Mark Boulton’s Freelance Design Secrets

Mark Boulton Design is a small design studio based in Cardiff, UK, which specializes in designing simple, beautiful interfaces for the Web. Andy Kowalik interviewed Mark Boulton, owner and designer, to find out how it all happened, and to gain his wisdom on the important factors of running a successful design business.

SP: To start off, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in web design?

I started running the studio full-time nearly two years ago. Before that I worked as a Senior Designer for the BBC in its New Media division, following a few years spent working for Agency.com in London as an Art Director.

I started out in web design over ten years ago when working for a small design agency in the Manchester, UK. My roots are pretty traditional – I have a degree in typographic design and worked as a print designer for a number of years before landing my first full-time job as a web designer in a company called Spike in Sydney, Australia.

SP: Web-based Grid design appears to be attracting a lot of attention at the moment. Where did your fascination with the Grid begin?

I studied typographic design at university. One of the modules of the course was the International Society of Typographic Designers (iSTD) student assessment scheme. The brief was to design an Encyclopedia of Molecular Biology. For any reference book of that scope, the underpinning grid system had to be carefully designed to allow for the variety of page types. I guess this is where it all started.

This project seemed so daunting initially, but following the design of quite a well-thought-out grid system, the book pretty much designed itself. It was then that I realized grid systems are an incredibly valuable tool in the designer’s toolbox.

SP: And were you always interested in the art of good typography?

My interest in typography gradually grew out of an interest in illustration. I started out in art school wanting to be a commercial illustrator, of the painting and drawing type. While I was at college, I began experimenting painting using just type forms. So, the interest pretty much grew from there.

SP: Following on from grids and typography, what do you think are the challenges when designing for the Web as opposed to a more fixed print environment?

The constraints are a continual challenge on the Web. In fact, because the medium is so fluid and evolving so quickly, many of our great print design counterparts find it difficult to make the transition. I’m sure that’s why we see so many Flash sites on the Web. The designers don’t completely understand the medium and what’s possible, so they try to shoehorn in a print approach. Even ten years down the road, we’re still seeing this.

SP: So what do you find most exciting about designing for the Web? Do you get as excited about CSS3 as other developers?

I find the challenges and constraints exciting. I really enjoy working on a project that allows me to spread my typographic wings. CSS3 does sound incredibly interesting, especially some of the typography and layout modules, but the problem with CSS3 is you can quickly get bogged down in technical specifications. This is hopefully where the CSSEleven will fit in. The W3C needs to take on board the language of designers for CSS3, especially for layout.

SP: I see from your site that you’re also a fan of Expression Engine. What made you choose this CMS over the many others that abound these days?

I’ve been using EE for four years now. When I first started using it, thanks to Colly, I’d just about had enough of MovableType – I had to hack it around so much just to get it to do what I wanted. Also, the concepts of Expression Engine are very similar to a CMS we were using at the BBC at the time, so the learning curve was fairly shallow for me.

SP: Are there any other tools you swear by, or even just cool things you find useful, on the Web or elsewhere?

I use Backpack religiously. It organizes my life. From its calendar to its to-do lists, everything from shopping lists to the business’s cashflow. I’d be completely lost without it.

SP: You’re just about to release a book called Five Simple Steps: Designing for the Web. Can you give us an overview of what you’ll cover in the book, and what you think designers will be able to take away having read it?

That book has been on the cards for ages. It was announced nearly 18 months ago and is very, very late! That said, it will be finished this year and will be initially available as a PDF download and then as a limited edition hardback.

The premise of the book is simple. There are an awful lot of people – designers and developers – who would benefit from some simply presented graphic design theory. This theory can applied to their day-to-day work. It’s going to be a practical book of five parts: Research and Ideas, Colour, Typography, Grid Systems, and Form and Function.

SP: Having worked in the industry for a number of years before establishing your own design company, what was the driving force behind going it alone as a freelancer?

I was working at the BBC as well as doing freelance work in my spare time. At a point, about a year before I left, I was essentially doing two jobs. Everything suffered as a result – my health, my work, my relationship. In the end one job had to go, and that was the BBC job.

SP: Was it an easy switch to make?

When I look back, yes. But it’s incredibly scary, and it still is. I still wake up some mornings very worried about the months ahead if there’s no work booked in.

SP: You recently took on your first member of staff. How did you find the recruitment process, not only as business owner but also as a designer?

It was reasonably difficult in Cardiff. Simply because the design base here is focussed purely on broadcasting or print. Good web-based designers are difficult to come by.

SP: Looking at your portfolio, you’ve attracted a number of notable clients. What three things do you think help most to win a high caliber of client?

  1. Being able to slot into their working practice and environment. Working client-side at the BBC has proven extremely valuable, for those clients who need to feel like you’re part of the team.
  2. Visibility. Luckily, my blog is quite popular (although gathering dust at the moment!).
  3. Doing good work. Essentially, it comes down to this!

SP: What was your favorite project among those you’ve worked on, and what made it special compared to the rest?

That’s a difficult question. I generally enjoy all the projects I work on. The most rewarding was probably a web application we designed for a major TV sports network earlier this year. It was a project that ran over several months and saw us involved right from the inception of the product – right from the get-go. We were able to influence a lot of the direction of product, not only from a UI design point of view, but also from a functionality one. Yeah, that was a good one.

SP: What about a disaster story? Has there ever been a time where you found yourself learning hard lessons from a project that fell to pieces?

Almost monthly. I wouldn’t say they were disasters as such, but it’s important to recognize and act upon your mistakes. Sometimes we’ve had to walk away from projects that have gone bad. Mostly, that has happened because in a breakdown in communications, or a misconception in expectations. That is why the initial consulting phase is always so vital in a project. It’s then that you establish a relationship with a client.

This is always one of the difficulties of working remotely. Tone of voice is difficult to convey in email, or through Basecamp. We always like to kick things off with a real-life meeting or phone discussion.

SP: So what do you like to do when you’re not at the computer?

At the moment, spend time with my new daughter. Beyond that, I’m partial to a bit of angling, which I find pretty relaxing. Once or twice a year, my wife and I spend a couple of weeks snowboarding in the Alps. There’s something about the mountains that is so good for the soul …

SP: If you weren’t a web designer, you’d be …

An astronaut. No, seriously, I’d probably be designing something else. I think it’s in my blood.

SP: What about leaving the fast lanes of London for life in Wales? (Disclaimer: I too live in sunny Wales!)

Well, that was my wife’s fault. She got a job here in Cardiff and we’d pretty much gotten so sick of living in London. I grew up on the edge of Manchester, so I had the best of both worlds – rolling countryside and a city within half an hour’s drive. We’ve got the same here in Cardiff, but we have the coast too. I don’t regret it for a moment.

SP: Finally, thanks for taking the time out to be quizzed for SitePoint readers!

No problem! Thanks for having me.

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