FOWD day 3: Failing And Doing It Well – Mark Boulton

May 16, 2012 Jonathan Berger

Design luminary Mark Boulton takes a well-deserved break from talking about grids and talks about failure instead.

Failing And Doing It Well – Mark Boulton

What’s the last time you really screwed up?

  • What did you do? Did you hurt someone? What happened as a consequence?
  • At some point in life, we stop being encouraged and applauded for screwing up.
  • At some later point, we start be chastised, blamed, made to feel bad.

  • On the internet #FAIL became the worst possible word. Why?

Mark’s first time snowboarding

  • 1st time in the ski lift: didn’t know there was a safety bar. Rode up screaming.
  • Fell on his ass a lot. In the same spot. For a week.
  • Learning to snowboard is an exercise in pain management
  • Nobody says “#FAIL!”; he was encouraged. For the first time since he was a baby.


  • When did Perfectionism become a good thing?
  • It’s a psychological disorder; it’s a problem.
  • Apple product advertising is particularly guilty.
  • Staying at a 5 star hotel wrecks your expectations. Nothing should go wrong, right?
  • The cracks are much more apparent when there’s an expectation of luxury and perfection.


  • At 16, Mark wanted to be a forensic scientist. Spent 2 years doing biology, chemistry, physics.
  • Didn’t do so well; took exams and it was a failure.
  • What do you do then? Course-correct.
  • > Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. – Mike Tyson


  • Hired to redesign in 2008 and then to redesign the UX for Drupal 7.
  • User testing indicated people didn’t know how to create content in Drupal 6. Big problem for a CMS.
  • Fidelity curve: quick/cheap/truthful <=============> photoshop comps / expensive
  • Mark spends most of his time on the quick/cheap end
  • Responsive design requires a lot more work; are you going to do high fidelity mocks for 8 breakpoints?
  • Low-res sketches are better most of the time.
  • People are willing to be more honest with low-res; they’re willing to criticize.
  • Early on: map a design framework to the work.
  • Drupal’s main problem is that it’s by developers, for developers. They’re very few champions for the content creators in the community.
  • Created a “Roles / Website / Result” 3-up book, trying to understand “what are they trying to do?”
  • At first it was very complicated, but they got it down to a bunch of design principles and 2 personas.
  • Paper prototypes are like cave paintings: they’re artifacts of a painting; they’re not the thing itself.
  • 12 weeks of paper prototyping.
  • What’s the failure? Mark & co. didn’t understand how things get done in the Drupal community. The Drupal Issue Queue breaks your design into 1,000,000 different pieces, and then they’re managed by lots of different people with lots of questions.


  • The internet was invented here!
  • Lots of accelerators, colliders, etc.
  • Home of the worst typography in the world: Cern Control Center
    cern sign

  • What if there’s a fire? Lots of strange signage around.

  • They’ve got a gizmo that’s blown up every time it’s been turned on, except for once (on a full moon.)
  • Every time it blows up, they say “Hmmm. That’s interesting!”
  • They make clouds! They have the cleanest room and water in the world to make clouds with.
  • Cern does really cool stuff, but no one knows about it.
  • NASA has a really easy job (from a publicity POV). They have pictures of Earth from space(!). CERN has plumbing.
  • Mark is trying to create a sense of wonder around CERN.
  • There’re some cool data visualizations around this stuff:
  • Mark is trying to bring some of this to the website in real time.
  • Talking to people has been difficult; some of these braniacs are nice, but others are really scary.
  • Mark introduced a branding bar across the 1000s of CERN mini-sites.
  • Some teams hijacked the bar and put navigation in it. Mark said “don’t”, but they did anyway.
  • Sometimes you just have to be adaptable.

It’s not working.

  • Foundation year of art school: spent the summer working on an oil reproduction. At the end, was told to tear it up.
  • Everything you’ve learned is shit. We’re going to make you unlearn it. We’re going to teach you to look and to think.
  • It’s less about the tools, and more about how you deal with things.
  • This was all about the critique.
  • We don’t do a lot of critique in web design. There’s a lot of talk about “don’t be mean”.

Rules of crit

  • Listen. Don’t interject and be defensive.
  • It’s about the work. It’s not personal.
  • Conversation. I expect you to talk back, not just say “uuuh…ok”
  • Public. 1-on-1 is very different than public.
  • In the crit. What’s said in the crit, stays in the crit. Don’t take it home. Don’t carry it around with you.

    • It’s within the crit that we can fail. That’s iteration. Mark wrote more about it on his blog and will try to extend the conversation to twitter using the hashtag #crit


  • His uncle used to restore steam engines.
  • It’s important to do something w your hands
  • Thinkering: the time spent thinking whilst doing something with your hands
  • When riding a bike, you’re focused on a single task but your mind is free to wander.

  • OMA (Koolhaas) builds models out of foam blue bricks instead of cardboard (like most architecture studios).

  • cardboard takes 24 cuts to make a cube; foam takes 6. More time thinking and making, less time involved with the tools.


  • We craft websites. There’s care that goes into it.
  • Craft requires time.
  • Deadlines run counter to that.
  • Theres’ no timescales on love; you just do.
  • Crafting isn’t the end product, its the journey.

In work

  • Speak. A lot. Daily standups, crits. Talk to clients too.
  • Be a project manager. It’s your responsibility not to shirk management to someone else. Managing time, workflow, deliverables.
  • agile, not Agile. MB thinks they’re broken for design. It’s very hard not to turn into a reactive designer. small-a-agile means small, nimble, able to course-correct, working at the appropriate level of fidelity all the time. “3 rounds of iteration” is nonsense created by the ad agencies in the 1950s.
  • Critique.
  • Work with clients, not for clients. Don’t work with people who don’t get what we do. If you think the people you’re working with are idiots, walk away.
  • Value, not time. The problem with charging by time is that you become a commodity. MB charges by value—the day rate changes.
  • Don’t hide. If you don’t have work done on time, tell them and apologize. It’s ok.
  • No ambition. “Don’t have ambition, be a dreamer.” Dreamers are happy with their lot. Ambitions have plans, and if you don’t get it, you fail.
  • Make small mistakes.
  • We’re all here to get better. We should fail to get there.

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