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Design systems in difficult places – Mark Boulton

This was originally posted on medium.com.

As hard as illustrators and photographers may wish, text is still the primary medium of the web. So, until voice-user interfaces become predominant, designers and typographers, like Mark Boulton, will be needed.

When web browsers and “surfing” were just starting out, the fonts used could be counted on one hand. Some of them, such as Verdana and Georgia, are still around today. Even if you don’t know the difference between them, you should know that choosing the right font influences the success of a product. Today, this perhaps applies even more since the growth of tools and standards for typography on the web has literally gone through the roof.

Mark Boulton on Twitter

Let’s go back to the nineties when Mark Boulton finished studying graphic design and typography. He started looking for work and after gaining experience in publishing and branding, he got into creating websites: “As the young designer in a studio, I was given the web projects to do. They were low risk, tacked onto print and branding projects, so therefore perfectly suited to someone with little experience to experiment. Browser wars and crazy front end dev aside, it was an exciting time.” The way Mark connected his university skills with new technology might be interesting for designers: he used the scale and size of elements, white space, alignment, and line thickness. However, what certainly differs with today’s web design is the amount of devices used and the need for responsive design.

One of the first topics Mark tackled on his blog was the changeability of layouts according to the width of browsers. By this time, he’d already done some work for BBC and several agencies in Australia and the UK. He started giving more talks, winning contracts, and founded his own studio. He also co-founded the tool Gridset, which allows CSS to work with responsive layouts. So, what are the best examples of responsive design? Websites like Gov.uk or CERN (which Mark worked on) because technology, graphic design, and layout never win out over content.

As we’re all struggling with responsibility, I’m ever mindful of it pulling us away from core problems. Sometimes, the real problem is much larger than ‘how do I get this to look right at 400 px wide?’

Mark’s studio operated until 2014, when it was acquired by the typography agency and type foundry Monotype. Over the course of eight years, they did work for major clients like Drupal, De Standaard, CERN, and Al Jazeera. They also helped small brands like Sugru and Hiut Denim sell big ideas on their websites. Monotype means that Mark once again has the opportunity to work with typography and with people who are training to be graphic designers. A part of his work also acts as research into how to present fonts and typography directly in the context in which they will eventually be used. We are seeing a convergence in style. Everything is starting to look the same. Some would say that’s a web aesthetic. I don’t agree. I think it’s a symptom of not necessarily doing the due diligence on selecting the right typeface or necessarily marrying the content to the type to the design. I think it’s ‘Oh we’ll set this in Proxima Nova and that will do’.

Designing for the Web

In addition to his blog, you should also make sure to read his book, Designing for the Web. In it, Mark sums up everything that a good web design should know from fundamental skills (layout creation, color, and fonts) to managing projects — we recommend the chapter on design briefs, even to more advanced designers!

In his talk, Mark will focus on the main difficulties and challenges he’s faced recently. Last year, he took a break from speaking, but he’s back giving talks this year. He’s already appeared before the design team at Amazon and at conferences like Design Exchange in Nottingham and Smashing Conf in San Francisco. We also noticed on Twitter, he’s been having some trouble with wasps and horseflies. We hope it turns out okay, and we’re already looking forward to hearing him speak!

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