John Ellison

Day 75 & 76: Working on Refugee Project

1 min read

solve the refugee crisis desktop screenshot

After receiving some great feedback from Clearleft about the refugee project, I spent Day 75 and 76 (Saturday and Sunday) making some major adjustments. In conducting some user research I stumbled across an insight which caused me to pivot the project entirely:

There is no way for leaders working on the crisis to communicate in real-time.

Here's the project in its current state:

John Ellison

Day 74: Catching Up With Batesy on Brand Refresh

On Day 74 I had the pleasure of being walked through the most recent brand developments by James Bates. It has been great to watch the process unfold. I am working on an article for the Clearleft Blog that outlines the process of the work that James, Jon and Ben have done.

John Ellison

Day 73: Training Project Next Steps

We had the pleasure of meeting on Day 73 to talk about the next steps for the training project. Andy Budd had some really useful insights and provided great focus for us moving forward. I am really looking forward to see how this unfolds.


John Ellison

Day 73: Yowzers—What You Can Do In Browsers!

Charlotte and Jeremy gave a wonderful brown bag presentation on all the awesome things you can do in browsers nowadays. Check out Charlotte's awesome post on the subject:

John Ellison

Day 71 & 72: Writing, writing, writing...

1 min read

On Day 71 and 72 I took the opportunity to write whenever I wasn't in a meeting. There was a lot to reflect upon and I've got one behemoth post published on my Writings blog, but after some initial feedback I think it is going to serve others better as several smaller posts. So I'll be working on improving what I've written and rounding it out a bit before publishing the posts to the Clearleft Blog.

John Ellison

Day 70: Clearleft Brand Refresh Playback

I really enjoyed watching James Bates walk us through the process of last week's Brand Refresh work. Kudos to James Box, Jon Aizlewood and Ben White for all their hard work. I think they've entered into some really interesting brand territory and I can't wait to see how it develops.

John Ellison

Day 70: Writing, writing, and more writing...

1 min read

I had a lot of writing to catch up on for Day 70. From Clearleft blog posts, to my 90 Day project, I had a full stack of posts I needed to work on and I was fortunate enough to have most of the day to do so.

John Ellison

Day 70: Jeremy's Got Slack Socks

After a few weeks traveling around the US, Jeremy came back to the office and promptly showed off his Slack socks. I think we were all a little bit envious.

John Ellison

Day 69: Working on Refugee Community

1 min read

On Day 69 (Sunday), I spent most of the day working on my Refugee.Community project. I launched the website and am looking forward to testing it with users and improving the experience. Hopefully we'll be able to build a nice community of people taking action to help refugees. I am super excited about this side project. is now live.

refugee community screenshot

Check out the website and let me know what you think!



John Ellison

Day 68: Rest

1 min read

Once a week i try and take a fast from the digital world. I get outside, read, enjoy nature with my wife and usually eat and drink loads of yummy stuff.

This week, I was reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, one of my favorite short story collections. I highly recommend checking it out if you like short stories. She's a wondeful storyteller who is a master at her craft.

John Ellison

Day 67: UX Club Special—Metadesign with John Willshire

8 min read

john willshire introducing metadesign to clearleft

On Day 67 we kicked off our day with a really fun UX Club Special on Metadesign. John Willshire and Fraser Hamilton from Smithery were kind enough to join us and bring some insightful perspective to the conversation.

The idea for the UX Club Special on Metadesign sprouted when I wrote about John's 'Popular Thing for Broken Thing Workshop' on Day 43 of my 90 Day journey working at Clearleft.

John Willshire and I exchanged thoughts about Metadesign after I wrote the article, and we thought it would be valuable to set up a chat here at Clearleft to talk further and invite others into the conversation.

The Provocation

A few days before our chat, John Willshire sent a few seeds to spark the conversation around Metadesign. He suggested watching John Wood talks for a bit of context:

John also posed a question to get us thinking about Metadesign in relationship to what we're doing now:

Perhaps we do it anyway, but without thinking about it?

The Conversation

We started off with a little context to introduce the discussion to the group and I asked John Willshire if he wanted to add any additional information to set the stage of our conversation. I like the way John talks in front of groups, he always has a tone of mystery and intrigue in his voice. It's not as if he already knows the answer to the question, it's that he's truly curious and his tone conveys the curiosity more than words could do alone.

We decided to split into two different groups and employ the Lean Coffee format of discussion. If you've never done Lean Coffee discussions before, they're really easy and loads of fun.

Here's how it works:

  1. Each person grabs a stack of sticky notes and a sharpie.
  2. In clear letters they write any question, topic, or argument that comes to mind.
  3. Once everyone has finished writing, someone introduces a sticky note and explains why they wrote it.
  4. As the rest of the group introduces what they've written, the facilitator begins to organize them into categories.
  5. The facilitator may choose to label the categories if it is necessary, but otherwise the group then has a chance to vote on which topics they want to talk about most.
  6. The topics with the most votes are discussed first. Equal amounts of time are allotted to each topic.

Groups & Topics

In our group, I had the fortune of discussing Metadesign with Fraser Hamilton, Anna Allan, Rich Rutter, Chris Green and Andy Thornton.

The first topic we discussed was an obvious one: "What is Metadesign?", we ended up smashing it together with the next question of "What are examples of Metadesign & what can we learn from them?" in order to aid in our definition of the term.

What is Metadesign?

what is metadesign? what are examples of metadesign?

Most of us had seen John Willshire's talk at dConstruct 2015 and were somewhat familiar with the term metadesign, but even still, the concept seemed elusive and our understanding seemed transient.

But even with a lack of clarity, within a few minutes of starting the conversation we quickly had a few working definitions of Metadesign:

  • Metadesign is the context, environment and process by which design is performed.
  • If design is concerned with answering "what" then Metadesign is concerned with answering "how?".

Rich raised a few valid questions about whether or not designing a workshop is metadesign. Maybe we've been doing metadesign all along we just haven't been calling it anything or paying as much attention to it. This was a very relevant point and I think Rich also touched on the blurred boundaries between where design ends and metadesign begins.

When we talked more and more about the concept and tried to create logical boundaries, the more complex the discussion became.

Fraser asked "If metadesign is this difficult for us to articulate, then how can we expect to articulate its value to others? We have to keep it simple in order for it to make sense."

We carried on to talking about specific examples of Metadesign to provide clarification.

What are examples of Metadesign & what can we learn from them?

I started us off by introducing John Willshire's "Popular Thing for Broken Thing" workshop as a perfect example of Metadesign. The Metadesign problem is "How do we iteratively generate startup concepts in a collaborative design workshop?". The structure of John's workshop is the solution. The outcomes of the workshop is that every participant leaves with a strong understanding of one startup concept that they found and refined throughout the workshop's activities.

Andy T raised John Willshire's Relativity Matrix as an example of Metadesign and we talked through a few other examples and examined them from the perspective of the definitions we'd discussed in the first topic.

Musical Color

During John Willshire's talk at dConstruct, I thought of a project I worked on a few years back called Musical Color. It was a personal project aimed at creating a deeper understanding of music theory, sight reading, and the relationships between emotion and musical composition.

I introduced an output from my project called the Musical Color Wheel. The wheel demonstrates the relationship between every scale in Western music by intervals of fifths. I began creating associations between a specific color and specific notes in order to reduce the cognitive load of reading sheet music, but in this wheel it also allows the mind to see patterns of colors instead of letters and symbols.

musical color wheel

Even for someone who does not understand music theory at all, a person can glance at this diagram and begin to make deductions and even conclusions about music theory and the relationship between scales. If you gave someone a piano with a colored keyboard and music sheet, this wheel might instigate some interesting and otherwise unexplored combinations.

musical color keyboard

musical color score 1 bar song sheet moonlight sonata

Offloading Complexity

There are some really interesting patterns that arise when you redistribute the cognitive load of a system onto a simple visual tool. It allows you to step back from the system's complexity and allow your mind to create patterns and relationships naturally.

There is something profound about creating simple visual tools to offload complexity and allow creativity to reign freely. We often force ourselves to think within our heads instead of thinking visually or thinking out loud. Maybe 'thinking visually' is an important principle for us to consider as we further explore the domain of Metadesign.

Why Metadesign? What problems does it solve?

In our next topic, we discussed how Metadesign could be applied to the problems that we experience as designers in a design agency. From culture change, upskilling, workshops to creating shared understanding—we all agreed that Metadesign has loads of different potential applications. What we weren't so sure about was how to approach these problems with Metadesign. There is no rulebook for Metadesign, and no one seems to know exactly how it works, so it was a fascinating discussion talking around a largely undefined topic.

How does this change what we currently do?

This conversation brought references to several of the projects that Clearleft had worked on recently. It seemed important to spend more conscious effort thinking about how we interact with our clients, how we communicate and execute our process. The idea of a 'Metadesign' role came into conversation. Ultimately we were wondering "Is this something that has explicit value? Can we sell this? Does it need to be called Metadesign?"

Its been great to see conversations crossing over from project to project. Patterns emerging out of seeming chaos and randomness has always been one of my favorite parts of being a creative problem solver.

Brining The Conversation Back Together

discussing metadesign at Clearleft for UX Club

At the end of our 30-minute discussion, we brought the two groups back together to discuss what we learned in our separate groups. We provided an overview of our discussion and a new organic discussion evolved from it. Ben Sauer related the topic of Metadesign to a project he recently finished and we wondered whether a full-time Metadesigner on future projects could be valuable.

John Willshire suggested that a designer could play the role of a designer on one project and the role of a metadesigner on another project. Playing two different roles and seeing two different perspectives could be an very valuable strategy. It could also spread someone's responsibilites too thinly, but the idea is interesting to explore, for sure.

We talked about the boundaries between design and metadesign, and many people referred to the metaphor of a box. Design is about creating a box. Metadesign is about creating the context in which a box is designed.

These were our definitions at least. I am looking forward to hearing other people's thoughts about the topic of Metadesign: What is it? Why do we care? and What problems does it solve?

It was great to have John Willshire and Fraser Hamilton at the office. I enjoyed hearing about Fraser's journey cycling unsupported across America to raise money for charity. You can read about his journey on his website.

I'm looking forward to exploring this domain of Metadesign further and seeing its potential. Maybe we'll see an interesting new discipline emerge in the coming years.


Tagged: ,

John Ellison

Day 66: Training Project Playback

7 min read

On Day 66 I had the pleasure of participating in the Training Project Playback. James Box, Andy P and I had been discussing the presentation structure over the past couple of days, but I had run with the bulk of the preparation work. We sat down on the morning of Day 66 and discussed final responsibilities. At that point we split the presentation into thirds and set off to refine our parts of the presentation.

In less than an hour we had all completed our part of the presentation and we needed to join the three parts of the presentation together.

Here was the structure of the presentation:

  • Purpose
  • Context
  • Concepts
  • Next Steps


The main purpose of the session was to create a shared understanding of the work that we had done and the concepts that had arise from our human-centered process.

While we did want to critique the ideas and examine their feasability, viability and desireabiliy, we wanted to wait until next week to do so because we had a small amount of time to present a large amount of information. So we asked participants to provide feedback that was clarifying in nature as opposed to critiquing.


James provided a very elegant introduction to the context of the project, answering questions like:

  • Why did we decide to start this project?
  • What process did we use to move this project forward?
  • What themes and insights did we discover?
  • What should we expect from the concepts we're about to see?


This slide demonstrated the spectrum of concepts that we were presenting—from incremental improvements on existing offerings through to potentially radical new business concepts.

spectrum of concepts

1. Improving Existing Offerings

improving existing offerings

I thought Andy Parker did a wonderful job of sharing insights on how we could apply our learning to improve and reframe existing offerings. It was interesting to hear that Andy Budd and another team had almost identical insights during a project retrospective earlier that day.

It seems like there is a lot of overlap and alignment between the problems we've identified in our research for the training project, and the problems that other teams in Clearleft have been experiencing in working with clients.

It was great to hear Andy Budd say "I think you've hit the nail on the head". I tip my hat to Andy P for all his work in this part of the project spectrum.

2. Clearleft Foundation

press start Clearleft Foundation apprenticeship

During the training project, Andy P spent a fair amount of time exploring the world of internships. He interviewed the past three years of Clearleft interns, including the present ones, to learn more about the problems they are facing. Here was the summary of the problems he uncovered:

  • Transition between education and work life
  • Takes up to 18 months to collect enough relevant work experience
  • Often repeating internships in order to woo employer

The Clearleft Foundation concept centered around a handful of ideas:

  • Mentor interns through all aspects of digital design
  • Begin the journey to 10,000 hours in a specific discipline
  • Provide flexible work hours to help employment exploration
  • Help interns create stand-out portfolios and CV's
  • Create life-long relationships

Looking back at these ideas, I realize that this would have been an ideal opportunity for me to explore when I was first starting off my career. I ended up fighting a much harder battle and taking longer to accomplish the items above. I think Andy P got this one right as well. Well done mate.

3. Chorus

chorus background slide image

Problem Landscape of Design Education

The concept of Chorus centers around the problem landscape of public design education. The problem can be summed up by one sentence:

"School as we know it is obsolete." — Sugata Mitra

Proposed Solution

After exploring the landscape of public education and specifically design education, I showed how new education models have emerged and have dealt with the obsolescence of school in different ways. I then presented the Chorus value proposition as a solution to the problems that all of these institutions are facing and all students of design incur along their journey.

It was interesting to me that in order to properly communicate the concept, I needed to express the beliefs and purpose from which the concept arose.


Everyone is a student and a mentor: We all have something to learn and something to share.

The quesiton is no longer 'Can we build this?' but 'What is the future we want to build together?' - Braden Kowitz


To solve one problem at a time and make the world a better place along the way.

I then broke down the value proposition into a series of slides describing 'How Could It Work?' follwed by a few lingering 'What If?' statements...

Tangent: (Known & Comfortable) vs (Unknown & Uncomfortable)

There were a few interjections along the presentation (as I expected), and rather than feeling defensive about the concept, I felt like there was value in creating tension and pushing boundaries. Where concepts are easily digested and ideas easily implemented, I think you are in the territory of the known and the comfortable.

But the place where concepts take time to digest and give you a funny feeling in your stomach, I think you are in the territory of the unknown and the uncomfortable.

I might prefer to live my life entering into the latter territory. The known and the comfortable can be a massively limiting force in any individual's life. I think it is the unknown and the uncomfortable that truly make us grow.

In short, I would rather take a risk at creating something flawed that enters into the unknown than creating something good that remains in the known.

4. Praxis

praxis background slide image

Coming onto the last concept, I followed a similar structure that I used to present Chorus.

Before presenting the problem landscape that Praxis was proposing to solve, I used a logical comparison to illustrate the concept:

If this is true about design: "The best designs are coming from teams that work together as a unit, marching towards a commonly held vision, and always building a new understanding of the problem." (Jared Spool).

Then wouldn't the same be true about design process?

Problem Landscape of Design Process

The problem landscape surrounding design process can be summarized in a handful of points:

  • The problems designers are trying to solve are increasing in complexity
  • The tools designers use to help solve those problems are constantly evolving
  • Design process is like a river—it is never the same twice
  • The 'how to' of design process is scattered across hundreds of sources. Some of them are consistent with one another, some are contradictory.
  • There is no demonstrable evolution of design processes throughout history, thus designers need to read between the lines to see where ideas came from and why design processes changed

Proposed Solution

I presented the value proposition of Praxis as a solution that would address the problems mentioned in the points above. In order to explain the solution sufficiently though, I felt I needed to address the beliefs and the sole purpose behind the solution.


Praxis as a concept hung from three core beliefs:

  • Process is the best reflection of a designer's maturity
  • Design process should be shared, critiqued and improved
  • Modern design process has great potential to mature


The purpose of Praxis would be:

To expose the evolving process of design and make it universally accessible and useful.


Overall I thought the presentation went well. It was long and seemed to drone on a bit but I think we got the core concepts across. I was certainly fatigued by the end and maybe wished we could have been a bit more swift in the presentation so that it didn't stretch on so long.

I am looking forward to seeing how the organization decides to approach these concepts and in what form they will take place. I've got about four weeks left of my 90 Day journey here at Clearleft and am hopeful to witness a few of these concepts come to life.


John Ellison

Day 65: Writing Blogs & Preparing for Playback

1 min read

Day 65 was a pretty straight forward day. I worked on a few blog posts for the Training Project and the Brand Refresh. Afterwards I worked on the slide deck for the Training Project Playback on Day 66. I didn't have much time to put together the level of content I would have liked, but I got a basic structure setup so that we could look through the deck together on the morning before the presentation and get on the same page.

I am definitely looking forward to the playback on Day 66. I am most of the way through Act II of my time here at Clearleft and this seems like a perfect climax. I feel great about the concepts we're presenting and couldn't be happier about the time spent developing them.

I learned a lot from the process and can't wait to share my learning on the Clearleft blog.

John Ellison

Day 64: Brand Refresh Ideation & Purpose Workshop Synthesis

6 min read

On Day 64 of my time at Clearleft, I was fortunate to work on two really fun threads of work as a part of the Clearleft Brand Refresh Project.

James Bates had setup a two-day exercise to generate a wide range of concepts for Clearleft's visual identity. James had scheduled Jon Aizlewood and Ben White to work with him, and they also extended an invite for me to observe and participate as I liked.

James Box setup a morning session to synthesize the outputs of the Purpose Workshop in order to feed back into the work that James, Jon and Ben had started around the exploration of Clearleft's visual identity. We wanted to have our brand's purpose form the basis of the visual concepts that we explored.

Kicking Off A Two-Day Ideation

We kicked off the two-day session by talking about Clearleft's brand attributes: both present and future. James created a mind map to capture our dialogue and we bounced around a variety of different positive and negative brand attributes that we wanted to consider in this exercise.

kicking off the two-day ideation exercise

whiteboarding Clearleft's brand attributes

Clearleft Brand Attributes

If Clearleft Were a Car, What Would It Be?

Half an hour into the session James Bates suggested we use a branding exercise to stimulate our attribute generation. He asked us "If Clearleft were a car, what would it be?"

While this seemed to be a bit odd on the surface, when we explored the different options and the reasons why Clearleft would or wouldn't be that car, it allowed us to examine the brand from a variety of perspectives.

Visual Ideation

When James and the guys thought they'd sufficiently listed out the brand attributes, they started ideating through different visual identities. Starting with the current cube logo and diverging away from the original concept, James, Ben and Jon filled pages with their ideas.

Given these guys have much stronger visual skills, I let them run with the visuals while I went over and worked with James Box to synthesize the outputs of the Purpose Workshop we held on Day 57.

Purpose Workshop Synthesis


By the time I made it over to where James was working, he had already begun laying out all the note cards that were the outputs of the purpose workshop. We worked together to find a suitable layout and structure for us to step back and inspect in detail and in general.

We went through each of the cards and read them one by one. I started extracting relevant phrases onto post-it notes. On the right side of the table we had cards that expressed attributes of our professional heros. On the left side of the table we had cards that expressed 'what we are fighting against'.

our final layout

All throughout our synthesis, we kept in mind the definition of purpose that arose in our workshop: What you are fighting against; the change you want to make in the world.

James and I discussed the different connections and themes that arose throughout our investigation.

synthesis of outputs

One strong emergent insight was that most of what we were fighting against could be seen as that which manifests from fear of the unknown.

A theme amongst the 'what are we fighting for' side of the spectrum was about inspiring, challenging, enabling and empowering others.

We discussed what we thought this meant and explored how this pertained to our purpose. We kept one eye on the past and thought about what Clearleft's purpose has been in the past, and kept one eye on the future and wondered what Clearleft's purpose will be.

We wondered whether or not Clearleft's purpose has always been the same and whether the way we approach our purpose has changed.

In talking along this thread of a timeline, I drew a little diagram that broke Clearleft's journey into three eras. The first two eras were clear to me, and I left the third era blank. (James added the third era over lunch, and I really resonate with metadesign as the theme of this upcoming era).

Clearleft three eras

James and I concluded that we had enough insights to share with the visual team and decided to head out to lunch.

Checking In With The Visual Exploration

Before heading out for lunch, I checked in on James Bates, Ben and Jon and snapped a few photos.

reflecting on visual identity ideation

a closer look at the ideas 1

a closer look at the ideas 2

Playing Back The Purpose Workshop Insights

over james shoulder

After lunch James and I sat down with the visual team and played back our process and our discoveries. We had a few conversations about the themes that emerged and how those could be applied visually. The topic of generative logos came up a few times.

As James spoke the rest of us sketched ideas. It was a nice atmospheric tone to the playback and allowed the visual guys to keep working while receiving additional input from the purpose thread of the brand refresh. After sketching down a few ideas I decided to make a physical model of Clearleft's logo with a few note cards. This allowed me to feel the logo in space and inspect it from several different perspectives. This was something that James Bates, Jon and Ben had been exploring on paper, but I felt that a more tactile approach suited my exploration.




During the conversation I saw a simple analogy come into my head: If the cube logo symbolized Clearleft as an agency that designed things, what would symbolize Clearleft as an agency that designed how others design things?

We talked about scaffolding and how scaffolding is used to take the builders of a building to new heights and allow them to reach places they wouldn't be able to reach on their own. Scaffolding is also removed from the structure once work is finished. It isn't structural in any way, but it is about creating a supra-structure from which the building is constructed.

This idea was definitely an interesting one to pursue, and the concept of deconstruction came to mind, as did the dConstruct logo.

dConstruct Logo

Designing a Logo that Designs a Logo

We talked about the algorithmic approach to creating a logo: One whereby an algorithm is designed with the purpose of dynamically generating a logo or a set of logos as opposed to designing the logos itself. These conversations definitely played along the higher planes of abstract thought and gave James Box and I a few things to mull over, but I'm not sure how much the visual guys gained from it.

Nonetheless it was a fun exercise and a really fun day bouncing between two threads of the Clearleft Brand Refresh.

The Rest of The Day

I spend the rest of my day writing content for the Training Playback on Thursday.


John Ellison

Day 63: Clearleft Brand Refresh & Training Playback Preparation

1 min read

On Day 63, I split my day between two activities: 

  • Working on the Clearleft Brand Refresh
  • Preparing for the Training Project Playback on Thursday (Day 66)