The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

A Purple Princess

June 12th, 2014

When I told my eldest daughter, Alys, about Rebecca Meyer passing away, she wanted to draw her a purple picture. Rebecca was the same age as Alys and she knew ‘exactly what she’d like’. So, here it is:

A purple princess for Rebecca Meyer from Alys Boulton

A Purple Princess for Rebecca Meyer from Alys Boulton, Age 6

In memory of Rebecca, whose favourite colour was purple.

Filed in: Personal.

My Handbook – Environment

June 5th, 2014

I’ve been doing a talk this year called ‘My Handbook’. it’s a rather silly little title for a bunch of principles I work to. They are my ‘star to sail my ship by’, and I’m going to start documenting them here over the coming months, starting with Environment – a post about how, for me, design is more about the conditions in which you work.

I’d describe myself as an armchair mountaineer. I enjoy reading about man’s exploits to get to the roof of the world, or to scale precipitous walls under harsh conditions for no other reason than the same reason George Mallory said he was climbing Everest: ‘Because it’s there’.

In any expedition to a mountain, great care and consideration is taken over the kit, the climber’s skill, the team around them, the communications, the list is seemingly endless. But, the biggest single factor in a successful trip are the conditions of the mountain. Will the mountain let them up. And back down again. Assessing the condition of a mountain takes experience, time and careful consideration; it may be snowing, too warm, too much snow on the ground, too cold, too windy. The list of variables is endless, but the climber considers all of them, and if necessary moves to adjust the route, or simply doesn’t attempt the climb.

Now, let’s shift to design – not necessarily web design, but commercial design of almost any kind. Let’s say you take a brief for a project, you begin the work and suddenly in the project, other stakeholders come on board and start to have comment on your work and direction on strategy that was unknown to you. We’ve all had projects like those, right? Suddenly, your work becomes less about what you may think of as ‘design’, and more about meetings, project management, account management, sales, production work. You know, all of those things that have a bad reputation in design. Meetings are, apparently, toxic. Well, I’ve started to look at this in a different light over the past few years.

As I’ve grown as a designer, like many, I’ve found myself doing less ‘design’. Or, rather, less of what I thought was design. Five years ago, I thought design was creating beautiful layouts, or building clean HTML and CSS, or pouring over typefaces for just that right combination. Now, this is design. But, so are meetings.

Experienced designers spend time making the environment right whilst they are doing the work. Because, frankly, you can push pixels around forever, but if the conditions aren’t right for the work to be created and received by the client in the right way, the work will never be as good as it could be. But, what do I mean by ‘conditions’? Here are a few practical things:

  • The physical space: I see a large part of my job as making the environment in the studio as conducive as possible for good work to happen. That means it’s relaxed, and up-beat. Happy people make good things.

  • A Shit Umbrella: It’s my job to be a filter between client and my team on certain things. Someone recently described this as being a ‘Shit Umbrella’.

  • Politics: Wherever you get people, you get politics – because people are weird. I spend a lot of time on client projects trying to traverse a landscape of people to understand motivations, problems, history or direction. Once you understand the landscape, you can assess, and work to change, the conditions.

  • People first, process second: We fit the processes to the people rather than the other way around. Our team runs things that works for us, but that’s the result of a lot of trying & discarding. Like tending a garden, this is a continual process of improvement.

  • Just enough process: I’m a firm believer in working to the path of least resistance. Being in-tune with how people work, and changing your processes to suit, helps create a good environment. But we ensure we impose just enough structure. To much, and it gets in the way. This doesn’t work if you don’t do the previous point, in my experience.

  • Talk. Do. Talk.: It really is true that the more we talk, the better work we do. We talk in person, on Slack, on Skype, on email. Just like meetings, there is an industry-wide backlash against more communication because the general consensus is we’re getting bombarded. But recently, we’ve been working to change that perception in the team so that talking, and meetings, and writing is the work. It’s tending the garden. Making the conditions right for good work to happen.

  • Making things is messy: This is actually another point from my ‘handbook’. Since the 1950’s clients and designers have been sold a lie by advertising. Design generally isn’t something that happens from point A to Z with three rounds of revisions. It’s squiggly, with hundreds or thousands of points of change. A degree of my time is spent getting people – clients, internal clients, the team – comfortable with the mess we may feel we’re in. It’s all part of it.

I see all of this as design work. It’s also my view that much of the disfunction from large agencies to other organisations is that this work isn’t being done by designers because they don’t see it as the work. It’s being done by other people like account managers who may not best placed to get the conditions right. Designers need to take responsibility for changing the environment to make their work as good as it can be. Sometimes, that means sitting in a board room, or having a difficult discussion with a CEO.

Mountaineering is so often not about climbing. You may do some if the conditions are right. Design is so often not about designing beautiful, useful products. But, you may do some if the conditions are right.

Filed in: Design, Process, My Handbook.

Ingredients

May 13th, 2014

Jeremy wrote something special yesterday. That’s not unlike Jeremy, but this blog post in particular struck a chord with me.

A couple of weeks ago, Google Chrome has toyed with the idea of removing most of the URL because it’s a “power user” feature in favour of a simple, easy to understand signpost of where the user is. Jeremy’s point is there is a deeper warning here of ease of use.

… it really doesn’t matter what we think about Chrome removing visible URLs. What appears to be a design decision about the user interface is in fact a manifestation of a much deeper vision. It’s a vision of a future where people can have everything their heart desires without having to expend needless thought. It’s a bright future filled with seamless experiences.

I read Jeremy’s post and kept re-reading it. My instant thought was of food.

I enjoy cooking – have done for a decade – and the more I do, the more I care about ingredients. Good produce matters. Now, I’m not talking about organic artisan satsumas here, but well grown, tasty ingredients; in season, picked at the right time, prepared in the right way. The interesting thing is most people who eat the resulting dish don’t think about food in this way. They experience the dish, but not the constituent parts.The same way some people experience music – if you play an instrument, you may hear base-lines, or a particular harmony. If you enjoy cooking, you appreciate ingredients and the combination of them.

But ingredients matter.

And they do of websites, too. And the URL is an ingredient. Just because a non-power user has no particular need for a unique identifier doesn’t mean it’s any less valuable. They just experience the web in a different way than I do.

Without URLs, or ‘view source’, or seeing performance data – without access to the unique ingredients of websites – we’ll be forced into experiencing the web in the same way we eat fast food. And we’ll grow fat. And lazy. And stop caring how it’s grown.

As Jeremy says: Welcome aboard the Axiom.

Filed in: Web design, URLs, Google.

A new beginning for Five Simple Steps

May 8th, 2014

I’m so happy to tell you that Five Simple Steps has been acquired by Craig Lockwood and Amie Duggan. The dynamic duo behind Handheld conference, The Web Is, FoundersHub and BeSquare. Before I tell you again how thrilled I am, let me take you way back to 2005…

Next year, it will be ten years since I wrote a blog post called Five Simple Steps to better typography. The motivation behind the post was simple: the elements of good typesetting are not difficult, and, with a few simple guidelines, anyone could create good typographic design. That one article became part of a small series of five posts: five simple steps, with each article containing five simple steps. It was a simple formula, but it turned out pretty well.

Soon after that initial post, I wrote Five Simple Steps to designing grid systems for the web, then the same for colour theory. This was now 2006 and I’d just left my job at the BBC. It was a dreary October day and, whilst sat in a coffee shop in Bristol after just visiting one of my first freelance clients, I was talking over email to the Britpack mailing list about compiling my posts into a book. In 2008, Emma and I hired my brother to help me design it and in early 2009, we finally released it. And with the release of that first book, Five Simple Steps Publishing was born. But we didn’t know it at the time.

Over subsequent months and years other authors saw what we produced and wanted us to publish their books. Before we really knew it, we were a publisher with a catalogue of titles and providing a uniquely British voice to the web community. But publishing is tough. As we found out.

All over the world, publishers’ profits are being eroded; from production costs to cost-difference in digital versions. And – except for a couple of notable companies – you see it in the physical books that were being produced for our customers by competitors: terrible paper quality, templatised design, automated eBook production. Everywhere, margins are being squeezed, and the product really suffers.

Our biggest challenge was that Five Simple Steps started as a side project, and always stayed that way. Over time, we just couldn’t commit the time and money it needed to really scale. We had so much we wanted to do – there was never any shortage of great authors wanted to write a book – but could never find the time and energy when we had to run a client services business. Oh, and also during this time, Emma and I had two children. Running and growing two businesses is somewhat challenging when you’re being thrown up on and have barely four hours sleep a night.

So about a year ago, Emma and I sat in our dining room and faced a tough decision: wind down Five Simple Steps, sell it, or give it one more year. We chose the latter. It was a tough year, but Emma, Nick and the team worked to make the Pocket Guide series a great success. So much so, it required tons of work and compounded the problem we had: Five Simple Steps needed to take centre stage rather than be a side project.

A month ago today, Emma and I announced that Five Simple Steps was closing. The team were joining Monotype, and Five Simple Steps could no longer be sustainable as a side project. The writing had been on the wall for a while, but the stop was abrupt for us, the authors and the team. We tried to find the right people to take the company forward before the sale, but we couldn’t find the right people. Luckily, immediately following the announcement, a few people got in touch about seeing if they could help. Two of those people really said some interesting things and got us excited about the possibilities: Craig Lockwood and Amie Duggan.

Craig and Amie live locally in Wales. They run conferences: Handheld conference and The Web Is conference later this year. They also run a co-working space in Cardiff called FoundersHub. They have a background in education and training, and together with their conferences and BeSquare – a conference video streaming site – they have the ecosystem in place to take Five Simple Steps to places we could only dream of. As you may gather, we’re chuffed to bits that Five Simple Steps is going to live on. Not only that, but it’s in Wales and in the competent hands of friends who we know are going to give it the attention it deserves.

Emma and I can’t wait to see where it goes from here.

Filed in: Five Simple Steps, Publishing.

Conference speakers, what are you worth?

May 2nd, 2014

Over the past couple of days, there have been rumblings and grumblings about speaking at conferences. How, if you’re a speaker, you should be compensated for your time and efforts. My question to this is: does this just mean money?

I’ve been lucky enough to speak at quite a few conferences over the years. Some of them paid me for my time, some of them didn’t. All of them – with the exception of any DrupalCon – paid for my travel and expenses.

When I get asked to speak at a conference, I try to gauge what type of conference is it. Is it an event with a high ticket price with a potential for large corporate attendance? A middle sized conference with a notable lineup. Or, is it a grassroots event organised by a single person. In other words, is it ‘for-lots-of-profit’, ‘for-profit’, or ‘barely-breaking-even’. This will not only determine any speaker fee I may have charged, but also other opportunities that I could take for compensation instead of cash.

Back to bartering

When I ran a design studio, speaking at conferences brought us work. It was our sales activity. In all honesty, every conference I’ve spoken at brought project leads, which sometimes led to projects, which more than compensated me for my time and effort if it kept my company afloat and food on the table for myself and my team. The time away from my family and team was a risk I speculated against this. Conference spec-work, if you will.

In addition to speculative project leads for getting on stage and talking about what I do, I also bartered for other things instead of cash for myself or my company. Maybe a stand so we could sell some books, or a sponsorship deal for Gridset. Maybe the opportunity to sponsor the speaker dinner at a reduced rate. There was always a deal to be done where I felt I wasn’t being undervalued, I could benefit my company, product or team, but still get the benefit of speaking, sharing, hanging out with peers and being at a conference together.

It’s about sharing

If every speaker I knew insisted on charging $5000 per gig, there will be a lot less conferences in the future apart from the big, corporate, bland pizza-huts of the web design conference world.

My advice to anyone starting out speaking, or maybe a year or so in, is have a think about why you do it. If you’re a freelancer, let me ask you: is speaking at a conference time away from your work, and therefore should be calculated as to how much you should charge based on your hourly rate? Or, is it an investment in yourself, your new business opportunities, and the opportunity to share. Of course, the answer to this is personal, and – for me – depends on what type of conference it is.

This community is unique. We share everything we do. We organise conferences to do just that. Most of the conference organisers I know come from that starting point, but then the business gets in the way. Most speakers I know, get on stage from that starting point, but then the business gets in the way.

There’s nothing wrong with valuing yourself and your work. If speaking is part of your work, then you should be compensated. But next time you’re asked to speak by a conference, just stop for a moment and think about what that compensation should be.

Filed in: Conferences, Personal.

Next