#130 Interview with Christian Bullock full time freelance phpBB style designer

Written on:July 19, 2012
Last modified on: July 19, 2012 @ 3:55 PM
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6. Max Pen: What styles got you known as a phpBB stylist? What was the original purpose of releasing that style? (To get to be known better and easier find clients who want a custom style from you, just for fun, to see what people think of my work, etc…)

Christian Bullock: Contrary to common belief, I had actually created 5 free styles before Absolution was released. Only 4 were ever released: Dark Shines (dark red / grey black), UTIS (Blue / Black) MyStyle (white, blue, silver) and blueSilver (blue / silver). I am my own worst critic, many of the free styles I released I soon felt were not worthy of having my name on the bottom so I pulled them from development. blueSilver was the only style I had made an actual effort to keep maintaining and supporting, but eventually this too had run its course and was pulled from development.

I guess in some way these all contributed to my exposure, although collectively each style never passed a few thousand downloads. The time invested keeping them all updated through the phpBB updates isn’t worth it. There isn’t any particular reason why I created these styles, I’ve always liked helping others through sharing my knowledge – so if someone’s website is improved by using one of my styles I’m a happy guy.

Absolution was the only style deliberately released with the intention of using it to drive traffic to a particular with. With the style amongst the most popular in the phpBB community and nearing a total of 100,000 downloads, the backlinks serve as a priceless SEO advantage.

7. Max Pen: Did you ever thought you would become a famous phpBB designer? (If yes why? If no why?) Who is your biggest competition on phpBB.com?

Christian Bullock: I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m famous. There are other designers who have developed better styles (and more of them) but aren’t particularly ‘famous’. I have benefited from being involved in the forum/webmaster scene whilst developing my talents, and being close to the people that use my styles. I’m a strong believer that as far as freelancing is concerned people will often invest in the person, not the product. The same could be said for custom styles and that has worked to my advantage.

As for competition, I’m not sure there is competition as far as free styles are concerned. As I said there are a lot of great designers who have released free styles. Vjacheslav Trushkin (_Arty_) (formerly CyberAlien), Luca Libralato (Mighty Gorgon) and Daniel Exe have all released iconic styles that are embedded into the history of phpBB. Every style author has their own style, and every forum owner has their own idea of what they think will work best for their forum. There’s no way of creating one style that will please everyone, and this is why it’s so good that there are lots of talented style authors.

The competition begins when money is involved. As with any business, you want clients to come to you instead of fleecing somebody else’s pockets. Unlike free styles, paying clients don’t come around often so it’s important you show them what you’re capable of and convince them they’re with the right person. There are maybe one or two people I guess I’m competing with for business. At least it’s not an overly saturated market such as generic web design, where anyone and their kid can pretty much do something for you.

8. Max Pen: From what point did you become involved on phpBB.com as a staff member? What did you do in order to get into the styles/support/website team? Which team did you enjoy the most being in? What was the most time consuming job of the 3 teams you been in? (Also mention how long you been a staff member in each team.)

Christian Bullock: I had been deliberately attempting to gain attention from phpBB management to get onto the team for over a year. I don’t know whether it was the added responsibility, mutual respect from the community or the free real life conventions that made a team position attractive. Either way, I knew I wanted the chance to help out even more.

Gaining the respect and attention of the Team leaders was no easy task. New Team members are few and far between, and there are always a handful of people trying to get a place on the team. Getting noticed is literally all about being a genuine member of the community and helping out where possible, whether it’s replying to general support topics, styles support topics, helping with with MOD requests, taking part in general community discussion and reporting posts that break rules, or reporting topics that are in the wrong forum. Pretty much anything you do that helps the official team out will go down well with someone. As important as all of that is, it is equally important to not go overboard. Trying to reply to every single topic and chip-in when you have no idea how to help fix the problem is counter-productive. You don’t want to appear as “desperate”, that will send out all the wrong messages.

I was initiated as a phpBB Team member on 31st July 2010 and joined the Support Team. I was known for my phpBB style support, however Marhslrusty (Support Team Leader) invited me to the Support Team. My main responsibilities were to assist with updating areas of the website, and continue with the level of support that earned me a place on the team.

Several months later having passed the initial 3 month probation period, I approached the Styles Team leader (Raimon) regarding a transfer. It was always in the back of my mind that the Styles team is where I belonged, this reflected the view of the phpBB team as a whole. Days later I was transferred and immediately began duties as a member of the Styles team. This was a role with a lot more responsibility. It involved manually checking every edited line of code in submitted styles, checking they adhered to the styles submission policy and filtering out bugs, or styles with really bad coding. It is the styles’ team job to find anything the style author may have missed whilst the style is being developed. All this information is then relayed back to the style author, and the whole process starts over when they submit a revision.

The styles team is long, unglamorous work that takes up a lot of free time. Unlike the support team where your responsibilities are to basically reply to topics and check other people’s replies are accurate, the styles team has a much more “hands on” approach and as such takes much longer. While all of this was happening, several users had moved from various teams to the Website team. As a team previously only occupied by one person, this became a sanctuary for people who could not commit the time to the main teams, but were still team-fodder and could contribute to updating the website. After several months in the styles team, and with my own clients to look after as well as having free time to worry about, I also joined the website team.

The website team was probably the most enjoyable team to be a part of. It still delivered the benefits of being a team member whilst also allowing enough free time to have a life and look after your own online / offline commitments.

9. Max Pen: What eventually caused you to make the decision of quieting the job as staff on phpBB.com?

Christian Bullock: A couple of things to be honest. It wouldn’t be fair for me to disclose all of the reasons for leaving publicly. What I can say is that some team members felt differently about the future of the project as opposed to how some members of management felt. Additionally, I felt as though too much was being asked of me individually whilst others did absolutely nothing. This is one of the main reasons I left, If I was going to invest lots of hours in online projects I might as well do it so that it benefits me, not somebody else.

Secondly I like to do things with a clear mind. For example if I’m doing some work for a client I can’t then take a break and play games for a few hours. Or I cannot work on one of my own projects knowing that a paying client is waiting for theirs. Being a member of the phpBB team this turned into a regular occurrence. My head was often filled with thoughts of “What project am I working on? When can I complete it? What task is next? Who’s style needs validating?” . I couldn’t continue going through my life with that shadow over me. I made the commitment to leave following several months on the Website team and have not regretted it since.

10. Max Pen: How many custom styles have you made so far? Do you give each custom style a name?

Christian Bullock: Great question. I’ve lost count, there are 29 items in my portfolio although I’ve probably done close to 40+ custom styles. Each custom style for a client is normally named something generic after the website it’s for, they do not receive their own names as my own free styles do.

11. Max Pen: What has been so far the:
hardest style to make?
most complex style to make?
longest style to make?
easiest style to make?

Christian Bullock: It’s hard to say, there isn’t one particular client whose style was more difficult to design / code than the others. In terms of the most complex style I’d probably say Supernova was, there was a fair amount of unfamiliar jQuery going on with the sortable categories. I spent a whole evening trying to get sortable categories and collapsible categories playing ball on the same style, but it wasn’t to be.

Similarly to how one style isn’t harder than another, I don’t remember one style being easier than any others in particular. Generally I receive 2 types of clients: 1) clients who have a forum + custom style. 2) clients who have a website + forum and want their forum to blend in with the website. The latter is generally easier since there is no creative thought involved, it’s literally just a case of taking their existing design, wrapping it around phpBB and then changing the default phpBB colours to match the website.

A custom style from scratch can take days to create. Blending a style with a website design simply takes a matter of hours.

12. Max Pen: From where do you get the inspiration used when designing or creating phpBB styles? Have you ever had a lack of ideas or creativity when having to make a phpBB custom style? If so how did you solve that?

Christian Bullock: Inspiration is one of those things that should come naturally. Quite often when I’m reading the email from the client detailing what they’re looking for, I’ll be painting a picture in my head of how it will look. Then that mental image is translated to the mockup. There have been a few occasions where a client is looking for a certain style I’ve never done before and that’s where I get stuck for inspiration. It’s often called designer block.

Seeking new inspiration can be frustrating because on one hand you want to crack on with the project, but on the other hand you want to make sure you’re giving the client exactly what they’re looking for. Sites like Themeforest are often good sources of inspiration because they host thousands of premium quality designs for everyday websites. I’ve found that wordpress styles can also excellent inspiration, since the layout and flow is somewhat similar to a forum layout (header, navbar, block content, sidebar, footer, etc..)

When I’m really stuck for inspiration, normally I’ll go to a quiet room and lie face-down on a bed, sofa, basically anything comfortable where I can concentrate. It’s similar to when you close your eyes and put your hands over your face, watching all the different patterns. It seems strange, but you can spend 10 minutes doing that and suddenly the inspiration will be there. At that point, you reach for the nearest pen/paper and scribble it down before you forget.

13. Max Pen: You have made plans for starting with designing for MyBB to right? When did you make this decision and have you made any theme so far for MyBB? (Also mention what do you like about the MyBB styling process that you don’t have when styling for phpBB.)

Christian Bullock: That’s correct. I’ve been intending to start designing for MyBB for quite some time. A couple of years in fact. I don’t remember exactly the point where I made the decision, although it would have been around the time I first noticed Absolution getting popular. It makes sense that if you have a design that’s been downloaded 100,000 times on one software, it should be ported to other platforms to reach an even larger audience.

Unfortunately I never found the time or commitment to actually install MyBB and begin playing around with the styling side of it, so I guess that answers the question regarding how many MyBB themes I’ve made.

Designing for MyBB very much remains one of my higher priorities, but isn’t quite at the top of that priority list. As I’ve eluded to already, I like to take on new projects with a clear mind. Right now relying on custom phpBB styles for my income means that I don’t have the luxury of ‘downtime’ to learn how to style new software. I guess I’ll get around to it when my bank balance looks a little healthier.

14. Max Pen: What made you start the development of this project http://www.bbcustomize.com/ ? How long did you have it planned and what made you came up with the name of it? (Share with us what people will be able to do on it, what platform it will be on, etc..)

Christian Bullock: Thanks for asking me this. BBCustomize is a new project of mine basically aimed to replace my personal website (christianbullock.com). I wanted a generic location that could still offer all of the content (tutorials, downloads) and services that my personal site did, but under a generic name that wasn’t so closely linked with my name.

A few months ago, a valuation on my personal site (PageRank, content, and monthly earnings through services) returned a value of low-med $xx,xxx . Unfortunately although there were many interested parties who wanted to the site, the name “Christian Bullock” was a major sticking point. In freelance people often invest in the person, not the product and this is what potential buyers were worried about. Had my site been called anything other than christianbullock.com , I could have walked away from the stresses and pressures of online freelance work with a respectable cheque..had some fun and get a regular job. So this is the first reason, I wanted somewhere I could continue doing what I currently do, but also somewhere that would accumulate resale value years down the line.

Secondly, I have always wanted to run my own styles support forum for people who need help fixing bugs in their styles, and style authors who want to implement cool stuff in their styles. This isn’t really possible on my current site due to the very nature of the domain name – a personal site. So by creating a generic environment with one purpose – helping bulletin board owners customise their sites, that helps create the right userbase and atmosphere to turn it into an active forum.

The idea was initially conceived last year, although I made the commitment to register the domain name and begin development when I learned of the resale issues surrounding my personal site. The majority of the website structure is complete, although some of the sub pages and the forum have not even been touched yet. The site is based on WordPress, and the forum will be based on phpBB. It is very likely the forum will not open until phpBB 3.1 is released (predicted later this year, although they were saying that 3 years ago).

The opening date will probably be moved back in the next few days to account for a busy work schedule coming up.

15. Max Pen: Could you tell us what happened to this project http://www.orbitstyles.com/?

Christian Bullock: OrbitStyles will be a site exclusively for premium phpBB styles created by me. At the time I had intended to launch it was difficult finding time to create the website, let alone the actual styles I was going to sell on there.

Right now it has been moved down the priority list below my custom work for clients and BBCustomize. I still intend to develop it and launch it as its own standalone business within the next few years, although it doesn’t feature in my immediate plans right now.

16. Max Pen: Can you share with us the story of how you got into the forum: “Forum Promotion”? What staff jobs did you do on it and how did you eventually became an admin?

Christian Bullock: Sure. I registered to ForumPromotion having seen the link advertised at FreeForums.org. I did not own a forum at the time, wasn’t developing one and had no immediate plans to actually start one. Regardless ForumPromotion looked like a small close-knit group which was growing quickly, but most importantly looked like it had something going for it. At the point I joined it must of had around 12,000 posts and only a 100-200 members at the very most.

Several days after joining I applied to join the Graphics team. I was still fairly new to graphic design but felt as though I had enough skill to produce images that were good enough quality for a team position. Before I knew it I was a member of the graphics team and loved every second of it. Following some successful months on the graphics team, a position on the review team opened up which I applied for. At this point the site was fairly busy, although the activity at a level where it was still managable to continue working on the graphics team whilst fulfilling my responsibilities with the review team.

It seemed like only a few weeks until a position on the package team had opened up. In real life I have a very strong work ethic, and I guess that spilled into my online activity, finally joining the package team. To this date I am unsure as to whether or not anyone else has simultaneously been a member on all three teams. Up until this point team leaders didn’t exist at the site – teams mutually agreed on goals and the direction they were going in and acted under instruction from the Administrators. As the site grew, as did the responsibilities for the Administrators and Team leaders were appointed for each team. I was honoured to be selected as Graphics Team leader and enjoyed a successful spell in this position.

Remarkably, whilst juggling three team positions and real world college commitments, I was still an active member at FreeForums.org and applied to join the support staff when I met the criteria. As it approached by 1 year anniversary of joining ForumPromotion.net, I was successfully appointed to the FreeForums support team and bode farewell to ForumPromotion, resigning from all positions to concentrate on my commitments there.

That too was an enjoyable experience, although I had been with ForumPromotion since its early days. I felt like I belonged there and had a loyalty to the Administrators. FreeForums was a new experience, a fun one at that and I made some good friends although it didn’t compare to ForumPromotion. Whilst I was working at FreeForums, ForumPromotion continued to grow and saw the creation of the Community Team. Like a Moderator team, but with a more friendly and approachable name and function. Their responsibility was basically those of a general Forum Moderator, keep the peace, ensure users adhere to the rules but also welcome new members, reply to feedback topics and help out wherever needed. Following my resignation from FreeForums I applied to join the Community Team and was quickly accepted.

Fowler, one of the founding fathers of FP was initially Team Leader of the community team. Since the team did not exist previously it would have been unwise to appoint a new leader from the start. When Fowler resigned from the site completely citing personal reasons, I applied for and was appointed as Community Team Leader, despite being on the community team for the shortest period of time. This is where my alliances with the last remaining Administrator, Efc2008 really took off. As Community Team leader although it very much felt as though you were the right hand man to the Administrator. I was the overseer of the forum and occasionally stepped in to help other teams when their team leader was away or unavailable. The role included many Admin responsibilities, without the title.

On 17th April 2009 I was officially appointed as Administrator to cover an anticipated period of Absence from the other Administrators. It was privately confirmed that this was a permanent appointment several weeks later.

17. Max Pen: Is the styled by you used on it currently a theme you made for FP for free or paid?

Christian Bullock: The current style at ForumPromotion (called FPX) was created for free. Even though I had been paid for 2 styles much earlier in the site’s history the site desperately needed a rebrand, and as close friends with the owner I felt it would be a timely gift.

The new style kicked off the biggest revamp in the site’s history and despite numerous discussions and screenshots of new proposed designs, has not been edited since.

18. Max Pen: How did you eventually get banned from FP? What went wrong?

Christian Bullock: After 6 months in the Administrator role, things didn’t quite feel right. Efc2008 and I weren’t entirely happy with how things were going on the site, and felt as though another shake up was required. We proposed the idea of moving to MyBB to the community, however this was widely rejected and the decision was made not to move.

Days later, we (Efc2008 and I) mutually agreed that the time was right to move on from ForumPromotion.net . The time it took to run the site, in addition to the regular dramas and problems did not justify the personal return we were getting back. It’s important to remember that for the full duration we were in charge, there was no revenue coming in whatsoever.

The site was listed for sale and days later was taken over by Fergal. Part of the sale agreement was that Efc and I would hang around after the sale and assist with the transition process. I didn’t really have much direct contact with Fergal, and since Efc was doing a pretty good job with the post-sales support, I went about my business and posted a leaving topic (we had already resigned by this time). Elements of the goodbye post cited honest reasons for me wanting to leave, a little too honest you could say.

Fergal considered this as a deliberate attempt to damage the community, and responded with a knee-jerk reaction by deleting my account completely without any regard for the time and contributions I had made to that site. I don’t agree with what he did, although I agree with why he did it. If I bought a forum and one of the most influential users left and tried causing an exodus, I’d be pretty annoyed too.

Thank you for doing this interview with me Christian. I loved your detailed replies and I hope all others will to. -Max Pen


3 Comments add one

  1. Wow, a book of information all about the making of Christian 2.0. I wish him best of luck with BBcustomize.

  2. E. Nubla says:

    Would like you to design a phpbb3 forum in simple elegant style.
    This forum is about proper raising, educating, propagation, conservation, hobbies about ornamental marine fish and sea corals.

    How to contact you by email.

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