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Warning: strtolower() expects parameter 1 to be string, array given in /nfs/c06/h06/mnt/184288/domains/markboulton.co.uk/html/_app/core/private_api/_cache.php on line 337 The Personal Disquiet of Mark Boulton
For a little while, since leaving Monotype, I’ve been working with the communications team at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) on a holistic corporate design project. It’s pretty exciting work.
I’m lucky that the project is being headed by Dan Noyes, who I worked with at CERN, so he and I know how to work together pretty well. There is a fabulous team in place, and we’ve been tackling some fundamentals of the brand, the strategy to implement the it, all within the context of a complex scientific organisation.
To help keep us arrow straight whilst navigating this problem we defined design principles to do it. Now, I’m sure there are many ways to define principles but here’s how I do it and it’s really quite simple. I was shown this by Leisa when we defined design principles for the redesign of Drupal 7 years ago. All you do is be mindful of when the team repeats design desires. This could be several members of the team say the same thing in a slightly different way, or that you keep circling around and around a problem but struggle to articulate it. By being mindful at all times to this a team can quickly pull together principles that are derived from doing the work on their particular problem rather than principles which are imposed on the work. An important difference.
Throughout the sprint, we defined the following design principles for EMBL:
Make it sustainable
We will create a long-term, sustainable system. Designed for efficiency, re-use, and scale.
Sustainable systems are diverse and productive indefinitely. Being holistically focussed on how EMBL interacts with its audiences internal and external, means we create meaningful, sustainable experiences over the longer term.
Show our work
We will prioritise demonstration over discussion. Through prototyping we will show how these principles and values apply to the work.
We will embrace modern design practices by starting small and iterating quickly. We will avoid big reveals and develop a process of publishing early and often. This requires a change of mindset of the team: to be comfortable with ‘not done yet’; to be satisfied to prioritise function over form; to get the things we make in the hands of our audience so we can understand their needs more quickly.
Keep it simple
We will do the difficult work to keep the things we make simple, approachable, and put the user’s needs first.
EMBL is complex. As are the audiences, services, applications, and communications material that operate within the brand. We will do the hard work to uncover and expose the simplicity of the core.
We are all one organisation
We will cultivate cross-pollination of services, products, ideas, and collaboration.
We will proactively seek out opportunities to collaborate on the design of services across all channels throughout EMBL and invite feedback and new perspectives. We will share and discuss our methods.
Physical, digital, and environmental are in sync
We will ensure a holistic approach for one system for all printed, digital and environmental touch-points.
Design systems across media evolve at different rates. We will ensure systems across all channels are relevant to the media, but also share nomenclature, design patterns, and are built from the same principles. We will think and act as a cross-disciplinary design team.
Pave the cowpath
We will make the design language accessible where people are already working.
Forging a new path is hard. And sometimes a waste of energy. By understanding how the brand is expressed currently, we develop new ways to provide the ingredients of the brand to the people already doing the work, in the place they are doing it. We will invent new ways with which to distribute the brand across a constantly moving, evolving system. We shouldn’t press pause.
Repeat the words we use
Through consistency and repetition, we will create and maintain a design nomenclature that will become part of the EMBL vernacular.
The words we use are important. By repeating these words about EMBLs products and services, they can remind us many times every day what we believe. Changing the words we use can help change the culture of an organisation to be more design and brand aware.
Another important aspect to these is the way they are structured. A design principle is a belief. It’s something we promise to do and should be worded as such.
Last week was my last week working at Monotype. It’s been a whirlwind three years and I’ve learnt a lot. Of course, I’ll miss my colleagues and what’s left of the team we built at Mark Boulton Design.
But now it’s time for other things. But what things? Well, I see two paths in front of me.
We’re at a really interesting inflection point in the industry. Organisations are still figuring out how to invest in design. Design leadership is a scarce commodity. The impact of design at all levels – from product and commerce to strategy and research – is having a challenging time to find a symbiotic relationship with business. I can help there.
The other path for me is consulting. Many organisations are either not ready to commit to building design capacity on a full-time basis, or rolling back in-house design commitment after a failure to some degree. Maybe they are just starting out. Or it’s simply a matter of budgets and structuring. Regardless, I saw this a lot when I ran an agency. It’s why and how we got the work. I can help here, too.
I’ll be taking a few weeks off, but then I’ll be looking to commit to one of these paths. If you’re looking for a design leader, or you maybe have a project you think I could help with, then get in touch.
I was first made aware of Postel’s law by Jeremy in his fabulous talk about design principles. Incidentally, he’s documenting lots of design principles here.
Postel’s law – or the Robustness principle - states:
Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others (often reworded as “Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept”). From Wikipedia
Jon Postel was talking about TCP and how implementations should follow this principle. Putting TCP and networks to one side for a minute, you can see how this principle can apply to many systems where there is input and output. Specifically, design systems.
The basic premise of Postel’s law is that what comes into a system can, and invariably, is a mess. Non-Compliant, delivered in a weird way, unconventional.
When thinking about this, I recall some work I did years ago on a ticketing system for a help desk. The single biggest hurdle, in order for the system to be successful was it had to be liberal in what it accepted. Tickets needed to be created from email, phone applications, web applications, voice recognition etc. The hardest part was getting stuff into the system. Only then could a single ticket be created - from various sources, in varying quality of data – in a single useable ticket for use with the large team.
Be liberal in what you accept (from emails, apps, voice, websites) and conservative with what you do (creating a single, well-defined ticket).
I see this same principle being applied to design systems.
Collaborating across an organisation to create a meaningful, impactful design system means you have to be liberal in what you accept from others into the system. Be it code, thoughts, design work, content, or criticism. That input can also come from many different teams, strategy, executives, products, people. You see, it’s a big mess! And the only way, really, to work with a system like this is to be open to all input from wherever it comes, in whatever form takes. To be liberal with what you accept.
This approach does a few things:
Makes people feel involved, consulted, and listened to. This a good thing.
Exposes the system to the dirtiest, out-of-date, horrendous use-cases possible. This is also a good thing. Mostly these use-cases are ignored because they are horrible.
Helps turn a system that is owned, to one that is shared.
Helps identify themes across an organisation.
Helps the design system core team operate at a holistic level.
Policing a design system never works in my experience. It never works because people don’t like rigid systems, being told what to do, and will straight up do the opposite. Being liberal in accepting things into the system, and being liberal about how you go about that, ensures you don’t police the system. You collaborate on it.
So, what about the output? Remember: be ’conservative in what you do’. For a design system, this means your output of the system – guidelines, principles, design patterns, code, etc etc. – needs to be clear, unambiguous, and understandable. It needs to turn the messiness of a liberal input into a defined, purposeful output that people can easily slot into their workflow and use.
Once again, I find myself in a place banging heads with how work happens rather than what the work is. Someone once said to me that ‘design principles are the stars to sail our ship by’. I’m certainly going to be using Postel’s law to sail my particular ship in the months and years ahead.
This is Manchester. I grew up on the outskirts of Manchester. I have memories like this picture. Black and white. Snowing. Wildlings. It’s grim north of the wall.
But what this picture doesn’t show is the rich visual culture that Manchester had throughout the 80’s and 90’s. All that rain and grim weather makes people creative. It’s no accident most of the best music in the world came from the North West of England.
This is Tony Wilson. Tony was a journalist in Manchester, appearing on Look North West as a roving reporter. I have lasting memories of his wind-swept hair, stood in a gaudy cagoule talking to a farmer on some moor somewhere. He was on telly every evening at teatime when Look North West was an ‘appointment to view’ (as they call it in telly-land) across the region. But as well as being a journalist, Tony was also involved in Factory Records, founding it with Alan Erasmus in 1978. Factory went on to define an era of music in the 80’s and 90’s signing bands such as Joy Division, New Order, and the Happy Mondays. I’m not a big fan of the music, but of the graphic design produced at the time.
This work was everywhere in Manchester. On every street corner. In every record shop. In every music shop. There were posters, fliers, newspapers, TV adverts. The hum of the city became entwined with the output of Factory. And, without really noticing it, started to take on this DNA. It became Manchester’s design system. It’s visual life-blood.
The challenge with any design system is they normally don’t work, don’t get adopted, don’t grow or get used if they are imposed top-down without an awful lot of consultation. Like any language, they have to be adopted by the masses through continued daily use. The tricky thing for us designers is that is rarely how we’re engaged to create these things.
Normally the brief goes something like this:
We’d like you to design us a living style guide (replace with ‘pattern library’, ‘design language’, ‘brand guidelines’, ‘identity’). We’ll then use that to provide consistency to our entire product range – of which we’d like you to help us.
Now, this works in some circumstances if control is maintained by a marketing department or brand manager. But, it’s my experience, that unless design is valued then control is absent. Nobody has the authority to own this. They just have some budget and see a problem that needs addressing, but do not have the money, authority or organisational environment to make this work succeed. So what do you do then?
Well, you just do it anyway. But over the years – taking some inspiration from my home town – I have a few principles…
1. Repeat yourself consistently
Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Meetings are not bullshit. Suggesting that is actually bullshit. Meetings – where people talk and resolve things, plan, decide – are probably the most important thing you can do to get a design system off the ground in a difficult place.
Remember, you have no authority. Your client, or stakeholder, has no authority. You’re doing this for better, holistic good of an organisation that almost everybody there cannot see. So you have to persuade, provide insight and data, and in my experience you have to do it over and over and over again.
2. Establish a mandate
Over the last 10 years i’ve worked on quite a few, large scale design systems. In all of them, there was a distributed technical system that had grown organically. A few CMS’s here and there. PHP, .net, etc etc. It’s not like you could create a bunch of HTML and it would work everywhere. Far, far from it.
And then, editorially, many of the departments of these organisations were creating content without any joined up thinking. It was common for them to have their own budgets to create their own mini projects (yes, with their own CMS) and they’d hire a little design firm to do it.
From a branding perspective, there was normally a small, internal, over-worked branding team who were constantly and consistently putting out fires that the organisational structure creates. Everywhere you look people were degrading the brand.
In my experience, this is the norm. How do you create a design systems that not only gets adopted, but thrives, in this environment? You have to establish a mandate. An editorial, technical and brand mandate. A troika of disciplines working together to establish order.
3. Be where the creator is
In the case of Manchester, the work of Factory was in front of every young designers eyes. Everybody looked up to the work of Peter Saville and created work to replicate it. So, on every street corner, the inspired work appeared. All of a sudden, Manchester’s visual DNA expanded beyond the world of record shops and club night posters, and made it into plumbing brochures, margarine packaging and pub fliers. The bread and butter for jobbing designers in the North West.
This was because the work was accessible and in the places designers where looking for inspiration.
I like to apply the same thinking for the adoption of a design system: be where the creator is. A few examples:
Provide ready-made templates for design tools. Not just for in-house designers, but so external designers (you know, hired by the small department trying to use their budget before the end of the year) can use them too.
Provide tools to make things. If you’re building digital things, provide a UI library and maybe prototyping and deployment tools that make consistency easier.
Be where they are. If an organisation uses Sharepoint, or some other God-awful intranet software, then put your tools where they are and don’t try to force other documentation if it won’t fit.
How do you know you’ve been successful?
I get asked this a lot. How do you know if your work will stick? You’ve spent a year designing a new design system. How do you know it will really hold? I’ve learnt to look out for a few indicators…
The design system becomes how design is talked about in an organisation. It becomes a shared vocabulary. And not just by other designers, but by management and all levels of an organisation.
The quality of design (and editorial and technical) becomes self-policing. It’s no longer the responsibility of just one person or team, but ownership becomes distributed. People start to care.
Design and KPIs. Clear lines get drawn between good design and measurable outcomes.
Lagging and Leading indicators become more apparent. So you can better predict how those indicators affect quality, brand, product roadmap. In this case, design can help indicate the health of an organisation.
What’s Manchester got to do with all of this?
You may well ask. When I was growing up in Manchester, I never really took much notice of the graphic design around me. It was only when I left – or years later – when I decided to become a designer that this stuff leaked out of me. It was stored somewhere deep inside my brain and with it, I like to think, I absorbed some of that taste. By being part of the Zeitgeist.
What you do now for your client or in-house will have an effect that will be felt years later. You will change how people think about design. Change their relationship with the company they work for. All by consistently using Helvetica, or something. It’s not that hard. Is it?
No, aside from the unbelievably hard work of the team, the superb conditions of the track and the humidity of the building, there was one person who was credited as the brains behind the performance; Sir Dave Brailsford. Sir Dave is also credited as instilling a culture of measurement, data, and, ultimately, well-being into the team. A key component of this was a philosophy of ‘Marginal Gains’.
“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1%, you get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
This is also something he applied to his job as manager of the Sky cycling team.
When Brailsford formed the commercial cycling team he had one goal: to win the Tour de France. Clean. Within five years. He did it in two. And then again. And again.
The challenge he had was this: cycling has long been a sport which uses performance enhancing drugs. In order to compete against teams using these drugs, Team Sky – and any other clean team – had to bridge a gap of about 16-19%, depending on which source you read. Regardless, that is an enormous distance in performance in any professional sport. And they did it through the aggregation on marginal gains. Looking at every aspect of an athlete’s life – their diet, weight, sleeping patterns, physiology, well-being, the pillow they use at night. Even how they wash their hands – they were able to bridge that gulf.
I’ve been a fan of professional cycling for a long time. Even before I owned a road bike and rode myself. But recently, I’ve become interested in how coaching has created this performance. How Team Sky’s, and before it Team GB, management team has created a culture for riders to succeed by the continued improvement of tiny, tiny little things. But, I’m also interested in the opposite.
Here’s a few fun facts…
- Gorillas share 98.4% of our DNA
- Goldfish share 68%
- Bananas share 50%
Bananas. Are 50% the same as us.
Well, you think about it, it kind of makes sense. We’re all made from the same elements. The same star dust. Just arranged in different ways. But, we’re very, very different to bananas.
Let’s talk about design for a second.
What happens if 1.6% of your brand is left unchecked? Or 1.6% of your user experience of your product. Doesn’t seem a lot, does it? How about 32% Again, for some, this is within acceptable margins. Especially if your brand or product is growing quickly, acquiring companies here, there and everywhere.
But, 32% is the difference between a human and a goldfish. Even just 1.6% – probably acceptable margins for almost every brand or product out there – is the difference between a gorilla and a human. Think about that for a second.
Your brand or design is supposed to be a human, but people perceive it as a gorilla. Or a banana.
Applying Marginal Gains to brand or product design
What can you do about this? How do you stop a distributed organisation degrading itself? Well, entropy happens and this is always the struggle with any branding or design work on an ongoing basis. Like any garden, it needs tending.
But, here are some of the things I do to stop the rot:
Keep talking. To everyone. My job is to help create the environment in which marginal degradation doesn’t happen. I do this by talking to everyone across an organisation - so they feel involved, empowered, excited, free to be creative. I did this before working at Monotype too, but with other companies.
‘Show the mess’. Design work is not that scary. Expose people who are not designers to the design process. By doing this you get better buy-in, involvement, and culture.
Maintain a holistic view. It’s so easy to get dragged into the weeds. But sometimes, the weeds is exactly where some delightful little design problem exists. Who knows, maybe I end up doing some actual design work. You know, keeping my hand in. Well, no. Keep above the weeds.
Draw straight lines between design and KPIs. This is a big one. What design and brand do should be measurable. Not by some data Goloms like the Net Promotor Score, but by committing to understanding your customer’s behaviour. You can only make incremental tiny improvements on a foundation of understanding. Measuring against real-world indicators puts design in black and white numbers all levels of an organisation can understand.
Just be consistent. Even if you know it’s not ideal. It’s not something you’d do. Maybe you inherited a design system, or jumped on board half way through it’s creation. Maybe you just don’t like it anymore. That’s ok, you can take your time to get it changed, but in the meantime, be purposefully consistent.
If you do deviate, make sure you do it with a plan. If you plan on being a gorilla, and deviating that 1.6%, then do so with purpose, not just because you are lazy.
Plugging away at this tiny stuff is relentless. It’s the tiny details that, when viewed together, look big and insurmountable. But, taking one tiny improvement at a time, in the bigger scheme of things, you may be surprised at how quickly your product or brand starts perform. Not only that, but now you have a way to measure it.