The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

The Undemocracy of Vale of Glamorgan Planning

December 15th, 2013

The democracy of the Vale of Glamorgan planning process is absent and favours wealthy developers over citizens.

My house is situated between a narrow country road leading into an old village and farmer’s fields. In April this year, we were sent a letter by the Vale of Glamorgan planning department that a housing development of 115 houses was planned and we have just a few weeks to register our objections.

Now, it’s understandable we’d object; we live next to the proposed site. But, there are some issues that have some serious cause for concern:

  1. A public right of way crosses the site and over an unmanned railway crossing of a line soon to be electrified.

  2. A pond is proposed to capture the water from the often-waterlogged field. The town has a history of flooding and this field acts like a large sponge safeguarding this part of the town.

  3. The roads leading to and from the development are designed for sheep and horse carts. Fifty percent of them are unpaved, single-carriage and pose a risk to pedestrians.

You can read more about this application, if you like, on our website and the planning department website. But, this journal post is not just about documenting the history and problems of the site (that could last a while). This is a journal post about the sickeningly undemocratic process that the Vale of Glamorgan council has undertaken, and I’m sure, it is somewhat similar throughout the country.

  • As a citizen of the England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different planning laws) I am not entitled to appeal against a planning application directly. However, a developer can appeal.

  • The Vale of Glamorgan undertook no independent review of reports commissioned and presented, with questionable findings, might I add, by the developer.

  • The Vale of Glamorgan are recommending the development despite Network Rail objecting on the grounds of safety with the un-manned right of way over the railway line.

  • The vale of Glamorgan undertook no independent risk assessment of either the open pond or unguarded railway crossing. Both of which are a grave concern for me having two small children.

  • The Vale of Glamorgan undertook no independent review of the flood risk assessments despite the developer’s reports showing multiple failed percolation tests.

I could go on about the deviations from what I’d view as an independent and democratic process. There have been many, but these pose the greatest dangers in my view.

As a father of two small children, I worry about them. My children are beautifully curious. Wonderfully full of energy. But, despite my best efforts, woefully oblivious to the danger they put themselves in. Just like every other child out there. The Vale of Glamorgan planners, and planning committee – who we elect into those positions, let’s not forget that – has a social responsibility for the well-being of the citizens of this country. Instead, throughout this process, I saw the opposite.

  • I saw an over-worked, under-resourced council making bad decisions.

  • I saw an undemocratic process that favoured negotiation with the developers over hearing the concerns of local residents.

  • I saw a council under pressure to meet housing quoters by paving over the green fields rather than the more difficult option of brown field sites.

And I’ve had enough of it.

Many people locally have been saying that the building of this development will result in more flooding in the village. It will result in more congestion on roads designed for horse carts and sheep. With the dangers of the railway line and open pond, it may result in the injury or death of one of the new residents. Is that when the planners would sit up and listen? Maybe verify the developers reports with independent review?

The cynic in me says ‘probably not’. The apathetic in me says ‘who cares? We all know politics is corrupt’. But, this is the second time in a year that I’ve voiced my concerns about the local government’s ability to make good decisions.

I know we need more, and affordable, houses in this country. But new developments need proper, independent scrutiny from experts. And this proposal has not had that.

The proposed development goes before the planning committee on Thursday 19th December. It is being recommended by the overworked planning officer – despite the points above. A copy of this journal post is being forwarded to the local councillors; the members of the Vale of Glamorgan planning committee; the Vale of Glamorgan planning department; my local Welsh Assembly Member and Member of Parliament, in addition to the BBC and local newspapers.

Just as local government has a duty to behave in a democratic way, I have a duty to act as a citizen of the UK and to stand up and say when something is not right.

Filed under Local, Wales, Planning.

Design Abstraction Escalation

December 12th, 2013

What are we losing by abstracting our design processes? Could it be as fundamental as losing a sense of humanity in our work?

A few years ago, Michael Bierut, wrote about a natural progression in a designer’s career.

“The client asks you to design a business card. You respond that the problem is really the client’s logo. The client asks you to design a logo. You say the problem is the entire identity system. The client asks you to design the identity. You say that the problem is the client’s business plan. And so forth.”

He calls this Problem Definition Escalation. Where a designer takes one problem and escalates it to a ‘higher’ plane of benefit and worth – one where it will have greater impact, and ultimately, make the designer feel like they’re doing their real job.

Constituent parts

Designing in a browser, in your head, on paper, on a wall, on post-it notes. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is the work. Is it appropriate? Does it do the job well? Will you get paid for it? Does the client understand the benefits?

Really. Who cares how you get there? We’re all coming around to the idea that designing responsive web sites in Photoshop is inefficient and inaccurate (if things like web font rendering matter to you).

Let’s look at the arguments:

  1. For those familiar with the tools, designing in Photoshop is just as efficient as designing in code.

  2. I design using the tools of least resistance. Preferably a pencil, sometimes Photoshop, and a lot of HTML. Photoshop is my tool of choice for creating website designs.

  3. Presenting static visuals to clients is different than using them as a tool yourself as a means to an end.

All of that is good news. Good for clients. Good for the work. Good for us.

A natural result of this is abstraction.


Design patterns are everywhere. The often-repeated chunks of content that we find ourselves designing and building time and time again. User’s get used to seeing them in certain ways, and over time, perhaps their performance is hindered by deviating from the norm. We see this all the time on e-commerce websites, or in new user registrations. Over time, we all collect these little bits of content, design and code. They build up, and eventually they need organising.

Why not group them all together, categorise them, and iterate on them over time? Throw in your boilerplate templates, too. Maybe group them together as a ‘starter kit’ with included navigation, indicative content – for different types of sites like ecommerce, blogs or magazine sites?

And… wait a second, you’ve got all you need to churn out site after site, product after product for clients now. Excellent. All we need to do is change the CSS, right? Maximise our profits.

No. It’s not right.

Conformity and efficiency have a price. And that price is design. That price is a feeling of humanity. Of something that’s been created from scratch. What I described is not a design process. It’s manufacturing. It’s a cupcake machine churning out identical cakes with different icing. But they all taste the same.

Documenting things that repeat is an important thing to do. I have my own pattern library that I’ve been adding to for years now – it’s an electronic scrapbook where I take snapshots of little content bits and bobs that I find interesting, and that keep on cropping up. It’ll never see the light of day. I’ll never use it on a project, because what I’m doing is building up a head full of this stuff so that when a problem presents itself, I will have a fuzzy recollection of something – maybe – that is similar. Instead of going straight to my big ‘ol database of coded examples, I’ll try to recreate this little pattern from memory – and that’s when something interesting happens.

Recreating something just slightly differently – from memory – means you end up with something new.

That’s why I wanted to be a designer, after all. To create new, beautiful things.

Filed under Design, Design patterns.

The Business of Responsive Design

December 1st, 2013

Responsive design affects a lot more than just our website’s layout. From content, and how it’s created, to the structure of teams and organisations can all be affected by the processes responsive web design brings.

This post is a rough transcript from my talk at Handheld Conference last week in Cardiff on just that.

Opening slide for talk on the Business of Web Design

I’ve a confession to make. I’m an armchair mountaineer. I’m too much of a coward to actually put myself in the type of risk mountaineers do, but for the last decade or so, I’ve been reading as many mountaineering books as I could get my hands on. And I’d like to start by telling you a famous story of Alpine mountaineering.

The Eiger Nordwand in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. An 6000 ft, vertical, concave face perpetually shrouded from the sun. Facing North, the Eiger’s north face has been the scene of some of the Alp’s greatest mountaineering victories, as well as perilous catastrophies.

The North face of the Eiger

This is the North Face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. The Eiger (meaning: Ogre) is a staggeringly difficult face to climb. Nearly two vertical miles high of ice-coated loose rock. It’s a treacherous place. It’s also the place I proposed to my wife in 2003. But that’s another story. The story I’m going to tell you starts in 1936.

Andreas Hinterstoisser, a talented German climber, in the meadows below the Eiger enjoying the sunshine.

Andreas Hinterstoisser

In the winter of 1936, Andreas Hinterstoisser (pictured), Toni Kurtz, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer set about tackling the face of the Eiger – then unclimbed. They’d established the rough route, and after a day had reached an impassable, sheer area of rock just underneath the Rote Flüh – a prominent feature on the face.

Let’s leave that story there for now and come back to it later.

Let’s talk about responsive design.

Responsive design has changed my work and, ultimately, how I do business. This talk is about how it’s done that. But before I do that, I’d like to tap about the definition of responsive design.

If you talk to some people, responsive design is just fluid grids and media queries. To other people, it’s that your website fits on a tablet or mobile phone and changes to adopt. To others, it’s the way to save money by consolidating teams. Responsive design – like AJAX, or Web 2.0 – has become a buzz-word to represent a change. A change in our industry. A change in the way people are consuming content. That’s the type of responsive design I’m going to talk about.

I’m going to talk about three specific areas of how it has challenged the way we work at Mark Boulton Design.

1. Structured content

It’s strange to think that there was a time on the web where content was a second-class citizen. As a student of editorial design, I’ve always found this odd. In the past, whenever I heard ‘content is king’, my response was generally ‘er, yes’.

Responsive design has challenged how we commission, create, edit and design for content. I’d like to talk a little bit about how this has affected two clients of ours. Firstly, our work with CERN.

Different content for different people, at different times, on different devices.

I’ve talked about CERN before at conferences, but not really in this amount of detail. When we started working with CERN a few years ago, the whole project was framed in one sentence by the head of the CERN web team…

We have a content problem.

And they did. They didn’t really know who their audiences were, how to talk to them, or what they wanted. Following months of research, it became clear the audience for the CERN site was comprised of students, scientists, the general public and CERN staff. Interestingly, all of those four large groups had a common need: updates. They wanted to know what was going on. But here is the problem: each group of people needs to hear the same update in different ways. Let’s take an imaginary use-case of an announcement for a new particle that’s been discovered.

For the general public, they are generally learning a lot about CERN from elsewhere. Not on the CERN site. So, they are coming to the site from another trigger – either another website, or the TV, or a magazine or newspaper – and their overall comprehension of the work done at CERN is minimal. The update needs to be worded to accommodate that. But that update also needs to appeal to scientists working in high energy physics and associated fields. They want the detail, in the language that suits them. Already, our one update is fragmented. Throw in students and educators, then our update is going to have to work very hard if it’s just one piece of content.

Therefore in the CERN redesign process, the editorial structure of updates needs to be fragmented and structured in such a way to accommodate different words for different audiences. A responsive design challenge that has nothing to do with how something looks, but how it is structured and how it works in the CMS.

This brings me onto my second point on structured content.

Fractured content

We’ve also been working with Al Jazeera for a few years on redesigning their digital platform. Throughout that process, in just that short space of time, we’ve seen the rise of responsive design and how it affects how content is created and viewed. One example of this is just the process of how news works.

We often think of a news story as a page. A useful, familiar construct. It has a headline, a stand first, some paragraphs and maybe an image or a map. But after studying how their editors work, it became clear that this is not what a news story is. News is always moving.

Drawing of a seed

A story starts as a seed. Something that comes down the wire…

There has been an earthquake in Japan.

Nothing more. Not yet.

Content starts as a seed. Something small. Then grows over time to pull in various content types.

Diagram showing content being pulled together

Then, over time, the story grows and, like a snowball rolling down a mountain slope, more content starts getting attracted to it – maybe a tweet, other articles, images, video, timelines, quotes etc.

Because a news story is not a page. A story is the link between bits of content. The question here is how do we – meaning editors and designers – curate and cajole this content to most effectively tell the story?

Meta Data is the New Art Direction

The answer does not lie only in design. The answer lies in how content is structured and categorised. Meta-data is the new Art Direction.

2. Process

Responsive design has been perhaps most visible in its ongoing challenges to process. How we do what we do is coming under increasing pressure, and here are several ways in which I’ve noticed how.

Proximity

I started out working in advertising. As a student, I was an intern for a couple of years at an agency in Manchester. Other than the work, one of the things that has become clear now I run my own design business.

When advertising agencies talk about work, they talk about it in terms of accounts, not projects. When you win work, you win an account – for a period of time. An account is commitment over a period of time.

We will work with you on all our projects for 12 months.

This means a client will invest in you, and the time it takes you to learn their business, familiarise yourself with the challenges and give you the space (and budget) to do great work.

Projects are not a commitment. Projects are relatively risk-free.

You will deliver this website for this much money in this time-frame.

Approaching work this way leaves little room for any ongoing commitment, from client or agency. It’s like a first (and only) date. And with that comes a distance.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen my peers move from agencies and studies move to products and client-side. In doing so, they are closer to the problems. With the space to move in an agile way without the constraints of any binding commercial relationship. This reminds me of a story from Kevin Spacey about his work on the House of Cards

Kevin Spacey recently gave a rousing talk at The Telegraph in which he talked about how TV commissioning works in the US. He went to all the networks in the US to pitch the show. They were all interested, but each one wanted to do a pilot. A pilot which, in 45 minutes, would establish the major plot-lines, introduce the characters, the love-triangle, the cliff hanger.

Kevin Spacey delivers one of the best talks I’ve ever seen (oh, to be an actor with this sort of delivery!) about why and how the House of Cards was commissioned on Netflix.

“It wasn’t through arrogance that we weren’t interested, but we wanted to tell a story that took a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex character that would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would need space to play out.”

The House of Cards was about the long game.

To me, many web projects can feel like a pilot. Relatively low risk, low on commitment to work together without the time and space for the problems to play out. Proximity to the problem – a hand forced by responsive web design’s challenges – comes from working closely, over a long period of time. An account, not a project. A season, not a pilot.

The project rope-a-dope

In 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Africa. Forman was the favourite having beaten Ali three years before. he was strong. Young. And a great boxer. He was sure to win.

Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in 1974.

Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman

Throughout the fight, Ali let himself get hit on the ropes. To give the impression he was tired, lose, and close to defeat. All the while, he was whispering in Foreman’s ear ‘You’ve got nothin”… ‘nothin”. Forman blew himself up trying to knock Ali out. In the dying moments of the fight, Ali knocked Forman out and won the fight. This technique was coined the ‘rope-a-dope’.

Just going back to my last point for a moment. One of the results from being closer to the problem is that you have more exposure to the mess of design. Making things is messy. And to some people – especially clients, who can expect nice shiny things handed to them – may not be expecting to be exposed to that.

Sometimes they will freak out. And it’s our job to sit back on the ropes and take it on the chin. But, instead of goading them, we should offer words of reassurance. We should shift our process to something that may feel more comfortable. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, after all.

Where is the design?

Getting in the browser sooner. Looking at content sooner. Iterate. All of these things have a knock-on to design and how it’s received by a client.

The Fidelity Curve. As a project time-scale increases, so does the fidelity of the design work being done.

The Fidelity Curve

For a few years now, I’ve talked about the fidelity curve. A simple graph to explain to clients that over time, we increase the fidelity of a prototype and slowly layer on the visuals. This is so we can fail quickly on low-risk, low-fidelity work. Mostly this is good and works well, but recently, I had an interesting discussion with a client in which they asked where the design was.

It’s an interesting question, because in this process, the design is everywhere. And unless you take the client along every step of the way – knee deep in the mess of design, being closer to the problem – then how do you manage the expectation that, at some point, a client will expect a presentation, or a reveal’ of how the product will look.

3. The Trend

“I want a responsive…”

As I said, responsive design is a trend. Or, rather, an awakening. As such, a lot of organisations and businesses are behind the curve . But one thing many people aren’t asking (and, I know this because I ask) is ‘is it worth it?’ or ‘Do you really?’

In 2011, our first responsive site was a site for World Skills London. It was a fun project, geared around a single event in London in which 200,000 visitors would attend and watch the various activities in the competition. As part of this project, we designed a responsive map. A cool diagram with a responsive image map that would scale and allow users to get from A-Z in the event by using their phone. Cool.

The World Skills London 2011 Map

Except, during the project retrospective, it became clear that, actually, only 25 people used it. It was not needed.

Back to Hinterstoisser

Let’s go back to the Eiger and Hinterstoisser and three other men trying to climb the North Face. If you recall, after a day or so, they had arrived at a seemingly impassable face of rock under the Rote Flüh. After much deliberation about trying to re-route, Hinterstoisser decided to have a go at traversing the feature. And he succeeded, and with that, opened the gateway to the rest of the face and rest of their climb.

The Hinterstoisser Traverse on the North Face of the Eiger is a 150ft pitch of vertical, and often ice-glazed, rock. Now, with a fixed rope in place, the traverse was undertaken by Hinterstoisser by tensioning a rope high above him and traversing downwards and across.

The Hinterstoisser Traverse

Today, the same traverse is still used across the same slab of rock.

Last week, I did a survey on Twitter about the business of responsive design. After 500 or so responses, it’s clear that everyone is finding everything hard right now. The change is so big, and so rapid, that we’re struggling to keep our heads above water. And this especially goes for those working in-house or clients.

Breaking new ground is always difficult.

But, just like Hinterstoisser, take heart in knowing that what we’re working on right now is a legacy for designers and developers in the months and years ahead.

Filed under Design, Conferences.

The Lull

November 21st, 2013

There is a storm coming.

For those of you reading this who have experienced a severe weather event know all too well the sequence of events leading up to it. First, there is a warning – either through the media, verbally, or from the old woman in town who can feel it in her bones. Then, there is the sense of it coming, and that can take minutes, hours or days. Either way, there is a feeling of calm before the havoc. Battening down the hatches, preparing your self, property, business and family. Preparation is important in surviving something potentially catastrophic.

I read a post today from the Karen Mcgrane called Responsive Design Won’t Fix your Content Problem. It was nicely validating for me reading what mirrored so many of Mark Boulton Design’s clients, especially over the last eighteen months. The post describes the difficulty organisations are with adapting to their digital content being published across a variety of channels. Reconciling that against existing business and technology structures is hard for big organisations but, in my experience, that’s what’s been happening for the past years.

Responsive design is our storm. Acknowledging the way the web really is, and reconciling it against the plethora of new devices and reading behaviours has been a seismic shift in the creation and reading of digital content. Organisations have been spending the last couple of years coming to terms with it.

Quoting Karen’s article from a recent project she was working on:

Our executives assume that since they made the decision to go responsive, every other decision would just be tactical details. In fact, implementing responsive web design raises issues that strike right at the heart of our business and the way we work. We need to fix our review and approval processes, our content management system, our asset management system, our design standards and governance. We need to clean up our outdated, useless content. But it’s hard to get people to step up to solve these bigger problems, because they don’t think they’re part of “responsive design.”

This exactly mirrors my experience.

What starts out as desire to change for the better, to make a web product responsive, is the start of problem escalation. Before you know it, organisations are talking about needing structured content, but to do that they need a new CMS, but to do that, they have to procure a new CMS and migrate content. Now, that’s not all bad. Organisations have been doing this. Preparing solid foundations on which to create digital experiences for wherever the user may be.

The storm. The critical mass of creating content for an increasingly broad digital space is just around the corner. Are you prepared?

Filed under Design, Process, Responsive Design, Content Strategy.

Conference organiser tips (from a speaker's perspective)

November 16th, 2013

Following on from my post about speaker and audience tips, I thought I’d also share a few tips for conference organisers from a speaker’s perspective.

I’ve spoken at well over fifty events over the past few years to upwards of about four thousand people. Along the way, I’ve had mixed experiences of what it’s like to speak at conferences big and small. Mostly, of course, the experience has been great. Organisers are lovely people, who work extremely hard and appreciate you being there and look after you well. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. If you’re thinking about organising a conference this coming year, maybe bear some of these details in mind.

  1. Logistics. Well in advance, give the speakers the logistical details; who’s meeting them at the airport, where they’re staying and for how long, what time the parties are, what other commitments they have etc. If you don’t have them, let them know you don’t have them yet and that you haven’t forgotten them.

  2. Pay them. Even if it’s a small amount, but especially if your conference is for profit and relies on the quality of their talks to sell tickets. Of course, travel expenses should be covered. Now, this may not apply to some ‘community’ conferences with many, many speakers. But, for most, it applies.

  3. Arrange travel. Book their flights (and make sure you ask for their frequent flyer number), pick them up from the airport, ferry them around if need be. They’re not to be pampered, but don’t underestimate peoples anxiety in foreign countries.

  4. Put them in a nice hotel. Again, consider the details. Make sure the hotel has confirmed the booking, and they know when the speaker is expected to arrive. Once, when arriving late at a conference hotel, I was told I didn’t have a room and ended up sleeping in a meeting room on a makeshift bed for the night.

  5. Confirm with them the pre and post talk events. Is there a speaker’s dinner? If so, where, when, what time (and where) is everyone meeting.

  6. Sound and technical check. A lot of speakers like to get this out of the way before their talk. They will want the name of the person they need to report to – either a stage manager, or a conference volunteer – in order to sort that out.

  7. Dongles. Make sure you have every known projector dongle available. People lose them all the time. Also, spare clickers and batteries is a good idea. Most speakers will be well-prepared and carry their own, but just in case.

  8. Tea. This is personal. Not everyone drinks coffee, and I would like tea at my breaks.

  9. Alcohol. Again, this is personal, but not everyone likes a piss-up. So, the after party should not necessarily be at a club where you can’t hear yourself think with as much free spirits as you can drink. Consider attendees may want to talk amongst themselves in a grown-up setting after a long day sat down. We’re not all party-animals.

  10. Green rooms. It’s important that speakers have somewhere to go and work, or cram their slides, or be by themselves with their nerves. This is very important for me. Last thing I want to do before I go on is mingle. I’m generally nervous and want to focus on the job at hand. It has been known for me to hide in the toilets for a while.

  11. Rights. Don’t ask for exclusive rights over speaker’s content. This happens, and increasingly so, actually. A conference will explicitly say that you are not allowed to talk about the same stuff in other places. Nope. That will not do. A lot of speakers produce one or two talks for the entire year.

  12. Video. If you’re going to video me speaking, and charge for those videos of me and my content, you should explicitly ask me. Not because I’ll say no (not every time), but because it’s nice to be asked. And, sometimes, I may be talking about content which I want to actually use at a later date for myself in a filmed workshop, or talk.

  13. Get a good MC. If you have someone introducing each speaker – and you should – then make sure that person is energetic, funny, personable and just plain pleasurable to listen to.

  14. Have a stage monitor. I use scant notes in my talks, but the most important thing for me are my pace notes see point 14. If those notes are on my laptop screen all the way over on the lectern, it’s sometimes a bit unnatural for me to be flitting back and forth. It’s much better, if you can, to have a monitor on the front of the stage showing Keynote’s presenter display.

  15. Set the expectation for Q & A. If you plan on doing Q & A let everyone and the speaker know. If you don’t plan on it, then don’t – after the speaker has finished – say ‘thanks, Mark. So, any questions audience?’. Invariably there won’t be any, because nobody – including the speaker – was expecting it. Also: it’s generally a bit of a bum note after the rousing ending to a talk see point 11.

  16. Your conference is not your ego trip. Everybody, including the speakers, are incredibly grateful for the effort you’ve put in over the year to produce a great conference. But, chose a time and a place to thank people. In between each talk isn’t it. Also: my guess is that most people in the audience have bought tickets to hear what the speakers have to say, rather than as a favour to you.

  17. Your conference is not your platform. Building on point 16, I’ve been to a few conferences where there is an agenda – a point to be made by the organisers – either by who is speaking, or about what. If you have one, and that maybe fine, but please let speakers know before hand.

  18. Talk to your speakers about their content. This is important. Many speakers will not have their talk ready until right at the last minute (especially me). But, they will have a pretty good idea of what they will be talking about. Talk to them. design the conference and the material. Create an experience for the attendees on underlying threads in the talks. It’s my feeling attendees should feel like they’ve been to a show, than seen a collection of people speak. It should feel united.

  19. 360 Degree Feedback. As a speaker I’d welcome the opportunity to feedback to the conference organisers about the conference. Consider a method of gathering feedback from speakers.

  20. Feedback from the audience. Feedback on speaker’s talks is generally through Twitter, which is an almost immediate response and gauge on how you’ve done. Mostly, it’s a good tool in that regard. Other conferences use questionnaires. I find this a clumsy tool and metric on which to base a speaker’s performance. One glance at Twitter, and a few conversations in the hallway, should confirm to you if it was well-received or not. I welcome constructive feedback. I don’t welcome ‘I can’t understand this Englishman’s accent’, or ‘that was boring’. That’s not a conversation. It’s a verbal drive-by. I know people have quit speaking because of this type of ‘feedback’. It’s not helpful.

That’s it for now. It’s worth saying I’ve never organised a conference, but I do know how much time, effort and money it takes to do so. I’ve nothing but upmost respect for people who do. That said, I hope these few tips help in a little way if you’re thinking of giving a conference a go.

Filed under Speaking, Conferences.

Speaking and Audience tips

November 15th, 2013

I’ve been speaking for a good few years now, and over that time, I’ve amassed a bunch of little tips and tricks I use to make it more of a pleasurable affair. This post was prompted by a colleague of mine, Nathan Ford, who, this morning, asked for some tips as he has a couple of speaking gigs lined up next year.

So, here we go. Some tips for speakers, and for audiences (from a speaker’s perspective).

  1. Smile. This is a fun thing to do and you are thrilled to be there (even if you want to vomit in your shoes at that point).

  2. Check your flies. You don’t want that breezy feeling half way through a code demo.

  3. Take off your lanyard. It can bang against your mike.

  4. Take off your earrings. If you have long, dangly ones they can interfere with headset microphones.

  5. Do a sound check and walk the stage. If it’s being filmed check for black spots on the stage and avoid them. Get comfortable with the size of the stage, especially if you plan on wandering around.

  6. Never apologise. You know your mistakes, your mistakes in your slides, things you forgot to say, technical issues. What the audiences doesn’t know, doesn’t hurt them.

  7. Make sure you have water. A bottle by the lectern is enough. But, don’t drink it all the way through your talk like some kind of nervous tick. It’s just there for emergencies.

  8. Use a good clicker. Check the batteries.

  9. Check your radio mike is off before you go for an emergency pee. You don’t want to do a Naked Gun.

  10. Don’t fall off the stage, but if you do, don’t acknowledge it. See point 5 to avoid this.

  11. Finish strong. Empower the audience. Encapsulate your main point in one sentence. That last sentence should stay with everyone. Pause. Then say ‘Thank you’. Then the crowd will clap.

  12. Don’t hide behind the lectern. It can feel like a barrier (or a safety net). Sometimes this is tricky if people are doing code demos or the like, but personally, I can feel like it’s a barrier between me and the audience.

  13. Gaffer tape! If you do stay behind the lectern, pack some gaffer tape in your bag. Lectern’s have a habit of having a small lip that Macbook Airs tend to ride ride over. On a number of occasions, I’ve had to tape my laptop to the lectern.

  14. Pace yourself. Put in pace notes in your slides. Just a simple 5:00 will do. Meaning, ‘At this point, I should be 5 minutes in’. This helps me know when to speed up, or fill. Plus, it’s a good barometer of your overall pace.

  15. Make your point, but don’t make it angrily. Passion can sometimes come across as shouty arrogance.

  16. Don’t say ‘can you hear me?’. If they can’t, they’ll let you know. Good sound crews will fade up your mike as you start speaking.

  17. Focus on your words more than your slides. Again, this maybe personal, but I’d rather listen to well considered points, than look at pretty slides.

  18. Find a friendly face in the first few rows. Try to block out the people looking angry, bored or just asleep. Yes, people fall asleep.

  19. If you finish early, don’t worry, it just means people get more coffee.

  20. Dress comfortably, not necessarily smartly. That doesn’t mean a suit, or a blazer, or a fancy dress. It means dress so you’re not thinking about your clothes. If you’re thinking about uncomfortable you are – for whatever reason – you’ll be off your game. People aren’t there to see what you have on, but what you have to say.

  21. Don’t sell yourself, your company or your product. It’s not the place. People will not listen and get angry.

  22. Questions and Answers. I’m not one for Q & A, but if there is, then make sure you repeat the question before answering it. Don’t take for granted everyone else has heard, plus, if your talk is being recorded, then listeners will need to hear it.

  23. Is it being recorded? If the talk is being recorded make sure, when referencing something visual, you also provide enough context over audio so that people listening understand. Less of ‘this thing over here’, more of ‘I’d like to draw your attention to the heading in this example’.

I think, above all else, remember that if you’re planning on speaking this coming year is to enjoy yourself. Yes, it’s stressful. You’ll be nervous, you’ll be thinking ‘why am I doing this?’, but there can be so much fulfilment in sharing your work with your peers. And, really, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

And, now, if you’re attending a conference this coming year, then here are a few tips, from a speakers perspective, on how to get the best out of attending the actual talks.

Audience tips

  1. Be in the room. Personally, I’m not one for laptops, iPads or phones being on, but I understand people take notes on them. People also Photoshop pictures of the Queen and engage in Skype conversations with their mum. My guess is, these people aren’t listening.

  2. Try not to fall asleep. I get it. You’re tired, you were out late last night, it’s warm and dark. But, really, it’s quite off-putting if, as a speaker, you’ve spent weeks fretting over the next 45 minutes and some bloke is catching flies in the front row.

  3. Huddle up. Move along the row to the centre so people can get a seat.

  4. Don’t talk, or heckle. Only the most experienced speakers (and I don’t count myself in that group) can deal with that kind of interruption. Plus, it annoys the people around you.

  5. Be a friendly face. It means a lot to catch a friendly face in the audience. A disgruntled face can derail a speaker or a talk.

  6. Be on time. Get in your seat in plenty of time before the scheduled session.

  7. Listen and think before you tweet. I’d like to think people give talks the time to play out before forming an opinion. Sometimes, it can take 20 minutes for a speaker to make their major point.

Filed under Speaking, Conferences.

WYSIWTFFTWOMG!

September 3rd, 2013

I get the content in Word, copy into the various boxes in the CMS and then see how it looks. Normally I spot a few typos, or it doesn’t appear where I want it to, then I have to go back and find the article again – which isn’t so bad, it’s normally at the top. The real pain is when I have to add another link to that list over there. (whispers) Normally I ask James (a developer) to do that for me, though as I can’t do it.

This was a conversation I had with a person recently about how they use their CMS. A real-life content person. I say content person, not ‘creator’ as you may have noticed she doesn’t write the content. She just ‘gets it’. She’s a piece in the publishing workflow. A cog in a machine. And our tools are failing her and are only going to get worse.

In that workflow, there is a bit that’s a clear trend amongst the people I’ve spoken to about this.

then see how it looks.

And that’s the thing, right there.

Since we’ve been using computers to make websites we’ve tried to make them like print. Of course, early on, that was fair enough. It was familiar. We knew the rules and tried to make the web like it. Even now, with the realisation that the web has changed – or rather, we’re being honest to the way the web is. It never really changed, we just tried to make it something it wasn’t – we’re still enforcing a print-like mental model on it. Not necessarily us designers and developers, though. This is coming from people who write and manage content. Just like printing out an email before they send it, they will want to preview a website to see how it looks.

The problem is this: The question content people ask when finishing adding content to a CMS is ‘how does this look?’. And this is not a question a CMS can answer any more – even with a preview. How we use the web today has meant that the answer to that questions is, ‘in what?’.

WYSIWTFFTWOMG!

Let me first off define what I see WYSIWYG. WYSIWYG is not a limited toolbar for adding semantic value to your document. The kind of toolbar you find on Medium, or on Basecamp. As you can see they are similar. They are used for applying semantics to document structure; giving words emphasis, making unordered lists, or numbered lists, making words headlines. However, they’re not there for the user to get creative. They do not change the colour of a word.

When I think WYSIWYG, I think of the Word toolbar. This type of WYSIWYG is for adding tables, images, forms, type and colour. It’s a toolkit to create pages of content. Just like desktop publishing. And that’s the dangerous thing. Content creators are used to having these tools at their disposal so they can craft their document. Why? Because writing isn’t done in a CMS, it’s done elsewhere.

Times -are changing- have changed

It’s been a turbulent few years for web designers and developers. We’ve had to relearn what we’ve created and finally acknowledge – through the timeliness of Responsive Design – that the web is a fluid and chaotic place, and we should be embracing it and not making it like print. We’ve learnt to deal with the loss of control. The problem is, though, our content people are still thinking of pages. They’re still thinking of previewing. Of designing for the desktop. They’re writing in Word and fine with it.

So, that’s the challenge. How can we help people – just as we have – relearn how the web is now?

Just like when people have a content management problem, a lot of people are turning to technology for the answers. And just like content management problems, my experience is software can’t fix it. Because it’s a people problem, not a software problem.

The three places of content management

There are three spaces * for content people – not creators, because not all content people create loads of content. Some just manage it – push it from here to there. Those places are:

  1. A space for writing. For writing and structuring.
  2. A space for management. For adding meta data, workflow, configuration and managing roles and people.
  3. The website space. Basically your website. A place where you begin the access user journey. Or preview your content. Generally the starting points for lots of little administration tasks.
  • There are other spaces, too. The developer space, where the site is administered and created, managed and evolved. Sometimes this is through an administration interface, but not always. Sometimes it’s just through an API.

The problem I see is that the CMS tries to deal with all three spaces equally well. And as such, generally fails to deliver an optimal experience because it’s trying to do too much. What if your content management system was actually three distinct applications designed to work together? Just a thought.

But, back to WYSIWYG.

The issue with WYSIWYG for me is that by using them the content person is considering the content as what they see. But content is more than that. Especially if it has meta data, and is split up and compiled from here and there. A ‘page’ maybe a dynamic template pulling in content from a dozen places. How do you change meta data there?

If we consider the majority use-cases of correcting typos, restructuring slightly, or small on the fly editing, then the smaller toolbars for adding semantic value are useful. But for most use cases, a WYSIWYG is not useful for content people. It’s just familiar.

Inline-access, not inline-editing

One of the other pain points of a complex dynamic website, where ‘pages’ are created with bits of content from all over the place is ‘where the hell do I go to find that bit of content to edit it?’. That is a painful moment in a content person’s daily life. Normally, after watching them, they go off deep into search, or ask someone else who knows better. Accessing these smaller nuggets of logic-based content is problematic. This is why inline-editing and WYSIWYG is coming to the fore – addressing the use case in the live environment.

Why is this a problem?

As I said before, it’s hiding the truth. That being, the content is more than you can see. Instead of inline editing of the content, why not just make the start of that journey a little easier? Why not provide a way of quickly getting to exactly that bit of content with a link? There we will see all of the stuff that is the content but not the words: the display logic, taxonomies, meta data etc. But if we want to change a type, we can do that with our little toolbar.

Not one tool, but many. Not one way, but many.

Structured content is the right way to go. It makes our content portable and malleable. In fact, it makes it much more useful. Slapping a WYSIWYG on top of a form field is not the way to go. That’s not structured. Live WYSIWYG is not the way to go for large-scale websites because it reinforces that content is just what you see. When, in fact, a piece of content could have a whole bunch of other headlines and summaries that would only be displayed in certain contexts, along with meta data and rules. We need access to ALL THE CONTENT and provide simple, little tools to let people make typo changes and apply semantic structure and the like once they’re looking at the content in a staging environment.

‘How does this look?’

should change to:

‘How does this read?’

Device agnostic. Screen size independent and devoid of design. Let’s help content people focus on what the words and pictures are, rather than what the words and pictures look like.

Filed under Design, Work.

I'm not a Craftsman

July 16th, 2013

My uncle is a quiet man. He smokes a pipe with a wry smile. Like he knows something you don’t. For years he restored traction engines; huge, victorian, steam-driven machines. He did it for the love of it. I have wondered if he did to escape. Like a lot of men that age, he spent a lot of time in his shed on his own, surrounded by the smell of oil, grease and pipe tobacco. A dusty pile of tabloid newspapers in the corner. Slowly whittling away on a small piece of metal, making some grommet or flange or something.

Sounds romantic doesn’t it?

Now, how many times have you heard web designers and developers talk this way about their work? For me, it’s been increasingly. And personally I find it concerning. For starters, it’s a designer-centric way of working. It’s a selfish exploit to pour love into your work. If you’re working commercially, who pays for that time? You? Well, that’s bad. The client? Well, that’s ok if they see the value. But many don’t.

Giving your work love is not just about giving it time. But, time can often be better spent than whittling away on some nubbin’ or grommet just because you think that’s where you can give the work your love. Your craft.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent more time on projects not whittling. Whittling happens in the very latter stages of work and I really don’t find myself in that place very often. Mostly that’s because the clients I work for have a myriad of big, sticky problems that need working out before you start ‘crafting a user interface’, whatever that means. I’m more often than not in a place where my own job, as a designer, is to not make something I love. But to make something appropriate. Something that does the job well. Something that responds to a hypothesis and serves a need. Not necessarily something loved and beautiful. And that’s ok.

Craft is an emotional word not appropriate to describe the job of designing. It’s too self-centred. Too mired in arts and crafts and puts a difficult-to-measure parameter into the minds of clients.

‘I want a beautifully crafted interface from a passionate designer’

Translates to:

‘I want a self-centred designer to spend way too long on the shiny than actually solving the problem or having the difficult discussions’.

If my uncle was restoring traction engines for a living, he would’ve been out of business. Craft is love. And love takes time. And time is scarce and probably best spent elsewhere.

Filed under Design, Personal, Work.

The First Website

April 30th, 2013

Twenty years ago today, CERN published a statement that made the World Wide Web freely available. To mark this anniversary, CERN – together with Mark Boulton Design – are starting a project to restore the first website and the associated assets of the World Wide Web project.

I first started using the internet in about 1988. I had a mate whose dad worked for IBM so he had an early PC connected – via the phone line – to a rather sophisticated little modem. The internet wasn’t the web back then, it was a mix of bulletin boards, rudimentary email clients and IRC. You may think that it was a primitive, but in reality, the prospect of near live discussions and collaborations with people all over the world was pretty incredible. As friends do, we lost touch, and my connection to the internet was lost with it. I did other things: failed my A-levels, learnt martial arts, chased girls, learnt the guitar and went to art college. My connection with internet picked up again in 1994. And, oh boy, was it a different place entirely. In just a few short years, the web went from idea to proposal to freely available. And the world was changed forever.

As web designers and developers, we spend a lot of time trying to explain the difference on the web. “It’s not TV, it’s certainly not print” (oh, no, it’s definitely not that). The web is its own thing. But unlike other media – ones which have physical artefacts, which get left behind to rot, to be found and stuck on a shelf in a museum – the web doesn’t have that. Pixels don’t decay, they just disappear. Forever.

Preserving our digital heritage is as important as preserving our physical heritage. There are a few people and organisations in the world who get this: The Long Now Foundation and Archive.org, to name a couple, but I’m not sure that’s enough. The need to preserve must come from our desire to learn from the past. I have two young children and I want them to experience the early web and understand how it came to be. To understand that the early web wasn’t that rudimentary but incredibly advanced in many ways. Currently, it’s impossible to do that. And, together with CERN, that’s what we’re hoping to provide.

From today, we’ve started work on the project objectives. The talented web team at CERN have already reinstated the first URL and uploaded a version of the website from about 1992. The restoration has begun.

To keep up to date on the project you can read the project blog where we’ll be posting updates on progress. You can also follow on Twitter @thefirstwebsite.

Read the announcement from CERN and two opinion pieces from Robert Cailliau and Vint Cerf

Filed under www, Design, Mark Boulton Design, Work.

UI is visible. Type is visible.

March 14th, 2013

In 1955, Beatrice Warde gave a presentation to the Typographer’s Guild in London (now, the International Society of Typographic Design) which later became an essay titled: ‘The Crystal Goblet, or Printing Should Be Invisible’.

A wonderful piece of writing in which Warde describes the role of typography – or rather the role of the designer - in printing. The general premise is that good typographic design shouldn’t be seen.

When you listen to a song in a language you do not understand, part of your mind actually does fall asleep, leaving your quite separate aesthetic sensibilities to enjoy themselves unimpeded by your reasoning faculties. The fine arts do that; but that is not the purpose of printing. Type well used is invisible as type, just as the perfect talking voice is the unnoticed vehicle for the transmission of words, ideas.

Let’s take that last point. Morgan Freeman has a memorable, wonderful speaking voice. One that adds colour and weight to the words. His words are not just audible, and understandable, but they are rich with personality. His voice adds to the words he speaks.

I disagree with Warde. Type should not always be invisible, it should be appropriate. Sometimes, it’s a typeface’s job to be overt, loud and suggestive, in order to communicate the content in the best way. But, yes, sometimes typography has to melt away into the background. To support the content and the reader. To help them.

On the web, because we’re quite often presented with long-form text (and by that, I mean more than a few paragraphs), we get a little obsessed with body copy. Good typesetting of body copy should be like that of setting a novel; the type should disappear. But, not all typography is body copy, and to consider it in these narrow terms is to do the practice of typographic design a huge disfavour.

Whenever we design with words, we’re designing with type. And words are not always long form paragraphs designed to be very easy on the eye. Sometimes it’s a logotype, a button, a richly designed layout, a data table or form. The application of typographic design is just so broad that to say it all has to be invisible is to imply the goals of typographic design are the same across the board.

Legibility is a baseline requirement for typesetting anything. It’s like edible food. It shouldn’t really be a measure of what is good or not. Just like audibility and comprehension are baseline requirements for speech. There is more flavour in words; spoken or printed. There is more flavour in type, that if applied well, transcends content from being merely legible, to that of being pleasurable. After all, that’s why we have different typefaces: each brings with it characteristics that flavour the words.

Nick Cox says in his article, ‘Typography should be visible’:

In my opinion, there is merit to visible typography because in the hands of a competent typographer, a text can truly sing. Not because they have left their mark out, but because they have worked their art on the words.

I agree which him completely. It’s the difference between something edible and exquisite. The difference between average and better. Which is why all this invisible, reductionist UI approach is starting to grate on me a little because it suggests we have the same goal for all our work; to make it invisible. It’s more complex than that. It’s an over-simplistic measure of success that is put far more eloquently than in this post from Timo Arnall.

Of course, I say all of this under the one big caveat that, in typography, there are no rules. Just good decisions. But, let’s make some decisions shall we? Not make everything invisible because, apparently, that’s the way it should be.

Filed under Typography, Design, Invisible design, Critical thinking.