#162 A Masterclass in Product Design with Andy Budd (Founder of Clearleft)

On the latest episode of Outlier Founders, we sit down with iconic design studio Clearleft’s founder Andy Budd to learn the approach to designing and building products that he’s honed over decades.
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August 13, 2023
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#162 A Masterclass in Product Design with Andy Budd (Founder of Clearleft)


On the latest episode of Outlier Founders, we sit down with iconic design studio Clearleft’s founder Andy Budd to learn the approach to designing and building products that he’s honed over decades. We go deep on everything from the design process to what makes a product great, and how Andy approaches managing and building design teams. It’s a masterclass in product design from one of the world’s best at it.


Daniel Scrivner (00:00:00):

Andy Budd, thank you so much for joining me on Outlier Academy as part of our outlier Founder series. I'm so excited to have you on, you have a wonderful background in design, design leadership and today we're really going to explore why design matters and how design creates great companies and great products. And where I wanted to start, because we're going to cover a lot of ground, is if you could just talk a little bit about how you discovered design and when it dawned on you that design was what you wanted to do.

Andy Budd (00:00:27):

Brilliant. So the superhero origin story, if you will.

Daniel Scrivner (00:00:31):

Yeah, something like that or not so superhero.

Andy Budd (00:00:35):

So when I was at school, when all the other kids were running around in the playground playing football and having fun, my school had this first computer, BBC Basic, BBC Micro, which I think also was the rooting to many designers, engineers, games programmers, back in the day. And so I, from a really early age, discovered this thing but when I was younger, I saw it as a toy. I was also the first kid in my neighborhood to get a personal computer. This would've been a 48 K spectrum back in the day. And in the evenings, and this is showing my age and I still can't believe this is a thing that I used to do, but you would get magazines and you would hand copy out the game code for the magazines to make the game run. And so I found myself doing that and making the screen do lots of interesting things. And so I found technology for whatever reason, really fascinating.


I went to university and I didn't know what to do. So I studied Air and Auto engineering. I wanted to be a pilot, I wanted to travel the world. And weirdly in that time actually, even though I did an engineering course, computers were not being particularly used. I did a session on CAD and that was about it, but it was all very manual and physical wind tunnels and that stuff. After leaving university, I realized I didn't want to be an airline pilot because first of all, most of the airline pilots I met were boring. That sounds a horrible thing to say but the idea being stuck in a metal tube for 14 hours with somebody that was sending me to sleep just didn't really attract me. And also people talk about how being an airline pilot is 98% boredom and 2% terror, and that's not the terror boredom ratio that I want. So I said ditched that but thought well hey, look I'm going to go travel the world. And so I traveled around of Southeast Asia for about six years and actually learnt to dive.


I became a diving instructor, I traveled around Asia in the Barrier Reef and taught people to dive. And I would discover the next location by going and using this thing called the internet in cyber cafes. And one day I was sat in this cyber cafe in Menado in Indonesia, in the island of Sulawesi. And back then, everyone was either using kind of gofo or Hotmail or whatever and the guy next to me had a screen and it was all black rather and it had all these weird white angle brackets. I was like, that's weird, that's not Hotmail. What's going on there? And so he got up to leave and I took up the nerve to say, "Hey look, what are you doing?" This was '98, maybe '97, '96, somewhere around that. And he was like, "Oh, I'm building a webpage." I was like, "You can build a webpage?" Because from a kid you can't build a TV show, you can't build a book, you can't build a radio program. Generally back then you didn't think about that.


So I thought well hey look, rather than sending email to my friends to update and tell them what to do, I'll have a travel website. This was before my friend Peter Holtz coined the term blog. So this was way before that. So I thought okay, I teach myself to code. And then the other moment I was in a hostel in Singapore and there was this English guy and this French guy and this French guy turned up all in lykra and I was like, "Where have you just come from?" He's like, "I just cycled from Paris." This is in Singapore. I'm like, "Oh, okay. Where are you going tomorrow?" I'm going back to Paris. He'd literally cycled all the way across the planet for one day in Singapore and then turning around.


And then, this other guy and I was like, "What do you do?" So I'm a web designer. Like "Oh, what's that?" And he's like, "Oh, I make websites and I do this thing called html. It's really easy, anyone can do it. And I make a ton of money and I work for six months and I travel for the rest of the year." And I was like, "Wow, I like the sound of that." So I thought, I'm going to go back to the UK and I'm going to learn to do this web design thing. And so '98, '99, I got into web design. I learned how to code, I learned how to build pages, I learned how to use Photoshop and all those things. And I guess one thing led to another and you eventually find yourself doing it all. I could program, I could use PHP, I could use MySQL, but it wasn't the area that I particularly loved. The thing that I was really into was the design side of things and so that's how I became a designer.

Daniel Scrivner (00:04:46):

That's a wonderful story. I'm curious because design, at least my experience and understanding of it is you have to be, I think wired a certain way to enjoy it and I think just be good at the problems you're going to be tackling. And I think everybody in my experience has a slightly different understanding, definition of design. So I guess one of the questions I want to ask is, what do you think it was that for you made it so that design was the area that you were fascinated in? Was it your wiring? Was it the types of problems you were solving? What do you think led to that sense of this is what I want to do?

Andy Budd (00:05:20):

It's a difficult question cause I like both. I did enjoy the programming. I did enjoy the problem solving. I found the bug bashing quite frustrating. You spend half an hour putting a thing together and then you spend two days trying to figure out what you didn't get right. And that could be really enlightening when you figure it out, it can also be really infuriating. But what I liked I guess is a sense of flow and everyone is chasing their sense of flow. And whether you are an engineer or whether you are a designer, you can go into work in the morning, you can suddenly realize it's the end of the day and you've been in this beautiful state of flow as you're kind of doing things and making things. But also what you get is you get an immediate sense of satisfaction.


So many people in their day to day lives are part of a much bigger machine and they're a cog in a wheel and they take a bit of paper or a file and they move it from one part of the business to the other, adding a few bits and pieces, adding their stamp and they move it on. So most people never get to really see what they're making. As a designer, as an engineer, at the end of every day you have a sense of accomplishment. You get to see the thing slowly take shape, you get to see the thing build, you get to see the thing run in a browser, you get to see the thing run on the internet. So you get this immediate sense of satisfaction and a real deep understanding connection to what you do and how it works. You pull the lever, you see the thing move and that feedback loop is really important.


I think also feedback loops are really important for mastery because if the thing you do, you don't learn whether it's been successful for six months, a year, two years, it's really difficult to improve. Whereas with design and with engineering, you put it out there and you get immediate feedback. In engineering, if it doesn't render, if it renders slow or there's something wrong, you immediately know something's broken. From design, if you share it with your team and your team immediately say, "Well that doesn't work. That doesn't make sense." Et cetera, you also get a really strong sense of feedback. And so there's been a lot of research around what early conditions make people do a certain thing. Why does somebody decide to be a concert pianist or why does somebody decide to be an artist? And often it's like when you are a kid, it's the thing that one person says you're good at or gives you praise.


You might be a bad pianist but your piano teacher who you look up to and respect says, "Oh you did a really good job." And you get that learning thing say next time I'm going to do better. You're a painter. So a lot of the time it's just like where you got the early praise from where you got the early sense of accomplishment. And so I got an early sense of accomplishment from both the design and from the engineering side of things. I guess when I was an early web designer, you would do a bit of everything. As the industry matured, you had to decide to specialize. Gone with the days where you could do front end backend JavaScript, SQL, LML, CSS and visual design. And so I ended up moving more towards the front end of the equation. I wrote one of the first CSS books in the market called CSS Mastery, which went on to sell a million plus copies. There was a beautiful week where it was out selling Harry Potter, which was still all my claim to fame here.

Daniel Scrivner (00:08:37):

Take that JK Rowling.

Andy Budd (00:08:40):

Absolutely. And so I really, really love the front end, but the design side of things just felt... I don't know why. Again, I think a lot of it comes down to the understanding of human nature, wanting to understand how people tick, find it fascinating when the thing that you think will work perfectly doesn't and then wanting to understand why. And so again, it was that discovering usability testing, discovering information architecture, discovering all of these fields that would help you make a better product and realizing that actually I could have a bigger influence by following that route than I could be to make more performant code or to make the button look a little bit more jelly or shinier or whatever it was. And so I definitely went down the human factors UI interaction design, user center design route.

Daniel Scrivner (00:09:34):

It's a wonderful little backstory. I want to talk a little bit about Clear Left. You spent 13 years as a managing director, you helped found the agency, the agency's incredibly well known, at least in the design world. So we have to spend a little bit of time talking about that and then we're going to move on, talk about design's evolution and how to create great products and a bunch of other stuff. And I guess where I wanted to start is just for people listening that may not know much about Clear Left, can you give them a quick overview and talks about I guess what Clear Left specialized in some of the companies you worked with?

Andy Budd (00:10:03):

And that follows on from what I was saying before actually, which is I think in the early '90 I was exploring visual design, I was exploring front end and I was exploring these yet to be defined topics that loosely revolved around information architecture, usability testing, prototyping. I wanted to start an agency because I was frustrated with what I saw was the low quality of output and the low quality of service. Back in the day, basically web design was that you would take a brief from a client, you would open up Photoshop and you'd start moving boxes around. And it was more about what it looked like having a really cool swoosh in the logo. Hey maybe we'll try three column layout instead of a two column layout but it was very basic and I felt that had to be a better way.


Coming from a background of science, coming from a background of engineering, I kind of had this art and science view of design. Actually partly inspired by a friend of mine, a guy called Jeff V who wrote a book called the Art and Science and Web Design, which was very influential to me. So I wanted to take a more scientific approach to design to figure out how we could release products and services that work better. So when it was time to start starting my agency, I thought well hey look, I was really well known in the CSS space. I was a well known blogger at the time and it was easy to be a well known blogger in the late '90 and early '90 because no one was doing it. But I had one of the top 50 traffic blogs in the UK and a lot of people, I wonder what Andy's going to do in this space.


And so I thought about maybe starting an agency that would be web standards like CSS because that at the time was cutting edge but I guess my belief was that web standards wouldn't very quickly become the dominant way of delivering websites. And so building a brand around a thing that in two or three years would be table stakes, felt like it was not going to have that longevity. Whereas there was this new thing that was bubbling up, which an agency in the US had called User Experience Design. And they were the first agency I came across called Adaptive Path, that talked about user experience design, how they brought together these fields of research, information, architecture and prototyping. And I thought that's what I want to do because I've been doing these things already but I didn't have a name for it. So we started Clear Left and we started Clear Left and we called ourselves a user experience design agency. At the time, I believe we were the first company to use that language.


There were companies out there that were researchers, there were companies out there that were IA companies, there were companies out there that were doing a bit of prototyping and interaction design but I believe to this day that we were the first agency that really started describing ourselves as user experience design in the UK. And maybe only one of four or five at the time that were doing this. This was really problematic in the early days because we'd go to a customer and they'd say, "Well how much are you going to charge us?" And we'll give them a figure and I'll say, "Well that's twice as much as your competitors, what are you doing?" And then I'd explain, well we'll go out and talk to customers and we'll figure out what their needs are and then we're prototype and then we'll test and we're designing. They'll be like, "Well this other company, they're just going to open up and Photoshop and they'll be done in a week. Why do we need all this other stuff?"


And so for the first three or four years it was a real challenge to get customers to see the value of what we did. But slowly over time, more people started talking about this subject, more people started realizing that actually there was value in building products that worked for customers rather than just look nice. And I guess about of 2008, 2009, we were in a bit of a zeitgeist. At that time, even though there's still not that many people doing it, UX has become a hot subject. There were newspaper articles and magazine articles, the top 10 coolest job titles of this summer and UX was one of them. People were discovering this UX thing and going, "Oh, I'm a designer but maybe I need to use, understand this thing. And actually if I call myself a UX designer, I can double my day rate overnight." And so there was this kind of massive of trend towards this new subject. We actually started the UK's and possibly Europe's first UX conference called UX London. I think in around 2008, 2009, it's still going to this day.


And so we were really at the heart of this movement and I think a lot of people asked what your secret is or what your skill is. And a lot of people will come up with some answer that centers them in the solution like I was just really smart, really clever. I work really hard. We were just lucky had we decided to start a UX agency two years beforehand would've been too early. Had we decided to start a thing called UX two years late, two years later it would've been over, would've not been interesting. Or we just happened to be at the right place at the right time. We put the right money on the right horse and we rode it for quite a long time. The downside is the UX space then got oversaturated, the language and the terminology got meaningless and then that thing that was a benefit for a while, then became problematic because towards the end of 2000 and say 15, every agency called itself a UX design agency.


I'd go to companies and look at them. They were engineering companies, they had 50 engineers, they had one designer but all on the homepage are like, "Hey, where are UX companies?" Like, well no you are not. But the problem is if everyone starts telling you there a thing and people start hiring people because they think they're their thing, then what they consume from that company, they believe to be the thing. And so suddenly this term got incredibly devalued to the point that it was meaningless because people were using it as a title to justify winning work and charging a certain amount was they weren't actually following the practice. And so I'd say by the time of 2015, 2016, the bubble had been let out of the UX space.

Daniel Scrivner (00:16:02):

One of the pieces that you talked about there that I really like is that you're approaching the problem of design as part science and part art. And one of the questions I wanted to ask was just around design culture. Clear Left has obviously done a lot of incredible work for incredible clients. You've also been able to do that for over a decade, which I would assume very few agencies survive more than a decade at the level of prominence that Clear Left does. And so one of the questions I wanted to ask is just, as you think about the design culture at Clear Left, what do you think you got right? And what do you think you got right about the way your team approached the work and the way your team worked together internally and also the way that you worked with clients?

Andy Budd (00:16:43):

I think there are a couple of ways of building an agency. I think the way most people do it is because they're building a business, and so what they do is they hire a lot of junior people, often they give them the title of senior or principal, they charge them out for a very high amount of money. The work is kind of mediocre but it doesn't really matter because everyone else in the market if the work is mediocre, you don't really notice. And then what you have is you have a few more senior people at the top overseeing. So you have this pyramid where the talent is centered at the top and then you've got all these delivery people, you churn to these people every couple of years and it doesn't really matter because you're seeing them as a little bit more canum fodder. And that's how the agency world usually works.


The challenge with having a lot of junior people is you need to have a big middle management tier of account managers and project managers because if the people don't know what they're doing, you need to steer them in the right direction, you need to make sure they're hitting their deadlines, et cetera. But if you can get that working and you can scale up, you can make a profitable business but you're making a relatively small margin off each individual person but if you scale up to 500,000 person agency, you can make a big business. So if you're wanting to build a big agency, you have this compromise where you go okay, I want to make money and so the thing I have to trade off is quality. And it doesn't really matter if we do a bit of media work for one company, it wouldn't matter because there'd be another company long in a week's time and we'd do some... And so I think that was often the attitude.


We were completely the other around, we were designers, we wanted to create a company where designers wanted to work. And so our philosophy was always hire the best people we possibly can. And one of the challenges with that is of again, you get this... There were two kind of creative leaders. You have the black touch where we design leader who positions themselves at the top of the pyramid and they want to be the best, most knowledgeable designer in the team and so they just fill it with underlings. And so what happens is those people, you hire them to serve your ego, you serve them to tell you, "Oh you are a brilliant designer. I want to work with you, I want to do all this stuff because you are amazing." And that's great for your ego, not necessarily good for the work. My approach has always been the opposite. I have always hired people who are much better than me, which means that I have always been the worst person in my company.


I've been the worst designer because I've hired better designers, I've been the worst researchers, I've hired better researchers, I've been the worst front end developer. I've been the worst business person, the worst salesperson. I am terrible at all these things and I know I'm terrible at all these things so I need to hire people that are betting me. But that approach of constantly hire people better than you, than hiring people that are better than them means that you are constantly aiming towards this sense of perfection. Language is always really difficult. I saw somebody tweet the other day, the only way to build a startup is to hire a plus players. Language makes me feel a little bit nervous because it is a way of boxing people into to how good they are but at the same time, I think that's where we were. We hired really good people. We hired really talented people. People would come to Clear Left because they would know they were going to be surrounded by other people.


If you are a really good designer, you got two options. You can go and be the best designer in a team, but then who you're going to learn from? Or you're going to Clear Left where you're not the best designer in the team by any stretch of the meditation. Are you going to meetings and you are learning every day, you're being exposed to amazing design work, you're being pushed and forced to be out of your comfort zone and you can't let up. It can be stressful at times. If other people are coming in and doing really amazing work, it forces you to be your best. And so being in this hot house is really impressive, it's really fun. But it doesn't scale. It's really difficult. And there're people that say it does, there're people that say, "Oh yeah, we've got a thousand person company, all a plus players." You are probably kidding yourself. And you're partly kidding yourself because actually you need people to do all the stuff that the a plus players don't want to do.


So if you're scaling, you need to have people to do the maintenance, to do the boring jobs, et cetera. Whereas at Clear left because we were so small, we were able to turn down work we didn't like. That we didn't think would be something that would keep the team engaged. So our model wasn't like to try and grow the company as quickly as possible, it was to try and who wrote the best work as possible to give it to the best designers to make sure that they had a really great time. And so as a result in a time when people were churning at companies every 18 months, we would have people that had been with us for 11 years and every time they started looking over the fence to go somewhere else, they'd be like, "Oh, well actually your company doesn't do x. Your company doesn't give a generous travel bonus. You don't go to South by Southwest or these other conferences each year. You expect us to work at 80%, 90% capacity rather than 60%.


Half of the work we do is mediocre grinding work whereas all the work you do is big interesting meaty challenges. And so we just find a sweet spot where we could be a really good talented but small team of individuals that if you knew and cared about what good looked like, you would come to us. But if you just needed a team of 30, 40 people to stick in a bunch of seats, you'd go to a big networked agency and that was absolutely fine. And so we found our niche. And so weirdly, I think Clear Left, were much more impactful into the design industry than our small size would indicate. I'd go to corporates and people go, "Oh yeah, clear left there might be 200 people." And it's like, "No, there 30 of us." And people are like, "What? There's only 30 of you." Because we were very vocal, we were very public, we spoke at conferences, we wrote books, we wrote articles. I don't know how many books came out Clear left but 10, 15 best selling books in various tech fields.


We were speaking at like 1500 conferences a year, which is crazy for a 30 person team. But we hit that zeitgeist where people were like, "Oh, this is really interesting." And then everything went a little bit in the wrong direction, which we might come onto in a second. I don't know.

Daniel Scrivner (00:23:05):

Well, I mean love the model and I just love how values oriented and values focused you are in the things that you do. Very clearly, you and your two other co-founders of Clear Left had a very clear idea of what you wanted to do and it was very different from what the typical norm was and you were very clear on what the tradeoffs that you were making. I want to move to the other end of the spectrum or the other side of that coin. So we talked about internally what the culture was like... I want to talk a little bit about what you learned about the challenges that companies face by working with... You've had some incredible clients at Clear Life, JP Morgan, World Wildlife Fund, Burberry, Virgin Atlantic. What'd you learn about the challenges that they faced and what did you learn about the role that design can play in helping these businesses and helping these companies?

Andy Budd (00:23:47):

That is a really tough question and I don't have a particularly good or pithy answer to that, I'm afraid. What I find with design and with companies getting value from design is you could be a great cheerleader for design, you could be a great champion, you can put the amazing deck together, you can tell people, you can go in and pitch. We've pitched, we did work with penguin books and people like that. You can go and proselytize the value of design to these companies. On an intellectual level, they get it. But a practical day to day level, they've just got stuff they need to do. They've got to get product out in the hands of customers, they've got to make money, they've got to hit their revenue targets. And so there's often a mismatch I think, between designers belief in the impact design can have and the practical ability for organizations to adopt that. So what I see happening is it is a change process, it's a change mechanism that happens over a number of years.


You go in and immediately you try and sell the value of design, but the business has got to get something out the door. So they get it out the door and it's not very well designed, it's not very well thought through. And because of that, reception is look warm, traction is lukewarm. That becomes a learning point for those founders. The founders, the board go, "Okay, well something hasn't worked here, what is it?" Maybe we need to go and do some research first. And so then you get budget for research and you go out and do research and then the next situation is better, but it's still not perfect. So what do we need to do here? Whoa, well we need to do some prototype and we need to test a few variations."


And so what happens is over the course of the life of a product, over the course of 7 years, you slowly are able to incrementally improve the product by layering on the next layer of design until eventually it becomes embedded into the set of the company that the company understands now oh okay, so this is what you can do, this is the effect you can have. And a really good example of that is a friend of mine, Stuart Clark Frisbee, he was the fifth design hire at booking.com maybe 10 years ago. And he came in to lead this certified person team. And booking.com as you know, is a very financially focused, performance focused, engineering focused company. But very quickly, Stewart was able to demonstrate to the CEO that for every dollar they gave the design team, they turned it into five. So here's $5, turn it into 25, here's $25, turn it... And so he was able to show the impact the design could have. And that's the only way you can do it. You can't really do it with the PowerPoint deck and the presentation.


And I tried to use my position in the design industry as this thought leader, this person that founded this really impactful company, that would get us through the door, that would get us the interviews, that would get us to meetings, that would get us a few champions on the board. What would typically happen is the designers would, oh we really want to work with clear left. And we'd get into the interview but we'd be other five other companies that didn't have this approach and then we still had to have the battle royal until they pick the company. And so I think the key was not to push it, not to be too judgemental, not to be too campaigny but to demonstrate the value and to realize that this is a long haul. We worked with companies like Virgining Holidays and Virgining Atlantic and we would love to have gone in and we'd love to have a story that said we came in and just do the power of design, we transform this business overnight.


But it took us three or four years, it took us a couple of years just to be able to sit down with the CEO of the company. We start with the CTO and then we navigate to the head of product and CPO and eventually you are having coffee and dinner with the CEO of this big organization. And trying to explain the value, trying to get the language built in and trying to really communicate what you can deliver, it takes time and it takes small projects that turn into bigger projects. Small outcomes that turn into bigger outcomes. Now I'm actually pretty good friends with the XMD of Virgin holidays because he really, towards the end of his tenure there, really saw the value. He really saw that if you could bring in designers, if you could bring in people like us, we could really turn the ship around. But even then, that's a brand like Virgin that is a really experiential brand. Try that with JP Morgan and you've got a whole different kettle of fish there.

Daniel Scrivner (00:28:19):

Yeah, I want to come back at the end and talk about some lessons you learned just over the 13 years in building and launching Clear Left. But I guess the question I wanted to ask now to close this out and then we'll move on to some of the evolution of design is, you made the decision, I think it was in 2020, to step down as the managing director after 13 years and you hinted at before entering maybe a new phase where things were a little bit rockier for the business and for the company. I'd love it if you could talk a little bit about those last few years, what was happening and then specifically just making the decision to step down. I think what I'd be curious there is how difficult of a decision was that for you to make? And then secondarily, if you could walk us through your process in making it. And really the reason I'm asking that question is, leaving an agency that you founded after 13 years is a massive decision.


So anything you can lend people listening about how you went through that decision I think would be really valuable.

Andy Budd (00:29:12):

I mean there's a couple of things there which aren't necessarily associated. So I'll start with one first, which is the journey. So I think, like I said earlier, UX was its dominance in somewhere between 2009 to 2015. And the web was still a little bit more of a make a culture. A lot of the people who were well known at the time, who were prominent figures, who were driving the direction of travel were bloggers, they were authors, they were speakers, they ran small agencies. Us, Happy Cog, Adaptive Path, Cuban Council, some really great agencies. But then all these startups started popping up and in the early days Facebook didn't have any designers and Google didn't have any designers. And then they had one designer, then they had five, then they had 10, they had 50, they had 1,000. Suddenly the heat and the emphasis moved from the agencies to the tech companies. And now if you were a young designer, you want to go work at an agency, you would go and work at Google or Facebook or Airbnb.


And so I think what ended up happening with that is that agencies still had a really prominent role to play, but their cultural impact started to level off, which is absolutely fine. And this is not any reason why I left the company and it's not really any reason... But it was just kind of interesting to watch how that happened. And I think what had happened is it had gone from being a craft based industry to a professional industry. It gone to an industrial industry. If you were a carpenter at the turn of the century, you'd go to your local artisan. If you were carpenter now or a furniture designer, you'd go to Ikea. There's a no brainer there. And so the Googles and Facebook's, Airbnbs were the Ikea's, they were delivering design at scale. This is also how my interests of moved into design leadership because a lot of my friends who were once bloggers and speakers and whatever started leading a team of five people inside a big tech company, then 10, then 20, then 30, then 40.


And so I got really interested in how designers can lead design at scale. This is also where my interest in coaching kind of emerged from as well. I do a lot of time working with heads, directors and VPs of product and design, how they can launch this. And so I was having lots of conversations with my friends and I was having the same conversations over and over again how they were struggling to get the value of design recognized and I thought rather than having lots of individual coffees, I will start a conference. I started a conference called Leading Design and I started a design leadership community. And so I guess my interest moved from this craft based system into trying to have a bigger impact at bigger scale companies. Because my mission has always been to try and get design a seat at the table.


And I've realized that there was a period where the best vehicle for that was agencies, when we had the biggest impact, but then that had moved and so I started moving in that direction. I'm jumping ahead a little bit here, but where I've ended up in my career now is I've moved from running an agency to coaching people and working in the venture space, the coaching people allows me to help companies design at bigger companies have a bigger impact. And the venture space allows me to help early stage founders bake design into the culture and core of the company so that those future leaders don't have as much resistance. And so that's the direction I started heading in, that's the thinking I started to have. And so I realized it was time if I wanted to have the impact I wanted to have in the world and continue having that impact, it probably was going to be outside of the agency world. But I love Clear Left, I still love Clear Left.


While I have left, I'm still a director, I'm still a minority shareholder, I'm still on the board, I'm still on the trust. And so I wanted to make sure that when I left Clear Left it still would thrive. It was a difficult decision because I think having built your own company for 15 years, you identify it with it. It becomes part of your personality. And so I think I possibly should have left two or three years earlier but I wanted to slowly disentangle my own identity from the company, partly for my own ability and sanity but also I wanted to empower the team that was leaving behind. What I didn't want to do is I didn't want, because I was quite visible when I was seen as the MD, I was speaking with conferences and events and if I just left out of the blue and there was nobody to step in, there was no to take my place, it might have been seen as like, well this is the end of Clear Left.


And so I wanted to do it slowly. And so my first step was assembling a leadership team and then my next step was to slowly step back from that leadership team to let them take over, but to be there. I went down to Bali for two or three months and worked remotely and to see how the team would survive when I'm in a different time zone. I took a six or eight weeks sabbatical to see how they would survive and how they would cope when I wasn't around at all. And slowly I built up confidence that the team would be able to take this forward and slowly the team built up confidence that they could take it forward. I moved out of the day-to-day running of the agency and focused for a year or so just on the event space because the event space was really driven by my network but also slowly started handing over more responsibility to the events team, to the point that I woke up one day and realized I'm no longer needed.


I've built a company that is self-sustaining and I could step away from that company and actually nobody would notice, and that's a weird thing. I don't have kids but I imagine it's similar to when your kids go to university and you're like, oh on one level I feel proud that I've built these amazing independent people with their own thoughts and viewpoint in the world, but also it's sad that I'm no longer needed. And yeah, sure I might see them at board meetings, I might see them at Christmas, I mix my metaphors there. They might come home every now and again and need their laundry doing but largely these are independent people. And so it took maybe three or four, five years for me to emotionally untangle and also for me to set the company up in a way that I felt it would be happy and work well without me. And the last part of that step was to initiate a buyout of the company by the team.


So Clear Left has now become an employee-owned business, which means that the employees, the people that are frankly the ones that are responsible for success, the people who are better than me at the design and the research and all that stuff are now stakeholders. They get to make more decisions around where the company goes and they get to profit from the success of the business. And so I'm really, really pleased that I left it on that way because a lot of people, a lot of founders when they get bored they try and sell it and if you sell the company, you can get a nice exit individually. Often the team don't necessarily benefit. They get handed over to some other buyer, some other owner that doesn't really value them as much as they could and the whole thing disappears.


And so I've seen a lot of founders who leave and the company just crumbles a year or so afterwards. So I wanted to make sure that the company was resilient and had a reason to stay alive but also was defensible from acquisition. Because we were constantly getting tapped up by m and a's we were constantly being tapped up by big technical implementers that wanted to buy left because of the brand and the value and the work we did. And so I wanted to make sure that if I left, the company could carry on being itself in surviving in its own right.

Daniel Scrivner (00:37:01):

I mean congratulations on the way you ended it because I think what I've observed to your point that you said, is that the default path, I think when a prominent founder leaves is kind of implosion and that implosion can be around just the change and not being intentional and thoughtful enough about it, it can be just not taking the right steps and making that move slowly. And so I think it's incredible that you were able to slowly and methodically, and obviously it was very personal and I totally get having to untangle your own identity, which is much more about than the team. But I think it's incredible you've been able to set that team up for success. One of the good things that I wanted to talk about today is just the evolution of design. I've worked as a designer for the last 15 years, I've seen a massive shift in design. And just really quickly, I was not one of the first, I was one of the million people that ended up buying CSS Mastery that book and building websites was a formative part of my early career.


Just even hearing you mention Cuban Council and Happy Cog, these brings back a lot of memories because similarly, I started out in the webspace have had to try to figure out my own evolution over time. And so even just in the purview that I've had, which is smaller than yours, I've witnessed a pretty massive transformation in the field. And all of the things that you've talked about resonated with me. The move from freelancing and agencies to working in house, trying to actually build out teams, doing scalable design, all these things are really interesting. One of the things I just wanted ask you a big wide open question is what are some of the biggest changes that you've seen? And I guess what are some of the positives and negatives, as you maybe jump back in time 20 years and then reflect on where we are today?

Andy Budd (00:38:35):

Basically I discovered the web through the amazing work of people that have been working on it 10 years before me. I see those people like the kind of the old school blues musicians. They set the foundations, they would hop on trains across America, they would travel from state to state, they would lay down records but they were poor. They didn't make any money because they were doing it for the love of music. I think my generation of the web were the early rock musicians who discovered the work of BB King and Robert Johnson and all these amazing icons. And they discovered it and fell in love with it and they started exploring this music, they started making their own and they started bands, Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, like Eric Clapton, whatever, The Yardbirds and the people that were in that generation, they did it primarily out of a love the music.


And some of them just stayed playing in local bands and gigging but some of them did the smaller venues and then the bigger venues and they got popular and they got picked up and then they got successful and then they built the mansions and they had the jet set lifestyle. But still there's individuals, the thing that sustained them and still I think sustains today, was a love of the music and love the craft. And so I think there's a whole generation of people who I met in that have that similar vibe with the bloggers that were the makers, that were the early class people. I think what's happened now is the industry has become an industry, it stopped being happening, grassroots stuff and it's become this kind of big stock aching and waterman kind of produced money making machine. And a lot of people now have the X-factor mindset. It's like they see the old rock musicians with the house and the car and the jet and they go, "I want the house and the car and the jet."


What did these people do to get the house in the car jet? Oh they played music, I'll play music. So they discover music, they love music, but the thing that's driving them often is the output, the success, the jet, the car, et cetera. And so I often find that there is a hollowness or shallowness in some of the people that I meet today in the industry because they're not deep in the roots of the craft. But I also realize that's an incredibly privileged, incredibly probably unfair and naive viewpoint because actually the people that are chasing that X factorization that want to go, they want to speak at that one conference or elevate them to get that job or whatever, they've worked really hard. They've got a huge amount of debt that's been built up through university. They've got the opportunities. I could not work and learn and study and teach myself back in the day, it's much harder to do that now.


So I think we are in a much more commercial environment and because we're in a much more commercial environment, the days of the blues musician and the budding rock band have gone, and it is an industry. And I see a lot of people of my age and my ilk that are like Pomona. You often get articles going with a UX design. The industry was so much better 10 years ago, and for that group of people I think it was but I think we're in a different environment, a different time and actually the web has become a career and I do not begrudge people from navigating through that career in a very good way. .I meet a lot of people that are my generation now that maybe took them 15 years to be head of design. I come across a lot of young designers now that have taken three or four years and those people that took 15 years off really begrudging like, "Oh that's really unfair. You haven't done your time. You haven't worked your way up." But those people that took it three or four years have often battled through ice and fire.


They started as designer number one in a startup. They hire the first designer, the second designer, third designer, they race series a, they hire five more designers, they race series b, they hire 20 more designers. In three or four years time, that designer that is now leading a team of 30 people has probably had the same level of life experience that, that person that took 15 years slowly worked through more traditional companies, waited for the person ahead of them to retire and then they moved into that stuff. So I think there's huge opportunities for designers to elevate and escalate their career. The other thing is, I think at the moment is those early designers had to put down all the groundwork, they had to put down all the foundations. So it took time. With now, I think the current proper designers don't have to learn all this stuff. A lot of the stuff like 80% of what I learned in my career is now irrelevant.


You'll appreciate this. I don't need to know what a GIF is anymore, I don't need to know what table based layout is, I don't need to understand how to do marques or web safe colors. I spent so much my time-

Daniel Scrivner (00:43:21):

You don't even have to code now.

Andy Budd (00:43:25):




Daniel Scrivner (00:43:25):

I feel like as a designer, code was an extension of your tools.

Andy Budd (00:43:29):

Yeah. You'll open up web flow and you'll need to have some appreciation but your hand will be held. And so much of what I've learned has been useless and so no wonder that it took me 15 years or 20 years to get to where I am that some people are taking three or four years. I applaud them and like I said, a lot of the work I do with my coaching clients is helping these design leaders who it's their first design role or their second design role and they don't know what they don't know and they want to lean on someone that has 15, 20 years experience. They can go, like this thing you're seeing here that you think is really weird and you're wondering whether you've got imposter syndrome and you're doing it wrong. No, this happens to everybody. This is really normal for their first job, this is really normal for your second job. This is how you approach it. This is what you need to think about. Don't worry, I've got you.


And so I can just be a slightly wiser co-pilot now that can just make the main pilot feel safe and secure, and I'm really enjoying that on the coaching side of what I do. And so that's really empowering that I can use all that knowledge to help the next generation of leaders do a much better job than we could ever do. Much faster, much more successfully.

Daniel Scrivner (00:44:42):

Yeah, I mean you packed in so much there. I love the analogy of jazz musicians and this kind of grassroots movement that then led to a new wave of musicians that were inspired by that group try to take design to a new place. That definitely resonates. Some of the things that kind of come to mind, some of the things I've thought about that I thought I would share and I'd love your thoughts on is part of, I think what I've observed to your point of design with some of the people working in design appearing as this, I don't know, very thin almost mirage. Is part of design moving from being a grassroots movement to now being much bigger is you have designers that are lost in layers of middle management that have made the decision at some point in time that they're not going to do design and I've worked with design managers or design head heads of design and haven't done design in a decade plus.


And I think that it becomes, my sense of design is that it really is much more like an apprenticeship and designers should almost work together as peers. And yes, you do need hierarchy but the best teams I've always been on are all people that have skin in the game, their hands on design and haven't gotten too detached from it. So I think that's part of it is just people getting lost and trying to navigate the, do I manage? Do I do design? I'm now 10 years into my career why haven't I made that transition piece. And then I think the second piece is to your point, it's just become much bigger and much different. And so when you have a team now of 20 people and you have junior designers and senior designers and art directors and creative directors and ahead of design, there's much more layers to try to navigate. And I don't know, I've just seen a lot of people I think get stuck in that.


And then just the last thing I was going to share is I've similarly worked with a lot of founders and one of the things that I still find very surprising is that... Not surprising, but that to me is just I have this jolting experience very commonly, where I'll work with a founder and you just realize how little is understood about design and design best practices. And what I mean by that is I think in engineering there's become these canonical books that you can go and pick up off the bookshelf that teach you or give you a great overview of how engineering works within a technology company. It doesn't feel like design's gotten there and so it feels like a very young industry that's still trying to figure out best practices and those best practices aren't really widely known or widely distributed. Any thoughts on any of those points?

Andy Budd (00:46:56):

There's so many things there. I think so many good thoughts that I've probably forgotten half of them that you said, so you might need to give me a bit of a reminder. But in terms of that last one, I mean I think some of it is around the professionalization design. There is a generation of designers I've talked about, me included, who had to understand how the backend of the front end worked because there was only one person doing it, the web designer. I had to understand PHB, I had to understand MySQL, I had to understand JavaScripts, I had to understand Visual Design, I had to understand User Experience Interaction design. So I have a good overview of how all the things fit together. It also means that I'm not particularly good at any one of them because in the early stages at least, I didn't able to specialize, I specialize later on in my career. But I think these days what happens is you come into an industry and you have a very specific role. You don't start as a general person that understands how everything fits together, you start as a designer.


And if you start as a designer in an agency where every three months, you are being given a different problem for a different customer a different user or different end user, you can iterate and learn really, really quickly because you're getting the zero to one problem, you're designing something from scratch usually each time or at least improving something significantly. As design scales, you might find yourself one designer on a team of 60 people. You might be on the 60 person design team that is responsible for the Google homepage, excluding the Google Doodle. So basically you're one of 60 designers that is designing a dropdown and some type head stuff. And that's really good and it's really exciting and you get paid really well and you've got a climbing gym and you've got free laundry and you've got all these amazing things. And frankly a year and a half are working at Google, no matter what you've done, every startup in the world wont to hire you.


But when you come out of that year and a half and you show your portfolio and you're like, "Hey, well I moved type ahead from three characters or four characters and I worked on that for 18 months." A lot of designers now are because they're in this big industrial level thing, they are part of a much smaller machine. They are not the head chef that's thinking up the meals, which is what you would be in an agency. You are doing the prep work, you're the KP. You're, today I've got a peel a thousand potatoes, so I've got to chop a thousand carrots. And your knife skills get really brilliant but your ability to then go off and design a menu or do a popup or whatever is really greatly compromised. So I think it's problematic for a lot of young designers. I think actually their ability to grow and scale becomes really difficult if you are doing a really small part of a much bigger problem.


So I can understand the situation they're in. And I think in terms of the maturity and the growth of the industry, that's where it's gone. It's gone to hyper specialization, a very small cog in a wheel. And if you remember one of the things I said earlier in our conversation was how when I was a younger designer, I loved the ability to see the impact I've had at the end of the day. I remember talking to one designer who was in a big tech company for nine months and he was tasked with redesigning an icon. Spent a week designing the icon, three months pitching it, get feedback. A week, designing the icon, three months pitching feedback. This person was nine months in, they'd worked on a single icon, they hadn't got it over the line yet, they hadn't got it released and this person was like, "Well, what am I going to show my next employer when I go to Airbnb or Facebook or Google and they say, what have you been doing?


And you say, well actually I almost designed this icon but I've really been spent most of my time getting over the line and getting it approved." And you could say why, if this icon is going to be seen by five billion people a day, it better be the world's best icon. And you want make sure that the shade of blue is the perfect shade of blue to get the maximum amount the clicks because not 0.2% difference in the performance of this icon could be hundreds of millions of pounds. So the stress is there, but it's a really tough different environment.

Daniel Scrivner (00:51:03):

Well I think related to that, I guess the way I've thought about that is it feels like now the challenge if you're a designer, is it's not so much about the company that you're going to go and work with but it's what the actual day to day work looks like and how much ownership and control you're going to have and also just how functional the environment is to come up with ideas, discuss and debate those ideas and try to come up with consensus or at least a decision on a direction to head. Because I think to your point, it's now every company wants design, that's the plus. The downside is almost no company actually understands how to harness the power of design or set design up for success. And so your challenge as a designer becomes how do you try to find that company where you cannot just do great work but not feel like you're bashing your head against a wall and actually feel like you've got some ownership and control.

Andy Budd (00:51:51):

Which is where your comments around the leadership come in. And also of weirdly where I think I slightly disagree but I'm not entirely sure if you are that designer that's been working on an icon for nine months and not getting over the line or if you're that designer that's been trying to design the dropdown moving from three to four characters in the type of head or whatever, you might find that really frustrating. And so you go, well how can I fix this? Well the way you fix it is I need to get more power. I need to be the head of that team. If I just am the head of that team, I will solve all these problems. I will empower my designers, I will release their creative freedom. And so you become a lead and then you realize actually I don't really have the ability to really influence anything because I'm still at the bottom end of the funnel. So you then become a head and then you become a director, then you become a VP.


And often you are constantly trying to climb up this ladder in order to make the generation behind you's life a little bit easier. But actually also what ends up happening is you climb up that ladder, you realize that the reason why it's taking nine months to design an icon isn't because they don't get design because this thing probably is going to cost them hundreds of millions of dollars if they get it wrong, which as the designer, you might think, well this is really ridiculous. So you kind of end up wanting to get into leadership and management to solve the problem but then you get a much better understanding of what the problem is and eventually you end up becoming part of the problem and then the next generation comes up and boots you out. Pure power about designers being practitioners. I know a few incredibly talented design leaders who are also really amazing practitioners but only a few. I think it's difficult to maintain your craft as you go up the levels because first of all it becomes a bit selfish. Your job as the leader is to empower the people.


So if you are keeping on taking on design work, you're not giving the best design work to your team, then that's selfish. But if you're not taking the best design work, you're taking the mediocre work, well if you do that then that's a waste of your time. If you're paying $200,000 a year and all you're doing is doing media design work, that's a waste of time as well. And also it's probably a blocker because if you try and take on a major piece of design work but you've got one to ones and you've got interviews and you've got performance reviews and all the kind of stuff you need to do as a leader, you are not going to be able to do this. And so what ends up happening is a lot of mid-level managers try and be this sort of player coach, where they're both a practicing designer and a manager. And what ends up happening is they tend to do both bad.


They either don't have enough time to do good design and so they are blocker and they're frustrating everybody or they're doing too much design work and it means that one to ones they're getting missed. Performance reviews are not being filed. So at some stage you have to decide whether you are going to be a manager or practitioner. Fortunately in a lot of American companies there's this idea of this going to dual track that you can be a IC individual contributor or a manager, that is brilliant but it's kind of rare around the rest of the world. So a lot of companies and people end up trying to make lives better by being a leader and that necessitates them giving up design.


And also if you remember what I said about design as well, if you are making decisions based on what you want to do, if you love design, you are going to choose a thing that you love. And so you're going to be doing design all the time and you're probably a bad leader. In the same way if you've got kids and you still want to be going out drinking as much as you used to, you still want to be buying as much money on clothes and holidays and what have you, are not looking after your kids well. So when you become a parent, you stop. Get comfortable walking around with vomit on your clothes or not worrying about how cool you look. You're not going out all the time because you've got these other people to look after. I think the same is you have a design leader. Some say to be an effective design leader you have to put away the things that give you the things that you love often the long hours of flow work because you are giving that up in order to make other people's lives better.


But that is a tradeoff and it's often a really, really challenging tradeoff for people. I would also say, I think there's a philosophy some people go, oh you can't be a great leader unless you are also an amazing designer, but I don't buy that. I know a few people who have never been designers in the world but they're great leaders because they understand design and understand the value of design. They're great at the politics, they're great at the human side, great the self care. They're often much better leaders of design than designers because the designers get trapped. Similarly, I know some really amazing CTOs who have been brilliant coders in the past and still might do some coding in these days on the side. But if you are the head of engineering, if you're the CTO at Slack and you are pushing code updates, you're probably not doing the right job. You're managing a 500,000 person engineering beast. And you are managing people who are managing people who are doing the code. You are doing the wrong thing if that's what you're doing, that's not your job anymore.


And so I think if you can be a CTO working at the highest levels of some of the tech companies and people aren't expecting you to be shipping code on a daily basis, then we shouldn't be expecting designers to be shipping designs. And I think if you can hire a team that I've got great researchers, great interaction designers are great, visual designers are great typographers, you are always going to be the worst person on the team. So again, you probably shouldn't be touching the design in the same way as that CTO that hasn't coded in anger for 10 years probably shouldn't be opening up the database and messing around with the SQL statements because you're probably going to take the whole site down and that's not a good look.

Daniel Scrivner (00:57:34):

Yeah, maybe rephrase it. I mean I think the better way of saying what I was trying to say is I think the challenge I've observed is to be a great design leader at the highest level, you have to be very good at two very different things. And one of those is the ability to interact with designers and help create a design environment that creates great work. In which case I would argue, I think CTO's a fair comparison but my experience with designers is designers are much more emotional. They're much more tied to their craft. There's much more this idea of it's just much more precious. And with engineers a lot of how engineering management works is it's like as long as you believe in the rationality and the objective decision making, to your point earlier, engineers are rational actors so what they look for in a leader is this very rational leader and so to me I think you can be an engineering leader that almost never does any code. And I agree that as a designer leader you should not necessarily be in design files doing design work.


But to say that I think the challenge I've observed is this, how do you have the ability to have rapport with your team, have your team respect the decisions that you make when a lot of your decisions as a design leader directly impact the work itself? Or you're literally saying, we're going to do this, we're not going to do this. And then at the same point in time you have to do a very different job, which has nothing to do with design, which is how do you interact cross-functionally and make sure that you have great relationships with all of the other units within a company so that again, I think you create this 360 degree environment where design can succeed because design serving the entire company and you have this connective tissue? And I think that's the challenge I've observed. And so I agree with everything you've said, but to me I don't know, it's a very challenging piece to get around is what I've seen.

Andy Budd (00:59:13):

It is. And ironically that's why I end up being able to have a coaching practice because these are the challenges that a lot of people come to me with. So it's not easy. So I think there's two things I think first off, there's a lot that designers can learn from engineering management because engineering managers have often gone on a similar path. They've gone from being practitioners to leaders of teams, they're still doing some architecture stuff to being managers of managers. Because engineering has scaled much faster and much bigger than design and usually 6 years ahead of us, our engineering partners have probably solved most of the problems that we are struggling with now. They probably are doing good one to ones, they probably have good performance processes, they've got a good onboarding flow, they've got a career ladder. They've got all the stuff that we are like, "Oh, there's a problem, what do I need to do?" So being really good friends with your engineering partners I think would be really helpful also because engineers tend to out number designers like five or 10 to one or more.


I was talking to somebody, one of my coaching clients recently, they've got a design team of 25 and an engineering teaming engineering team of 900. There's a slight mismatch of power there but the mismatch of power is also-

Daniel Scrivner (01:00:32):

100 to one? I don't even know what that mismatch is.

Andy Budd (01:00:35):

Yeah, it's bonkers.

Daniel Scrivner (01:00:36):

It's very high.

Andy Budd (01:00:37):

Leah Buly did some research active path and she did some research and it looks like to really genuinely consider yourself not design centric but being able to deliver good design, your ratio is usually five to one to 10 to one or one designer for every five to 10 engineers. Outside of that, it becomes really difficult. The difference is engineering partners often have more power in the organization. Engineering usually sits at the board, design generally doesn't sit the board. If you are going to be an engineering leader, if you're going to be a CTO at a tech company, you might own 4% of the business, you might own 50% of the business if you are a co-founder. Very rarely do designers get to see the financial benefits of their effort and so often they don't have that trade off. It's easy if you are moving from being a engineer to a CTO. Like hey look, I'm going to give up engineering because it's a pain in the ass anyway, I'm going to take 4% of a billion dollar company. That's an easy trade off.


If what you are giving up as a designer is giving up the thing you love but you're trading it off for world of pain and no power, that becomes a harder trade off. But also what happens is there's a really tough mental switch that happens when designers become leaders that I think most designers really fail to get over. And this is a real problem and this is again what I try and help a lot of my coaching clients realize is you become a design leader because as I said, you get frustrated with all the stuff you've had to deal with over the years and you think if I get a bit of power, I will be able to fix it. And so your first, second, third design leadership job, what your mentality is, hello design fam, tell me everything that's broken, load me up with all of your problems and I like a white knight will go and I will fight the executive team and I will transform the organization.


And so your designer is fill up with all these things. We need researchers, we need content strategies, we need UX writers, we need this, we need that. And you go off confidently to battle and you can't get any of those things. And so you come back crestfallen and then your team go, "Well this is a terrible design leader because they're not doing their job. The design leader are meant to give me all the things I wish for. I want a pony go and get me a pony. Oh you can't afford a pony, you're really unfair mum and dad, I hate you forever." So channeling something else there for a second. So a lot of designers stop at that belief that their job is to satisfy the whims and the needs of the design team and go to battle with the executive. The switch happens usually at the next level up. If you are head of design, that's where your head is.


If you become a director designer or a VP design, you suddenly realize that actually my job isn't to service the needs of my team. I still need to do that, but my job is to service the needs of my business. I am a partner in this business, my first team is the executive team. My first team is my head of product, is my head of marketing, is my CTO. These are my partners, these are the teams I'm meant to be serving. And my job is to understand what the business outcomes of the company are and I'm to deliver those outcomes through the design process, through my design team. And once you realize that, once you realize that a higher level, a design leader is about delivering business value through design rather than reticulating the design team, that has a fundamental change in your approach.


Still, if you have a big design team need those more pastoral care people need those design leaders, those leads, those heads, those directors that can focus on the day to day stuff, that can focus on the people stuff, that can focus on the delivery stuff, but when you become a real business leader that you are an entrepreneur, you're an executive, and so making that switch is really tough. A lot of designers want to get the seat at the table but they often think it's their right and they often struggle to be able to demonstrate why they should do that. And their reason for getting that power is not because they want to utilize their design skills to deliver value for the business, it's because they think that once they've got that seat at the table, once they've got the power they can get all, they can create this nirvana world where everything is perfect for designers and sadly, it's the wrong way of looking at it.


I'd love if that would work, but it just doesn't work. And so I think a lot of designers get stuck misunderstanding what leadership at the highest level means, which is why we only have a few chief design offices in the world. A few dozen in the US But when you talk to those people, that's their attitude. We're the first team, we're delivering value but we're delivering value through design.

Daniel Scrivner (01:05:24):

I mean I love what you said there and I want to try to tie this together with some of your coaching work. And I guess bring up one other thing which is in my experience working on design teams, leading design teams, I think something I've taken away from that experience is that what designers need more than anything is to focus on soft skills and really develop soft skills. And that I think that I've worked with and some of the most talented designers in the world, and yet what I've seen is I think is just going back to I guess this note of over the last 15, 20 years we've seen this transition where it moved from being a grassroots movement until now it's much more commercial for better and for worse. Design has more power design teams are generally larger, design's more valued and yet part of that problem is just how do you navigate that, how do you make sense of it?


And one of the observations that I've made, which I still haven't been able to really disprove, is that I think what most designers really need to lead into is just developing the softer skills of, to your point, I think what I've seen is to be effective at those highest levels has nothing to do with design. You need to still have the design fundamentals, you need to understand how design works, you need to know how designers can work with engineers and product managers to make a great product but you also then need very different skills, which is much more around persuasion, much more around connecting with other people. And I don't know, so I guess I would just love your thoughts on one, do you agree with that or your thoughts around focusing on technical skills versus focusing on softer skills, emotional intelligence, being able to persuade? And then talk a little bit about how you work with some of your clients on both of those things and what that work looks like.

Andy Budd (01:07:03):

Yeah, it's an interesting one. I mean I don't think it's necessarily unique to design but I think what happens when anybody moves from being a craft person to a manager is they're really good at doing one thing. And so your boss comes in and says, "You're really good at doing this one thing, we're now going to give you a completely different job that has very little bearing on what you did before and we expect you to be really great at it and knocking out the park." If you are a great designer, it doesn't mean you will be a great manager and if you're a great manager, it doesn't mean that you'll be a great designer, but we find ourselves in the situation where you're making that leap. Hey, you are the best designer on the team, we're going to turn you into a manager. That's a terrible idea.


Often if that person wants to be a manager, that's great but if they don't want to be, they often take on this role slightly begrudgingly and often end up feeling like they have to give this thing away that they love, which is the thing you talked about before. But most people who are new managers get dropped in it. They have no training, often their only knowledge of management is like what they've experienced personally and most of them probably have experienced lots of bad managers rather than good managers, so there's no modeling good behavior. And so it's really easy to understand why bad managers beget more bad managers and so on. And so what you tend to find is you do tend to find a generational change whereby each generation a manager gets slightly better than the last. And so maybe after 10 or 15 years of a company you've got mature design practices but it's really tough.


Again, if you think about it, if you are the best brain surgeon in the hospital in New York, do you want to turn that person into someone that is managing doctors and staff and procurement and all that kind of stuff? No, you want them slicing open brains and queuing people. So I don't think why we should imagine that because you're a great designer, you should suddenly become an amazing manager. So yeah, I don't think it really answers your question but I think it kind of gets to the number of why this problem exists. I mean I would say this because it's self serving but I want to see more businesses get coaching for those leaders. If you are putting this person into a role for the first time and they've not got any training or support, they're going to fail, they're going to flounder. The majority of people that come to me on the coaching side of things are actually like 50% of them.


It's their second design leadership role, and their first one was such an absolute disaster that they've been burnt and they're now going to their new role going, "Oh, I don't need it to be as terrible as it was before. I need to get some support." So providing some support, sending them to conferences, sending them to events, sending them to training. This stuff is really important if we're not going to break people. The other thing that I see, which is really common is your first leadership opportunity is usually as a small company, as a player coach. As I said before, player coach is the worst role because you end up doing two things really badly. Often what you need to do is you need to go in that bigger company that have got the groundwork. If you go work in a Google or Facebook or Airbnb that has 500 designers, then you are probably going to be working under an amazing manager that has an amazing manager.


You're probably going to be on an already existing one-to-one schedule with an existing process, onboarding flow, rituals, reports, all that stuff. So you can go into a company that has a mature design leadership practice and you will learn from that. And once you've learned from that, then if you go and you run your own team, you've got this foundational material that you can draw upon. If you've never been a design leader before and a company that's never had a design leader before, that doesn't value design, that's a triple threat with you. That's like the worst of all worlds I'd say.

Daniel Scrivner (01:10:44):

I'd love to close out with just a couple of closing questions and ask your advice for designers and one of the questions I wanted to ask was what advice you would give to young designers? And so I'm thinking about myself early on when I was stumbled across design building websites, discovered that this was something that I loved and I had no idea what to do with that skillset or how to think about design or how to think about a career in design. And so for people that they could be in school, could be freelancing at the very start of their careers, any advice for how they should approach a career in design and just why design matters, why that's something worth pursuing?

Andy Budd (01:11:17):

I mean we've talked a lot over the course of the conversation, a lot about clear left, a lot about design leadership and design coaching. The other string to my bow is that I work in the VC space. I'm a venture partner at Seacamp, which is a fairly well known early stage seed investment company in the fund in the UK. We're like Europe's seed fund. And the reason I moved into the venture space is because I want to see early stage founders taking advantage of design as early as possible because I think it helps them get to product market fit quicker. I think that means that you are being a lot more capital efficient, which from an investor's point of view, you want to be. If it takes them three years to get to product market fit, that's not good. So from an investor point of view, if I can get them to product market fit in a year 18 months, brilliant. Who do I believe delivers product market fit? I believe that designers have a massive role to play in product market fit.


I mentioned this before, I think designers have ability, through their research skills, to talk to customers to understand what their needs are. To evaluate the competition and figure out what's working, what's not working. I believe they are really great at prototyping products, so rather than building a thing to find that isn't working, you've wasted lots of engineering cycles. You can prototype using your mind, using Figma, using sketch, using whatever and solve those problems so you are launching in a short amount of time, a much better quality product and you can iterate and you can prototype and you can test. And so all of these things reduce the learning cycles, get better products out quicker. So my advice to younger designers is I think startups and agencies are a really good place to learn. I think agencies are a really good place to learn because as I said before, it's this coral reef. You go in, you work on a zero to one project for three months, you work on another one, you work another one.


I think if you work on an agency in three years time, you are having the same level of experience if you went to a big in-house company, you might get in 10 or 15 years if at all. I think agencies startups are great because what happens is you go in from day one, you are having conversations with the founder, you are having conversations with the CTO, you are directly impacting the direction of travel. As that works, as the value you start putting in start seeing returns, you get to hire that second designer, you get to hire that third designer, you get to hire that fourth designer. Very quickly in maybe the space of 18 months, you've gone from being a really, really good designer to being a design leader.


That company be then ran series a, you now asked to hire 10 more designers, they now series b, you asked to hire 15 more designers. You can accelerate your career, have a massive impact, really foreground the value of design and if the company does well, capture some of that value through the equity that you've gained in trade of some of your sweat equity. So I think following that founding designer track can be really good. A lot of designers that I meet have been put off working in startups because I think 10 years ago the startup culture was, we work you hard, we work you six days a week, 12 hours a day, we'll burn you out, we'll pay you poorly and you eat ramen all the time. I think that culture's changed. I think now when I see people being hired at startups, they're being paid a reasonable wage. Work/life balance is really respected because talent is really important. And so I think the culture is a lot better. That doesn't mean you don't get your occasional psychopathic founder, it doesn't mean that it's not sitting with your feet up twitting your thumbs job.


You will have to make decisions, but you will get to see the impact of the decisions really quickly where you might not do that if you're designing a big icon or you are designing the dropdown one of 50 people on the Google homepage. So I think the impact you can have, and I think if you go and work at two or three startups over the course of seven years, you can accelerate your career, you can have a huge impact and I think it's really beneficial. So yeah, agency or startup world I think is good. The reason I think a lot of people go to agency world than startup is that if you join an agency, you are probably the worst designer in the team and if there's 20 or 30 other designers, you get to learn a lot. The challenge with going with a startup as designer number one is you've got no one to learn from.


So it is a trial by fire. You're learning not because you've got this sage old 20 year old design Yoda teaching you how to do this stuff, it's because you're putting stuff out in the public which is scary and it's not working and you're learning and you're fixing. So a lot of those designers want to go into bigger teams because they want to have that learning experience. And I don't blame them, but I think if you are self starter, if you are someone that is happy to learn through doing, there is a lot of opportunity in the startup space at the moment for design.

Daniel Scrivner (01:16:11):

Yeah, I mean huge plus one to both of those. The way I would classify those is I think if you're early on in your design career, you really want to try to just have the steepest growth curve. You want to be either in your point with an agency that growth curve is you're going to get given very different problems every three to six months, but you're also going to learn from a lot of people that are much more talented and experienced than you are at this stage in your career. And then to your point, I think with being a startup, can often be very lonely and so I would just encourage anyone that's going into a startup, make sure you have a couple of friends. Even just people that work at different companies that you can share and bounce ideas off of because I think just the overwhelming experience if you're part of one or two designers within a company is just loneliness. You don't have any of that collaboration anyone to bounce ideas off of.

Andy Budd (01:16:54):

And some of this is around the momentum of the company as well. I think if you are in a company, a startup that's stalling and you don't have the resources to hire the second designer, the third designer, the fourth designer, then you're going to be spinning your wheels a little bit. You're still going to be doing the great design work but you might not be getting the other learning learning. Whereas if you own a company that's growing, it allows you to hire that researcher, it allows you to hire that UX writer, it allows you to hire that brand designer. Suddenly, very quickly after 18 months you could be surrounded by five people who have all got a wide variety of skills and that you can learn from. So I think there is an element of, in the same way as an investor, what I'm looking for is momentum. I'm looking for the momentum that a company is able to be heading in a certain direction.


I think as an employee, you are investing your time and you also looking for momentum, both your own momentum and the momentum with a company that you are in that will take you to where you want to go. And if you are finding that your investment is flagging, you are not going to use your palata, you're going to jump into another opportunity. So I think yeah, we need to be treating these things a little bit more like an investment and making sure that the momentum is working in your favor.

Daniel Scrivner (01:18:10):

Yeah, well said. Now I want to ask a similar question but more focused on design leaders and really here I'm thinking about your bread and butter clients that you're working with and to frame it up, we just talked about young designers and obviously in that answer you talked about being at a place that you can learn very quickly and move up the ranks or have a leadership role in the team as the team starts to grow. We also talked previously and I thought your points around what it means to be a VP of design are fantastic. It's a very different role, you're serving the business and the executive team is your first team and then the design team is your second team. So now I just want to switch to talking about people that are in this middle ground where they're either aspiring to be a design leader for some of the reasons you've mentioned or they are a design leader today. And maybe we talk specifically about that second group because again, you coach many of these people.


How do you encourage them to approach their role and how should they think about what leadership and leading a design team means? And I know some of this might be reiterating what we've talked about before, but just advice for design leaders.

Andy Budd (01:19:12):

I've got a talk at the moment which has been really enjoying, which I'll be calling a design's midlife crisis. And a lot of it is around, I think as designers we have been taught to expect a world the certain way. We've been taught that we need to follow the double diamond process and we need to do as much research as we do delivery. We've been taught that the double diamond process encourages us to go broad and explore a whole bunch of different ideas before we double down and then pick one. We've been taught about the power of design and the importance of research and all this stuff, and so we've held this to be true. But then time and time again when we go into the workplace, we find that this is not how industry generally works and so we fight against it and we push back. And I still think we need to be doing that because I think we need to iterate, we need to improve.


But I think a lot of designers find when their beliefs come into contact with the reality of a commercial situation, they just get knocked down and knocked down and to the point that they leave and come a new company and then they go through the cycle again and again. So I do think there's a level of prism, I do think there is a need to realize that what we've been taught about design, maybe theoretically is right, is not how it generally works in most organizations. And actually we need to be happy delivering that project that is 80% better than what it was before but isn't 100%. We need to be comfortable that actually design isn't the center of anything, that we are supporting player, that we actually need to understand that even though we think we are user centered, the sales team and the product team and the CEO probably speaks to customers a lot more than we do.


And actually even if they're not doing the good HCI based research, they probably have a pretty good understanding of what needs to be done and that we shouldn't be constantly throwing our toys out the PRM when we asked to do something and we haven't validated it. So I think sometimes we're our own worst enemy. And so what we ultimately need to do, I think we need to be more team players. I think we need to be more pragmatic in the battles we decide to fight and the battles we don't. I think we need to be demonstrating how we add value, not by giving the PowerPoint deck and giving the sermon from the mount but by actually running up a hand and getting in there. One of the groups I think have done this the best are the growth design community. So there's a whole group of designers who are working not so much on improving product features and functionality, but are focused on what we can do to the product and also to our onboarding and our email retention sort of stuff to slowly be improving things.


And so they'll run little week long sprints, they'll be really analytical, they'll be able to do front end code and they'll be constantly tweaking things. Tweaking this label, tweaking this button, tweaking this onboarding flow. And very quickly, those growth designers are able to demonstrate hey, look over the course by making every day making 1% change, the benefits a compound interest means that at the end of the year, I can't remember what the figures are but it's got a 10000% more because you're making the constant improvements. So rather than fighting it, we need to demonstrate and I think growth design and the role that design can have in growth. Because at the end of the day, this is what startups are. Startups and mechanisms for growth, they're commercial mechanisms. They are also, we need to do it in a good way, which is why I think growth designers are great. I was never a big fan of the whole growth hacker movement because it tends to be a little bit manipulative and dark patterny.


So I would rather see designers being adopting an ethical standpoint to growth than marketers and growth hackers that might be playing in the dark pattern space. I think that's a really useful place that designers can see. Not just shipping product but helping that product to grow in a meaningful way that the business notices and goes, "Wow, there's something interesting going on here."

Daniel Scrivner (01:23:25):

Yeah. Well and I love just one of the things you touched on there was this idea that... And specifically around growth designers, but I think this applies to design overall, is if you can build a team that's just capable of improving the product and the customer experience and what customers get to see day to day by 1% every single day, even if you aren't shipping stuff that's perfect, even if you aren't shipping big revolutionary changes that you want to throw into your portfolio, you're doing a massive amount of good for the company that you're working at.


And I think one of the things that I've often tried to just encourage designers to think more about because I think it's in my experience it's relatively missing, is this idea that if you want design to succeed within the company, you have to care about the business and you have to care about the company. And actually the only way that design succeeds, the only way you get a team that's two times the size where you can go and hire some of these people that you want, is if you first help the company succeed. And if you help the company succeed, then you know can succeed as a design team. This has been so much fun Andy. It's been so much fun to have you on and go all over the map. Thank you so much for the time, thank you so much for coming on. I really appreciate it.

Andy Budd (01:24:26):

It's been my pleasure. Thank you so much.

On Outlier Academy, Daniel Scrivner explores the tactics, routines, and habits of world-class performers working at the edge—in business, investing, entertainment, and more. In each episode, he decodes what they've mastered and what they've learned along the way. Start learning from the world’s best today. 

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