Category: business

Responsive Advertising

Recently at Mark Boulton Design, we’ve been working on a redesign of the global visual language for a large sports network. Like many web sites delivering news and editorial content, they rely on advertising for their revenue -- either through multiple ad slots on the page, or from video pre-rolls.

Early on in the project, we discussed Responsive Web Design at length. From an editorial and product perspective, it makes perfect sense. Who wouldn’t want their content adapting to a device their reading it on? Who wants to pinch-zoom again and again? From a business and product perspective, we’ve seen this from multiple clients who want to take advantage of certain interactions on certain devices -- swiping for example -- for users to better engage with the content in a more native way. All good. And then advertising comes along and things get challenging.

Here’s the problem as I see it:

  • A large number of sites rely on advertising for revenue. Many of those sites will benefit from a Responsive Web Design approach.
  • Web advertising is a whole other industry.
  • Ad units are fixed, standardised sizes.
  • They are commissioned, sold and created on the basis of their size and position on the page
  • Many ads are rich (including takeovers, video, pop-overs, flyouts and interactions)

Let me go through each one of these in turn:

A large number of sites rely on advertising for revenue. Many of those sites will benefit from a Responsive Web Design approach.

The content for free expectation on the web has been around since it started. Many websites -- where you pay for the content in other forms, such as newspapers -- had to adopt this model, but use advertising dollars to pay for it. With the absence of any other revenue stream on these sites, the only other alternative is paywalls/subscriptions, and we’re seeing a few of these start to come through in mainstream newspapers now -- The Times, for example.

As I mentioned earlier, many of these websites will benefit from a responsive web design approach. The consumption of this content has changed along with the plethora of devices and viewports. As I’ve talked about before, designing a ‘best fit page’ is becoming increasingly challenging if you acknowledge how usage has changed and will continue to change in the coming years.

Web advertising is a whole other industry.

There are sub-industries within web design as a whole that generally don’t talk to each other -- such as gaming, gambling, porn, seo. Web advertising is another. These sub-sets each produce technology advances that everyone else benefits from. They deeply understand their audiences and how they interact within those verticals. But they don’t talk. Generally. For an industry that is built upon open standards, sharing, communication then this can be damaging.

Ad units are fixed, standardised sizes.

Hurray for standards! Because of the inherent reuse of advertising colatoral, this stuff had to be standardised. The Internet Advertising Bureau has been documenting emerging standards in web advertising for years now.

This is all good, especially for creating grid systems. Khoi Vinh talked about deriving a grid from an ad unit (PDF slides) when I shared a stage with him in SXSW in 2007. They are a fixed content element -- unchangeable and standardised across a website. They’re knowable.

They are commissioned, sold and created on the basis of their size and position on the page.

This is perhaps the biggest issue for me. For example, a sales teams basically have a page ‘template’ with ad slots. Position A, B and C. In A, you can fit a Leaderboard. In B an MMU, and C a button. Also, if an advertiser pays lots of money, they can have a takeover. A takeover includes banners down either side of the page which join up to create a wrapper. Sometimes Leaderboards in position A can be pop-overs or flyouts. Sometimes, crazy stuff can happen where someone throws a ball from ad position B to A. Yes. Seriously.

The sales team then proceeds in selling the slots to advertisers who in turn provide the ‘creative’. This could be animation, video, graphics - increasingly a combination of all three - that are embedded in the page by a scheduling application. They’re sold based on the impressions rather than clicks.

That’s a lot of variables to account for. But, web advertising is becoming an increasingly aggressive industry. Advertisers and web sites are looking to innovate to engage users through marketing campaigns that align across multiple media. And web sites need to be accommodating.

Sales teams through many industries are also largely commission-based. As a sales person, you have a basic salary (or sometimes you don’t), and then you earn more depending on what you sell in the month. And here’s the thing. A sales team need a simple model in order to sell ads: a template with slots and a list of ads that can go in then. Now, let’s introduce Responsive Web Design into this.

Let’s say, you have the minimum amount of break-points: desktop, tablet and small screen. A sales team has a template with Slot A (the primary slot) that accommodates a Leaderboard for the desktop. But then that changes to a MMU for tablet. And changes again to a thin banner for small screen. A sales person has to understand they’re selling ONE slot for this. And an advertiser has to understand they’re paying for ONE slot for this. However, they’re supplying three times the amount of creative. And this is just a very simple use case. What happens with a takeover? Everyone wants as much bang for their buck as they can muster.

Many ads are rich (including takeovers, video, pop-overs, flyouts and interactions)

Increasingly, ad units are not confined by their pixel borders. Take-overs combine multiple ad units to give an overall effect of taking over the page. Flyouts show and hide a layer on hover. Pop-over do the same but in a different way. Video autoplays. Animation completely breaks out of the ad unit and can fly around the screen: how ever annoying that might be. My point is that the notion of advertising being confined by their pixels is also becoming increasingly grey. How would you accommodate a flyout for a small screen, for example? Another type of flyout for each breakpoint? So now the advertiser has to produce three times the amount of complex creative for the same, single ad slot? In order to make this commercially viable, they’d be looking for a deal then.

Those are some of the practical logistical things I can think of to challenge the notion that you can just ‘serve a different ad for each break point’. It’s just not that simple when millions of dollars are at stake.

So what can we do to improve this?

Well, some responsive sites are incorporating ad units now. But not many.

Boston Globe has incorporated an MMU ad unit. They’ve done this by fixing the width of that column and have the ad unit occupy that space as the viewport is reduced down to a single column.

Boston Globe screenshots on multiple devices

Boston Globe screenshots on multiple devices

The good news is, this is a problem a few in the industry are seeing as an opportunity. ADO published a press release just last week:

to deliver cross-media web innovation, user experience design and integrated advertising for brand, agency and publisher clients specifically around mobile full-service responsive web design.

Matthew Snyder, CEO of ADObjects adds:

We wanted to share our vision on 11.11.11 since we believe a critical part of the right digital strategy is to build a cross-media mobile strategy with complete 1-to-1 parity multi-screen design. With one recent client we were able to see 4x more traffic and 30% of the traffic to mobile via responsive design methods due to search and social link matching over conventional mobile web platforms

If these numbers are to be believed, then there is a considerable ROI for advertisers to work to adopt responsive design and an ad strategy that would match.

Now, let’s get down to brass tacks. How would approach building out a complex responsive web site that had multiple slots?

The Standard Model

The existing model is based on advertiser filling slots, as shown in this diagram. Each is sold to perfectly fit an available slot. If none are sold, the website defaults down to a stand-in.

The standard model of displaying and selling ads for the web

The standard model of displaying and selling ads for the web

A Responsive Model

Firstly, I’d sell slot ‘packages’ rather than single slots. This requires an ad sales team to clearly explain what those slots and sizes are, and they’d be served on that basis. For example, an advertiser would buy a package for slot A. The creative to deliver against that package would be a Leaderboard, an MMU and a small banner for small screen.

A proposed Responsive model of serving ads

A proposed Responsive model of serving ads

Then, of course, the templates need to be able to detect the various widths and serve the correct ad based on that width.

Complex ads such as flyouts and takeovers would require much more thought and change. How could you effectively engage with an audience across the various viewport sizes when there is rich interaction involved?

As I mentioned, of course all of this is with a caveat that the advertiser is buying a slot ‘package’, rather than a single ad to fill a single slot. And that a sales team would sell it as such. This is the crucial difference, and for me, the biggest barrier to this change - it’s cultural and not technical, that requires a lot of explaining, and they always take the longest to do.

The template > slot > ad mental model is engrained both in advertisers, planners and web sites. Providing space for ads needs to be broadened into multiple spaces for one ad concept. This requires closer collaboration between advertisers and web sites, designers and marketeers and sales teams.

Over the past six months I’ve been working on this problem: speaking to sales teams, product owners, designers and as @kerns mentioned on Twitter this morning, the one thing that is plainly lacking at the moment is demand. I’d go one step further and say that the thing that’s missing is benefit. If the benefit can be clearly shown to advertisers and websites -- in terms of an increase in penetration, reach, and ultimately, revenue, then we’ll start to see some movement.

I'd love to discuss this further on Twitter, or on Google +, you can reach me on either if you have any questions

Timeboxing Triage

For quite a while now, I've been struggling with how to cope with everything on my plate at work. I run a small business, starting a new publishing business, I'm an art director, project manager, sales director. And so the list goes on. And I know I'm not alone, we're all busy, right? We're all pulled in every which way.

Thing is, I have a couple of designers and developers here who need my help every day. They need to run things by me, get feedback on work, resolve issues. And so the list goes on. What I was struggling with was the interruption to my flow. It meant that, quite often, I'd end a day feeling I hadn't accomplished anything other than fight other people's fires. Of course this is the wrong way to think about things, and I was actually doing my job by doing all that. But I still needed to apply more structure to this activity, so that I could have available time to spend on designing and all the other stuff.

So, a couple of weeks ago, Emma introduced the idea of a bi-daily 30 minute triage. This is time for everyone to have a bunch of things they want to go through with me. At 10am and 2pm everyday, I keep that time free and available for whoever needs me. And, so far, it's working a treat.

There we have it: timeboxed triage. Give it a go.

The Personal Cost of Designing on Spec

Yesterday, a rather heated debate raged over on Carsonified’s blog regarding a design competition they’re running to design a slide for the upcoming Future of Web Design conference in London. The debate was an old one, resurrected every now and then and fiercely debated on both sides. The debate was regarding speculative work. It’s a subject I feel very passionate about as I’ve seen the damage it causes – both personal and professional.

I’m a little tired of justifying my position and opinions on Twitter, so I thought I’d pen a few thoughts here and explain my personal viewpoint and hopefully spark some considered, intelligent debate (see my paragraph citing Matt Henderson for an example of this).

Defining Spec

I’m not going to spend a huge amount of time defining this here. I think most people understand what spec work is and why it’s damaging. Speculative work (or spec), can be defined by the AIGA as:

‘work done without compensation, for the client’s speculation’

Spec work, in my view, leads to a number of things:

  1. Sub-standard work.
  2. It undermines and devalues design.
  3. It harms the design industry.
  4. Exploitation.

Are Design Competitions Spec Work?

If you’re in the UK, you probably know of Blue Peter. Blue Peter is a long-running childrens TV series that has been going for, oh I don’t know, maybe 500 years on the BBC. Up until recently, Blue Peter ran many, many design competitions for children across the UK to enter. Kids would send in drawings of their wild and wonderful designs for all many of things. Now, is this spec work? Is it unethical? No, I don’t think so.

Children aren’t designers. It’s not their profession, and they’re not submitting professional work.

There was a great comment on the thread yesterday regarding Threadless. People submit designs to threadless, get paid if their design is picked, and get the glory of seeing it printed on t-shirts. Is this spec work? Even though Threadless are making money from this? No, I don’t think it is.

Designers and Illustrators want to be part of the Threadless brand. They have a lot of pull, so much so that professionals are willing to contribute to that brand. In the same way that if Apple were to do something similar, I’m sure many people (probably myself included) would contribute. Wanting to contribute to something you feel part of, or want to be part of, even if money is being made as a result is not spec work. It’s about wanting to belong.

Personally, I see a competition that targets a profession and solicits entries for a prize as exploitative and professionally unethical. For some, it may just be a bit of fun, but for me, it’s pretty reprehensible. I feel rather strongly about it.

The Personal Cost

I’ve worked in two industries where spec work is the norm: advertising and print design, and I’ve a close relationship with another: architecture.

I used to work for a reasonably sized design agency. We would spend maybe 30% of our time on unpaid, creative pitch work. We would also spend perhaps 10% of our time on design competitions, which I believe is spec work. That’s right, 40% of our time was spent working for the potential of winning one project that would pay for all of that speculative time. Now, if you’re starting out in business, or feeling the pinch as many companies are during these difficult times, your time, and the way you spend it, becomes critical. If 40% is spent doing stuff your not paid for that is potentially damaging.

The practice of spec work is the industry norm in architecture.

My father’s an architect. He runs a small practice and spends an extraordinary amount of time producing spec work. Unfortunately, the industry demands it. The spec work is conducted on the hope that one of the projects will be awarded to the practice and that will pay for the time lost on the other projects. Architecture is also an industry that is rife with design competitions. Some would argue that this is worse than spec work to a shortlisted field. Architects are invited to submit bids, proposals and designs for prestigious competitions. The winner gets the contract and the glory. The losers get nothing; the work is conducted speculatively.

I believe the practice of spec work harms business. It can be crippling, for both suppliers and consumers. Businesses fold, and consumers get sub-standard work.

A Free Market

In amongst the usual trolling on Ryan’s blog, I had a very interesting discussion with Matt Henderson regarding spec work. Matt is a guy I admire tremendously. I’ve worked with him in the past out of his Marbella office on some fascinating projects and he’s a smart bloke.

Matt’s take on spec work, if I understood this correctly, was that the market will dictate the practice. If both sides of the market – the supplier (the designers), and the consumer (the client) – find that speculative work is mutually beneficial, then the practice would become an industry norm. This view sidelines personal opinion, and presents spec work as a consequence of market conditions, which is fine, it is. But does that mean that the creative profession should shrug their shoulders and accept it as such despite ethical misgivings?

For The Record

For the record, Ryan is a good guy. My intention wasn’t to target Ryan personally, or to claim that Carsonified was unethical, they’re not. He doesn’t deserve the lambasting he receives on his blog for genuinely trying to do the right thing; for doing something he believes in. But all of those designers who commented on that growing thread were also doing that – commenting on an issue they believe in. The debate wasn’t personal, or unprofessional, it was a raw nerve.

I’m hoping this post sheds some more light beyond 140 characters on my own personal relationship with spec work and how I’ve seen first hand the damage it causes. I for one welcome an industry that debates these issues. An industry where you’re free to make a mistake, to openly question motivations and to do something you believe in. As Matt said, ‘let the market run its course’, but if you don’t agree with where it’s headed, push back and fight for what you believe in.

DrupalA day or so ago, the small design studio I run, Mark Boulton Design, was announced as the redesign partner for the redesign of Together with the outstandingly talented Leisa Reichelt and Carolyn Wood, the team at Mark Boulton Design are thrilled to part of this project. More details on the studio site.

Leisa and I will be out in Szeged, Hungary, for the biannual Drupalcon during the week of the 25th August, where we will be giving a keynote presentation on Thursday 28th. If you’re there, tap me on the shoulder and say hi.

Start Your Own Business

This article was published in .Net magazine before Christmas last year. I was asked to write a small article on making the leap to working for yourself (as it was still fresh in my mind). It’s by no means a definitive guide (for example, there is no mention of the legal aspects of setting up and running a company). It’s also aimed at a UK market, but a lot of this will work no-matter what country you’re in. Most of it is actually just common sense.

It’s been eighteen months since I went freelance, and almost six months since starting my small design studio. I’m no expert. So, this article documents what I did, and when. It also features a little interview with our very own Colly.

[Article originally published in .Net magazine in November 2007]

So you want to work for yourself? And why not. You can dictate your own hours, have the freedom to take time off when you want it without getting into trouble from the boss; you can do what you want to do, when you want to do it. At least, that’s what I thought when I started working for myself a year ago. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The freedom of being in control is terrifying. The pressure of knowing it really is down to you whether you succeed or fail can weight heavy.

Where I live, in Wales, almost 400 people a week start their own business. Everybody is different and end up giving it a go for a variety of reasons. However, most of these people share common ground. Things that they need to think about when planning to go it alone.

As I said, I’ve only been my own boss for a year now, so I wouldn’t call myself an expert on this. I can however tell you my story, and the mistakes I made along the way.

Why do it in the first place?

Starting a business is one of the most challenging, but rewarding, things you can do. The reason most people never end up doing it—although I’m sure many would love to—is because they think it takes luck, a clever idea or just knowing the right people. That’s not true. It’s about you.

Maybe you have a great idea that you just can’t keep a secret anymore. Maybe a colleague has approached you to setup business with them on the back of a contract they’ve just secured. Maybe you just hate your job and wish you were your own boss. The catalyst is different for everyone.

For many people, including myself, they’ve found their career take a certain path where self-employment is the next natural progression. I was working full-time at the BBC as a designer when my enquiries to do freelance work reached such a peak that I was doing two jobs. At that point, one of them had to go before my wife did!

Whatever the reason to set up business, it’s a personal one that only you can make.

Do you need a business plan?

A Business Plan is just that; a plan about your business. It’s used to look ahead, allocate resources, focus on key points, and prepare for problems and opportunities. It doesn’t need to be a scary document that you take months to write. However, some banks, investors, or other funding bodies will insist on a well-written, concise Business Plan on which to base their decisions, so in that sense, it’s a very important document.

A standard business plan will contain the following:

  1. Executive Summary:
  2. Write this last. It’s the summary of the document.
  3. Company Description:
  4. This details how and when the company was formed.
  5. Product or Service:
  6. Describe what you’re selling.
  7. Market Analysis:
  8. You need to know your market. Establish the need for your product and why people need it.
  9. Strategy and Implementation:
  10. Be specific. Investors love this stuff. They need to know you have a clear plan of attack.
  11. Management Team:
  12. Include backgrounds of key members of the team.
  13. Financial Plan:
  14. Include a profit and loss account, cash flow breakdown and a balance sheet.

Make no mistake, writing a business plan can be a daunting prospect, but it doesn’t have to be great the first time around. A business plan should be revised throughout the business’ lifetime - it’s not just for startup businesses. I’ve just gone through my third draft in my first year of business.

As usual, the web has some great resources to offer. The BBC has a good overview of ‘How to Write a Business Plan’ (

Get help

This is perhaps the most important step in setting up your own business. You will realise you can’t do it on your own. You will need good advice from the following people:

  1. An accountant:
  2. Preferably a small business specialist.
  3. A bank manager:
  4. All new businesses should be allocated a small business specialist from their chosen bank.
  5. A financial advisor:
  6. You will need the advice of somebody who can assist in the financial direction of the company.
  7. The Government:
  8. Yes, the government can help.

Out of all of these, I’d advise you spend the most time trying to find a really, really good accountant. Many businesses owners will tell you that a good one is worth their weight in gold. In addition to the usual accounts stuff they can give you invaluable advice.

A great source of business advice for England and Wales is the Business Link website. ( Here, you can find information on starting up and funding options, to Health and Safety and employing people.

The different kinds of ‘company’

To register as self-employed in the UK, you have to register with the Inland Revenue as one of several company types:

Sole trader

Being a sole trader is the easiest way to run a business, and does not involve paying any registration fees. The downsides are you are personally liable for any debts that your business incures and, if you do well, you could be paying high income tax.

A Partnership

A partnership is like two or more Sole Traders working together. You share the profits, but also the debt.

A Limited liability partnership (LLP)

An LLP is similar to a Partnership. The only difference is the liability, or debt for example, is limited to investment in the company.

A Limited liability companies

Limited companies are separate legal entities. This means the company’s finances are separate from the personal finances of their owners.


A franchise is like a license to an existing successful business.

Social enterprises

This one probably doesn’t apply to web development. According to Business Link, Social enterprises are ‘… businesses distinguished by their social aims. There are many different types of social enterprises, including community development trusts, housing associations, worker-owned co-operatives and leisure centres.’

This is something you must do in order to pay your taxes. Speak to your accountant about which will suit your needs better.

How to finance yourself

Before I made the leap into full-time self-employment, I read a lot of articles which said I’d need six months salary in the bank before I went out on my own. Although that is good advice, depending on your salary, that is quite a hefty chunk of cash that will be hard to save.

Like most people, I didn’t have that sort of money knocking about so I had to have a close look at cash flow over the first few months of business to ensure I could pay myself. This cash came from several sources.

  1. Money in the bank.
  2. I did have some money in the bank. Not a huge amount, but I had some.
  3. Contracts.
  4. I had a number of contracts signed and ready to go when I went on my own. These proved invaluable in kick-starting my cash flow.
  5. Funding.
  6. There are many funding options available. Grants, loans and private investment. All of them except grants require you to pay them back though, and for that you need a good business plan and an idea of how you’re going to pay them back. Grants (and small business loans) are available from local government bodies for example. I’d advise making an appointment with your local Business Link to discuss your options.
  7. The Bank.
  8. Get an overdraft facility. Mostly, even for limited companies, these will have to be personally guaranteed - which means if you default on paying it back then you’re personally liable - but they can provide a vital buffer for cash flow in those early days.
  9. Charge up-front.
  10. When you get a contract in, especially if it’s for fixed cost, then charge a percentage up-front. This will help with the cash flow. If you can’t charge up-front, then make sure you charge monthly. Again, it will keep the cash flow nice and happy.

Basic accounting

What is Cash Flow?

Cash Flow is the life blood of your new company. It’s the ebb and flow of cash coming in and going out. The aim is to have a positive cash flow, so there is more cash coming in than there is going out once you deduct all your overheads.

You will also need to forecast your cash flow. This is still one of the most sobering things I have to do regularly because is clear shows the current state of your business. Every month I review my cash flow and I forecast for three months, and for six. I make a list of all the invoices which need to be sent in those two time periods and make sure I’m hitting my monthly and quarterly cash flow targets. Like I say, it can be scary at times.


There are two types of tax: Income Tax and Corporation Tax. For Sole Traders, Partnerships and LLP’s, you will be charged income tax on your profits. That’s important, so I’ll say it again. You’ll only be taxed on your profits. Things like equipment costs, rent, phone and other office expenses are deducted from this.

Limited companies are charged Corporation Tax on their profits. The employees of that company are charged income tax on their income. As with a Sole Trader etc. Limited companies are only taxed on their profits.


If your business earns £64,000 or over in a financial year, you have to register for VAT. If you think you might hit that target during the year, you can voluntarily register before hand.

Being VAT registered means you have to charge your customers for VAT on top of your services. Currently in the UK, VAT is 17.5%. You’re in effect collecting taxes for your government. Nice aren’t you? One of the advantages of being VAT registered is that you can claim VAT back of purchases for your business. Say you bought a new computer, you could claim the VAT back from that purchase.

All this VAT gets added up and you have to pay the government every quarter.

For more information of your obligations as a business to pay your taxes, go to the Inland Revenue website. There are some great tools on here to help you - you can even file your taxe return online.

Establishing a customer base

Prior to starting my own business, I worked full time. As a designer, or developer, you will probably get enquiries to do freelance work in your spare time. This is the time to start building up your customer base whilst you still have the security of a full-time job. Sure, it means burning the candle at both ends, but it does ensure a smoother transition from employed to self-employed.


A good way to drum up business is to network. This can be done traditionally, such as Business Club lunches and events organised by your local authority. One of the most effective ways of getting your face known is by attending the many web conferences, workshops and meetups going on throughout the country. From Pub Standards and the Oxford Geek Nightsto the larger conferences such as @Media and dConstruct. They all provide a great platform to meet people in the industry who may require your services.

Contribute and Interact with your market

If you’re a design studio who designs websites but has a strong focus on User Experience design, then write a company blog about that subject. If you write interesting content, and give it away free, then traffic to the site will increase as will your page rank in Google. This means that if a potential client searches for User Experience, they will get your site in their search results and there is a clear path into your site from some quality content.

Giving a little quality content away for nothing may make the difference in landing that big next project.

Making the switch from being employed to self-employed

The power of the Day Job

If you’re employed, but planning to go freelance, then keep your day job for a while. Get work in to work in your spare time, but use the cash that generates as a buffer for when you do go it alone. Make sure the two worlds don’t collide though. Keep your boss happy in work, but now is the time to be a bit of a jobsworth. Get in on time, leave on time, take an hour for lunch - do everything you can to maximise the time you have available to work on the freelance projects.

A smooth transition

Working two jobs is hard, and you won’t be able to keep it up for long. This stage in starting up your business is perhaps one of the most difficult. The aim is to ensure a smooth transition from being employed to self-employed. You will need some cash in the bank, a few contracts for your first couple of months of being on your own. The hard thing is keeping you current boss happy in the process. It’s not easy.

There are a number of great job boards which advertise design and development projects regularly. The two I’ve used successfully in the past to drum up some business are the 37Signals Job Board, and Cameron Moll’s Authentic Jobs.

How to achieve long term success

Keep one eye on the future

Forcasting business can be quite difficult. How does cash flow look in three months time? Are you saving enough money for the end of year tax bill? To succeed in business I think you need one eye on the present and one eye fixed firmly in the future. The short-term future. Whilst it’s great to have dreams and aspirations for your new business, that shouldn’t be at the expense of ensuring you have enough work coming in over the next six months.

Customer service

Remember if you’re a designer or developer, you’re providing a service. We’re in a service industry and with that comes Customer Service. I know it may sound a bit trite, but treat clients as you would like to be treated. Treat them with respect and never lose sight of that fact that they are paying the bills.

Wrapping up

Making a leap of faith is the first step to starting a business. However, for your business to grow and flourish, you will need much more than faith. First off, you must have upmost confidence in your ability to make it work. You need to be aware of the risks, but not scared to death by them. You’ll need to have good organisational skills, flexibility and a high degree of commitment. Most of all, you need to have fun and love what you do.

Interview: Simon Collison

[The following is an interview conducted in Nov 2007]

Q. Why did you end up working for yourself?

After four happy and successful years with another great agency, I did start to dream about being in control. I’d sometimes receive offers to work for other people, but nothing ever grabbed me. I’d get a few people emailing me every week with requests for websites, and I grew in confidence, realising that I could actually earn enough money to survive. Generally, I just wanted to nitpick clients and decide who to work with on projects.

Q. What do you love about working for yourself now?

The autonomy. I love making my own decisions and being in total control of the direction in which we are heading, the clients we choose to work with, and being able to handpick colleagues!

Q. What don’t you like about it?

Hmm, lots. The hours (I did over 100 hours last week). In general, it can take over your life if you want to produce quality work with no cutting of corners. Sacrifices are inevitable – everything from working the majority of evenings and weekends to missing your best friend’s birthday. If there is an immovable deadline and the work needs doing, the buck stops with you, and no excuses are good enough.

Perhaps the biggest shock to the system is the unavoidable responsibility for ensuring that cash flow is steady and that we have enough money coming in to pay the wages, cover office rent and general overheads.

Q. If there where three key pieces of advice you could give to someone who was thinking of going into business for themselves, what would they be?

Just three? OK. One. Achieve a work/life balance and stick to it as best you can. Ultimately though, except for crisis stuff, you’ll end up putting work first, so be prepared for that.

Two. Trust yourself. You will make mistakes, but generally the decision to work for yourself won’t be one of them. Have the courage of your own convictions and just go for it! You will know when you are ready and have enough work or contacts to ensure you break even and can pay yourself.

Three. Realise that you are not an expert at everything, so get people to help you. Get business advice, get to know your bank manager, and use an accountant. When you are seriously busy, the last thing you’ll want to be doing is invoicing, or doing anything at all in Excel.

Q. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made since you started up?

Under-charging in the first few months. The temptation from day one is to bring the work in and build up a client list. This kind of thing will not wreck your business, as you’ll simply put the extra hours in, but it is seriously detrimental to your health and lifestyle, and even the quality of the work you produce.

Q. Where do you see your business in two years time?

Thriving – you gotta be confident, right? We’re lucky in that word of mouth and recommendations bring the work to us. We don’t take this for granted and never will, but the hard work in our first year is paying off, and we now have a solid foundation to build upon.

I never dreamed there’d be five of us within a year, and we hope to grow to about ten soldiers in the next 24 months. When you work this hard, you have to remember to be proud and enjoy what you do.

[Finally, rounding off with a couple of boxouts from the article]

TIMELINE: Six months to making the plunge

6 Months to go—Start building a customer base. Trawl the freelance websites (job boards - authentic jobs etc) and get yourself a few freelance gigs. Register your business with the Inland Revenue. (see section on deciding what business you should be). I’m afraid for the next six months, you’ll be working two jobs. If you can get funding for your venture, start researching what you can get and when.

5 Months to go—Continue to get those freelance gigs in. Begin to research a good local accountant. Book an appointment with several banks - you’ll need to get a business bank account - but it’s worth shopping around. Have meetings to discuss funding opportunities.

4 Months to go—Found a good accountant? Right, you need to have a meeting with him/her regarding your new venture. Finalise your bank account with your chosen bank. Continue to build up your customer base. Now is the time to speak with some local companies to see if they need freelance help. Are you going to be working from home? If not, you need to start looking for somewhere to work from.

3 Months to go—You should be getting some money in from your freelance gigs by now. Save it—you might need it in a few months.

2 Months to go—You should be working like a dog now and really looking forward to working for yourself. At this stage, everything should pretty much be in place for you to make that smooth transition from employed to self-employed.

1 Month to go—Hand in your resignation. If possible, try and get some work booked in for the first three months of being on your own. Make sure you also get paid by these clients monthly so cashflow isn’t an issue.

Ten things I wish I’d known

10. Wearing many hats

Before I set up business, I’d read a fair few ‘how to’ books and a number of blogs that talked about the many roles you would have to adopt whilst running your new business. I still struggle with it. On a typical day I am a designer, a project manager, a salesman and a book-keeper. Each role requires a different mindset and it can be very difficult to switch between them.

9. Home is for home things

Keep work and home separate. When you work at home, this can be difficult. When I had my workplace in my house, I made sure it was a completely different room which was furnished like an office—not just your spare room with a desk in it. One tip which worked for me: wear your shoes during the day, when you’re working, and at night, take them off. It’s a silly little thing, but you will soon associate shoes with work. So, when you take them off, that’s home time.

8. What goes around comes around

Be nice to people. Business doesn’t have to be unpleasant. Treat people how you expect to be treated. Be fair, professional and above all, polite.

7. Don’t take on too much

This one is a killer. I still do it and probably will for many years to come. When you don’t have any work booked in in three months time, the tendency is to get more work in now with the hope that, financial, you’ll be more stable in the months you don’t have work. It makes sense, but you end up working too hard. As a result, quality dips, customers get a bad service and, over time, your business will dry up.

6. Hire somebody before you need to

I’ve recently had this problem. I’ve been so busy recently that I needed help. After hiring someone, I realised I’d been in this position for too long. I needed help about three months before I thought I did.

5. Don’t under-charge

Work out your costs on an hourly, or daily, basis and then add 30%. It covers costs and, until you get the hang of it, you’re probably under-charging anyway. I was.

4. Confidence

Remember, you’re the expert. You’re not doing this job because you’re average at it. If a customer wants to buy your product, or hire you, it’s because you’re good at what you do.

3. Customer Service

If you’re a web designer or developer, unless you’re producing and selling a product, you will be providing a service. With a service comes Customer Service and, yes, customers are always right.

2. Accounting Software

I was using a homemade system coupled with an Excel spreadsheet for my accounting needs. As the business grew, I needed something a little robust. I wish I’d learnt Sage or something sooner because now I don’t really have the time.

1. Plan for tomorrow

I have three to-do lists. A Month list, a Three Month and a Six Month. Each list has a bunch of things I need to do for that time period. This allows me to have short, mid and long term goals. I class Six Month as long term here as, in this industry, I believe you need to be adaptable and can’t really plan for more than six months in advance.

Just the way I like it

As I said, this is just the way I set things up, and some of the many thoughts and conclusions that I came to over the past couple of years of running my own business. Hope it may help some of you thinking of taking the plunge.

Coolspotters and Garcia Media

It’s been a good while since I’ve talked about any work Mark Boulton Design has been up to. That’s mostly because the projects we’ve been working on have been under wraps. Until now that is. One project is now live, the other coming very, very soon.

Coolspotters: If it’s cool, they’ve seen it

Fanzter, Inc hired Mark Boulton Design last year to design their new web application, Coolspotters. Coolspotters is a consumer-focussed site that offers an experience that could shift the way people discover great products.

Coolspotters Logo: Designed by Mark Boulton Design Ltd.

The design challenge was considerable—from the branding to designing the UX. We worked closely with Fanzter, drawing on our experience with working client-side, to hone the product over many iterations. I don’t mind saying, the result of this close collaboration is fantastic. But, you may have to wait a few weeks before getting to grips with the site as Fanzter are opening it up for beta applications now, before launching proper shortly.

Garcia Media

Garcia Media is one of the world’s leading news design studios. Designing publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The Miami Herald, Die Zeit and small community papers, they have unparalleled experience and an industry reputation to boot.

Redesigned Garcia Media website

I had the pleasure of working with Dan and Alex Rubin on the design, as well as the in-house team at Garcia Media. Mario Garcia, Jr. has penned a blog post on the site that explains the background, design and implementation much better than I ever could.

Coming up…

We’re thrilled to be working on some incredibly exciting projects at the moment—from FTSE 100 corporate redesigns and web applications for TV networks. Through to small, simple websites for companies with a great idea. In addition to the web work, there are a few exciting things happening behind the scenes at Mark Boulton Design that hopefully I’ll be able to talk about really soon.

Share and Share alike

So, I’ve talked about my work. How about you talk about yours? What have you been up to? I’d love to hear. Feel free to link it up (although not too many as EE will spit your comment back at you!)

Think Do Think

When I worked at the BBC, I participated in a workshop where the entire department went through a Myers-Briggs Personality questionnaire. I think the aim of the workshop was for all of us to understand, to some degree, the personality traits of our colleagues.

The Myers-Briggs test was originally devised in the Second World War by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. The form of the test I participated in was a very long questionnaire which, when analysed, highlighted your personal preferences. That’s a very important aspect of the results—they describe what you prefer to do, not what you do all the time.

I was sceptical at first, but after completing the test, and the following workshops, i’ve had some fantastic insights into my own preferences—particularly when carrying out my job day to day.

I, N, T, P

The four pairs of preferences or dichotomies in the Myers-Briggs test:

  • Introversion - Extraversion
  • Sensing - iNtuition
  • Thinking - Feeling
  • Judging - Perceiving

Combinations of these preferences build to give you a set of traits, eg. ISTJ: Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging or ENFP: Extraverted, iNtuition, Feeling, Perceiving.

I turned out to be INTP. Introverted, iNtuition, Thinking, Perceiving. But what does that mean? Well, there’s a whole load of information which breaks this type down. A good source is Type Logic.

At this stage of the workshop, in all honestly, I felt I was having my palm read—I really didn’t buy it. It was only discussing it in detail with the Wife (who has a degree in Psychology), that I began to understand my new pigeon-hole.

Think Do Think

Some of the biggest conflicts, especially in the workplace, are when two opposing personalities (whose preferences are opposites) fail to understand the way the other prefers to work. This, for me, was the value of doing this test openly in the workplace. I knew what my preferences to working were, but I wasn’t aware of other peoples and therefore couldn’t put myself in their shoes.

It turns out, I prefer to work in a Think Do Think way. For example, I get a brief and I go away and Think about it. I’ll then Do something on it, then go away and Think some more. My preference is to think about it first. Other people have an opposing preference though—Do Think Do. These are the people who I find it very difficult to work with, simply because they work in a completely opposite way to me. You know the type (maybe you’re one). You solve problems as you talk about them. You Brain-Dump. You thrive on brainstorming. You instantly get a plan together and know where you’re going. You then validate that direction by thinking about it for a while. And so it goes on.

Get the brief in early

At Mark Boulton Design, as I have done throughout my career, I’ve made a point of trying to get the brief in early. As soon as possible actually. Quite often the client will want me to act upon that brief right away. I prefer not to. I’ll sit on it and think about it for a while.

When it comes to actually doing the work—from brainstorming or discovery, to designing the UI or layout—I’m already in a more informed position. I will have questions, and answers. I will, hopefully, have a good grasp of the problem. Quite often though, this has all happened on a subconscious level. I will have been stewing it over during those quiet moments in the day.

This working practice works very well for me. However, quite often, it goes against working practice of clients and colleagues who want results right away.

Try it for yourself

TypeLogic have a few links off to online tests. If you’re currently having conflict with some colleagues, or a particularly difficult client, then have a go at this test. It may not tell you about them, but it may well give you enough insight into your own preferences which could help the situation.

If you do, or have done the test before, I’d be interested in knowing what you thought of it.

Mark Boulton Design launches

If anyone has done any work for themselves—painted a painting; made a model; built a shed— you will know how difficult it is to finally stop. It’s about the love you see. The craft. Anything done for yourself has to be just right.

In April of this year, I became the Director of my new design consultancy, Mark Boulton Design Ltd. Since then, I’ve been beavering away to get a website up to let the world know what it is we do and who we’ve done it for (so far). Today Mark Boulton Design launches.

It started with a story

The Mark Boulton Design website had to tell the right story. What are we? What do we do? For who? This is all pretty basic marketing and, as designers, we go through these sorts of questions regularly. From those answers, we have to derive a brand. That was a very difficult nut to crack for this website.

If you’re aware of my work—both my writing and my design work—then you’ll know I’m all about the simple things. Simple really doesn’t come easy though; like good tea, it has to be stewed for a while. The design for this site was stewing away for about six months. Most of that was getting the brand right—the tone of voice, the typography, the colour. All of it took bloody ages.

Not just a website

The branding for this project has been applied to a number of things. First off, there is the site. Secondly, there’s the One Page Brochure (available on all pages in the four column footer); a one-page printable PDF document to leave on peoples desks. Then, there’s the RFP project sheet. On top of all of that, I’ve designed new business stationery (and had a ball looking at literally hundreds of paper samples). Quite a lot really.

It’s never finished

When I was in secondary school (about 14 years old), my art teacher would always tell me that I still had work to do on a drawing or painting. It drove me nuts. Every time I thought I’d finish, he’d tell me to go away and work on it for another week. Designing for the web is no different. In fact, this is one of the great things that differenciates the web from other media such as TV or print; it’s a canvas to be worked on again and again.

There’s a load of work still to do on the typography. I want to get the vertical rhythm nailed. I want to get some print style sheets done. I decided today that all of that will have to wait.

Anyway. It’s done. Although my art teacher would probably have asked me to keep going. (note. this is my little ‘it’s not finished quite yet’ disclaimer)

New digs

Since I started Mark Boulton Design last August, I’ve been working at home. It’s been mostly fun, but the words of Andy kept ringing in my ears loudly as time went on.

“Get out of the house as soon as you can afford it” would rattle around my head like some crazy mantra. Andy’s point was, sooner or later the two environments would merge; home and work. You’d end up doing the laundry whilst at work, and designing when you’re supposed to be enjoying a nice evening with your wife. He wasn’t wrong.

As of last week, Mark Boulton Design Ltd. has a new home.

I’m sharing offices with a web development company I know well; Beanlogic. We’ve been developing Flow together for ages now (yes, yes, it’s coming) so we all get along well.

The new desk and Beanlogic: Keeran, Kate and Martyn Elwyn is missing from this shot, but he sits to my right.

The new desk and Beanlogic: Keeran, Kate and Martyn (Elwyn is missing from this shot, but he sits to my right).

The new office occupies two rooms on the top floor of an old dock offices building in Sunny Cardiff Bay. For those of you who have watched the apalling Torchwood, the office is just around the corner from the secret exit/entry point near the funny fountain, mirrored sculpture thingy. For those who are familiar with Cardiff, I’m just around the corner from the Oval Basin, the Millennium Centre and the new Senedd (the Welsh Assembly Government building). It’s a nice place to be, especially in summer.

Back to the half-hour commute and having to make sandwiches (when I remember). I’m actually really enjoying it at the moment. The commute gives me a degree of separation which wasn’t there before and there’s a level of office banter which was all but absent when I worked at home (I don’t really count the Postman as a colleague).

To go with the new digs is a new business website (which has been on the go since SXSW in March) and I’m so looking forward to designing the letterhead and new biz cards. Print is really a treat sometimes. Like cooking, print design is nice to do occasionally, but if I had to do it for a living, it’d do my head in.

I said when I first started this ‘working for my self’ thing, I’d try and document every step. Well, as predicted, I haven’t. But this is a pretty big landmark for me and the business and I just wanted to put it down for the record so I can look back in a few years time.

Confessions of a slack blogger

Yep, that’s right. I’ve been neglecting my blogging duties for ages now. Not for a lack of things to talk about; there’s plenty, but it all seems to be going into the book at the moment. There is one thing that has been a blocking force though: running my own business.

From Sole Trader to Ltd.

At the start of this month, Mark Boulton Design Ltd. started trading. This switch from Sole Trader (then LLP, then back again) to Ltd. is for a number of reasons:

  1. We’re set to grow. Currently Mark Boulton Design employs a bunch of freelancers on a project by project basis. The difficulty with this is, I need someone to manage that workflow whilst I Art Direct the output from the team. This is going to be much more straight-forward as a Ltd company.
  2. Tax. There are tax reasons for going Limited. As a Sole Trader, any income over £33,000 is taxed at 40%. As a corporation, you pay 19% (or it might be 20 with the new budget) on your profits (if your turnover is up to £300,000). As a director of a company, I’m also taxed on the salary I draw from the business. It is common-place for directors to take a small salary (which is taxed at normal rate), and then top it up with Dividends (which are taxed at 10% or 32.5%), therefore making some savings there.

Getting out of the house

That right. Hopefully—all being well— - Mark Boulton Design Ltd. will be relocating to the hussle and bussle of media central in Cardiff: Cardiff Bay. (you know, where Torchwood is filmed). I’m not going to talk too much about it in case I jinx the whole deal but it could be very, very cool.

Why move? Working at home isn’t easy. In fact, it’s really tough. I remember talking with Andy Budd about this during @media last year. The distractions aren’t really the problem. The feeling you’re not escaping the same four walls is. Also, if we’re going to grow, there’s no room and I’m going to find it difficult to recruit full-time staff if I’m not located in the capital.

Five Simple Steps

I know that book is late. I’ve not been neglecting it however, I was just very naive to think that it could be completed in a month or two. In fact, It has worked out rather well for one simple reason. The book will now be released under Mark Boulton Design Ltd. instead of me personally. I know that doesn’t make much difference to anyone who buys it, but it will mean that for every copy sold, the tax man will take £2 instead of £4.

Release date? Well, I’m not going to give a date. I have a date in my head though but I’ve learnt the lesson from last time. As I’ve told a few people now, it will be ready when it’s finished and not a moment later.

Not being slack anymore

A couple of things to talk about tomorrow. There will be an update from Flow (with screenshots) and an article on Masthead design here at I’ve been thinking a lot about Mastheads recently for one reason and another, and I thought it would be prudent to document my thoughts on how masthead design fits in with grids, ratios and whitespace.

What is up with Flow?

I’ve had a few people over the past months contact me and ask what has been happening with Flow Well, we’re still working on it, but as one of the developers, Keeran, states on his blog:

While it is achievable to ship new products in a short amount of time, as we have seen with companies like 37Signals and Carson Systems, there are always going to be times, certainly in the early stages, where Real Paid Work must take priority.

Damn right, especially for a business which is only six months old.

Since returning from snowboarding a month ago, I’ve been consumed with Real Work and everything else, including the book, has been put to one side. Such is life and, as I’m learning, business.

That said, Flow is coming along and as I’m writing this, I’m working on the templates whilst a couple of guys at Beanlogic are working on the backend. It’s coming along. Slowly but surely.

Going it alone: Putting the pieces in place

First off, let me thank everyone for their kind words and support over the past week, it really has been fantastic. As you may know, a week ago, I handed in my resignation from the BBC. Before that day however, there’s been a lot to do in order to make the transition from employee to self-employed a little bit smoother. As I mentioned in my last post, I want to document this journey as much as I can so that I can look back in the months to come and see where I went wrong!

So, this first post is all about putting the pieces in place: Company and financial stuff, working environment and some systems.

Self-employment status

Before I start on this, I just want to make it clear that this has been my experience in the UK. I’m not offering financial advice, or even saying this is the way you should do it. Now, that said, where the hell do you start when you’ve made the decision to go freelance or start your own company?

In the UK, first of all, you need to tell the Inland Revenue that you are self-employed. At which point they’ll ask if you are a Sole-Trader, a Partner (in either an LLP or a normal partnership), or a Director of a Limited Company. There are other business types, but for simplicity (and because they were options available to me, I’ll stick with these).

Eighteen months ago, when I landed a fairly large freelance contract, it was obvious I needed to register with the Inland Revenue for tax purposes. The easiest way to do this is as a Sole Trader:

Sole Trader

Becoming a Sole Trader is the most straightforward way to set up in business. It’s quick and painless. The advantages are the accountancy bills will be cheaper than all the other options. The disadvantages are, if everything goes wrong, you are personally responsible for any losses the business makes. That means your house and possessions are at risk.

That last bit bothered me if I was going to set up my own business. I wanted some separation, financially, between myself and Emma and the business. So the next option I looked at was a Limited Company.

Limited Company

A Limited Company has to be registered with Companies House. The ‘limited’ means there is limited responsibility, or liablity, for business debts for the company’s directors. The company exists as a seperate legal entity. The disadvantages to this are you have to comply with a larger range of legal duties and the subsequent legal fees are higher.

On talking with my Accountant, he suggested that a limited company may be overkill at this point when forming a Limited Liability Partnership (LLP) offers the same limited liability, but with cheaper registration and ongoing accountancy fees. Sounds like a good idea to me.

Limited Liability Partnership

An LLP is a partnership between two or more business partners (in this case, Emma and I). Members, like in a Limited Company, are protected from personal liability and business debts. It now costs ?25 to setup, instead of ?95 and depending up on your turnover and how involved your finances are, your annual accountancy bill should be in the region of ?600 - ?1000. Not too bad.


p> Mark Boulton Design LLP. Officially.

Mark Boulton Design LLP. Officially.

So, that seemed much more straight-forward than a limited company at this moment in time. Mark Boulton Design LLP it was.

Some Systems

A lot of people who work for themselves in the creative industry are shocked by the amount of time account-handling takes. I’m beginning to realise this already. Whereas before, when I worked in agencies, there would be a few people who handled the finances, project management and day-to-day client contact. Now, it’s all up to me. If this is going to work, in that I’m not going to feel swamped by work, then I have to have some simple systems in place to help me.

My little app

DashboardI developed my app (which I’m hopefully going to take further into something a little bigger (but not much) and a whole lot better), which has already helped with giving me an overview of what’s been estimated, and what’s been invoiced. It has already helped with streamlining getting estimate’s together for clients as well. Whereas before, crazily, they were done individually in Indesign, now they are outputted from a system and it’s taken the task from one which could take half an hour, to one which takes five minutes. It’s these little savings in time across the board which, hopefully, will ease the strain when deadlines are looming.


Yes, dull. Filing. Who wants to think about that? Well, you kind of have to if you have a lot of little things on. Thanks to Emma and Ikea, I now have a very simple filing system shown on this photograph. White files are jobs on, black are complete. All project paperwork, including copies of estimates, are stored there and are just a arms-reach away.


p> White are for curent jobs, Black are for complete. Pretty easy really.

White are for curent jobs, Black are for complete. Pretty easy really.

The Environment

My working environment is incredibly important to me. I consider it perhaps the most important factor in determining productivity and, well, just overall happiness in work. If you like your surroundings, you’re happier and happier people work better. With that in mind Emma and I gave the office at home a lot of thought.

Previously it looked like a spare room with a desk in it. It was fine, but not good enough if I was to spend every day in there. The separation between home and office needed to feel much larger. With that, paintbrush and Ikea catalogue in mind, we set to work.


p> A green wall, all-new furniture and some nice new carpet. Of course I dont normally drink wine at work.

A green wall, all-new furniture and some nice new carpet. Of course I don’t normally drink wine at work.

We stripped out everything. New walls, fixtures and fittings, carpet and office furniture from Ikea. It now feels like an office instead of a spare bedroom with a desk in it. Already when I’m working in here, I really don’t feel like I’m at home.

That’s it for now. Not sure what I’ll be talking about in the next post. Hopefully about how crazy busy I am.

Leaving the BBC and going freelance

Emma and I have just returned from a celebratory meal from our favourite little place in Cowbridge, which is about ten minutes drive from our house. The reason? Well, you may have guessed from the title of the post, but this morning I handed in my resignation from the BBC. The 25th August will be my last day. On returning from Portugal, the 7th of September will be my first day trading as Mark Boulton Design LLP.

Excited? I can barely contain myself.

I started working for the BBC nearly four years ago. On the whole, I’ve enjoyed my time there. Coming from an agency background, working client-side took a lot of adjusting, but on the whole, it’s been incredibly rewarding. I’ve grown both professionally and personally but over the past couple of years it’s become clear BBC New Media and I are on a different career paths and it’s time to take advantage of the opportunities that are presenting themselves to me on an almost daily basis. I can’t do that and continue to be a BBC employee.

Over the past eighteen months, I’ve been doing projects on the side (some pretty big projects as well as this site), and it’s been incredibly difficult to juggle that commitment and a full-time job. I’ve been doing 50-60 hour weeks for over twelve months now and something’s got to give.

What’s in a name?

As I mentioned, from the 7th of September I’ll be trading as Mark Boulton Design LLP (the LLP stands for Limited Liability Partnership, which basically means the company will be a legal entity and all that that entails). I pondered long and hard about what to call my new business. Initially I’ll be freelancing, but the plan is to grow to the workload (hopefully!). Anyway, after talking to friends, family and colleagues, it became clear that I was the brand. Why associate myself with another brand and try and build that when I already have a profile of sorts on which to build rather than starting afresh.

The Plan

Well, I’ve decorated the spare room! This is now my office, complete with apple-green wall, proper furniture and, yes, new carpet. Now I know this doesn’t make a good business, but I’m starting as I mean to go on. Trying to separate work from home. The hope, like I said, is to move into a small studio in the near future to really get that separation. Yes, I’m scared to death. I think it’s natural, but also a good thing. I’m sure it will make me work hard to make this a success.

Need a freelancer?

Do you work for an agency who needs an experienced freelance designer? Are you a business who needs a brand or website designing, or a company who wants to work on a project together? If so, then I’d love to hear from you.

A blow by blow account

Now everything is out in the open, I’m planning on documenting the journey. Not just for my benefit, but maybe for those who, like me, are about to take the leap.

Sorting my workflow out, part two

Printed estimateLast week, I mentioned I was slowly drowning in a thickening quagmire of paperwork—estimates, invoices, contracts and things. I took it upon myself to design and build a system which would help sort me out, thanks to a bit of inspiration from Stan and the boys at 37signals. A week later and this little application is working rather well, even if I do say so myself. 

Filling in the gaps

When I posted last week, I’d got together the basic requirements and workflow. Just to recap:



  • List all current and closed jobs
  • Each job must have a job number, client, associated estimates and invoices
  • Create, edit and store all estimates. Give them a status of Pending, Approved and Rejected.
  • Ability to print estimates and invoices using a well designed print stylesheet
  • Saving off PDF?s using the same print stylesheet
  • Create, edit and store all invoices. Give them a status of Paid, Part-paid and Unpaid

By Tuesday I’d pretty much got together the bare-bones. Then with a little help from Expression Engine I applied some edit forms, so now I can add and edit Estimates, Invoices and Jobs, all from within the browser rather than having to go to the Expression Engine control panel. All good.

Here’s a few grabs of where I’m up to at the moment:



  • Dashboard
  • Jobs
  • All invoices
  • New invoice
  • Invoice detail
  • Edit estimate
  • Estimate detail
  • Printed estimate

Designing with Print Styles

The detail page for displaying the Estimates and Invoices proved to be a little tricky. First off, I wanted to emulate my design for paper Invoices and Estimates, secondly, as I wanted to save these invoices as a PDF for emailing to clients and also printing, the print stylesheets for this template had to essentially create the layout for the PDF.

In April, I wrote about applying print styles to a web page and touched on using CSS to design for print. Then, it was a fairly simple prospect; designing a newspaper layout to run on A4. One column. No fuss. My Estimate/Invoice layout is a different kettle of fish altogether.

For starters, there’s a four column grid. Secondly, there’s a extensive use of white space and Rules of varying thickness. Also, there’s a subtle, but important typographic hiearchy going on. I set myself the challenge of recreating this design, which is essentially an Indesign layout for A4, using the existing markup for the template and CSS. This is the first time I’ve done this in anger. Using CSS to layout a design for print.

Bodging with absolute positioning

The web-based template display of the detail Estimate/Invoice page uses floats to produce the layout. This proved to be pretty tricky for reproducing this design for print. The solution took a little of getting my head around.

What I did was to start thinking about the elements of content as square boxes in Indesign. Start thinking about print stylesheets as print design. I had to forget about certain browser quirks of CSS (yes, I was designing this just for me, on a browser of my own choice.).

I used position: absolute; on most elements, giving them the width, height and position as I would a box in Indesign. Using margins and padding defined in mm, coupled with this allowed me to, with a lot of trial and error, position the elements and pretty much exactly reproduce my letterhead and Estimate design.

Granted, it’s a bit of a bodge, but it works and fits my needs.

Room for development

It was incredibly time-consuming but the implications of designing a system this way, for me, are pretty fantastic. I now have an database with all my jobs in there. It produces a web based system for to keep track of stuff, but more importantly, it produces Estimates and Invoices which mirror the print design I spent a lot of time initially producing. You can probably sense I’m quite excited about this. Designing for print using CSS is something that has possible for ages, but it’s something that is just not given enough attention.

I’d like to see this kind of technique applied to corporate intranets for example. When printing an a page, there’s no reason why the corporate design guidelines couldn’t be applied to the content to the same level of sophistication as a DTP package.

More for the App

There’s a bit more to do with this little application. It’d be great to have an emailing facility in there to email the invoices/estimates directly to the client. Currently, I have to save off the PDF and manually attach it to an email. To be able to track which client had been emailed and what was said would be a good thing I think. Also, the print styles need to be applied to all the other templates. Jason mentioned in the comments on my last post that he used his system to work out tax. It might be good if this system could also do this for.

I could go on. But I won’t. I’ve got enough to do.

Sorting my workflow out

Screenshot of estimates dashboardA while ago now, like Jason, I realised I needed better organisation in my life, from both a personal and business perspective. I don’t consider myself a really busy person, although one thing has made me realise I need to be much more organised: I’ve got a lot on!(detect the slight edgy panic in my voice?).

I guess it all started last September when Khoi and I were discussing our panel for SXSW and he got me started with Backpack.

Putting Basecamp and Google Calendar in your Backpack

First let me say, and I’m not the first to do this, that Backpack it great. Really great.

I had my doubts when it was first launched—how many people thought, ‘well, I’ve got a diary, why do I need this?’—but after using it, first on the SXSW panel organisation, and every day since then, it has saved my bacon on a number of occasions. Couple Backpack with Google calendar for, you know, calendar stuff and Basecamp for those projects which are larger and require a little more client interaction and I have 75% of my organisational infrastructure solved. However, there’s one thing which is missing for me: Invoice and Estimate workflow management.

Keeping track of the business side

I’m sure I’m not alone on this. I’ve had a problem over the last year, which seems to be getting more complicated, of managing the jobs coming in and going out, the estimates and invoices, what’s been paid, part-paid or hasn’t been paid at all, what’s overdue, what’s not. See? The list goes on.

I’ve tried several products, such as iBiz and Studiometry, but they all suffer from the same old problem. Too much functionality and the UI and workflow, to be used on a daily basis, are just too complicated.

Of course, there’s Blinksale for invoice management, which does a great job but is only part of the equation.

Following reading Jason’s post, I was really inspired to just solve this problem myself. I may not be building a web app here, but I can give something a go to solve my problems.

Getting the requirements together


p> The first thing to establish were the problems. What did I need the software to do? So, I got together this list:

  • List all current and closed jobs
  • Each job must have a job number, client, associated estimates and invoices
  • Create, edit and store all estimates. Give them a status of Pending, Approved and Rejected.
  • Ability to print estimates and invoices using a well designed print stylesheet
  • Saving off PDF’s using the same print stylesheet
  • Create, edit and store all invoices. Give them a status of Paid, Part-paid and Unpaid

The list could go on, but I stopped there.

Understanding the workflow


p> The next step was understanding my workflow. How do requests come in? What is the process following that request? Again, I went through the same process:

  1. Request comes in (usually by email)
  2. Set up client details
  3. Set up Job and Job number and assign to client
  4. Create estimate and assign to job number
  5. Send estimate to client and change estimate status to ‘Pending’

Then, following my appointment and competion of the work.

  1. Set up invoice and assign to Job
  2. Email to client

Building the thing

So, I started building the thing using Expression Engine which has a couple of drawbacks. The big drawback is the application has two parts: a web interface and a control panel. So, not everything is done on the same screen such as adding estimates and invoices etc. This could be done using EE’s stand-alone edit form, but you would only able to add stuff and not edit and delete (I think). I may look at this in the future and see how I could use it.

Once it’s complete, I plan on doing a more detailed write-up of how I built it using EE. It’s quite an interesting project trying to build an application like this, rather than a website using EE. It’s liberally using the ‘relationship’ fields to save on data input and duplication and has a bunch of custom php in there to work out if invoices are past their 30 days terms.

Here’s a quick grab of where things are at so far:

Screenshot of the dashboard showing pending estimates

Yes, the design looks like Basecamp and a hundred other applications like it. However, there is a reason for this. All of my 37Signals apps, and EE’s control panel all look the same. I use the same tabs, colour ways, links and everything on all of them. I use half a dozen apps to manage my life and business so I’m much more comfortable if they all look the same. There’s nothing more jarring, for me anyway, to switch between apps and have the core design and colourways change.

Your thoughts?

I’d be really interested in your thoughts on this. What systems and workflow do you currently use? Is it more traditionally paper based? Where do you think I could improve on what I’ve got going on here?