs of the project we thought it would look like a series of workshops that we could provide to clients.

While this original idea still exists within the product and service concepts that have arisen out of our design process, the idea exists in a very different form.

I think what has happened is that we have gotten to the essense of the idea. We have taken a human-centered approach to our design process and have started with the needs of real people. We've explored their worlds and their experience and have begun to collectively identify opportunities for helping them meet their needs and reach their goals.

We used story as a vehicle for our process. In analyzing the opportunities we identified through the stories that reflected our research, we started recognizing interesting patterns.

Some of the biggest patterns were about connecting people. There were opportunities directly centered around providing design education and there was also a theme of coaching and mentoring—tailoring directly to the needs of the person and designing a custom solution just for their needs.

All of these trends and patterns seemed closely related to one another. In our exploration of how these opportunities might take form as solutions, we diverged again and explored hundreds of opportunities.

Because there were far too many opportunities for my mind to comprehend, I designed a small exercise that would allow me to visualize combinations of the different components that made up the opportunities:

  • people
  • problems
  • solutions
  • differentiators
  • alternatives
  • contexts

When looking at all of these separate elements, our divergence seemed to grow. In converging onto specific expressions of these opportunities in the form of an elevator pitch or a value proposition, we seemed to approach the concept, but still, something wasn't quite right.

Something was missing.

Following The Senses

The feeling that there was potential living in these ideas but the potential wasn't being fully expressed was a feeling that I experienced and I think many others who have contributed to the project have experienced as well.

It seemed like we were detectives looking for clues to help solve a complex mystery. We were drawn by the mysterious nature of the clues and the feeling of great potential that lay hidden in the negative space between all of the possibilities.

Playing Detective

In digging further to understand the clues and piece together the solution for the mystery, strange things started happening. Ideas began connecting and what was previously unknown started to become known. Things that weren't making sense were starting to make sense.

Suddenly we were staring at a complex system and beginning to see inklings of elegant simplicity. Through conversation, sketching and ideation we approached the solution to the mystery ever closer...

These sketches illustrate our journey as detectives trying to find the missing clues and make sense of the unknown. They represent our desire to help real people solve real problems. They represent our human-centered process that begins in human needs, emerges with empathy, designs in collaboration and tells the story like our lives depend on it.

I'll leave these as clues. Join us in the mystery.

design school ecosystem diagram

student needs mind map diagram

mentor needs design school ecosystem

consumer needs

contributor needs

entrepreneur need design school ecosystem

investor needs design school ecosystem

open source design curriculum concept

open source curriculum germinated seed concept user story 1

open source curriculum germinated seed concept user story 2