Our guest in Member Spotlight today is Ian Blackford of Design Conscious. Before starting our interview here is what Ian thinks about Ultimatum in short:
Ultimatum has changed the way that I work and the scope of the work I’m prepared to take on. I’m 100% convinced that with Ultimatum, a few well chosen plugins and some lateral thinking that I can produce anything my clients require – on time and within budget. I know that when I start a project using Ultimatum that I can finish it, support it and develop it further when the clients needs change. My investment in Ultimatum has been repaid a hundred times over in paid for work – there aren’t many things I have bought in my career that I can say that about!
Can you introduce yourself to us?
My name is Ian Blackford and I own a web development company called Design Conscious .com I’m based in Telford, Shropshire in the UK. I’ve been a self employed website developer since 2003 but previous to this I went to Art College and studied Graphic Design. I started my working career in 1988 in the artwork department of a medium sized print company. Here I learnt the in’s and out’s of paste up artwork, colour separation and everything through to making the printing press plates. It was a time when you couldn’t buy a Mac for less that £6k but I was fortunate enough to work for a company that saw the potential in ‘Desktop Publishing’ so I was able to cut my teeth on a range of Mac’s from the lowly SE right up to a Quadra 950 which was the top of the range Mac in those days.
Fast forwarding through the years I had the privilege of working on bigger and better projects everything from conference books for the Financial Times to page layout and colour repro for national magazines. I eventually left the print company and joined a publishing business where I produced the artwork for a couple of niche magazines, that was until my old boss from my first job contacted me and asked me to join him at his new studio.
At this time the print industry was still strong and all our work involved computer generated artwork for glossy brochures or retail advertising, but at some point in the late 1990’s there was a wholesale change in our work load. It seemed that over night the requests for print artwork dried up and instead the phone started ringing with enquiries for websites. By now there were 4 of us at the studio and we knew very little about the internet or HTML. My boss went to the local book store, bought 2 or 3 books on HTML, threw them on the desk and said: ‘Right! Learn that!’ So for the next few weeks we read the books, coded a little bit of HTML, bought some software and slowly we started producing websites. This lead on to working in a programming language called Lasso so we could create database driven sites and soon we were creating some quite complicated (for the time) interactive web solutions.
In late 2003 I realised that after all the years of taking briefs, managing the production and proofing the work to the client, the only thing I wasn’t doing was raising the invoice, so I handed in my notice and took the giant leap of faith to start my own web development company.
How long have you been using WordPress?
It took me a long time to find WordPress, and I found it in an odd way. Being on my own I needed to gain as much knowledge from as many sources as possible so at the time I was listening to podcasts about business development, website building and online marketing. One podcast stood out: The Marketing Podcast which was hosted by an Australian guy who really seemed to know what he was talking about. I emailed him a question, he replied and we got into having regular email contact. Then we ended up chatting on Skype and from that he asked me to do a little work for him, he had found this thing called WordPress and he wanted to use it. I said I’d give it a go and soon became a really big fan of what it could do and how much the search engines loved it. Back then – when google just wanted to be a search engine – WordPress websites would index like crazy. We were creating landing page websites in WordPress and using Adwords to send targeted traffic to it.
From this moment on I started using WordPress for all my websites and I would alter the basic template by hand to try and make my sites look different. I eventually found a piece of software on the PC that would generate WordPress themes for you based on your choices in a WYSIWYG editor. This worked really well to be honest, but you ended up with designs that were very similar in look and layout. The development for this software took a nose dive and it become vey clear that I either had to buy premium themes or look for something else.
When and how did you meet Ultimatum?
I can’t quite remember how I ended up on the MightyDeal mailing list, but I do remember seeing Ultimatum on there, watching the video of what it could do I remember thinking to myself… this is going to change the way I work from now on! I instantly bought it and I have to say it was the best purchase I have ever made. The version I bought was 2.3 which was around April 2013.
What was the feature made you buy Ultimatum?
The stand out feature for me was the ability to formulate a layout right in the heart of WordPress. Being able to tinker in the admin, and then refresh the front end pages to view how it had changed felt so natural to me because that’s exactly how I started working with HTML and Dreamweaver. Ultimatum has come on leaps and bounds since then but I’m glad to say that it’s still kept the core modular layout building blocks which gives the layout building process so many variations.
I have to admit I was worried for a while before I found Ultimatum. My sites were looking tired and structurally very very similar. I knew that responsive sites were looming and I had no mechanism of being able to delivery them. I honestly felt this time that the latest web trends were going to pass me by. I owe a lot to Ultimatum I seriously think that I would have closed my business by now without it.
How many sites you have built with Ultimatum may you give us some examples?
I currently have almost 50 WordPress websites approximately 32 of which are Ultimatum powered. Some sites are still running the themes I developed way back with the PC WYSIWYG software but slowly these are gearing up to be redeveloped in Ultimatum.
Here are a few of the sites I have developed with Ultimatum.
What was the most challenging part of your project with Ultimatum?
I recently had to create a site for a start-up loan provider, and part of the brief was to do some real fancy things with application forms, this tested my abilities with multiple page layouts but the solution relied heavily on my plugin choices.
However the biggest challenge I have successfully executed with Ultimatum is a site redesign that I have just completed. I designed the site from scratch in Ultimatum no more than two months ago. A couple of weeks after the site went live, I had a call from the client asking me to meet them at their offices. I went along and was stunned to find that they wanted a complete redesign! This was because they had hired a new Managing Director and he had firm ideas about where the company was going – and the website did not now fit the bill.
They tasked me with the job of changing the site, in situ and without taking down the current website. Ultimatum made this so easy that I blew them away with the solution. In the Ultimatum Templates admin I made a second Template, and in this new template I made all new page layouts. All the new pages were created ‘behind the scenes’ of the existing pages using this other template and so a complete second website grew on the back of a live and functioning site.
This might seem obvious to some people who know Ultimatum already but to be honest the simplicity of being able to have two (or more if you wanted) completely different site designs living in the same site, both live and applied to different pages is possibly the most powerful facility I have come across.
What do you love most about Ultimatum?
It’s hard for me to put my finger on the thing I love most about Ultimatum, because there are so many great features and even more that live ‘under the hood’ in the code that I probably don’t even realise are there. If I have to say just one thing however I think it has to be the flexibility of the layouts. Layouts can be constructed in ‘part’ or ‘full’. Part layouts are for things like headers and footers, and full layouts are the structures that are applied to the pages and post. The thing that makes this such a killer feature is that part layouts can be added to the full layout not only in the head and foot, but in the main layout too. This give you infinite possibilities when constructing your page layout and means that no two Ultimatum sites need ever look the same!
What do you think Ultimatum lacks?
There are perhaps two things that I could suggest. The first issue I have found with Ultimatum is navigating from Template to Layouts to CSS to pages to Template etc. I have solved this with an admin menu that I use to create shortcuts to the places I visit most, so for me this headache has gone away – but I’d love to see shortcuts built into the core of Ultimatum. There are other minor niggles but these are mainly because I work in my own specific ways. For example when adding a row to a layout, it would be great if I could double click the row I wanted and apply it, rather than highlighting it then scrolling to the submit button. Like I say these are minor things and I suppose what I am really getting at is It would be awesome if we could cut down on the amount of clicks it takes to navigate around and apply settings.
The second is I use a monitoring app called WPRemote, this reports to me if there are any updates required to themes, plugins and core files. WPRemote can’t detect if Ultimatum or any of it’s premium plugins need an update so instead of being able to update remotely I have to login to each site to check.
How would you rate Ultimatum Support?
Ultimatum has a great user forum and there are many users on there who are willing and able to offer sound advice and solutions. There are times however when more in-depth knowledge is required and that’s where the Ultimatum support team get involved. I’ve always found the Ultimatum support team to be responsive and above all knowledgeable even when the issue affecting the user is from one of the bundled 3rd party plugins. A new user visiting the forum may get worried that they have invested in the wrong framework, but that’s because the topics in a forum are biased with problems. Lets face it you only really visit a forum when you have a problem, and you only really start a thread when you can’t find an answer. So it’s really good to see the green ‘Resolved’ flag popping up more and more in the threads as issues get solved.
Wouldn’t it be great though if more people started threads about neat things they had found that Ultimatum could do? 🙂
Do you have any recommendations to our users?
I have three things to suggest to users of Ultimatum, the first is to get to know Ultimatum inside out. By that I mean play with it and learn where all the settings are, use those settings to formulate a way of working that means you get the best out of Ultimatum.
Second, push your boundaries and try new ways of working. Recently I had a client who wanted all the edges of the rows and element blocks to line up. They did not want the layout to bleed to the wrapper edge, they didn’t want to see the margin in a container either. I had to work in the column only, but because I knew where the settings were and what I needed to adjust I succeeded in creating a tightly structured layout that the client is very impressed with.
Thirdly, don’t forget to back up! I know this isn’t an Ultimatum recommendation but it’s vital to keep back ups. Computers fall over and upgrades go wrong, that’s just a fact of life for web developers, so it’s vital to have a back up plan.
Are you available for hire?
Sure!. You can reach me at :