Interview with Mark Boulton

In advance of the Leading Design conference in London on the 24th-26th October, I caught up with Mark Boulton to discuss his background, experience and thoughts on the subject of Design Leadership.

Tell us about your first design leadership role? Who did you model yourself on?

I guess I’ve been leading design in one form or another since I was a fairly junior Art Director at an Agency in London in 1999 where I led a small team. Then, on to the BBC and my own business. Now at Monotype. I’ve not really modelled myself on one particular person because each environment, each client, each team requires something different from you as a leader. For some people, they like and need clear guidance and support. Others thrive on pointing them in the right direction and leaving them to it. So, really, it’s a case of trying to mould myself into job at hand: be it leading a team, leading a client’s team, or guiding company direction. Each one requires a different me.

What does a typical day look like for you? Is it all meetings?

Mostly! I think design leaders should really be called ‘Email Operators and Conference Call Attendee’. If I’m honest, though, since starting my own business, that has been my job for the past 10 years. Design in any guise just takes an awful lot of talking, listening, questioning and understanding. Without that groundwork, and ongoing commitment, any design work done is only as good as the other project activities. Be it project management, content, marketing, strategy, engineering, IT…

My typical day feels like guiding a skidding lorry travelling at 80mph. But doing it in slow motion. A little tweak here. A little nudge there. A correction here. An over correction there. That’s not to say it’s bad work, or I don’t enjoy it, or Monotype isn’t a fabulous place to work, because it is. It’s just the nature of big business. Things move ever so slowly but with so much momentum.

Do you still get to do any “real” design?

I like your quotation marks there. And I will take bait. What is real design anyway? I used to think this was making something beautiful above all else. Then I thought it was about making it usable above all else. Then I thought doing both. Then I thought it was about just shipping. I thought real design was about all of these things, really. And it still is. I still maintain that ‘real’ design is about making a difference. And I don’t mean that in a hippy way, but more that things that are designed might be better than things that aren’t. Decisions made in a design process might result in making a difference. Even if that difference is between something that is terrible and something less terrible.

I’m probably just mellowing in my old age! Real design these days is a big grey area of ‘it depends’.

What are the qualities of a good design leader?

  • I think there are a few key attributes. Being a good communicator up and down your org structure is one. Knowing how to tailor your language, priorities and outlook depending on who you are talking to really helps there.
  • Good design leaders have to have design in their bones. Coming from a place of practice. My experience is it’s really the only way to earn trust when providing critique. Also, those senior practicing designers have a knack of zeroing in on the problem at hand.
  • Being comfortable moving between higher plane strategic thinking and work, down to the weeds and the nitty gritty of operations is really important as well. generally, I’ve found that a lot of designers are pretty good at this anyway, but it can be quite discombobulating to spend all day switching from one extreme to the other, as is often the case.
  • Above all, design leaders have to be good with people. That’s the job. If you’d rather not spend your time in meetings, addressing difficult questions, asking difficult questions, and trying to piece together moving jigsaws, then maybe it’s not for you.

What is the design culture like in your current company?

That is actually quite difficult to answer because it changes all the time with the ebb and flow of business and priorities. However, I will say that Monotype is a company with design at its core. We have a studio of internal type designers, who produce work for a huge range of brands across the world. We also have embedded designers across our products and services. So, on one level, it’s pretty good because at least we have people! But, like many organisations, a holistic approach to design across a geographically distributed and one which is organically growing, is challenging.

What challenges are you facing at the moment and what are you doing to overcome them?

As I said, like many companies I’ve worked at or with over the years, Monotype has distributed design function across products and services. Me and my team are structured within the ‘branding’ team, which is in Marketing. That might seem like a weird place, but really, I’ve found it ideal in that we can address a sense of any degradation of the Monotype brand across our digital products and services in a holistic sense.

So one of the biggest challenges right now is scale vs people. We’re pretty slim on the people side, so the biggest challenge we’re trying to address is: ‘how do we scale, without hiring a ton of people, without degrading the brand, and creating a sense of the Monotype brand in all things digital’. It’s interesting, because when you’re in the fishbowl, we all like to think our problems are unique, but I reckon I’ve just described exactly the problem organisations across the world are facing right now.

How is your design team structured and how is that working? Anything you’d tweak?

I manage a small team of digital designers. We’re in the branding team working with our Creative Director, brand marketers, events and print design people. Our primary focus is on collaboration; with our colleagues, third party agencies and freelancers. I think there’s plenty to work on in terms of structure. I’m really thankful that we have a supporting department culture and a willingness to try new things and pivot if we need to.

What are you most proud of achieving as a design leader?

Actually, I don’t think i’ve been at Monotype long enough yet, but in terms of my career, then probably the work I was involved with at CERN for a few years. CERN was an environment with very little corporate structure — more like an open source community, or devolved university — so the commitment, energy, design, research, just blood, sweat and tears that my team and the client’s team at CERN put into that project was pretty incredible. Projects like that don’t come along very often in a career. One where they get under your skin. CERN is a special place.

I think the most memorable moment on that project for me was when the Higgs Boson was announced. Me and the team had to sit on a two day press embargo, produce a roadblock web page that replaced the main website that announced one of the most important statements in humankind’s understanding of the universe. It had to be built on a new CMS, a new design language, to a carefully researched and understood audience. It was the highlight and culmination of two and half years work at that point. It made me very proud to play a small part in that. Talk about standing on the shoulders of giants!

Any advice for a new design leader?

A few things:

1. Do what works. I know that sounds trite, but, for me, I think there is way too much navel gazing in business generally. As a new design leader, there is pressure to understand business so you can get a ‘seat at the table’. Then, you need a seat at the engineering table. Or to be seen to applying best practice and latest thinking because somebody in Silicon Valley wrote something on Medium or LinkedIn. You can very quickly drown in trying to the right thing, because there’s so much of it about. These days, I superficially graze that stuff but don’t really take much of it in. I think it was Bruce Lee, in developing his own martial art style, said that an adherence to a system ignores the natural chaos of combat, so just do what works. I think the same can said of business. It’s messy. Do what works.

2. The ‘leader’ bit is important. But it also means different things in different places and with different teams. It could be leading by practicing — as in doing ‘real’ design work. It could be something as simple as providing regular, solid, strategic guidance. Or it could just be have a weekly 1–2–1 with your team. it could be all of those. The point is, do the groundwork and understand what ‘leader’ means where you work.

Anything else on your mind at the moment?

Always! Currently, my mind is on just answering a couple of questions at Monotype. ‘What does good design look like?’, and ‘How does good design happen?’. I reckon if I crack those two, I can retire. :)