A Guaranteed Audience of One

A Guaranteed Audience of One

September 24, 2020

Around four years ago, my wife and I made a commitment to get our phones and all tech out of our bedroom. It’s not like we were unable to sleep because we were in bed, scrolling the night away, obsessively waiting for that next notification, text, or email to chime through. But it was clear that things were headed in that direction.

As parents of two young girls, we watched as those little screens became exponentially better at harnessing their attention. And ours. And our friends, and their kids. So we did our best to limit the girls’ screen time, and manage our own. But there were more and more evenings when Kate and I would be sitting on the sofa, scrolling away on our phones, while the girls streamed something else. The technology train had left the station, and our family was along for the ride.

More and more screens and devices and pixels were becoming a part of our daily lives, and we felt that to stay healthy, it was going to be increasingly important to rest and recover properly at the end of each day. So we decided to make our bedroom a tech-free sanctuary — a place for high quality sleep, where we could relax, reconnect, and recharge for the day ahead.

We committed to leaving our phones downstairs in our home office at night. But at the time, Kate was getting up early to do yoga, and I was traveling a lot for work and had flights to not miss. Since we no longer had the alarm clocks on our phones to wake us up, we needed to get dedicated alarm clocks.

And so my search began for a really great alarm clock. After all, this would be the first object I look at and touch, every day, for the rest of my life. Shouldn’t it be awesome?

I’ve always appreciated owning things that are really well designed and made, which has been especially important with the camera and lighting equipment I've depended on for the last 20 years. So I’m happy to pay more for something that I know will last a really long time. I’ve spent many (oddly enjoyable) hours searching and filtering through what’s available to find the one timeless, reliable, beautiful design that is really exceptional. And if it ends up costing more, I’m ok with the added expense, knowing that I’ll get many more years of pleasure and use out of it.

I wrote down a wish list of features for my dream clock:

  • It has to plug into an outlet. I don’t want to change batteries, or wonder about the batteries being low.
  • The clock should be readable day and night, but doesn’t brighten the room at night.
  • The alarm tone can’t be annoying in any way. Maybe it even sounds nice.
  • Adjustable volume for that nice alarm tone.
  • Alarm indicator that’s visible in a dark room, so I know with a quick glance that my alarm is set.
  • Lasts at least 20 years.
  • Timeless, modern design that looks good anywhere.

First up, I found a $20 digital clock on Amazon. I didn’t love it, but it seemed to work fine. However, after about 7 months, the power supply failed. I bought the same clock again (via Amazon Prime, the enabler), and after about 5 months, the buttons on that one stopped working. A third clock that was in my daughter’s room died a few days later. All three of those clocks lasted less than a year, and are now in a landfill somewhere, along with thousands of other crappy Amazon clocks. Which really bummed me out.

So I went full retro and I bought a vintage 1960’s French mechanical alarm clock on Etsy for $50. I figured if this little clock has made it this far, chances are that it won’t break on my watch. But it never occurred to me why someone might be selling it. The metal and glass of the blue Bayard looked and felt awesome, but it needed to be wound by hand every other day, without exception. The glow in the dark hands had lost their glow, and the alarm sounded like something you’d hear on a WWII submarine. The ticking of that little blue clock was loud enough to keep me awake in bed, wondering why it’s so hard to find a good clock.

The third clock was a cute green plastic thing that I found on an obscure Japanese website. It was around $35 for the clock and another $20 to ship it to the states. The low fidelity bird call alarms and variable volume made me less likely to want to throw it out the window in the morning. But it still ran on two AA batteries (no cord) and the glow in the dark hands weren’t readable at night. Furthermore, it was just another piece of cheaply made plastic with more batteries that was destined to quickly end up in the landfill with everything else.

 Three swings, three strikes. I started to see where this was headed — an endless, frustrating stream of badly designed, landfill-bound junk that was ultimately going to stand between me and a good night’s sleep. I stuck with the Japanese bird clock while I continued my search — scouring the interwebs, Ebay, Etsy, design boutiques, museum stores, asking friends if they knew of an alarm clock that wasn’t just awful. While traveling I paid close attention to the clocks in my hotel rooms (all awful) and seeking out specialty shops that would surely have something good. But nothing came close to checking all the boxes on my list. Even the classic, ubiquitous designs that Dieter Rams did for Braun fell short.

At this point I was a few years into my search. I hadn’t officially decided to make a clock, but I was thinking about it all the time. Every morning that I heard that disappointing digital bird call and looked over at my plastic Japanese clock, the gears would start turning.

As a commercial photographer, I had been solving creative problems for my clients for over two decades -- helping them find visual solutions that communicate their messages effectively. And I eventually realized that I was subconsciously redirecting a lot of my creative energy to solving this clock problem. 

A few weeks later I was having coffee with my friend Lon, who owns a cafe in Boulder where I show my artwork. Lon also happens to be a serial entrepreneur and venture investor. I told him about my idea for an alarm clock that sounded as beautiful as it looked, without all the bells and whistles and the tech and connectivity that Kate and I were trying to get out of our bedroom. It would just be a really beautiful, tech-free option for people that want good design and quality sleep.

Lon loved the idea, and said “let’s make it!” I felt my stomach drop and my heart skip a beat. At that moment, I knew that I was going into the clock business. So I went home and did a few drawings in my sketchbook:
  



...and the OneClock train pulled out of the station.