The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Al Jazeera & Content shelf-life

January 28th, 2014

From speaking at the phenomenal MK Geek Night All Dayer, to launching a project three years in the making for Al Jazeera, the releasing a new design language for one of the oldest university in London, to Mark Boulton Design being nominated in four categories in the Net Awards. It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

Last week, I was up in London visiting a client when I heard that another project of ours was to be launched shortly. It was part of a project we’ve been working on for just over three years: the global design language for Al Jazeera Network digital, with the first two products being launched in Turkey and a beta of the Arabic news channel.

There is so much to talk about on a project of this scale. Here are just a few highlights:

  • Spending time with journalists and the newsroom to understand how news is reported.
  • Working with Al Jazeera during the Arab Spring; from the uprising in Egypt to Libya.
  • Course-correcting throughout the project. Responsive Design wasn’t really a thing three years ago.
  • Designing in four languages – Arabic, English, Turkish and Slavic – when the MBD team primarily speaks one.
  • Adopting an Object Oriented approach from content through to code. Modular, transferrable and scalable. It required a level of detailed thought right down to how content types were defined in the CMS.
  • Working with three development partners across three independent content management systems.

I could go on and on. And I probably will at some point. Needless to say, none of the above could achieved without a patient, smart and agile client-side team. Good job the Al Jazeera team are just that.

There are many buzz words you could label this project with: content-first, responsive, atomic, OOCSS. Again, I could go on. But the one thing that was first, central and always through prototyping and early strategy was good research. It was a research-first project. That probably won’t come as a surprise to some of you given we have our own in-house researcher, Emma. What may come as a surprise, however, is the degree in which that early research led approach laid the foundation for a fundamental shift in how Al Jazeera thought about their content.

Content shelf-life.

Many news journalists think of their content as a few distinct types:

  • Rolling news: Typically taken straight from the wire and edited over time to fit the growing needs of the story.
  • Editorial: Longer form piece. Still highly topical and timely.
  • Op-ed: Opinion piece from a named author.
  • Feature: A story. With a beginning, a middle and an end. Long-form content, and not necessarily timely.

These can all be mapped to timeliness; both in terms of how long they take to create and their editorial time-life. The more timely a piece, the shorter it takes to create and the shorter the shelf-life.

  • Rolling news: timely, short shelf-life.
  • Editorial: timely, long-form, short to mid shelf-life.
  • Op-ed: Long-form, mid shelf-life.
  • feature: Long-form, long shelf-life.

Publication schedules are often focussed around this creation with journalists having several pieces of the different types in various degrees of completion to various deadlines focussed on different stories. This is a comfortable mental model, one that newspapers have been arranged around for decades. But it isn’t necessarily how users of websites look for content. Users will not typically look for a type of content, but will look for a context of a story first: the topic.

The new information architecture of the Al Jazeera platform has been built around a topic-first approach. But also, the modular content and design allows for the rapid changing of display of the news as a topic or news story moves through the various content types. It’s a design system, connected to a CMS that accommodates what news naturally does. It changes.

The Design System

The whole platform is built on top of Gridset using modular design principles. The content is modular and multifaceted, designed for re-use, as is the design. For years now at Mark Boulton Design, we’ve not designed websites, but an underpinning design system with naming conventions, rules, patterns. This is particularly useful when many CMS software thinks of content objects in this way. Our systematic thinking can applied all the way through CMS integration. Software engineers love designers giving them rules.

It’s funny, we seem to have just discovered this in web design, but many other design disciplines have been approaching their work in this way for decades. Some for centuries. Take typography, for example. The design process of creating a typographic design is systematic thinking at its purest. Designing heading hierarchies and the constituent parts of written language can be approached in an abstracted way. This is exactly the right approach when designing for other languages.

Arabic has obvious challenges for an English-speaker. Not only is it written right to left, but the glyphs are non-roman. To approach this as a English-speaker, we needed to create tools and process to help. Words no longer look like words, but shapes of words. Page designs no longer look like familiar blocks of text, type hierarchy and colour. We saw form more than we saw function.

Just the start

Three years is a long time to work on a project. I’m so delighted to finally see the design system in the wild. For such a long time, we only saw it in prototype form, but you can only take prototypes so far. We needed to pressure-test content types, see where it breaks, adjust a hundred and one small details to make it work. All of this just underpins the fact that now the system is being rolled out, there needs to be changes made every day to evolve the system. This is the web after-all. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Filed in: Design, Projects, Al jazeera.

The story is the link

January 6th, 2014

2013 brought with it more work in and amongst editorial processes for Mark Boulton Design. And with it, some challenges designing systems that can react to the speed of the story.

News happens quickly and therefore needs to be captured quickly. This is why news organisations have latched onto the immediacy of publishing platforms like Twitter, blogs, Instagram and the like. The flow from story to pixel is dramatically reduced compared to incombant editorial processes. Sure, journalists will cry of the death of proper journalism; story-telling will suffer at the hands of snippets of information drip-fed to hungry millenials. We’ve all heard the horror stories. The truth is that these services allow for a story to happen in near real-time, and as such, the emphasis on an editor’s work is no longer writing, but on guiding, the story. Creating connections between content to build a bigger picture in the reader’s mind, but, certainly, in a near-live environment, many news organisations are not authoring this content; it’s being created elsewhere by other people.

I’ve had a long-standing professional interest in content management systems. I’ve designed a few along the way, and almost without exception, the project has started as a software design project, and ended up a process design problem. The problems lie with people, not with user interfaces or technology.

In his recent post How to design a CMS for a modern newsroom, Lee Simpson from the Guardian eloquently describes the situation:

So much has changed in the ‘electronic publishing’ landscape in the last year. For every month of 2013 there was a hot new writing application, hip new publishing platform or collaboration silver bullet for writers, newsrooms and media organisation to run through the mill. Tools and applications for content publishing had matured in such a short period of time, individually they lacked the cross workflow power to be of complete use to a newsroom like The Guardian’s, but collectively it was starting to look a lot more interesting.

He goes on to say:

The software requirements for a modern, paper producing newsroom, are vast. The needs of the newsroom are increasingly difficult to define due to the nuances in production processes across desks, publications and offices, a moving target that is getting faster by the day.

In my experience, the faster and more important a story was, the less likely it was to follow established processes – especially where convoluted and difficulty to use software was concerned. It quickly devolved into Post-it Notes, hushed whispers and hurried editing. News journalists are human, and sometimes the speed of the story is just too fast for software. It gets in the way.

Given the change in how this type of content is created, curated, edited, processed and published, more and more organisations are finding they need new tools. New content management systems to help solve their publishing problems. My fear is, they’re looking in the wrong place.


Last year, I spoke at Handheld conference about how content is created over time. How a story moves from being a snowflake to a snowball; gathering pace, other content, debris. Before an editor knows it, the story is no longer a page, but a bunch of different things: links, images, words, video, other articles, tweets, blog posts. The list goes on. But they all share two things in common: the topic of the story, and the link between them. This is where I feel we need to focus our attention.

The hyperlink is at the very core of what the web is: an interconnected hyperlinked bunch of resources. The hyperlink is everything to the web, yet it is the thing we take the least care of. URLs die. Links rot. This isn’t a post about digital preservation, or a rant about how we should be taking care of these links for future generations, but that we should be taking care of them now!. As I hope I’ve demonstrated, the link between content is going to become increasingly important as we create more fragmented and modular content for display in multiple contexts. If we don’t look after these links, the story will be lost. Because the story isn’t a page anymore. The story is the link.


Modern content management systems should be focussed on exposing links between content. Making it easy for editors and journalists to make connections between things and not just when a story is created; stories live over many days, weeks, months or years. Modern content management systems should allow for constant editorial iteration and creation by showing the links between things.

It’s interesting to me to see this happen in a parallel industry. Just as designers and developers are struggling to adapt to the increasingly rapid changing web, writers and journalists are, too. Creating news content for the web is no longer about writing a page and hitting publish. It requires a fastidious approach to content curation over a longer period of time. It means being where your readers are; Twitter, Facebook, the TV. It requires pulling together all the various fragments of a story into a cohesive narrative. Now, does that sound like your CMS is designed to help? No. I thought not.

Filed in: Content management systems, Responsive design.

Some social good

January 1st, 2014

I was going to do a usual year-end wrap up for this blog post as I have done in previous years. But, as it’s the start of the new year already, I thought set my stall out for the coming year. What do I want to do, rather than what have a just done.

A couple of days ago, I was reminded of a video I watched a while ago about Free Enterprise via my friend Andy Rutledge.

“Don’t Eat Your Dog: The Surprising Moral Case for Free Enterprise. Based on his best-selling book “The Road to Freedom,” AEI President Arthur C. Brooks explains how we can win the fight for free enterprise by articulating what’s written on our hearts.”

I’m always interested in how other country’s politics, viewpoints and economics work, and this was no exception. Rather than to bat down things like capitalism, I’m making a concerted effort to understand the nuance in such things.

As someone who runs a design studio, a publishing company and a web-based design tool, you could count me in the group of people who work hard for what I get. And I’m rewarded for that. I don’t expect a free ride. I don’t expect anything beyond the realms of what is offered in the country I live in (such as state health care and education etc. In fact, I pay for that through my taxes – the NHS is not free). But before I disappear into a politics hole, I want to bring this back to design.

Running a design company, we charge clients for the work we do and for the customers who use our products and buy our books. In doing so, we create jobs, and more tax revenue for the government. But one thing I don’t agree with from the video above is that what i’m doing is a purely selfish exercise. I’m not just doing business to pay the bills, design great products for clients, and give people work to do. To me, there is more to making things than just making things.

I believe my job is not only about doing work for clients but that I have a social responsibility to make the world a better place through the work I do. Design is a powerful tool to affect social change. However small.

Let me give you an example.

You’re out for a walk at lunchtime. You come at a road crossing and there is a family by your side waiting to cross the road. The crossing indicator is counting down the seconds, but you spot a small gap in the traffic for you to cross. You just skip across the road, running in between cars and carry on. The family is left waiting for a safe gap in the traffic.

Do you:

  1. Think that what you did was fine? It was safe for you to cross. No problem.

or

  1. Do you think that you should’ve waited next to the family to build upon the good example the parents were trying to show to their small children that they should wait for a safe gap in the traffic to cross?

It’s a small but important thing. And this is social responsibility. A responsibility to help the community around you, and not through just helping yourself. Next time you take on a design project, just stop for a second and think:

“beyond getting paid for this, and making my client’s business better, what is the benefit in doing this work? What is the social good?”

In addition to the work itself, ask them if you could blog about the process, or speak about the work at a conference. If it’s something you really believe in, could you offer do it pro-bono, or heavily discounted? Could you open source the code produced? How about aspects of the design – such as icons? Could you have one of their team members sit with your team for the whole project to soak up your skills? How could you benefit the web design and development community and still get paid well?

We’re in an incredibly fortunate position as designers to create change in the world. Many people can’t. Or simply won’t. Through our products, our work, and how we talk about it, we can have a much greater benefit to society that just lining our pockets.

This is exactly what I plan on doing in 2014. Happy New Year!

Filed in: Me, 2014.

Running ragged

December 24th, 2013

In my fourth article for 24ways over the years, I wrote about typesetting the right rag.

One of the first little typesetting trips I was taught – in my internship at an advertising agency – all those years ago, was how to make text fit within a given space, but still read well. This involved a dance of hyphenation, letter-spacing, leading and type-size. But a crucial ingredient of this recipe was the soft-return.

Scanning a piece of text I was looking for certain criteria – or violations – that needed a soft-return (or, in Quark XPress, shift-return). Using those violations, I would typeset the right-rag of the piece of text, and then use hyphenation, and what-not, to tease the rag into as smooth a line as possible. All whilst ensuring the content was pleasurable to read. In a perverse kind of way, I always enjoyed this part of the typesetting process.

My article on 24ways is about how we can apply this thinking to the web, where the inherent lack of control on the medium means we have to apply things in a slightly different (read: clumsy) way.

Emma read the article this morning and pretty much summed up the way I feel when I read text sometimes.

“Another article by @markboulton which gives me a glimpse into how broken the world looks through his eyes” – Emma Boulton

Just like a musician listens to music, I view text in a different way to most people. I just forget that I do it most of the time.

I can hardly believe that 24ways has been running since 2005. In the web years, that’s like 72 years ago. It’s a credit to Drew, Brian, Anna, and Owen. It’s not easy running this year in, year out, on a daily publishing schedule for a month. Hours and hours of work go into this, and we should all be thankful for their time and effort. Oh, and let’s not forget Paul, who has given 24ways a lovely redesign this year (you can read more about that on his blog)

Filed in: Typography, 24ways, Design.

My Do Lecture

December 22nd, 2013

In April 2013, I spoke at the Do Lectures in West Wales.

The video of my talk, about embracing change, is now available to watch.

I’ve written about being at the Do Lectures before; it’s a special place, an intimidatingly smart audience, and generally freezing. This video doesn’t do justice to how cold I was there up on the stage. Should’ve worn my coat.

If you fancy attending – some would say – a life-changing little conference, Do are running an event in Australia in April. Do yourself a favour and grab a ticket.

Filed in: Speaking, Dolectures, Process.

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