Blog Category: personal
To me, this is all design. This is all my work.
… And long may it continue.
There is a gardening TV presenter on UK TV called Christine Walkden. She’s from the north of England and has a wonderful turn of phrase. A few years ago, she was presenting Chelsea Flower Show on BBC TV and – whilst discussing the merits (or lack thereof) of some modern garden designs and designers she said something that has stuck with me. A single phrase which I think encompasses what it means to learn and practice a craft:
I’m not sure about a lot of these fancy designs and designers. For me, you have to spend some time with your hands in the dirt.
She was talking about learning by doing. Knowing your materials. Putting the time in.
I moved house a few weeks ago. I went from a modern house with all modern trappings: heating, insulation, double glazing – things I’d come to expect as a bare minimum. I moved to a 250 year old Welsh cottage. There is double glazing, but it’s 20 years old and crap. There’s no damp proof course. There was barely any loft insulation and the walls are two feet thick stone. It’s cold. There are drafts. To combat this, there is a wood burning stove and over a few short weeks, as Jack Frost starts nipping, I’ve grown to love burning wood to keep myself warm.
Burning oil or gas in a big mechanised boiler abstracts the value you get from heating. You pay for your supply, it burns in a big white box, and your house gets warm. With wood, you have to care for it. You have to chop it then season it for at least a year to remove the moisture. You only get out what you put in when caring for your wood supply, otherwise – as I’ve found out – you’ll find yourself either without any wood at all, or crap wood that won’t burn and soot up your chimney. These are all problems you don’t have to think about when owning a modern house. But recently – oh, maybe in the last week or so – I’ve started to look at these as just the process, not the problems.
Owning an old house brings with it a responsibility. Not only of looking after it, restoring it, giving the building what it needs, but also a responsibility to learn new skills in order to do that. For me that means buying a decent axe, learning how to store wood well and looking after my chimney. And there are a hundred and one of these new things I have to pick up to run this old house. At first, it was getting me down. But now, I’m realising it’s a process I can’t rush and I have to spend some time with my hands in the dirt.
Mr Katzmarzyk was my art teacher in high school. A fresh-faced man in his 40’s, he was a pivotal influence on me learning some of the craft of art and design I still use today. He taught me 3-point perspective, pencil techniques like cross-hatching, colour theory, how to see tone and line. But the single most important lessons he taught me – back in 1984 – was to be patient with my work, to discard first ideas, and to look at my work with a view to removing, rather than to adding. Pretty heavy lessons for an 11 year old. But they stuck fast. He would have me redraw and redraw the same still life study, not with a view of perfecting, but to explore the subject and the way I was representing it. Every time, the drawing was more simple, elegant and efficient.
He also taught me about noise. Noise in my work, noise in my technique. He described efficiency of thought and process in a way my child-like brain could grasp. He taught me that by doing less, we can get to something in our work so much more appealing. And that underpinning concept is something that I realised only recently I refer to almost every day. It’s in my design DNA. I can still smell the power paint as he told me:
“Doing more is easier than doing less”.
And that’s it.
When someone hires me for my work, they’re not paying me for what I give them. They’re paying for what I don’t give them: the iteration, the obvious ideas, the sub-optimal solutions, the years of experience, the learning I do. They’re paying me to make mistakes, to produce work that isn’t quite right so I can get to right. I rarely get to right first time.
I may produce more quantity of work this way, but the end result is always less than when I started. More simple, elegant, efficient.
When designing a user interface ask yourself not ‘what does this need?’, but ‘what can this do without?’. As Brendan Dawes says: ‘Boil, Reduce, Simmer’. Remove, iterate, remove some more. Sleep on it. Come back in a day or so. Chances are, you’ll need to remove some more. Get back to the essence of the materials you’re working with.
So, for all of this, when someone asks me what they get. I tell them: they’ll get less, but they’ll get better. And for that, thank you Mr Katzmarzyk.
Ideas Of March
Last year, Chris Shiflett — together with a few other people — decided to get behind blogging again and post a series of posts called ‘Ideas of March’. What followed, throughout March, was some exciting and insightful reading. Having an initiative to blog around seemed to help get people away from Twitter and back to blogs again. I did it, too. And it helped.
I’ve been blogging – on and off – since 2003. That’s close to 10 years (!) and I still find it a useful way of capturing my thoughts. The very act of writing something down for other people to read is a process I enjoy: often it means taking disparate pieces of information, thoughts, conversations and compiling it all into some kind of order. But along the way, there’s been a problem for me. Blogging started to be about other people instead of myself.
When I write longer articles, or I get more people reading them, I can very quickly start writing to their expectations. I begin thinking more about an article as a design problem needing to be solved for a particular audience, rather than a simple creative outlet – just for me, nobody else.
Since last March, I’ve blogged the most i’ve done since 2007. I think that’s not only a reflection of me being more selfish with my approach and understanding – finally – that blogging is part of my creative expression. I don’t write because I want to, I do it because I need to. And it’s taken me the longest time to understand that. But also, I’ve blogged more because I feel there’s been more to say. We’re wrestling with some exciting problems right now, and half of the articles I’ve written have been as a direct result of heated discussion in the Mark Boulton Design studio, or from Twitter.
Twitter is no comparison to blogging. That’s not to say it’s not useful. For me, Twitter is the point of fertilisation of ideas, debate or discussion. Brief conversations that happen there are often where ideas are sown, but it’s here — on this blog — where those ideas are nurtured and grown into something more. The very act of considering what I write is what makes my blog an integral part of my design toolkit.
As with all the Ideas of March posts today, this is just a promise to myself. A promise that I’ll continue to understand why I write, and therefore, not stop. For me, writing about design, and the problems I face with it, is as important as the work itself.
I’m not usually one for talking about how criticism affects people: either on Twitter, at conferences or elsewhere.
I am of course talking about the community’s reaction to a few of us getting together in London yesterday for the Responsive Summit. Yes, yes. Stupid name.
But today, I’ve had enough.
- Repeatedly attacking someone, or a group of people, for trying to do the right thing is not cool.
- Inferring that a bunch of friends and peers are elitist simply because they decided to get together to talk about something is not cool.
- Expecting said people to ignore personal and professional attacks is not cool.
- Expecting said people to ‘not be defensive’ is not cool. How would you feel?
- Think. Would you really say some of those things to people’s faces?
Attacking someone on Twitter is like a verbal drive-by: it’s at a distance and you don’t stick around to see the consequences.
I’d like to ask you how you would feel? Personally, I attended yesterday’s meeting leaving a sick family in Cardiff – who could really have done with me being there. I went because I felt it was important: not for me, my business, but for this period in time of web design. People have said it before, it feels like just before Web Standards happened. I was there for that, but wasn’t directly involved. I have a chance to be involved in this, and I’m trying any way I can to help. I ask those people: what are you doing?
This isn’t really about me feeling sorry for myself. For once, I’m reacting to being attacked. The notion of ‘not feeding the trolls’ is equivalent to saying to a victim of bullying: ‘oh, just ignore them’. At some point, you have to stand up for who you are, what you believe and defend yourself. Because if you don’t, who’s going to?
To answer some of the concerns that come up again and again about yesterday:
- ‘Summit’: Yes, we know it was a dumb name, and we’re sorry.
- ‘Elitist wankers’: It wasn’t invite only, people asked to attend and they did.
- ‘Why wasn’t I invited?’: It was a small room, so the whole internet couldn’t fit. It was pulled together very quickly.
- ‘What did you talk about?’: We’re going to blog about what we discussed.
- We’re collaborating on techniques and tools.
- We’re not telling anyone how to do stuff and deciding your fate (how could we even do that?)
I’m finishing off a long blog post about yesterday covering some of the things we discussed about workflow, and talking about how we work here at Mark Boulton Design. I’ll post that later today.
Backups, Networks and a Digital Home
Since I’ve been using computers, I’ve been unfortunate enough to have quite a few of them to fail on me. Usually mechanical failures. Failures that start with a ‘can you smell that smoke?’, or ‘Can you hear that rattling noise?’. You know the kind? The kind of failures that never end well.
Over the years, I’ve had the following either blow up, splutter and die, melt, catch fire, or just simply stop working:
- 1 graphics card
- 2 Power units
- 1 LCD screen inverter
- 2 Logic boards
- 2 RAM controllers
- 4 hard drives
It’s the last in the list that has caused me the most pain and anguish. Since then, I’ve been paranoid about finding a good, sensible, relatively cost-effective way of ensuring that when hard drives die — and they do — that I won’t lose any data. Losing work is bad enough, but losing precious photographs, or your entire music collection is worse.
A Digital Home in 2005
In 2005, Emma and I made the decision to sell our DVD and CD players, digitise all of our DVDs, tapes, CDs, records and stuff. Declutter our shelves from all this crap and go completely digital. To do this we needed a few things:
- Some kind of Network Attached Storage (NAS) with ample room
- A way to back that up
- Apple TV or some kind of media player attached to our TV and amplifier
I went back and forth on several solutions, but opted for Apple TV in the end. Simply because we can buy shows and music, rent films and it’s easy. For a while, I used a Lacie RAID server (2TB storage) that doubled up as my work backup when I started freelancing. It was a decent bit of kit and has lasted very well (we still use it at Mark Boulton Design now). What was lacking in all of this was a backup. The NAS was expensive, so I couldn’t afford two. It was RAID, which eased my fears somewhat (until the controller actually went a few months ago).
So, I did without backup. Luckily for me, there’s no bad ending to this little story. There could have been. The drive lasted well but our media was outgrowing our storage, and I needed a way of expanding it, plus the nagging in my head that I could have some kind of hardware failure and lose everything.
A Digital home in 2012
Last year, I reorganised our storage. I bought a 4TB RAID G-Technology drive (they’re excellent), which was hooked up to my iMac and I kept my iTunes and iPhoto libraries on there. I had an old Airport Express which I put in the kitchen attached to a B&W Mini Zeppelin (which have to be heard to be believed: stunningly rich sound for a small unit), and an Apple TV in both the living room and the bedroom. These have both been ‘flashed’ with aTV Flash.
I’ve been using aTV flash for a few years, ever since using it on my first gen Apple TV. It provides a bunch of additional features, but by far the most useful to me is the media player which plays different file formats and also has an automatic hook into IMDB for importing meta data.
But what about backups?
Still the nagging in my head continued. We have all of our digital files sitting on one drive. Movies, music, TV shows, but most importantly our photographs. Photographs of the moments both of our children were born, our wedding, holidays, of people no longer with us. Photos I just couldn’t lose.
Last year, I sat down and had a good think about the best way to back all of this up that wouldn’t cost me an arm and a leg. I opted for buying another 4TB drive which mirrored my library and would backup daily using SuperDuper. That took care of drive failure in the primary drive. But, what about if there was a double drive failure, or a fire or flood? I decided that the photos were most precious and I would back these up to Amazon S3 nightly using Arq. Of course, with the addition of iTunes Match late last year, my music also now had a cloud backup option. Work and documents are backed up to Dropbox, and I have Backblaze on continueous backup.
There we have it. Paranoid? Probably.
Of course, for the backups, you could opt for something simpler; like a Time Machine and Capsule. Or you could buy a DAT tape drive. Or backup everything to Amazon S3. or just use iCloud for all your documents and photos. That’s the thing; there are so many bewildering choices out there for such an important aspect of consuming all your media in digital form. It’s so bewildering, the size of the data in question is so large, that most people don’t bother. Until it’s too late.
After six years the nagging in my head is slightly reduced. As I said at the beginning of this post, I’ve had hardware fail many times before. I’ve lost data. I’ve lost work in the many tens of thousands of pounds that had to be recreated. If your media is primarily digital, spending a few hundred pounds, and putting in place a good scheduled backup solution, could save you the heartache of losing data in the future.
White, Yellow, Orange, Red
When I was 16, I was mugged. I was taking a shortcut home from a friends house. It was winter, and dark, and I passed by a man in an alley way. He asked me the time. As I looked down to my wrist, he punched me once on the side of the face, he then tried to get my wallet from my pocket. It was a horrible experience, but at least he only used his fists. It could’ve been worse, as I told myself over and over again during the following months.
From that time until about ten years ago now, I taught, and practiced Martial Arts. Specifically: freestyle karate, kick boxing and capoeira. Since then I’ve done a fair amount of other fighting styles and systems; from boxing to MMA. I’m not training at the moment, but may well return to it. In all honestly, martial art thinking (not necessarily practice) is such a part of my life now, I don’t think I’ll ever give it up.
Throughout my time teaching, I’d been involved in several self-defence courses: both in university and in the work place. Central to our teaching back then was not necessarily the tools or techniques to effectively punch someone in the face, but to give people a deeper understanding of their own awareness.
We used a system of colour codes to describe awareness that was derived from John Dean Cooper’s ‘The Cooper Color Code’. The system does away with the notion that the best way to survive a lethal confrontation is to be a superior practitioner (in his case, a rifleman), or have better weaponry. Instead, the primary tool is that of the combat mindset. Cooper describes each state of awareness as colours starting with White:
White - Unaware and unprepared. If attacked in Condition White, the only thing that may save you is the inadequacy or ineptitude of your attacker. When confronted by something nasty, your reaction will probably be “Oh my God! This can’t be happening to me.”
Most people walk around in a pre-occupied fog for most of the day. Their mind is elsewhere: the errand they’re running, what they did last night, speaking on the phone, checking Twitter… Humans are great at giving our tasks just enough attention. The rest — looking, watching, observing, walking, breathing — is all done automatically. We also respond automatically to certain cues, questions, thoughts and external stimuli. Such as checking your watch when someone asks you the time. Don’t be in this state.
Yellow - Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation. Your mindset is that “today could be the day I may have to defend myself”. You are simply aware that the world is a potentially unfriendly place and that you are prepared to defend yourself, if necessary. You use your eyes and ears, and realize that “I may have to shoot today”. You don’t have to be armed in this state, but if you are armed you should be in Condition Yellow. You should always be in Yellow whenever you are in unfamiliar surroundings or among people you don’t know. You can remain in Yellow for long periods, as long as you are able to “Watch your six.” (In aviation 12 o’clock refers to the direction in front of the aircraft’s nose. Six o’clock is the blind spot behind the pilot). In Yellow, you are “taking in” surrounding information in a relaxed but alert manner, like a continuous 360 degree radar sweep. As Cooper put it, “I might have to shoot.”
This is about knowing what is going on around you. Engaged in your surroundings rather than dreamily ambling along checking your phone.
Orange - Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has your attention. Your radar has picked up a specific alert. You shift your primary focus to determine if there is a threat (but you do not drop your six). Your mindset shifts to “I may have to shoot that person today”, focusing on the specific target which has caused the escalation in alert status. In Condition Orange, you set a mental trigger: “If that person does “X”, I will need to stop them”. Your pistol usually remains holstered in this state. Staying in Orange can be a bit of a mental strain, but you can stay in it for as long as you need to. If the threat proves to be nothing, you shift back to Condition Yellow.
This is an elevated state. There is a specific threat — such as a small group of threatening men walking on your side of the road, coming towards you, and it’s dark. of course, this elevated state can happen in conversation, or a business meeting, or on Twitter too. Whatever can be perceived as a threat, the state you find yourself in is one where you’ve established what that threat is, and are acting upon it.
Red - Condition Red is fight. Your mental trigger (established back in Condition Orange) has been tripped. “If “X” happens I will shoot that person”.
This is the decision to engage in the threat. Either verbally or physically.
For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve been going about my day to day activities in the Yellow state. Normally I don’t recognise I’m doing it, until I’m in a new situation. This weekend was one of those.
This summer I started cycling. On the road, not mountains or footpaths. I bought a nice little bike, and we’re lucky to live in a great place to get out and explore the countryside. On Saturday, as I like to do most weekends, I wanted to get some miles in and it was an unseasonably beautiful day here in Wales. I’d been out for about an hour and was heading downhill on a main road in a residential area. As I was concentrating on the road (in my ‘Yellow’ state), suddenly a car reversed straight out into the main road without stopping for me. After slamming on the brakes I barely missed the bonnet of the car as I screeched to a halt. The driver had still not seen me. The driver was in ‘White’. And it’s my experience over the past few months, many are.
My overall point is this: be aware. Be aware of your surroundings. People around you - especially vulnerable people. Don’t think, walk — or drive — in White. It’s dangerous for you and for those around you. It’s a thoughtless state of mind.
As I was soon to find out, Do is a magical place. Nestled in the woods, it is an intimate affair: thirty speakers and eighty attendees. You sleep in tents, share your meals seated on benches, and pack into a twin-roofed teepee to listen to the talks. You think big thoughts, whilst quietly reflecting on a wooden deck overlooking natural meadows supping freshly brewed tea.
Do is also unlike every conference I’ve been to. I wouldn’t even describe it as such. It’s more like a retreat. The content of the lectures was also a wonderful mix of big things from small ideas and small beginnings from big ideas. Personal highlights for me was an emotional talk from a Midwife about maternal care in the developed world, and a rousing final lecture from Mickey Smith: a surf photographer who had never spoken before in public, yet his raw passion for his work made every stumbled word a vital part of his delivery, ending the lectures with a superb film. The Internets Frank Chimero also spoke. For those of you who haven’t heard Frank speak before, he’s like a poet. Like an American version of Richard Burton reciting ‘Under Milk Wood’. I could listen to him all day.
For me, Do was nourishing in a way I’ve not felt for a long time.
We all individually have to ask ourselves: ‘what nourishes us’? How do we grow? Is it grass-roots bar camps, or skipping from one web conference to another listening to the same people say similar things. Or is it just hanging out with your friends and peers discussing our work.
I’ve asked myself a question over the past few years: are there too many web design conferences; what value are we *really* getting from them? For a long while, I thought the market was getting too saturated, and we’ve seen signs of this ripple through the industry consciousness. People see the same people say similar things time and again. For conference organisers, it’s hard to find the right mix of experienced speakers – who will sell tickets – and people who are doing smart, interesting work, but don’t have the speaking experience. Andy Budd wrote a great blog post on this subject a few weeks ago going into great detail on the challenges organisers face.
Yet, more conferences appear throughout the world and more sell out. Our thirst for all getting together under one roof to share, collaborate, listen and grow is an overpowering need that will not go away. But, let’s ask ourselves: do we get the nourishment from the conference, or from simply being with our tribe. And if your answer is the latter, then are big, expensive web conferences the best place to just be together. If this is all really about community, then how can we do this better?
Since I began working with the Drupal community in 2008, I’ve attended – and spoken at – five DrupalCon events in Europe and the US. DrupalCon is different to other web conferences. It acknowledges that its primary purpose is for people who are working with Drupal to get together. And the result is infectious.
DrupalCon is managed by one of Mark Boulton Design’s clients, the not-for-profit association: The Drupal Association. They are independent of the software and work to market Drupal, in addition to arranging and planning the bi-annual DrupalCons. They receive donations and membership from all over the world to pay for such events, and because one of their core remits is to nurture and grow the Drupal community, they keep the ticket prices down and focus on community collaboration over big-name speakers (except the keynotes) and venues. And it works. In DrupalCon Chicago earlier this year, over 4000 people packed a downtown hotel for a week. A big, collaborative soup of all kinds of people. And as a direct result of DrupalCon, every year, Drupal gets better. It’s about the people, not the speakers or the glitzy conference. People speak for free. Give workshops for free. Not because they’re being nice, but because they are giving back to the community and furthering a common goal.
Remember SXSW in 2006? Remember how that felt? Right?
So what if…
What if there was a web design association? A not-for-profit organisation that was small - with elected members, funded by donation and membership - set up and operated in exactly the same way that the Drupal Assocation is run - whose core remit was to provide a twice yearly event: one in the US and one in Europe for people to attend to be and work together. Now, of course, there wouldn’t be the central goal of ‘making Drupal better’; our efforts are not open source and largely commercial (read: secretive), but there is much we share. When people get together things happen. We find common problems and solutions; ideas are born; approaches simmer and products are created.
This would not be about profit. It would be about providing a place for us to be together. It wouldn’t be expensive to attend. It would be about being inclusive, where people from all disciplines could gather round and share their work.
Now, I’m not sure this would be at all achievable, or in fact if it’s really a good idea. It would be hard work. It would be political. But what we could gain from this would be the type of nourishment I got from Do…
Nourishment that is slowly being eroded in the web industry as the volume of conferences reduce variety…
Nourishment that is lacking by speakers under pressure to give quick, practical info-talks rather than to inspire, challenge, provoke, debate or collaborate…
Nourishment that is increasingly lacking in polished, high price, high cost (for the organisers), high risk (for the organisers) professional web conferences….
Nourishment that we get from being together.
What if we could do that?
During the Do Lectures, speakers are encouraged to communicate a Big Do – a big idea, that may take a lot of hard thinking and hard graft, and a Little Do – something you can do right now. They also encouraged attendees to think of the same. So here’s my Big Do: how can we create a place or a gathering for our community that isn’t motivated by profit, but by nourishment? And my Little Do: make a conscious effort to reach outside of the community and industry to help me learn and grow as a designer. Yes, even Midwifery. Or surfing.
What are yours?
In 1992, I started using my first Macintosh when attending art classes at college. Frankly, it was a frustrating experience with tools that were not as immediate as pencils or paint. Yet, in that small dark room, surrounded by the smells of powder paints and musty paper, this large box attached to a CRT display captured my imagination. Next year, I will have been using Apple Macs for 20 years.
This morning’s news of Steve Job’s passing was shocking and saddening. Made even more poignant by the fact I’m working in Bangalore in India currently, and this week is a Hindu religious festival called Dussehra. This festival goes on for ten days, and on the ninth day in Southern India, Ayudha Puja is celebrated. On this day, people give thanks for the tools they use everyday: vehicles, spades, kitchen tools and computers.
Without these tools I use, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now. I wouldn’t have studied design, or studied at the university where I met my wife. It all started back then in that small, dusty room in the art rooms in college.
Today, I’m thankful to Steve Jobs for giving me the tools to do my work.
Two Thousand and Ten
For the last couple of years, I hadn’t really bothered summarising the year on this blog. Which is a real shame, actually, because now I kind of don’t remember what happened in detail – only the big moments. So, this post is really just a reminder for me of what happened with me this year so in later years, I can look back all wistfully and what I can look forward to next year…
The start of the year got off to a typically hectic start. Mark Boulton Design were knee deep in a big design and technical project working with – the then development release – of Drupal 7. Leisa Reichelt and I announced our little side project on trying to make Drupal 6 (and eventually 7) a nicer place for content creators and administrators: Project Verity. There was snow and ice. For the first time in nearly ten years of living by the coast, Emma, Alys and I were snowed in. It was Emma’s birthday. Nick (my brother) and I cook a Thai feast for eight guests. It was fun.
Went snowboarding to Chamonix with family. No new snow in a week. Cold and icy. Not so great for snowboarders. Malarkey and I sat in an old pub and discussed an idea that came to fruition later in the year.
Alys’ 2nd birthday. How time flies.
My birthday. Three more years and I’ll be 40.
Went on a short break with the family. I spoke at @Media Web Directions on Designing Grid Systems. Five Simple Steps turns the dial up and launches A Practical Guide to Information Architecture by Donna Spencer.
Emma and I spend a child-free couple of days in Amsterdam thanks to my parents.
Went on holiday to Portugal. Attended my brother’s wedding in Portugal. Gave a workshop at dConstruct in Brighton.
Spoke at Webdagene on Designing Grid Systems. Ate raw whale sushimi. It was amazing. Spoke at Web Developer’s Conference about clients. Launched Hardboiled Web Design by Andy Clarke. It was a big hit.
Attended Build in Belfast. The conference, like last year, was a special little event with a great community. I’ll be back again next year. Thought I was going to die in a plane crash on the return from Belfast. Three failed attempts to land with a diversion to Birmingham. Went to Portugal to work on my book. Procrastinated and redesigned this blog.
Together with 24 Ways, launched The Annual – a limited edition, printed magazine - and raised over £10,000 for UNICEF.
Next year is looking great. I’m honoured to be speaking at New Adventures, DrupalCon Chicago and An Event Apart in Boston. I’m publishing my second book on Designing Grid Systems. We’re working on some great projects at Mark Boulton Design for some wonderful clients. Five Simple Steps has a couple of big projects in the works next year. Once again, it’s looking busy. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
As always, I have a few personal goals for 2011: Make yoga part of my day Lose weight and get in shape Delegate my work Do more designing, less managing. Do less designing, more living. Support my family the best I can.
I’d like to wish all of you a happy new year.Previous Next