Three Questions for Mark Boulton

18 Jun 07

As a part of my ongoing Three Questions series, I’ve managed to score an interview with Mark Boulton. Mark is an expert on web typography and grid based layouts, he co-authored Web Standards Creativity, and he recently started his eponymous design studio—Mark Boulton Design Ltd.

This year at South by Southwest, Mark gave a fantastic presentation with Khoi Vinh entitled Grids are Good—by far the best talk given this year, squeezed down to twenty-two minutes to boot.

Also highly recommended—Mark’s fantastic Five Simple Steps series of posts, spanning typography to color theory, with a book soon to come.

Read on for Mark’s thoughts on justifying design, the value of graphic design education, and client work versus in-house work.

Three Questions for Mark Boulton

Rob Goodlatte

While designing with golden ratios, color theory and grids do you ever find yourself just throwing it all out and making a design decision by impulse? Should every decision a designer makes be justifiable?

Mark Boulton

“…all design decisions should be justifiable…”I think all design decisions should be justifiable, the question is; should they be conscious or sub-conscious decisions. I do tend to approach a design problem and consciously try and solve the problem, and that includes applying rations, grids and colour theory. However, a lot of the, what I call ‘mark-making’—the craft element of design—is sub-conscious. I never sit down and think, ‘right I need to find a complimentary colour for orange, let me dig out my colour wheel’. A lot of those types of decisions happen on a sub-conscious level and happen very quickly.


I am strongly considering pursuing a formal design education. As a designer with formal training, what do you think are key elements of a good design education? Has the Web changed anything in that regard?


“The key elements instilled were: Problem solving, Simplicity, Craft and Passion.”I can only go on my experience with design education, and that of my brother (who has also completed a design degree). I completed my degree over ten years ago. I was very happy with the course I took; it taught me a lot. The key elements instilled were: Problem solving, Simplicity, Craft and Passion.

Problem solving is perhaps the most useful I use day to day. We spent a lot of time being given the tools to solve visual problems: research, brainstorming methods, iterative design process etc. On the course I took, we were assessed mostly on our ability to solve the problem; not how good our design looked. Thankfully, this is still being taught at the core of most graphic design degrees. However, it’s unfortunate that it is generally to the detriment of the craft of graphic design.

“The craft of graphic design is sadly missing from a lot of graphic design courses.”The craft of graphic design is sadly missing from a lot of graphic design courses, especially here in the UK. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because of the advent of the computer and the rise of DTP. Maybe it’s because the lecturers on those courses have lack of interest in the craft of design. I really don’t know. My lecturers in university were book designers—both approaching retirement—and cared about the tradition of typography, printing and the cross-overs with art. All three of those were taught and applied in practical terms; we hand-rendered eighteen point Garamond, were encouranged to explore letterforms and embrace ‘happy-accidents’ (read: when things go wrong).

“What education gives you is time and a different kind of pressure.”What education gives you is time and a different kind of pressure. In industry, the pressures are from the client, the market and making a profit. Design is a business, and as such, it’s difficult to remove yourself form those pressures to give you the space you need to explore a design. Education gives you this space.

The Web has changed things to a degree.

For a while we’ve seen ‘Interactive Arts’ degrees here in the UK. They tend to teach art with a focus on delivering that art via electronic means. They are not web design courses, but I think a lot of students think they are when they enroll on them. A lot of these courses also teach you how to use Photoshop and Flash, but teach little about Usability, Accessibility or Web-Standards, let alone good design practice.


Do you take a different design process when dealing with clients directly versus in-house design or agency work? What about when designing for yourself?


I take a different approach to all three. They’re all fun and challenging in their own right, but do require a different mindset.

Designing for clients is great. You are presented with different problems to solve daily. Different ideas, different requirements and subsequent solutions. It’s hard to switch off when deep in client work. Designing for an in-house team is different. But only slightly so.

“All internal teams have clients; they’re just internal…”All internal teams have clients; they’re just internal—the M.D, the Board of Directors or just your Line Manager. The difference tends to be time and quality. Designing for an in-house team takes longer. There seem to be more meetings, more red-tape, more iteration and beta testing periods. Eventually though, you get a better product as a result. It’s certainly an advantage to having worked in both environments. I’d like to think at Mark Boulton Design, we can apply some of the mindset of an in-house team to a client’s project.

Designing for yourself is just a nightmare. I’m a terrible client!

Thanks again Mark for a fantastic interview. Want to read more? Check out Mark’s journal on design at If you’re looking for more interviews with great designers, check out my past Three Questions interviews.

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