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| Journal | The Personal Disquiet of Mark Boulton

The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

Blog Category: markboulton-co-uk


As of a couple of weeks ago, Mark Boulton Design — together with Content Strategist, Relly Annett-Baker of Supernice Studios — have been tasked with redesigning CERN’s public-facing website, and the organisation’s intranet. Most importantly, we’re helping CERN tell the right story. We’re helping the scientists and researchers at CERN (all thirty thousand of them) do their job better by providing better organisation of their internal online tools. We’re also helping with a branding project to make sure the brand is represented cohesively across the many thousands of user websites.

It’s a dream project. Seriously.

The European Organisation for Nuclear Research is based in a hap-hazard collection of buildings just outside of Geneva, Switzerland. In French, The European Organisation for Nuclear Research is known as Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire, or just simply CERN. Yes. That CERN.

Just after the second world war, several scientists from a bunch of countries (the so-called Founding Member States) got together to form an organisation to progress nuclear research. Over the years, many other countries joined the founding member states with a view to moving beyond study of the nucleus of an atom to that of high-energy particle physics.

The birth of the web

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN and needed a simple way for sharing information between researchers. The very first website created using this system is still online. Incidently, have a look at the markup (semantically, it’s as clean as a whistle). CERN is where the web was born. And I’m a web designer. And CERN is where it was born. Talk about geek-dream come true.

CERN’s culture

CERN is a collaboration. A culture of sharing, debate, discussion. We need to work in and amongst that community. We need to get to know them, how they work, how they think, who has a loud voice, who is influential, who are the key drivers of change. And so the list goes on. As such, we’ll be approaching this project openly. We’ll be working with the community in CERN rather than providing them with something.

I’ll be speaking at CERN in September about Designing for Community, and sharing some of my thoughts about designing for two very different open source communities. There will be tales of woe, intrigue, victory – but above all – a story of how, together, people make amazing things.

Our Job

It may just be likely that in the near future an announcement will come out of CERN that will fundamentally change our understanding of the universe. That’s an important story to tell. Not only that, but it’s an important story for CERN to tell to the right people, in the right way.

We’re so excited to have the opportunity to work with some of the smartest people on the planet. To be working on a website that will communicate such rich and valuable stories from recent human scientific endeavours is both exhilarating and terrifying. And, to boot, we’ll be working on the project openly within the CERN community of scientists and staff. As I mentioned, the culture of CERN is one that we simply couldn’t do the ‘designer locks themselves in a room for three months’ type of project. We need their help every step of the way, and we’ll be sharing our work as we go.

Like I said; terrifying. But, I keep telling myself, if you don’t wake up and feel slightly scared about your life, it means you’re in a rut. Feeling scared is about risk. And risk is what keeps us moving forward.

Out of the comfort-zone and around a 17 mile collider at nearly the speed of light.

Filed in: design, markboulton-co-uk. on August 2nd, 2011

Saying No

Over on the Five Simple Steps blog, Alex Morris (our User Experience Design Director at Mark Boulton Design) has posted a piece on why we don’t give away free multi-format books, and why producing good quality eBooks takes time.

Deep within this post is one line that pretty much sums up the ethos behind what we should all be doing as designers and business owners:

Saying no is an important thing for any company that cares about their products.

We say ‘no’ every day. In fact, more than we say ‘yes’. Saying no:

  • is a place to begin constructive discussion
  • gives you the power to retain your integrity
  • generally leads to things being better (products, your sanity, your design work, your clients, your projects)
  • gives you balance in your life

Everybody wants to please other people. Even now, I struggle with saying no. I’m too generous with my time. Too eager to please my family, friends, clients and customers. Everytime I say ‘yes’, when I’d rather say ‘no’, is time away from myself. And, if you’re like me, time to yourself is what keeps you sane.

So, do yourself a favour. Say no.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. Additional: personal-2 on June 10th, 2011

Welcome Nathan and Colin

I don’t often talk about work on this blog, but today is the exception. We’re enjoying a particularly busy time at Mark Boulton Design. We’re working on some great projects for some fantastically great clients – from major global sport and news organisations, to open source content management systems. We’re so busy, in fact, we need more people. In February this year, we advertised for a designer and an Apprentice web designer. We got a lot of interest in both positions which is great.

Welcome Nathan

Nathan Ford wrote to me a couple of weeks after advertising the position. Nathan currently works at Unit Interactive, alongside none other than Andy Rutledge. Andy and I have exchanged emails over the years. I read his blog, he reads mine. We both started small design studios at around about the same time. I’ve got a lot of time for Andy, and knew straight away that anyone who’s been working for him for three years will be something pretty special.

As it happens, I’ve known of Nathan for a while too. I’ve read articles he’s published, follow him on Dribbble and Twitter. I like what he has to say and the work he produces. We’re also thrilled he’s taking the opportunity to move to the UK with his wife and work with us in South Wales.

Exciting times ahead, and I can’t wait. Welcome Nathan!

Welcome Colin

When we announced the Apprenticeship position at Mark Boulton Design, it caused a bit of a ripple in our small industry. Fed up with the idea of internships, we wanted to commit to someone. We wanted to educate throughout a fixed two year contract, where the apprentice would be working on real projects from day one. Projects that matter to us. Projects that we hope will matter to them.

Well, from the that first tweet, we got a lot of responses. In fact, we had about 50 from as far away as Alice Springs in Australia, and as close as Cardiff.

In the end – and it was a very close thing – Colin Kersley got the job. Here’s a photograph of one of his ‘hand-written application’:

He’s smart, funny, creative, hungry, and a damn good illustrator. We’re very happy to have him on board. Welcome Colin!

With Colin and Nathan starting at Mark Boulton Design I’m fulfilling a bit of a dream that I had for the company when I first started. We’re growing a team of some of the best talent the industry has to offer, and also committing and giving back to the local community.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. on April 26th, 2011

A sneaky peek: Codex

Over the past week or so, I’ve had the absolute pleasure of having a sneaky peek at an upcoming typography journal that promises to blow your mind. Created by typographic tour-de-force, John Boardley – of I Love Typography fame – and my good friend, Carolyn Wood (Editor-in-Chief), Codex is nothing short of incredible. Firstly, let me tell you this: it is stunning. Beautifully crafted; both in prose and design. This is more than a journal, it’s a work of art.

Codex spread

Codex drop caps spread

In their own words:

“Codex is a hybrid of magazine and journal. Beautifully designed, visually appealing, an immersive experience with a lively voice, it is also serious about its subject: authoritative, scholarly at times, but not dry in tone. It’s serious, but not stuffy. It loves the people, tools, and type associated with this craft, from the man carving beautiful cherubim into wood blocks in the 1400s to brilliantly formed modern interpretations and departures. It embraces the web and is watchful for the future’s classics.”

As a member of the International Society of Typographic Designers, I receive their journal on an annual basis. The content is engaging, deeply respectful of the craft, its roots and future direction. If there’s one criticism I have, is that the journal has yet to provide me with any worthwhile content about typography on the web. Typography is a craft that permeates so many design disciplines, and there needs to be a regularly published journal that covers that breadth. Codex promises to do that, and so much more. I for one can’t wait.

The website opens tomorrow for pre-orders. Do yourself a favour, order one.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. on April 26th, 2011

The Making of Tron: Legacy

I’ve not seen the film yet, but judging from this short video, it looks visually stunning:

The Making of Tron: Legacy from Michael Keane on Vimeo.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. Additional: films on January 4th, 2011

Five Simple Workshops

A couple of weeks ago, the small indie publisher I’m a co-founder of announced some workshops we’re running in January 2011. Three days of intensely practical learning in London.

Five Simple Workshops

This is your chance to go beyond the books of Donna Spencer’s ‘A Practical Guide to Information Architecture’ with a full day workshop, or Brian Suda’s ‘Designing with Data’ for a half day of visualising data.

Upcoming authors, Leisa Reichelt and Relly Annett-Baker will also be running half-day workshops on ‘Strategic UX’ and ‘Words and pictures: Copy and the design process’ respectively.

Oh, and I’ll be airing some of the material from my new upcoming book on Grid Systems in another half day workshop.

If you fancy coming make sure you book now before the Early Bird tickets run out.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. on December 8th, 2010

New design

Last week, I spent a productive week near Lagos, Portugal, finishing my upcoming book. As part of this book, I’ve spent time working on a canon of page construction for websites –- a set of guidelines for aesthetically pleasing layouts — and this blog design is built using those rules.

What’s wrong with the previous design?

Nothing. As a design exercise — using just Georgia and emulating letterpress books –- it was a good one. The drop caps that I had commissioned where great (and not going to waste, incidently. I have other plans for those). But, the single page homepage view was restrictive. It was forcing me into writing articles rather than blog posts as every post had to be worthy of just one page. A multiple view of blog posts just didn’t work with the design. All of this added up to a redesign. Plus, the opportunity to tie it into some of the thinking i’ve been doing with book was too much of an opportunity.

A case for design exploration

This blog is a place for me to experiment. For me to post things I like, or want to reference. To write about all manner of stuff that interests me. Over the past couple of years, my blog hasn’t felt my own, to a degree. It’s felt like I’ve been writing for an audience, posting stuff for others rather than myself. That’s arse-backwards. A blog should be about personal expression. The moment you start thinking, and writing, to please others then it’s a bind; it feels less like a personal exercise and more of a job. That’s what happened, and actually, that leads me onto the next point…

What no comments?

Nope. No comments. I think, by and large, the time has past whereby comment threads provide useful discourse. Twitter’s now the place where people directly talk to me. I may turn comments on for the odd post, but they’ll mostly be off.


I did toy with the idea of ditching Wordpress altogether and heading over to Tumblr as the software modelled pretty much exactly how I wanted to start blogging again. But after a period of trying to fathom out the best approach, I thought I’d stick with Wordpress and use Feedwordpress to pull in my Delicious bookmarks. This means, as I’m browsing, I can quickly fire off a link to Delicious, tag it, add a description and it’ll appear here.

So, that’s about it. Nothing spectacular. A touch of responsive design thrown in, the outstanding HTML5 Boilerplate, Elliot’s Starkers theme and a wee bit of Typekit. It’s probably bust in a few places, and it’s just bare bones in others. But, it’s start.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. on November 29th, 2010

Zeroing the desk

I’ve been meaning to redesign my blog for a little while. Not because I don’t like the previous design (far from it, in fact), but because I need a place of design expression, not just a place of written expression. This blog is my place to do what I like just for the sake of it. Last week, Brendan Dawes inspired me to zero my desk - a term used to describe what a sound engineer does to the mixing desk at the end of the day. Everything goes to neutral. That’s what I’m doing.

Normal service will be resumed in the ‘morning’.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. on October 3rd, 2010

On defining UX

Well, what a week that was. Off the back of a wonderful dConstruct came a timely discussion (either well-timed, or ill-timed depending on your point of view) between Ryan Carson and the UX community (rebuttals from Andy Budd and Cennydd Bowles).

As usual, it’s polarised opinion. But now - a few days later - more thoughtful discussion is beginning to take place.

It all started with one tweet:

UX Professional’ is a bullshit job title. It’s just a way to over-charge naive clients. All web designers should be UX pros

Admittedly, I think Ryan’s timing was a little off given Clearleft had just advertised they were looking to hire a Senior UX Designer. That said, this discussion does continue to bubble up the surface every now and then. Last year, I tweeted:

Since when did good web design suddenly get called ‘UX’? Everywhere I look now, good UI design is called ‘UX’, good type = ‘UX’, Colour? UX.

Jeremy followed it up stating why he doesn’t care about UX:

If someone claims to be a web designer but isn’t considering the user experience, they are deluding themselves. UX, like accessibility, should be a given, not a differentiating factor. And that’s why I don’t care about UX.

I think this is what Ryan was getting at. In fact, it was confirmed in an update to a post over at Think Vitamin:

I still strongly believe that if the lead web designer on a project needs someone who specializes in UX because they don’t have a good understanding of solid UX principles, then they shouldn’t call themselves a web designer. Web Design and UX are not two separate disciplines, and UX is not something you add to a project because you have a large budget.

I don’t agree with the first bit. I fall in that category of designer; I work with UX professionals every day. Researchers, Information Architects, Interaction & UX Designers. And I get UX. I work with other people to provide a better service to my clients. I’m not an information architect. And, if you’ve ever worked with a good one, on a project that required it, then you’d probably agree with me. Understanding the principles of something can in no way replace an experienced professional.

To me, this is a discussion of semantics. Let me explain my point of view.

UX is a few things:

  • It’s an overarching principle and practice of web design. ie. you should design for your user’s experience and that should just be part of what you do.
  • It’s a profession. Information architects, interaction designers, researchers, academics. They are all UX professionals and not necessarily involved in the broad process, but are a cog in the machine.
  • A buzzword. Like many things that started out new in this industry, the practitioners promote it, differentiate themselves, this gains traction with clients and then the term is popularised and diluted. As Cennydd says, this worries some people as it undermines their value and expertise. Incidently, as I recall, this happened to ‘graphic design’ in the 80’s, ‘web design’ in the late 90’s and now it’s happening to UX. In some industries, it’s why professional bodies are put in place. To ensure a level of professional association with a term given to both someone’s job and an industry.

What we’re seeing is a maturing of a term that represents different things. It represents something different for our clients, to the web industry as a whole and to the subset of professionals who have been practicing user experience design for the past 20 years.

Just like the debate about whether designers should be able to write HTML, this discussion is just not as black and white as everyone is making out. There’s a whole lot of grey in there.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. on September 6th, 2010

Something's afoot

I’ve just updated to Wordpress 3.0 without a problem (which was nice, and actually made a nice change). Why? Well, things are a changing here. I’ve got itchy feet and all this talk of responsive web design has got me all excited about possibilities again.

Stay tuned.

Filed in: markboulton-co-uk. Additional: design, this-site on July 1st, 2010