Category: conferences

It's not you, it's me

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

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

Two conferences the world over

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

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

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

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

Time for something different

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

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

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


Conference speakers, what are you worth?

Over the past couple of days, there have been rumblings and grumblings about speaking at conferences. How, if you're a speaker, you should be compensated for your time and efforts. My question to this is: does this just mean money?

I've been lucky enough to speak at quite a few conferences over the years. Some of them paid me for my time, some of them didn't. All of them – with the exception of any DrupalCon – paid for my travel and expenses.

When I get asked to speak at a conference, I try to gauge what type of conference is it. Is it an event with a high ticket price with a potential for large corporate attendance? A middle sized conference with a notable lineup. Or, is it a grassroots event organised by a single person. In other words, is it 'for-lots-of-profit', 'for-profit', or 'barely-breaking-even'. This will not only determine any speaker fee I may have charged, but also other opportunities that I could take for compensation instead of cash.

Back to bartering

When I ran a design studio, speaking at conferences brought us work. It was our sales activity. In all honesty, every conference I've spoken at brought project leads, which sometimes led to projects, which more than compensated me for my time and effort if it kept my company afloat and food on the table for myself and my team. The time away from my family and team was a risk I speculated against this. Conference spec-work, if you will.

In addition to speculative project leads for getting on stage and talking about what I do, I also bartered for other things instead of cash for myself or my company. Maybe a stand so we could sell some books, or a sponsorship deal for Gridset. Maybe the opportunity to sponsor the speaker dinner at a reduced rate. There was always a deal to be done where I felt I wasn't being undervalued, I could benefit my company, product or team, but still get the benefit of speaking, sharing, hanging out with peers and being at a conference together.

It's about sharing

If every speaker I knew insisted on charging $5000 per gig, there will be a lot less conferences in the future apart from the big, corporate, bland pizza-huts of the web design conference world.

My advice to anyone starting out speaking, or maybe a year or so in, is have a think about why you do it. If you're a freelancer, let me ask you: is speaking at a conference time away from your work, and therefore should be calculated as to how much you should charge based on your hourly rate? Or, is it an investment in yourself, your new business opportunities, and the opportunity to share. Of course, the answer to this is personal, and – for me – depends on what type of conference it is.

This community is unique. We share everything we do. We organise conferences to do just that. Most of the conference organisers I know come from that starting point, but then the business gets in the way. Most speakers I know, get on stage from that starting point, but then the business gets in the way.

There's nothing wrong with valuing yourself and your work. If speaking is part of your work, then you should be compensated. But next time you're asked to speak by a conference, just stop for a moment and think about what that compensation should be.

The Business of Responsive Design

Responsive design affects a lot more than just our website's layout. From content, and how it's created, to the structure of teams and organisations can all be affected by the processes responsive web design brings.

This post is a rough transcript from my talk at Handheld Conference last week in Cardiff on just that.

Opening slide for talk on the Business of Web Design

I've a confession to make. I'm an armchair mountaineer. I'm too much of a coward to actually put myself in the type of risk mountaineers do, but for the last decade or so, I've been reading as many mountaineering books as I could get my hands on. And I'd like to start by telling you a famous story of Alpine mountaineering.

The Eiger Nordwand in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. An 6000 ft, vertical, concave face perpetually shrouded from the sun. Facing North, the Eiger's north face has been the scene of some of the Alp's greatest mountaineering victories, as well as perilous catastrophies.

The North face of the Eiger

This is the North Face of the Eiger in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. The Eiger (meaning: Ogre) is a staggeringly difficult face to climb. Nearly two vertical miles high of ice-coated loose rock. It's a treacherous place. It's also the place I proposed to my wife in 2003. But that's another story. The story I'm going to tell you starts in 1936.

Andreas Hinterstoisser, a talented German climber, in the meadows below the Eiger enjoying the sunshine.

Andreas Hinterstoisser

In the winter of 1936, Andreas Hinterstoisser (pictured), Toni Kurtz, Willy Angerer and Edi Rainer set about tackling the face of the Eiger – then unclimbed. They'd established the rough route, and after a day had reached an impassable, sheer area of rock just underneath the Rote Flüh – a prominent feature on the face.

Let's leave that story there for now and come back to it later.

Let's talk about responsive design.

Responsive design has changed my work and, ultimately, how I do business. This talk is about how it's done that. But before I do that, I'd like to tap about the definition of responsive design.

If you talk to some people, responsive design is just fluid grids and media queries. To other people, it's that your website fits on a tablet or mobile phone and changes to adopt. To others, it's the way to save money by consolidating teams. Responsive design – like AJAX, or Web 2.0 – has become a buzz-word to represent a change. A change in our industry. A change in the way people are consuming content. That's the type of responsive design I'm going to talk about.

I'm going to talk about three specific areas of how it has challenged the way we work at Mark Boulton Design.

1. Structured content

It's strange to think that there was a time on the web where content was a second-class citizen. As a student of editorial design, I've always found this odd. In the past, whenever I heard 'content is king', my response was generally 'er, yes'.

Responsive design has challenged how we commission, create, edit and design for content. I'd like to talk a little bit about how this has affected two clients of ours. Firstly, our work with CERN.

Different content for different people, at different times, on different devices.

I've talked about CERN before at conferences, but not really in this amount of detail. When we started working with CERN a few years ago, the whole project was framed in one sentence by the head of the CERN web team…

We have a content problem.

And they did. They didn't really know who their audiences were, how to talk to them, or what they wanted. Following months of research, it became clear the audience for the CERN site was comprised of students, scientists, the general public and CERN staff. Interestingly, all of those four large groups had a common need: updates. They wanted to know what was going on. But here is the problem: each group of people needs to hear the same update in different ways. Let's take an imaginary use-case of an announcement for a new particle that's been discovered.

For the general public, they are generally learning a lot about CERN from elsewhere. Not on the CERN site. So, they are coming to the site from another trigger – either another website, or the TV, or a magazine or newspaper – and their overall comprehension of the work done at CERN is minimal. The update needs to be worded to accommodate that. But that update also needs to appeal to scientists working in high energy physics and associated fields. They want the detail, in the language that suits them. Already, our one update is fragmented. Throw in students and educators, then our update is going to have to work very hard if it's just one piece of content.

Therefore in the CERN redesign process, the editorial structure of updates needs to be fragmented and structured in such a way to accommodate different words for different audiences. A responsive design challenge that has nothing to do with how something looks, but how it is structured and how it works in the CMS.

This brings me onto my second point on structured content.

Fractured content

We've also been working with Al Jazeera for a few years on redesigning their digital platform. Throughout that process, in just that short space of time, we've seen the rise of responsive design and how it affects how content is created and viewed. One example of this is just the process of how news works.

We often think of a news story as a page. A useful, familiar construct. It has a headline, a stand first, some paragraphs and maybe an image or a map. But after studying how their editors work, it became clear that this is not what a news story is. News is always moving.

Drawing of a seed

A story starts as a seed. Something that comes down the wire…

There has been an earthquake in Japan.

Nothing more. Not yet.

Content starts as a seed. Something small. Then grows over time to pull in various content types.

Diagram showing content being pulled together

Then, over time, the story grows and, like a snowball rolling down a mountain slope, more content starts getting attracted to it – maybe a tweet, other articles, images, video, timelines, quotes etc.

Because a news story is not a page. A story is the link between bits of content. The question here is how do we – meaning editors and designers – curate and cajole this content to most effectively tell the story?

Meta Data is the New Art Direction

The answer does not lie only in design. The answer lies in how content is structured and categorised. Meta-data is the new Art Direction.

2. Process

Responsive design has been perhaps most visible in its ongoing challenges to process. How we do what we do is coming under increasing pressure, and here are several ways in which I've noticed how.


I started out working in advertising. As a student, I was an intern for a couple of years at an agency in Manchester. Other than the work, one of the things that has become clear now I run my own design business.

When advertising agencies talk about work, they talk about it in terms of accounts, not projects. When you win work, you win an account – for a period of time. An account is commitment over a period of time.

We will work with you on all our projects for 12 months.

This means a client will invest in you, and the time it takes you to learn their business, familiarise yourself with the challenges and give you the space (and budget) to do great work.

Projects are not a commitment. Projects are relatively risk-free.

You will deliver this website for this much money in this time-frame.

Approaching work this way leaves little room for any ongoing commitment, from client or agency. It's like a first (and only) date. And with that comes a distance.

Over the past couple of years, I've seen my peers move from agencies and studies move to products and client-side. In doing so, they are closer to the problems. With the space to move in an agile way without the constraints of any binding commercial relationship. This reminds me of a story from Kevin Spacey about his work on the House of Cards

Kevin Spacey recently gave a rousing talk at The Telegraph in which he talked about how TV commissioning works in the US. He went to all the networks in the US to pitch the show. They were all interested, but each one wanted to do a pilot. A pilot which, in 45 minutes, would establish the major plot-lines, introduce the characters, the love-triangle, the cliff hanger.

Kevin Spacey delivers one of the best talks I've ever seen (oh, to be an actor with this sort of delivery!) about why and how the House of Cards was commissioned on Netflix.

"It wasn't through arrogance that we weren't interested, but we wanted to tell a story that took a long time to tell. We were creating a sophisticated, multi-layered story with complex character that would reveal themselves over time and relationships that would need space to play out."

The House of Cards was about the long game.

To me, many web projects can feel like a pilot. Relatively low risk, low on commitment to work together without the time and space for the problems to play out. Proximity to the problem – a hand forced by responsive web design's challenges – comes from working closely, over a long period of time. An account, not a project. A season, not a pilot.

The project rope-a-dope

In 1974, Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought in the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in Africa. Forman was the favourite having beaten Ali three years before. he was strong. Young. And a great boxer. He was sure to win.

Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman in the 'Rumble in the Jungle' in 1974.

Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman

Throughout the fight, Ali let himself get hit on the ropes. To give the impression he was tired, lose, and close to defeat. All the while, he was whispering in Foreman's ear 'You've got nothin''… 'nothin''. Forman blew himself up trying to knock Ali out. In the dying moments of the fight, Ali knocked Forman out and won the fight. This technique was coined the 'rope-a-dope'.

Just going back to my last point for a moment. One of the results from being closer to the problem is that you have more exposure to the mess of design. Making things is messy. And to some people – especially clients, who can expect nice shiny things handed to them – may not be expecting to be exposed to that.

Sometimes they will freak out. And it's our job to sit back on the ropes and take it on the chin. But, instead of goading them, we should offer words of reassurance. We should shift our process to something that may feel more comfortable. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, after all.

Where is the design?

Getting in the browser sooner. Looking at content sooner. Iterate. All of these things have a knock-on to design and how it's received by a client.

The Fidelity Curve. As a project time-scale increases, so does the fidelity of the design work being done.

The Fidelity Curve

For a few years now, I've talked about the fidelity curve. A simple graph to explain to clients that over time, we increase the fidelity of a prototype and slowly layer on the visuals. This is so we can fail quickly on low-risk, low-fidelity work. Mostly this is good and works well, but recently, I had an interesting discussion with a client in which they asked where the design was.

It's an interesting question, because in this process, the design is everywhere. And unless you take the client along every step of the way – knee deep in the mess of design, being closer to the problem – then how do you manage the expectation that, at some point, a client will expect a presentation, or a reveal' of how the product will look.

3. The Trend

"I want a responsive…"

As I said, responsive design is a trend. Or, rather, an awakening. As such, a lot of organisations and businesses are behind the curve . But one thing many people aren't asking (and, I know this because I ask) is 'is it worth it?' or 'Do you really?'

In 2011, our first responsive site was a site for World Skills London. It was a fun project, geared around a single event in London in which 200,000 visitors would attend and watch the various activities in the competition. As part of this project, we designed a responsive map. A cool diagram with a responsive image map that would scale and allow users to get from A-Z in the event by using their phone. Cool.

The World Skills London 2011 Map

Except, during the project retrospective, it became clear that, actually, only 25 people used it. It was not needed.

Back to Hinterstoisser

Let's go back to the Eiger and Hinterstoisser and three other men trying to climb the North Face. If you recall, after a day or so, they had arrived at a seemingly impassable face of rock under the Rote Flüh. After much deliberation about trying to re-route, Hinterstoisser decided to have a go at traversing the feature. And he succeeded, and with that, opened the gateway to the rest of the face and rest of their climb.

The Hinterstoisser Traverse on the North Face of the Eiger is a 150ft pitch of vertical, and often ice-glazed, rock. Now, with a fixed rope in place, the traverse was undertaken by Hinterstoisser by tensioning a rope high above him and traversing downwards and across.

The Hinterstoisser Traverse

Today, the same traverse is still used across the same slab of rock.

Last week, I did a survey on Twitter about the business of responsive design. After 500 or so responses, it's clear that everyone is finding everything hard right now. The change is so big, and so rapid, that we're struggling to keep our heads above water. And this especially goes for those working in-house or clients.

Breaking new ground is always difficult.

But, just like Hinterstoisser, take heart in knowing that what we're working on right now is a legacy for designers and developers in the months and years ahead.

Conference organiser tips (from a speaker's perspective)

Following on from my post about speaker and audience tips, I thought I'd also share a few tips for conference organisers from a speaker's perspective.

I've spoken at well over fifty events over the past few years to upwards of about four thousand people. Along the way, I've had mixed experiences of what it's like to speak at conferences big and small. Mostly, of course, the experience has been great. Organisers are lovely people, who work extremely hard and appreciate you being there and look after you well. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. If you're thinking about organising a conference this coming year, maybe bear some of these details in mind.

  1. Logistics. Well in advance, give the speakers the logistical details; who's meeting them at the airport, where they're staying and for how long, what time the parties are, what other commitments they have etc. If you don't have them, let them know you don't have them yet and that you haven't forgotten them.

  2. Pay them. Even if it's a small amount, but especially if your conference is for profit and relies on the quality of their talks to sell tickets. Of course, travel expenses should be covered. Now, this may not apply to some 'community' conferences with many, many speakers. But, for most, it applies.

  3. Arrange travel. Book their flights (and make sure you ask for their frequent flyer number), pick them up from the airport, ferry them around if need be. They're not to be pampered, but don't underestimate peoples anxiety in foreign countries.

  4. Put them in a nice hotel. Again, consider the details. Make sure the hotel has confirmed the booking, and they know when the speaker is expected to arrive. Once, when arriving late at a conference hotel, I was told I didn't have a room and ended up sleeping in a meeting room on a makeshift bed for the night.

  5. Confirm with them the pre and post talk events. Is there a speaker's dinner? If so, where, when, what time (and where) is everyone meeting.

  6. Sound and technical check. A lot of speakers like to get this out of the way before their talk. They will want the name of the person they need to report to – either a stage manager, or a conference volunteer – in order to sort that out.

  7. Dongles. Make sure you have every known projector dongle available. People lose them all the time. Also, spare clickers and batteries is a good idea. Most speakers will be well-prepared and carry their own, but just in case.

  8. Tea. This is personal. Not everyone drinks coffee, and I would like tea at my breaks.

  9. Alcohol. Again, this is personal, but not everyone likes a piss-up. So, the after party should not necessarily be at a club where you can't hear yourself think with as much free spirits as you can drink. Consider attendees may want to talk amongst themselves in a grown-up setting after a long day sat down. We're not all party-animals.

  10. Green rooms. It's important that speakers have somewhere to go and work, or cram their slides, or be by themselves with their nerves. This is very important for me. Last thing I want to do before I go on is mingle. I'm generally nervous and want to focus on the job at hand. It has been known for me to hide in the toilets for a while.

  11. Rights. Don't ask for exclusive rights over speaker's content. This happens, and increasingly so, actually. A conference will explicitly say that you are not allowed to talk about the same stuff in other places. Nope. That will not do. A lot of speakers produce one or two talks for the entire year.

  12. Video. If you're going to video me speaking, and charge for those videos of me and my content, you should explicitly ask me. Not because I'll say no (not every time), but because it's nice to be asked. And, sometimes, I may be talking about content which I want to actually use at a later date for myself in a filmed workshop, or talk.

  13. Get a good MC. If you have someone introducing each speaker – and you should – then make sure that person is energetic, funny, personable and just plain pleasurable to listen to.

  14. Have a stage monitor. I use scant notes in my talks, but the most important thing for me are my pace notes see point 14. If those notes are on my laptop screen all the way over on the lectern, it's sometimes a bit unnatural for me to be flitting back and forth. It's much better, if you can, to have a monitor on the front of the stage showing Keynote's presenter display.

  15. Set the expectation for Q & A. If you plan on doing Q & A let everyone and the speaker know. If you don't plan on it, then don't – after the speaker has finished – say 'thanks, Mark. So, any questions audience?'. Invariably there won't be any, because nobody – including the speaker – was expecting it. Also: it's generally a bit of a bum note after the rousing ending to a talk see point 11.

  16. Your conference is not your ego trip. Everybody, including the speakers, are incredibly grateful for the effort you've put in over the year to produce a great conference. But, chose a time and a place to thank people. In between each talk isn't it. Also: my guess is that most people in the audience have bought tickets to hear what the speakers have to say, rather than as a favour to you.

  17. Your conference is not your platform. Building on point 16, I've been to a few conferences where there is an agenda – a point to be made by the organisers – either by who is speaking, or about what. If you have one, and that maybe fine, but please let speakers know before hand.

  18. Talk to your speakers about their content. This is important. Many speakers will not have their talk ready until right at the last minute (especially me). But, they will have a pretty good idea of what they will be talking about. Talk to them. design the conference and the material. Create an experience for the attendees on underlying threads in the talks. It's my feeling attendees should feel like they've been to a show, than seen a collection of people speak. It should feel united.

  19. 360 Degree Feedback. As a speaker I'd welcome the opportunity to feedback to the conference organisers about the conference. Consider a method of gathering feedback from speakers.

  20. Feedback from the audience. Feedback on speaker's talks is generally through Twitter, which is an almost immediate response and gauge on how you've done. Mostly, it's a good tool in that regard. Other conferences use questionnaires. I find this a clumsy tool and metric on which to base a speaker's performance. One glance at Twitter, and a few conversations in the hallway, should confirm to you if it was well-received or not. I welcome constructive feedback. I don't welcome 'I can't understand this Englishman's accent', or 'that was boring'. That's not a conversation. It's a verbal drive-by. I know people have quit speaking because of this type of 'feedback'. It's not helpful.

That's it for now. It's worth saying I've never organised a conference, but I do know how much time, effort and money it takes to do so. I've nothing but upmost respect for people who do. That said, I hope these few tips help in a little way if you're thinking of giving a conference a go.

Speaking and Audience tips

I've been speaking for a good few years now, and over that time, I've amassed a bunch of little tips and tricks I use to make it more of a pleasurable affair. This post was prompted by a colleague of mine, Nathan Ford, who, this morning, asked for some tips as he has a couple of speaking gigs lined up next year.

So, here we go. Some tips for speakers, and for audiences (from a speaker's perspective).

  1. Smile. This is a fun thing to do and you are thrilled to be there (even if you want to vomit in your shoes at that point).

  2. Check your flies. You don't want that breezy feeling half way through a code demo.

  3. Take off your lanyard. It can bang against your mike.

  4. Take off your earrings. If you have long, dangly ones they can interfere with headset microphones.

  5. Do a sound check and walk the stage. If it's being filmed check for black spots on the stage and avoid them. Get comfortable with the size of the stage, especially if you plan on wandering around.

  6. Never apologise. You know your mistakes, your mistakes in your slides, things you forgot to say, technical issues. What the audiences doesn't know, doesn't hurt them.

  7. Make sure you have water. A bottle by the lectern is enough. But, don't drink it all the way through your talk like some kind of nervous tick. It's just there for emergencies.

  8. Use a good clicker. Check the batteries.

  9. Check your radio mike is off before you go for an emergency pee. You don't want to do a Naked Gun.

  10. Don't fall off the stage, but if you do, don't acknowledge it. See point 5 to avoid this.

  11. Finish strong. Empower the audience. Encapsulate your main point in one sentence. That last sentence should stay with everyone. Pause. Then say 'Thank you'. Then the crowd will clap.

  12. Don't hide behind the lectern. It can feel like a barrier (or a safety net). Sometimes this is tricky if people are doing code demos or the like, but personally, I can feel like it's a barrier between me and the audience.

  13. Gaffer tape! If you do stay behind the lectern, pack some gaffer tape in your bag. Lectern's have a habit of having a small lip that Macbook Airs tend to ride ride over. On a number of occasions, I've had to tape my laptop to the lectern.

  14. Pace yourself. Put in pace notes in your slides. Just a simple 5:00 will do. Meaning, 'At this point, I should be 5 minutes in'. This helps me know when to speed up, or fill. Plus, it's a good barometer of your overall pace.

  15. Make your point, but don't make it angrily. Passion can sometimes come across as shouty arrogance.

  16. Don't say 'can you hear me?'. If they can't, they'll let you know. Good sound crews will fade up your mike as you start speaking.

  17. Focus on your words more than your slides. Again, this maybe personal, but I'd rather listen to well considered points, than look at pretty slides.

  18. Find a friendly face in the first few rows. Try to block out the people looking angry, bored or just asleep. Yes, people fall asleep.

  19. If you finish early, don't worry, it just means people get more coffee.

  20. Dress comfortably, not necessarily smartly. That doesn't mean a suit, or a blazer, or a fancy dress. It means dress so you're not thinking about your clothes. If you're thinking about uncomfortable you are – for whatever reason – you'll be off your game. People aren't there to see what you have on, but what you have to say.

  21. Don't sell yourself, your company or your product. It's not the place. People will not listen and get angry.

  22. Questions and Answers. I'm not one for Q & A, but if there is, then make sure you repeat the question before answering it. Don't take for granted everyone else has heard, plus, if your talk is being recorded, then listeners will need to hear it.

  23. Is it being recorded? If the talk is being recorded make sure, when referencing something visual, you also provide enough context over audio so that people listening understand. Less of 'this thing over here', more of 'I'd like to draw your attention to the heading in this example'.

I think, above all else, remember that if you're planning on speaking this coming year is to enjoy yourself. Yes, it's stressful. You'll be nervous, you'll be thinking 'why am I doing this?', but there can be so much fulfilment in sharing your work with your peers. And, really, that's what it's all about, isn't it?

And, now, if you're attending a conference this coming year, then here are a few tips, from a speakers perspective, on how to get the best out of attending the actual talks.

Audience tips

  1. Be in the room. Personally, I'm not one for laptops, iPads or phones being on, but I understand people take notes on them. People also Photoshop pictures of the Queen and engage in Skype conversations with their mum. My guess is, these people aren't listening.

  2. Try not to fall asleep. I get it. You're tired, you were out late last night, it's warm and dark. But, really, it's quite off-putting if, as a speaker, you've spent weeks fretting over the next 45 minutes and some bloke is catching flies in the front row.

  3. Huddle up. Move along the row to the centre so people can get a seat.

  4. Don't talk, or heckle. Only the most experienced speakers (and I don't count myself in that group) can deal with that kind of interruption. Plus, it annoys the people around you.

  5. Be a friendly face. It means a lot to catch a friendly face in the audience. A disgruntled face can derail a speaker or a talk.

  6. Be on time. Get in your seat in plenty of time before the scheduled session.

  7. Listen and think before you tweet. I'd like to think people give talks the time to play out before forming an opinion. Sometimes, it can take 20 minutes for a speaker to make their major point.

Being Together

A few weeks ago, I attended the Do Lectures. Luckily, for me, it's a quick trip from Cardiff to Cardigan in West Wales. I'd been looking forward to it for months.

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?

A New Canon

In January, I'll have the delightful opportunity to speak at the New Adventures conference in Nottingham on a subject that is very dear to my heart: book design. In a round about way. I'll be talking about connectedness, craft, objects, space and a little bit about monks. Here's the topic description from the site:

In the real world, responsive design is nothing new. Products adapt to our needs. Technology monitors local environments to adjust lighting, temperature and even physical spaces. But what about web? In designing with words, the desire to bind content to a device has been around as long as there have been books. Mark will take you from desire to implementation, from theory to practice. How can we build upon what we know from literally hundreds of years of responsive design practice to define a new era of online publishing? An era where we strive for the same level of human / technology connection that started with the monks.

I can't wait to give this talk. Everything is changing at the moment. It's an incredible time to be a designer on the web with a deep interest in publishing. The conference is sold out (has been for months), but I'm sure the content will be out there in the wonderful interweb shortly after the event. Once it is, I'll link it up.

Ampersand · The Web Typography Conference

From those busy Brighton lot, Clearleft, comes another UK web conference. This one's about Web Typography and with Richard Rutter at the helm, I'm sure it will be superb.

Ten Crimes Against Web Typography (and how to avoid them)

Cardiff is finally getting its act together. Tonight, I’ll be speaking at the second Cardiff Geek Night, along with Dan Zambonini. It’s a ‘microslot’ that will last about 15 minutes, leaving plenty of time for questions.

When I spoke in November last year at the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin, the feedback I got from my Typography presentation was generally positive. It seemed that most of the people I spoke to preferred the last 10 minutes, on Micro-Typography, and all the quick tips that you could use every day. Tonight will be more of the same, with a slightly different slant. I’m going to highlighting my top ten crimes against web typography, and how you can put them right. Ten crimes (and subsequent tips on correcting them) in ten minutes. I’m told the talks will both be recorded, so I’ll post up a link to them (and slides), when they’re all done.

If you’re at a loose end tonight, and fancy a pint, then feel free to come along. We’ll be at Cafe Floyd from 7pm.

Type in Berlin

Since Sunday evening, I’ve been in Berlin attending—and speaking at—the Web 2.0 Expo. I presented earlier today on the very ‘un-web 2.0’ topic of Typography. I think it may have surprised a few people as to how relevant typography is to designing UI—even to applications. As usual, I talked about type as being more than just choosing typefaces, which is where most designers, unfortunately, see typography begin and end.

On closing, I gave a URL which would link to a section of this site with the slides, notes etc. You can download the slides here.

Apologies for the delay, but the up-speed of the conference wifi was incredibly poor, so I’ve only just got around to doing it.

I’ve also decided to embed the slides here from Slideshare. I don’t normally do this, so apologies if Slideshare clogs things up, but I thought it might be nice to have the slides here whilst I break-down the topics I presented.

The slides

What was said

I’ll give you a quick run-down of some of the main points of the talk.

I started off with a quick introduction of placing typography within Web 2.0. Where does typographic design as a practice fit with designing applications and platforms for the ‘web of data’. The rest of the talk was then split into four main section: Structure, Process, Macro typography and Micro typography.

I presented the following points:




  • Typography is presenting information.
  • Information is language and language has structure.
  • Documents have a conceptual model and these need to be matched to the reader’s conceptual model of the content.
  • It’s the designer’s job to bridge this gap and present the content which fits both models. Incidentally, I feel this is one of the problems facing designers who want to art direct on the web.
  • Content and presentation.




  • Jesse James Garrett’s ‘Elements of User Experience’.
  • Wrongly interpreted as a linear process.
  • A process like this relegates design, and specifically typography, to the surface plane.
  • Greybox Wireframes.
  • Involving typographic design much earlier in the process.

Macro typography



  • The Big Stuff.
  • Creating spacial relationships.
  • The Golden Section.
  • The Golden Section as applied to the web.
  • The Rule of Thirds.
  • Grids and consistency of design across page types.

Micro typography



  • Hyphens are not dashes.
  • Letterspacing: negatively and positively.
  • Italic ampersands in headings.
  • Framing navigation items and lists.
  • Framing tables rows and columns

Those were the main points. It seemed to go down well, although, I still had the feeling the presentation stuck out like a sore thumb in a conference discussing some of the loftier aspects of designing for the web.

The rest of the time was spent in the pleasant company of friends old and new. Jeremy and Jessica, Simon and Nat were wonderful in arranging a variety of evening Berlin eating establishments. In truth, I met them in the lobby and we wandered around until we found a restaurant that could accommodate 13 people.

I ate some strange German food, and drunk some even stranger red beer. I said strange, not bad. I enjoyed sitting next to Jesse for two meals and discussing everything from washing machines and remote controls, to the waiter with the incredible memory (yes, he took a complete order—starters and main courses— without writing a single thing down! Impressive or what? I need to write a list if I need more than two things at the supermarket).

So, all in all, it’s been fun. But, it’s been tough trying to manage a conference, preparing a talk and running a small business that is ticking over at home. That has been challenging. I missed The Wife and am dying to see progress on my house extension.

I will say this for Berlin though, it’s a great place to come as a designer. I even found a design manual in a bookshop today on how to design forms, timetables and transportation tickets. How cool is that?