Changing Gears

My interest in Formula One was reignited in 2009. Back on the BBC after 12 Schumacher-dominated, ad-interrupted years on ITV, this was the season that saw Brawn GP emerge from the ashes of the old Honda factory team, with their brilliant white car delivering Jenson Button his first world championship.

Six years later and I’m still watching. Formula One isn’t an easy sport to follow, not least because of politicising behind the scenes. On track, success is largely determined by the design of the car rather than the skill of a driver cf. four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel needs to win a championship with another team to be considered one of the sport’s greats. A select few (Senna, Hamilton, Alonso) could be given a tractor and still win races, yet most drivers, like Button, require the right combination of car, setup and team – and a dash of good fortune – to be successful.


I spent nearly five years at Clearleft, which is the longest I’ve worked for any single employer. Their small, supportive environment provided the right conditions in which I could flourish. I had the opportunity to work on interesting and varied products, and was given a platform from which I could write and speak about the profession I love.

Yet by the end of 2013, I felt drained by familiar conversations and routines. Looking for a new challenge, and curious about other options, I found myself at the Guardian. Having not worked at a large organisation before, I viewed this as a bit of an experiment, an investigation into life on the other side of the agency/client divide.

The last 14 months have been truly fascinating.

  • I saw the diligence required to develop software at scale, with the biggest challenges often not technical, but organisational. With many people contributing to a code base, clear goals, sensible conventions and peer review are essential. Even though I was hired as a designer, I was able to get really close to the product, shipping changes seen by millions.

  • I learnt about the conviction and patience needed to deliver a coherent design language across the organisation’s many facets. Keen observers will have noticed a significant improvement in how the Guardian presents itself, both on and offline, over the last year.

  • Most notably, I saw how the status quo needs to be continually and rigorously resisted, and witnessed courageous acts of civil disobedience in defence of a more progressive vision – and sane paragraph spacing!

However, the overriding feeling has been one of sheer frustration. Although working at the Guardian has been an immense privilege, I’ve never felt so unable to comprehend a company’s culture or, crucially, my place in it. A 90-minute train journey isn’t the best way to start the day, but I could have handled it were I travelling to a job I enjoyed. I wasn’t. I suspected the corporate lifestyle wouldn’t suit me, and so it was proven.

The large open-plan office, devoid of any useable wall space, seemed designed to dampen any creative energy. While the relationship between designers and developers was invigorating, there were few opportunities to collaborate in any meaningful way with research-focused user experience designers. Among smaller groups I felt more able to contribute, but when faced with a hierarchy many levels deep, intersecting departments and a management structure that was rarely clear to me, I became more introverted. And in an organisation of thousands, it can become pretty easy to hide.

My last day is January 30th.


So, what’s next? Firstly, I’ll be heading to Brazil to visit family. In the two years since I last visited, my brother has had another daughter, while the eldest is now at an age where we can have a conversation. I’ll be returning via Berlin, a city that’s long been on my to-visit list. I can’t wait!

From the beginning of March, I’ll be going freelance, a change that’s as terrifying as it is exciting. Previous experience – I worked for myself prior to Clearleft – gives me some confidence (and an idea of which mistakes not to repeat), but such a move is always fraught with questions of aptitude and probability of success.

Ideally, freelancing will allow me to work with organisations around the UK and overseas. I’m particularly interested in working for companies based in Europe. I’m initially looking for 3-6 month contract positions, but open to trying different working relationships and lengths of engagement to see what works best. I remain committed to being a hybrid designer-developer, though to what extent each specialism is weighted will depend on the project.

If the next stage of my career is to have a theme, it is to spend more time making and doing more meaningful things. I suspect this desire will be tempered by a degree of pragmatism at times, but this is the ultimate goal.

Having taken a year off from speaking and writing, my mind is buzzing with ideas. Conscious that the last time I freelanced I barely wrote anything, this time I’m making an effort to contribute more fully. I’ll be writing six articles for the Pastry Box Project, and I’m actively looking for other writing opportunities. I have some talk ideas which I hope to develop over the next few months, too.

The embarrassment felt publishing this entry on a website in such drastic need of a redesign hasn’t escaped me either. After a year faffing with the development of its replacement (Ruby! Jekyll! Sass!), I plan to launch a new site in a few weeks time. Hopefully then I can return to finishing my digitisation of Bradshaw’s Guide. Barebones has been a little neglected too.

Who knows what the coming year will hold, but it’s sure going to be interesting! If you have a project you think may interest me, please do get in touch.