Back in the simpler times of February 2020, I took time to step away from screens for a bit to make something physical. At the top of my list was to make a clock that my kids (ages 3 & 5) could read for themselves.
Understanding time is simple until you try to teach it to a toddler. Digital clocks are too abstract and analog clocks require a challenging combination of math, visual memory, and abstract thinking—three hands that indicate different magnitudes of time, am/pm for different parts of the day, and minutes that need to be multiplied by 5 to get a factor of 60. It's challenging enough that it's used as a mental aptitude test for dementia. It turns out, reading a clock isn't that simple after all, we've just become accustomed to it.
There's the saying that most inventions are born from laziness, and this was no exception. I wasn't going to wait the years needed for my kids to learn multiplication just to know the time. I just wanted them to stop constantly asking me if it was their bedtime.
The moment you realize nothing is ever done.
I thought about what I would do for a long time—always churning in the back of my head. The approach I landed on was to simplify the clock from 3 hands down to just 1 and to get rid of am/pm by using a 24-hour movement to map closer to the daily rotation of the earth. Perhaps most importantly, I placed a small dot next to their bedtime hour. Now knowing bedtime was as simple as seeing if the hand had passed the dot or not. It took two days to build, and you can read more about the process here →
No matter how much confidence you may have in your design, it's always a completely magical experience to see it actually working in the real world. I'm not exaggerating—my kids went from constantly asking me about the time to telling me the time themselves in the span of a day.
I shared the design on social, and to my surprise, other parents and non-parents jumped on to the idea as well.
Three Lessons from Building a Clock
That process of designing something that solved a personal problem and then seeing its direct impact on those around me taught me three things that formed the core belief system of ANDY:
I started small. It was for me and my kids. Start with a product/market fit of one. Don't worry about your TAM. When we first built Paper, there were innovations like watercolor and undo gestures that no one was asking for—I simply wanted them for myself. Make your work personal. In doing that, you'll find something that others can connect more deeply with.
Lesson: Great things start small.
I built the clock for my kids, but what I didn't expect was how it would change my own behavior. I found the new design made knowing the time a little easier for me as it eliminated small moments of friction I wasn't even aware of (see universal design). I enjoyed staring at the clock envisioning how the hours of the day might play out.
This was not a new problem. The modern clock has been around for hundreds of years. If something as commonplace as a clock can be questioned, what else is up for grabs?
Lesson: We're not done yet.
I've been fortunate to work with great teams designing many amazing things over the years that earned some of the major design awards. But of all the things I've worked on, this simple clock is the one that I use the most… by far. I still use Paper once a week and Paste every couple weeks. But I look at this clock 20 or more times a day. It's the one thing I've designed that has most shaped my own experience.
Since then, I've become transfixed with re-thinking the small things that lightly touch and shape our everyday lives. And it's an area that I think is vastly overlooked by our fast-moving industry.
Lesson: Design for small everyday moments.
Great Design is About Values
The biggest mistake I see designers make when building a brand for their company, a culture for their team, or foundation for their product is to focus on principles. They pile together a few basic words like: "Simple, Helpful, Beautiful, Intentional." Guess who else shares these principles? Everyone.
Principles are universal truths. They apply to everything, and thus, are useless in distinguishing who you are. You need to dig deeper and find what makes you you. You need to know your values. While principles are universal, values are personal.
A simple test is to formulate the opposing value. If your value is "Simplicity" then the opposing value is "Complexity". Who out there is aiming for their product to be "complex"? Who is building a "stagnant" company that is so different from your "innovative" company? If your opposing value isn't a meaningful position by anyone else in your industry, then it's useless.
Find what makes you unique—what cuts against the common narrative. And the smaller that circle of believers is for your value, the more potent it becomes for you. Don't look for universal truths, look for unifying beliefs.
From Values to Belief System
What struck me about the lessons I learned building a clock was how these cut against the common narrative in the tech industry today: designing for individuals rather than scale, targeting small moments rather than world change, revisiting everyday known problems rather than seeking out new ones.
While the lessons are fresh, the values they reflect go back to the beginning for me. From filmmaking to Paper to furniture, the arc hasn't changed. I can trace every value I have as a creator back to experiences I had growing up as a kid on the tundra of rural Alaska. And I'm not special—we all have powerful unique personal experiences and interesting values if we just dig a little deeper. Imagine building products around these rather pulling the standard ones off the shelf.
Andy Belief System
We call it a belief system because it's more than a collection of values. It's how we see the world and what is missing.
- Make stuff you use every day—it makes for a better life.
- Make it better—do less if you need to.
- Nothing is finished—everything can be rethought.
- Think small—make one small part of the world as it should be.
- Slow down—put in the time & go deeper.
- Honor the materials—play to a platform's strengths.
- Feel each moment—it needs to be more than functional.
- Make it personal—put yourself out there.
- Have opinions—take a side or create your own.
- It doesn't have to be easy—people love a challenge.
- It’s not for everyone—you're gonna have haters.
- Never boring.