Interview with Mark Boulton

Andy Budd
Andy Budd
Sep 1, 2016 · 7 min read

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…

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.

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.

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.

Any advice for a new design leader?

A few things:

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. :)

Leading Design

Looking at the challenges and opportunities of design leadership in all its forms

Andy Budd

Written by

Andy Budd

User Experience Designer, startup advisor, occasional conference speaker, @Clearleft founder, and curator of @UXLondon and @LDConf

Leading Design

Looking at the challenges and opportunities of design leadership in all its forms