The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Visual Design might be a thing

February 2nd, 2015

If you recall, a few years ago, I wrote about my belief that the term ‘visual Design’ was propagating through the UX community and the potentially damaging effect that was having on the problem-solving roots of graphic design practice. This was swiftly followed up by a longer piece for The Manual.

I’ve had a lot of comments from people since then – either agreeing or disagreeing (y’know, the web) but over the past six months or so I’m coming around to the idea that Visual Design might actually be a thing. It’s just incredibly rare and is dependent on a number of rarely addressed factors.

Following the problem

Michael Bierut explains in his piece ‘You’re so Intelligent’ that graphic design has long suffered from what he calls ‘Problem Definition Escalation’:

Like many designers, for years I used a tried-and-true tactic to hoist my way up the respect ladder, a technique I will here call Problem Definition Escalation. If you’ve listened carefully to the lyrics to “Gee, Officer Krupke” in West Side Story you already know how this works. 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. One or two steps later, you can claim whole industries and vast historical forces as your purview. The problem isn’t making something look pretty, you fool, it’s world hunger!

This behaviour is everywhere I’ve looked and worked for my whole career. From designers to content strategists, product managers to researchers. Almost always though, unlike Mr Bierut, I don’t think this is a need to elevate ones self through any sort of professional low esteem. I like to look at this a different way.

This is a result of people trying to find the problem. It just so happens the problem is rarely the logo.

From board room to your users and everywhere in between

If you think of Visual Design as being on top of a stack of other activities and functions, it might look something like this:

  1. Visual Design
  2. Stuff
  3. Customer needs / Value proposition
  4. Board of Directors / Leadership
  5. Organisation environment / culture

‘Stuff’ of course is a big, fat catch-all for all other tactical product design and development.

Customer needs have to be balanced with the product value proposition and opportunity. This is built up on a capable and supportive leadership team. But the bottom layer is probably the most important of them all. The environment.

The environment has to be right for all of the other things to happen. Unfortunately, ‘environment’ or company culture is hard to define and replicate. But how we use processes – such as agile, or defining market opportunities, through to how you refer to customers and evaluate designs - is probably the most important of them.

The Problem Story

It wasn’t until I saw Leisa Reichelt talk through how the UK Government Digital Service team work – from the Creative Director through to the developers and researchers – that I saw a corporate culture and structure where Visual Design could be a thing. Why? Because the problems had been defined, researched, worked through, solved, iterated upon in the layers below. Doing this means that probing the problem results in answers quite quickly. And the more the problem is probed, instead of it all unravelling, it builds into a cohesive narrative. The problem has a story that can be easily tracked back.

Visual Design might be a thing

If the problem has a story that can be traced back, the environment is supportive, and answers are available, then I can certainly see instances where designers learn not to go hunting for the problem. And, thinking about it, I wonder if this behaviour is more probable in in-house work, rather than agencies? Why? Because agency designers are used to clients coming to them with bigger problems than they initially present. This is how agencies generally get more work from larger clients – we follow the problem and, together, make projects to address them.

But, anyway, back to visual design.

If the problems are solved. If the designer is used to not going hunting for the real brief. Then, and only then, I think visual design could be a thing. When a designer has the right information, is working on the right graphical problem where she can focus on, what Michael Bierut describes as:

our miraculous fluency with beauty, our ability to manipulate form in a way that can touch people’s hearts… the gifts that matter, and the paths through which we create things that truly endure.

Yeah. Maybe that’s when visual design might well be a thing.

Filed in: Design, Process, My Handbook.

Adventures with Plex

October 10th, 2014

I’ve written before about going completely digital for our home entertainment. To recap: I have a big, shared hard drive attached to an iMac that two Apple TVs share to using ATV Flash This was fine for a while, but, frankly, ATV Flash is a little buggy over our network and the Apple TV struggled with any transcoding (converting one file type to another) and streaming – especially in HD. So, we needed something better. In steps a few things: Netflix, Plex and a Mac Mini.

Plex has been on my radar for a few years and up until recently didn’t really make much sense for me. But as ATV Flash was becoming more unstable as Apple updated their OS, then Plex started to look like a good alternative.

The hardware

As you may have read from my older post, I did have shared hard drive with all the media on hooked up to an iMac which the Apple TVs shared into to browse the media. The issue here became network and sharing reliability. Quite often, the shared hard drive was invisible because the iMac was asleep, or the network had dropped. Sometimes this happened in the middle of a movie. Not ideal.

The new setup is almost identical, but instead of using the Apple TVs as hardware to browse the library, they are now being used just as a device to Airplay to. I barely use the Apple TV UI at all. Browsing from my iPad and then air playing to the Apple TV. What’s cool here is that the iPad just acts as a remote, the file itself is being transcoded on the server and just pushed to the Apple TV directly.

What about a standalone NAS (Network Attached Storage)?

Plex does run on a NAS , but the issue there is most consumer NAS boxes don’t have the hardware grunt to do the on-the-fly transcoding. So, I finally decided to ditch my iMac in favour of a headless Mac Mini to run as a decent media box, running Plex.

Getting started with Plex

  1. Download it. Get the Media Server on your computer or NAS of choice (Plex has huge device support). Also, get hold of the mobile apps. Once you’re done there, download Plex for your connected apps: from Chromecast, Amazon Fire TV, Roku, Google TV or native Samsung apps and, now, the Xbox One, too. The app support is really quite incredible.

  2. Plex Pass. Even though the software for Plex is free, there are some additional things that are left for a subscription that you have to buy. The good thing is, you can get a lifetime subscription and the cost is very reasonable at $149.99. For that, you get early access to new builds, syncing content remotely, things like playlists and trailers. But the killer feature of the Plex Pass is the ability to create user accounts for your content. Now this is something I’ve been after for ages on the Apple TV, and even more important now my eldest daughter regularly watches films on it. I need the ability to filter the content appropriately for her.

  3. Setting up a server is a breeze. Once you’ve installed the server software, get yourself a user account on the Plex website and set up a server. This launches some web software for you to start adding files to your libraries and fiddle away to your hearts content with all the settings.

  4. If you did get the Plex Pass, I’d recommend creating multiple user accounts and playlists with the features Plex Pass gives you. The way I did this was to have email addresses and user accounts for server-plex, parents-plex and kids-plex. server-plex is for administering the account and has all the libraries shared with it. ‘parents’ for Emma and I, and ‘kids’ just has the ‘children’s’ library shared with it. Now, by simply signing in and out of the iPad, I can access the appropriate content for each user group.

Next up: streaming, or ‘How do I watch the film on my telly!?’

There are a few options:

  1. Native apps (Samsung, XBox One etc) These are apps installed directly on your TV or Xbox. To watch your content, simply fire up the app and away you go. Yesterday, I installed the Xbox One app and was up and running in less than three minutes.

  2. iOS and Airplay This is what I described earlier. Simply download the iOS apps and hook up to your plex server. Once you’re done, browse your library, press play and then airplay to your Apple TV.

  3. iOS and Chromecast Exactly the same as above!

Now, there are some disadvantages and advantages to streaming.

Disadvantages: From what I understand, adding Airplay into the mix does have a slight performance hit. Not that I’ve seen it, though. I’m only generally streaming 720 rather 1080 resolution, so the file sizes are coming up against network limitations. I do expect this to change in the coming years as resolution increases. Advantages: It’s a breeze. I use my Plex app on my iPad, choose a film or TV show I want to watch and then just stream it via Airplay. When I’m travelling, I take a Chromecast with me to plug into the TV and stream to that (more on that in another post).

‘Hacking’ the Apple TV

Currently there is no native app for the Apple TV, but there is a way to get around this by ‘hacking’ the Trailers app to directly browse your content on your plex server using PlexConnect or OpenPlex. Now, there’s a lot to read to get up to speed on this, so I’d recommend a good look through the plex forums. I followed the instructions here to install the OSX app, add an IP address to the Apple TV (to point to the plex server) and, so far, so good.

To be honest, though, I tend to just Airplay these days. The iPad remote / Apple TV combination is quite hard to beat. It’s fast, flexible and stable.

Is this it for my digital home needs?

For a good few years now I’ve been looking for the optimum solution to this problem. My home media centre needed the following:

  • Multi-user accounts
  • Full-featured remote
  • Large file format support
  • Manage music, photos and movies
  • Fast transcoding and streaming (minimum 720)

Both iTunes, ATV Flash, Drobo (in fact, any domestic NAS) fail on all or most of these points. Plex not only ticks every single box (if it’s run on a decent machine for transcoding), but provides very broad device support, an active developer community and a really good UX for the interface.

Who knows how long I’ll stick with Plex as I do have a habit of switching this around as often as I change my email client (quite often!). But, for now, it’s working just fine!

Filed in: Personal, Media home.

It's not you, it's me

September 7th, 2014

Dear web conferences, It’s not you, it’s me. Something’s changed and it’s not your fault. I’m just on a different path to you. Maybe we’ll be friends in a while, but at the moment I just want some space to do and try other things. I still love you. But we just need a break. Love, Mark


I’m taking next year off speaking at web conferences. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, or contribute, but more that I have better things to do with my time right now. Speaking at conferences takes about two weeks per conference if it’s overseas once you factor in preparing and writing the talk, rehearsing, travel, and the conference itself. That’s two weeks away from my wife, my daughters, my new job and a team that needs me.

Two conferences the world over

What I’ve noticed this past year or so is, largely, we have two different types of web conference running the world over: small independents and larger corporate affairs. The former is generally run by one person with hoards of volunteers and is community-focussed (cheap ticket price, single track). The latter is big-budget, aimed at corporations as a training expense, maybe multi-track and has A-list speakers.

As well as these two trends, I see others in the material and the way that material is presented. ‘Corporate’ conferences expect valuable, actionable content; that is what corporations are paying for. Schlickly delivered for maximum ROI. ‘Community’ conferences have their own trends, too. Talks about people, empathy, community, and how start-ups are changing the world. Community conferences are frequently an excuse to hang out with your internet mates. Which is fine, I guess.

My problem with both of these is I’m not sure I fit anymore. I’m not what you would call a slick presenter: I ‘um’ and ‘ah’, I swear, I get excited and stumble on stage in more ways than one. Some would say I’m disrespectful to the audience I’m talking to. I’m lazy with my slides, preferring to hand-write single words and the odd picture. I’ve never used a keynote transition. I’m not really at home amongst the world’s corporate presenters who deliver scripted, rehearsed, beautifully crafted presentations. They’re great and everything, but it’s just not me. Not for the first time in my life, I don’t quite fit.

And then there’s the community conferences. I feel more at home here. Or at least I used to. This year, not so much. A lot of my friends in this industry just don’t really go to conferences that much anymore. They have family commitments, work to do, and – frankly – just aren’t that into getting pissed up in a night-club after some talks with 90% men. Younger men at that.

Time for something different

All of that may sound like I’m dissing the conference industry. That’s not my intention, but more like a realisation that, after nearly ten years at speaking at events, I think it’s time I had a little break. Time away to refresh myself, explore other industries that interest me like typography and architecture. Maybe an opportunity to present at one of these types of conferences would present itself; now that would be cool.

I know it’s a bit weird me posting about this when I could quietly just not accept any invitations to speak. To be honest, I’ve been doing that for a little while, but not for the first time, writing things down helps me clarify my position on things. For a while I was angry at web conferences in general. Angry at the content, disappointed with speakers, disappointed at myself. Then I realised, like so many times before, that when I feel like that it’s just that my ‘norm’ has changed. I’m no longer where I used to be and I’m getting my head around it.

It’s just this time, I’m going to listen to my head instead of burying it two feet in some sand.

Laters.

Filed in: Me, Conferences.

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.

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