Web designInterview

James Bates on seeking out the uncomfortable

James Bates on seeking out the uncomfortable

Clearleft creative director on keeping an open mind and a positive attitude.

James Bates is one of the 10 nominees for Designer of the Year in the 2014 net Awards. He's been creative director at Clearleft for five years, and in that time has worked on projects for Channel 4, Dennis Publishing and many more. He told us about his progression from print and traditional graphic design to web work, and what it's like to work with the great team at Clearleft.

Give us a summary of your career so far.

I had a 'traditional' graphic design education and started my career in small brand and marketing agencies working mainly with business to business clients. I'd predominately been working on identity and marketing materials, when one of our clients asked if we could create a website for them to accompany the logo I'd been working on. I'd never designed or built a website before so had a sharp learning curve, but once I'd got the hang of it, I was hooked!

From then on I strived to learn more and as my career progressed, the projects I took on had more of a digital focus. I eventually left print behind completely, and took a role as 'digital designer' within a full-service agency. I worked my way up, finally becoming lead of their digital team, where I pushed hard for the adoption of web standards.

I eventually left and set up on my own. One of my early clients was the newly formed Clearleft. I worked with them on and off for about three or four years before they finally persuaded me to join them as creative director. I've been here for five years now.

What have you been working on over the last year?

The last 12 months has seen my time split fairly evenly between working directly with clients and helping shape and improve the internal processes at Clearleft. Project wise, I've worked with holiday retailer The Holiday Place, Channel 4's Scrapbook, email marketing platform Pure360, Dennis Publishing's Evo Magazine apps, Lloyds Pharmacy's Online Doctor service and many more. Internally this year we've moved into our own building, which took quite some effort from everyone, hired new designers and are continually evaluating and trying to improve how we work. We also setup a new internship programme which was a great success.

What have been the particular high points of your career?

Apart from being nominated you mean? To be honest it's difficult to cite individual examples. Like lots of designers we're often overly-critical of the end product, so lots of the high points have been things that happened during the process. That said I'm proud of the work we did at Channel 4 on their Scrapbook project. We were involved right from the beginning, and saw it all the way through launch and subsequent iterations. Lastly (and by no means least) I'm also consistently proud of being part of the Clearleft team.

Scrapbook, a site for collecting recipes from Channel 4 shows

Who and what influences and inspires your work?

I'm always amazed by the openness and healthy discussion and that goes on within our industry, so I'm constantly drawing inspiration and learning from my peers. I try to avoid seeking out 'direct' influences in the form of sites like Dribbble, Behance etc, and seek out inspiration outside of the web, be it print, packaging, branding, architecture, TV or film. I use ffffound.com quite a bit.

What are you excited about at the moment?

Things are really interesting at Clearleft at the moment. We're just settling into our new office, we're expanding the team and have got some really interesting new projects lined up over the next couple of months. Also we're seeing more clients wanting to adopt a 'leaner' approach to project work which feels like breath of fresh air after years of advocating that approach. Finally as the gap between the web and apps becomes smaller we're seeing a lot more emphasis on interaction and animation which I think is pretty exciting, and has become an ever increasing part of our work.

Tell us about an important lesson you've learned in your career.

There are a few things I always try to keep in mind:

  1. Keep an open mind. It's in a designer's DNA to try to narrow down and solve problems, but it's important to explore possibilities as much as possible. I tend to try and delay solving 'the thing' for as long as I can.
  2. You always need to push yourself. I try to find something in every project that I'm slightly uncomfortable with.
  3. I think your attitude is really important. I try to remain a friendly, positive person and treat people in the way I'd expect to be treated.

Name an 'unsung hero', someone you admire who deserves more recognition for their work.

Crikey, there are so many people out there doing great work it's difficult to identify any one person in particular, but here goes. Firstly, I know the Clearleft team often find themselves in the spotlight, but there's a couple of my colleagues that I think deserve more recognition than they get.

  • James Box. As well as being the UX Director at Clearleft, he's one of the most thoughtful, humble and well-rounded designers I know.
  • Mark Perkins for being an amazing developer and an all round coding-machine.

I'd also mention:

Gavin Strange, for his amazing capacity for being creative and his boundless excitement and positivity. Josh Emerson for being on of the nicest, most talented young developers I know. Kyle Bean whose work amazes me every time I see it. Victor Johansson a hugely talented Industrial designer we had the privilege of having as an intern this year. The guys over at Supereight Studio who are a lovely bunch and do some great work.

Vote in the net Awards!

Celebrating the best in web design and development, the 15th net Awards is open for public voting until 24 March. With a record breaking number of nominations this year, it's set to be the biggest and best yet. Have your say by casting your votes here.

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