#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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Note: This interview is the new record holder of being the biggest – most detailed interview on IY with having 7194 words. Previously the record holder was this interview with 4099 words.

Interview with Christian Bullock

A interview with Christian Bullock a 21 year old guy from the UK. Known for his phpBB styles on phpBB.com and around. He does it as a full time job and makes his living from it. He is also working on a new project of his named: BBCustomize. A forum where he would give style support and offer tools and tutorials to customize your own forum and more… Read more about it in the interview below.

Christian Bullock cartoon,logo,image,picture

1. Max Pen: Could you tell us a bit more about yourself so the readers know who you are? Can you also tell us the story of how you came up with the usernames Christian 2.0 and Murder he Wrote?

Christian Bullock: Hi, I’m Christian. I’m a 21 year guy from the UK, working as a full time self employed front-end developer (specialising in phpBB, an open source forum software for websites). I spend a crazy amount of time online, but love every second of it. The internet is an amazing place. In my free time my interests include Interior Design, Music, attending concerts and film. British artists are amongst my favourite, specifically the likes of Muse, Blur. Other favourites include Max Melvin, Air, Delerium, Enigma, Moby, Royksopp and Amethystium.

Online I am known under a couple of identities:

  1. Christian – my name.
  2. Christian 2.0 – this was derived from my real name. The 2.0 version is used when “Christian” is already registered (this happens quite a lot).
  3. MhW or Murder he Wrote – Probably the username most people reading this will be familiar with. It was inspired by the title of a popular TV show called “Murder she wrote” . I never intended it to be a username that stuck, but for whatever reason it did.

2. Max Pen: How did you get into forums? Have you ever owned a forum yourself? If so can you tell us a bit more about it? (How you came up with the name, what it was for, what software it was on, etc…)

Christian Bullock: I was first introduced to the concept of forums about 7 years ago (I was 14 at the time) whilst wasting time in high school. Back then I had a healthy interest in Coldplay (by “healthy interest” I mean by parents played it in the car a lot and it was the only music I knew). One day whilst browsing their official website I stumbled across the forum. Unfamiliar with forums or the concept of forums, it was a little bit alienating – I didn’t quite know how they worked and what to do there. As a child I was always taught that the internet was a dangerous place, and places like chat rooms / forums should be avoided. Regardless, I registered and began clicking around.

It wasn’t until around a month later I actually began posting. Remember, this was my first experience communicating with other people on the internet. In addition to being a 14 year child in the real world (so therefore, lacking many life skills), I was also unaware of forum etiquette and the way to properly conduct yourself online. Quite quickly it became apparent I was unpopular with the tight-knit community, and found myself having many needless arguments with the older members. It’s fair to say that in hindsight, I was something of a troll figure – not maliciously – just the way I acted annoyed people. I was an active member there for 2-3 years until the forum got shut down (no longer was it there to discuss coldplay’s music, rather just a facility for the people who met there to chat to each other). It’s fair to say like many young forum users, the idea of obtaining a high post count and somehow thinking that lead to greater respect fascinated me. Of course, it doesn’t and didn’t.

Prior to the coldplay forum closing down, I became familiar with phpBB through the copyright notice at the bottom of the page (coldplay forum ran phpbb 2.0.something). The idea of running my own forum was fascinating – the fame, the power, being able to dictate a community , I had never been in charge of anything before. Of course we all know that’s not what forums are about and dictatorship is definitely not the way to run them. I didn’t know that at the time, and began looking into setting up my own forum in greater detail. Although I wasn’t completely familiar with web hosting / servers / databases / domain names etc.. , what I did know is that I wanted to start a forum but couldn’t afford the expensive hosting costs. Back then there was no such thing as good $3/month hosting.

Not content with giving up on my dream of running a forum, I managed to learn about free forum hosts through Google. My first forum was created with myfreeforum.org – it was some kind of general chat forum with only 5 or 6 members. All people I knew offline and begged to join. This is where I learned one of the basic principles of owning a site on the internet: “If you don’t advertise, nobody will come”. To be fair I had attempted linking to the site through the description of some junky YouTube videos I had uploaded. The only people who visited were people who chose to turn up and call my videos stupid. This method was never a sustainable way of driving traffic to an unrelated forum. Needless to say, the forum was a short lived project that ended with disappointment.

A few years later I was in the second year of college, learning the very basics of Web Design in an IT course. It was never anything advanced, just the usual html, body and meta tags with a splashing of p tags, divs and even the img tag if we were lucky. This is where my proper interest for design and the internet kicked off. I continued learning HTML and CSS in my free time, hacking up free web templates, rearranging them and putting my own stuff in. It was all self taught, and many of the techniques I learned doing that have contributed to my success today. Although I hadn’t run my own successful forum, this was around the time I joined ForumPromotion.net and later became Support staff at FreeForums.org.

I don’t remember whether it was at FreeForums or ForumPromotion, although before I knew it I ended up at SW-GM.com , initially as a member with no interest in the universe or paranormal activity. I don’t even remember how I was introduced to the owner, although before I knew it I had FTP access and was helping out making small edits, assisting with phpBB upgrades and installing MODs. This is where I properly learned the technical aspect of running a self hosted forum.

With this new-found knowledge, I wanted another stab at running my own forum and shortly opened a Top Gear forum. It was a phpBB based forum for TopGear fans to discuss the program, talk about cars and partake in general chat. This is also the first domain name I purchased. Even though I was now familiar with the technical side of running my own forum, and had learned many of the lessons of being an anonymous username on the internet, I was still struggling with the promotion side of things. Promotion / webmaster forums only bought a scraping of traffic – nothing serious. My attention span is pretty low, so after succumbing to the fact I was never going to pose a threat to a major rival, I ditched the forum and considered it as another learning curve.

I don’t recall any particular effort at making my own forum, soon enough I found my strengths lay in improving sites – not making my own. A trait demonstrated when I acquired a phpBB fansite called phpBBCommunities, a site for phpBB forum owners to congregate and talk about the software, MODs, Styles and forum management. This was a co-investment with Lacey Sutton, a highly successful webmaster. Despite re-vamping the forum and adding a 7 page website around it, it soon became clear that the forum was tarnished from the very start as the core of active members were only there for each other. With the original owner leaving it was very much like a house of cards scenario, the exodus began and sooner or later we found ourselves struggling to recover (despite very strong advertising methods).

This experience was my last time owning a forum.

2.1 Max Pen: How did you get into graphic and web design? Which of both do you enjoy doing the most? Are you also into vector design?

Christian Bullock: As above, my initial interaction with Web Design began in college. I didn’t learn anything particularly good during the web design course, just enough to get me started and confirm that it was something I wanted to learn more about…properly.

Dreamweaver has always been my software of choice when it comes to Web Design. Not because of the WYSIWYG tab (which actually isn’t that much of a WYSIWYG editor), but because it’s the first code editor I came across. I’m comfortable using it, i’m familar with the syntax highlighting and the predictive coding saves me time. The predictive coding actually contributed a lot to my CSS knowledge by introducing my to properties I didn’t know existed and looking up their functions on the w3schools website.

My experience with HTML began properly by editing pre-made HTML/CSS templates. I didn’t have a website and didn’t intend on making one at the time, but there’s no such thing as too much knowledge and I wanted to learn more about web design anyway. My evenings often consisted of finding a decent pre-made template and shuffling the contents around. So I might move the sidebar from the left to right, replace the navigation bar with my own, perhaps change the logo for a banner. Doing this continuously, combined with my CSS knowledge by looking up the CSS on w3schools lead to my complete HTML and CSS knowledge as it is today. I have never read a single HTML / CSS tutorial, and to this day maintain that learning the basics, then hacking up pre-made templates is the best way to learn.

With regard to Graphic Design, this kicked off a little earlier than my Web Design interest. I had been playing around with forums for a few years at this point, and wanted to be able to make my own signatures. Most of my early graphic design was stuff like userbars, then as my Web Design knowledge increased Graphic Design became a regular aid. Having to make your own graphics used to be a big part of Web Design, although perhaps not so much these days with the power of modern browsers and CSS3.

It’s not easy to put a finger on which one I enjoy the most – I guess it depends what I’m doing. When I’m designing a forum for a client, it will always need a full mockup in photoshop and this can be quite fun, especially when your creative juices are flowing and you’re creating some really good work. In stark contrast, coding that design is tedious and boring because you already know how it looks – now it’s just a case of sitting down and hitting the keyboard for a few hours. Boring.

On the other hand, coding can be fun when you’re making improvements to a site or simply adding new features. I have a lot of fun with jQuery, finding snippets online and integrating them into forum designs. If I had to choose one of the other, I’d say Graphic design is more fun than Web Design. There is something really rewarding about seeing a design from your head get translated onto the screen and shared with other people. There is still a huge amount I have to learn about Graphic Design, there are many styles I have yet to master – at present I have a certain style of design which I believe lacks elegance. This is something that comes through time and experience, art cannot be taught.

I don’t know how to create vector drawings, it’s not something I’ve had the drive to learn. I would like to one day, but I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve actually needed a vector. Maybe once or twice, right now it’s not worth the time.

3. Max Pen: What made you pick phpBB as the forum software to become a stylist for? Can you tell us when you first started playing around with styling a phpBB template and what it was like? (Easy to learn, bit hard but then easy, etc… ) What did you find most difficult to master?

Christian Bullock: As we’ve established, phpBB was the first forum software I came across. It’s also the first software I used to make a forum, I was comfortable with it so didn’t feel the need to even look around and check for better alternatives. At the time MyBB wasn’t a particularly big player, SMF was still fairly new (and had to carry the reputation from YaBB) and IPB was getting ready for the transition to premium software, so changing wouldn’t have been an advantage anyway.

I first started playing around with styling right around the same time as I was learning Web Design. I remember sitting at the computer one sunny afternoon scrolling through styles on phpBB3styles.net and randomly thinking “You know what, I want to be able to make my own styles” . I absolutely hated the idea of having to use the same free forum templates that thousands of other forums were also using, and never being to quite create a site in my own image.

By then I wasn’t completely familiar with HTML / CSS, so I stuck to simply replacing images and editing CSS. I didn’t know about localhost, firefox or firebug back then to learning what CSS controlled which part of a style was a real challenge. I seem to remember scrolling down colours.css (one of the main stylesheets in prosilver) and changing colours one by one to see what they edited on the forum. This was a tedious process anyway, made worse by the fact there was no localhost so each change had to be uploaded to a live site, then refreshed.

The other difficult thing to learn was working out which template files I needed to edit. phpBB templates are split up into 102 template files and 14 stylesheets. Intimidating numbers for a novice designer. The hardest thing in learning how to design phpBB styles was probably working out which IF statements did what, and working around them. Everything was very much a case of trial and error and as with everything through life, we learn through experience. Nowadays it’s much easier to learn with a wealth of tutorials available, modern browsers such as Firefox with excellent add-ons like firebug.

4. Max Pen: Do you remember the amount of money you charged for your first custom design for a client? If so what was that amount and how has the price people have to pay you gone up over time? (If possible show us a time line of how much a custom style costs by ordering it from you over x time.)

Christian Bullock: Haha, the price of custom styles has gone up considerably over the years.

The very first web design I did for a paying customer was multiple page website for a flight simulation community (which sadly no longer exists). That cost the client $20 USD and took me around a week’s worth of spare evenings to complete). My first paid phpBB styles were for ForumPromotion.net before I was a manager there. A light style and a dark style also cost them $20 and took around the same time to make. It’s important to remember that at this stage many years ago I was new to the freelancing game, didn’t have a portfolio and was still knocking out some pretty bad code. I’m glad I made most of my mistakes when such little money was involved. $20 a job doesn’t seem a lot, but not having a job in real life meant that any money earned was mine – the first money I could call my own. That was a pretty proud feeling.

As my skills and experience increased, as did the demand and for this reason designs were getting more expensive. From the initial $20, prices were increased to $70-80 depending on the complexity of the design. Soon enough the demand was coming in thick and fast, so the prices were increased 2x fold to $150. The more modest price tag lead to higher profile clients asking me for work, and with that came longer projects where more time and detail was required. Several years ago, I made the decision to increase my minimum price to $395. Just before this was a point where demand was so intense I’d come home from my day job and code until 2am , only to go to work at 8am and then repeat the process. I lost the “free” from “freelance” and the only way to get my free time back was to control the demand, this meant increasing prices.

When demand is low, I often take on clients who aren’t able to meet that price tag. It’s better to take something rather than nothing and watch that money go to somebody else. By having increased prices also means high profile clients take you more seriously. I have had the privilege of working for some of the world’s biggest brands, corporate companies and best known websites. On more than 5 occasions I have received in excess of $1,000 per job for my services.

5. Max Pen: How did you come up behind the idea of your free phpBB style Absolution? (Tell us how you came up with the name, the color scheme, structure, etc…)

Christian Bullock: The original Absolution was somewhat inspired by the Vision Collision vBulletin style by completeVb. Although it was inspiration, it actually turned out nothing much like it. The colour scheme was always going to be something popular and generic anyway. Blues / Silvers always work, add a splash of web 2.0 accent colour such as light blue, green or orange and you’re onto a winner.

After around 2 years of being available for download, I spent around a week updating it and releasing Absolution v1.1. This was a much improved version that was brighter, much cleaner and much easier to browse. The new version also contained a huge amount of bug fixes and other much needed improvements.

The name comes from the Muse album called “Absolution”, and the song called “Sing for Absolution”. The word “Absolution” means “formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment” and is often linked with religious environment. After looking up the word it seemed like a fitting name for a style intended to free people from the punishment of other free styles. Where possible I try to name styles after song names, either because I like the corresponding song, the name sounds cool, the song has a particular meaning that relates to the style or a mixture of all 3. My second free style (Supernova), which is now supported and developed by BoardTalk.net was named after the Supernova track by Safri Duo. It’s an extremely pleasent piece of music, to reflect a pleasant style.

Go to part 2 →

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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