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The Clearleft podcast and the decline of design

The first season of the Clearleft podcast concluded this week, and in what feels like a rare event these days, I need to have a little rant about what I heard.

Jeremy first mentioned recording a podcast a few years ago. Back then his idea was to interview everyone who had previously worked at Clearleft. The company recently celebrated its 15th birthday and seeing as so many smart people have passed through its doors during that time (I somehow managed to sneak in), this sounded like the basis for a fascinating show.

One of the few silver linings of lockdown was having extra time at home to do things that had long been put off. So it transpired with Jeremy’s idea for a podcast, and I jumped at the chance to be involved. Not only would this be my first appearance on a podcast, it meant I could achieve the full set of lockdown clichés: bake banana bread, get back into running, record a podcast.

The resulting audio turned out to be a little different from what I was expecting. Rather than a self-indulgent chat with former colleagues (something I’d still dearly love to hear), Jeremy produced a season of six episodes that investigated digital design in 2020, with current and former Clearlefties called upon as expert witnesses. I spoke about design systems in episode one.

Besides an expertly crafted episode devoted to a case study on Clearleft’s design for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year website, the remaining episodes asked the following questions:

Many of Jeremy’s guests were refreshingly honest, candid and understated, as you might expect for a podcast originating from the UK. I particularly enjoyed Jon Aizlewood’s contributions; in many cases he said precisely what I was thinking. But on other occasions it was hard for me not to be triggered. Especially when many of the above topics have been popularised by companies operating out of that damned peninsula.

The episode on design ops was especially galling. This is a topic I was vaguely dismissive of already, but even more so upon learning that the discipline grew out of a need for Facebook to scale up its design team.

Given the corrosive impact of their products on society, the economy – on basic reasoning, even – why on Earth would you want a design team to operate like Facebook’s? If you were to measure their success by anything other than Mark Zuckerberg’s net worth, this is a group of designers that have unquestionably failed.

I find it hard to comprehend why we should listen to corporate designers or others that have chosen to work for companies so intently concerned with scale. Especially when they so often appear blind-sided by the unintended consequences of their work.

Their approaches are sold with an implicit understanding that they should be adopted because they work in a large team. But do they even follow their own advice? Spotify doesn’t use the Spotify model, and as we learn in episode five, InVision have yet to use their own design maturity assessment – even though they’re pitching it to other design teams!

With echoes of design’s subjugation reverberating across all six episodes, this first season inadvertently told the story of how my profession has been captured by a desire to serve business interests above all others, while being disarmed by its tendency for introspection and need to be recognised.

Can digital design redeem itself? I hope so. Maybe in the next season of the Clearleft podcast, we’ll find out how.