Apps are wonderful tools, but you shouldn’t use them too much — Clark MacLeod

Clark MacLeod portrait

A musician who built a career in software, Clark MacLeod hasn’t lived life by the textbook. He grew up in Canada, studying music and trumpet performance at Humber College and the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. Now, he has his own startup company, designing educational apps for kids.

As a college student in the 1990s, he worshipped the great jazz musicians, John Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard. However, as time went on, he began to follow the rockstar web designers who minted five-figure contracts from corporations like Sony. Joshua Davis was one of his heroes; a pioneer of Flash, illustrator and writer by day, web developer by night. Davis’ influence on him is primarily to do with the dual ability, of making art and coding.

In 1999, he landed his first job as a web designer and flew half-way around the world to Taiwan, where he started out as a designer at Industrial Technology Research Institute. He has lived in Taiwan for the past nineteen years, with the exception of one year he spent working in Fuzhou, China.

A father of two, he witnessed his son and daughter grow up in a completely different educational system to the one he was brought up in. Both children speak Chinese as their mother tongue and, as he puts it, are wired in a completely different way to himself. He believes it is all to do with cultural difference.

IMG_5076 Paper prototyping but with popsicles. Using rudimentary analog tools to model future digital experiences

“Canadians have this concept of space and information density, which is completely different in Taiwan,” remarks MacLeod. “Just driving down the street is a complete bombardment. They grow up with it and get used to filtering through all this information.”

Anyone who has seen photos of Hong Kong’s eclectic streets, packed to the rafters with neon signs and advertisements, will know what he means by a bombardment of information. The ideographic characters of Chinese writing are more concise than phonetic words, so information can be packed much more densely into a smaller space.

Reflecting on all the young Chinese and Taiwanese designers he has worked beside over the years, he notes the incredible, unrelenting speed at which they compute information. He puts it down to with personal ambition, and optimism.

However, he does see a problem in the traditional, educational values of Taiwanese society. He recants a story of his very imaginative daughter, and a demonic elementary school teacher who chastised her for writing a story about a monster, rather than the assignment she was told to write. This is where he believes that traditional values get the better of creative talent.

He also considers the ‘power distance’ of traditional Taiwanese company structures as a hinderance to innovation. As a foreigner, he notes that he has always been allowed a different level of latitude in comparison to his local colleagues. Normally, all decisions come from the top and those underneath are expected to follow.

“A Taiwanese company is like a family,” says MacLeod. “In a traditional family you are not an equal to your father. I think the biggest challenge is the distance between the CEO and the designer.

He believes the most talented designers are those who rebel, breaking the mold of these traditional values. He describes Taiwanese designers as open minded to ideas from all over the world, with a mixture of optimism and pessimism, which results in this rebellious, creative attitude.

From 2016 to 2017, he worked at NetDragon in Fuzhou, China, managing a team of user experience designers, the majority of whom were Taiwanese. He says the NetDragon campus was an amazing place to work; in the middle of nowhere, the main building is designed to look like the Star Trek Enterprise from the latest film. There is even a golf course on the campus.

NetDragon’s office complex, the first exclusively authorized Star Trek building on the planet

The infamous Taiwanese brain drain doesn’t surprise him. As he says, this campus in Fuzhou ticks all the boxes for Taiwanese graduates. They get a higher salary than in Taiwan, training on the job, and all of this in a Chinese speaking environment.

Since returning to Taiwan from China, MacLeod has broken away and started his own side projects (read more at his blogs, Clark MacLeod and Kelake). Since 2015, he has been working on educational apps for children under two project names, Superlucky Elephant and Smart Bean.

The latest project combines the teaching skills of his wife with his UI and UX design practice. It is a simple podcast platform, featuring English language lessons from his wife. The app is in its very early stages of development, as the team is forming its first high resolution prototypes.

IMG_5082 Gaining feedback on an audio based prototype for kidsIMG_5093 Gaining feedback on an audio based prototype for kids

Unlike a lot of designer-entrepreneurs today, he is not aiming to disrupt or take over the industry. At the same time as he evangelizes technology, blogging, and social media, he demonstrates that ethical values should not be superseded by ambition. He speaks of an Hippocratic Oath among app developers.

“Apps are wonderful tools that could help you lead a better life, but you should never use them too much,” warns MacLeod. “I notice this addiction a lot more nowadays, and I see it in my kids. I see it in myself with Facebook and everything. I think it is a problem for designers.”

He is worried about the addictive effect of smartphone apps on children in China and Taiwan, and he believes it is the responsibility of designers not to exploit children’s susceptibility to addiction.There have been a number of unfortunate cases in Taiwan, where people have walked into traffic, distracted by their cellphones. Part of a worrying global trend, they are referred to as “smartphone zombies”.

The scope of the smartphone addiction issue is apparent when you consider, there are currently 663.37 million smartphone users in China, which is roughly half of its population. According to China’s state news agency, Xinhua, some parents send their children to military training camps where they try to wean them off their smartphone addictions.

MacLeod strongly believes that smartphone apps should be conscientiously designed, as tools for learning, instead of addictive games. He separates himself from the gaming industry, and focuses on how he can help Chinese and Taiwanese children learn English, as an experience designer.

About Clark MacLeod

For over 20 years, Clark MacLeod has worked with organizations to help them build applications, websites, music, and other digital products that work for real people. MacLeod grew up in Prince Edward Island, Canada, studying music and trumpet performance at Humber College and the Royal Conservatory in Toronto. He landed his first job as a web designer, then flew half-way around the world to Taiwan where he started work as a designer at Industrial Technology Research Institute. For the past 19 years in Taiwan, he has graduated from Chiao Tung University with a Masters degree in Design, learned a new language, launched numerous side projects, and travelled the region for work and play. He is an evangelist of blogging and social networking, having created a number of personal websites, including his current projects, Clark MacLeod and Kelake. During 2016, he worked for a one-year stint at NetDragon in China before returning to Taiwan. He recently founded a new startup called Smart Bean — an educational app, designed for children learning English.

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