I interview Elliot Jay Stocks

I’ve been reading Elliot’s blog for around 1 1/2 years now and have always been intrigued by his progression through the industry. He’s been moving fast, now freelance and speaking at conferences around the world I thought he’d be a hard man to catch. Elliot is one of the nicest guys you could ever talk to, he’s one of those down to earth guys that you’ve always got time for. He took time out of his busy schedule to speak to me.

1. Full Name and Age please. 🙂

Elliot Jay Stocks, 27

2. Favourite Biscuit and Drink.

Biscuit: Those Digestive-like Hovis ones, with a spot of cheese.

Drink: A variety of Belgian beers; probably Grimbergen Dubbel.

3. Last Book you read and last movie you saw.

Last book: The Woman In White by Wilkie Collins. Last movie: Iron Man

4. Where and When did it all start?

I started drawing from a very young age and I drew all the time. At school I was often asked by the teachers to illustrate things like concert programmes, pamphlets that were given out on school open nights; that kind of thing. Illustration was very much the centre of my life. Near the end of my time at school, I became art editor of a new school magazine and also started to experiment with computers, using a crude version of what would become Photoshop Elements. I was pretty late getting into computers, really; in fact I was pretty much a technophobe until this point, which was about 1999 / 2000!

In terms of getting into web design, it wasn’t until I was in my last year of school and working part-time in a Virgin Megastore (in Bromley, Kent). A few of us (the staff members) played in bands and so we decided to release a CD of our music, convincing our managers to sell it in-store. I handled the operation with a couple of other guys, but it ended up with me being responsible for the album art, the point- of-sale material, and the website. This was my first taste of web design and I was using a online consumer-level web-building package called Homestead. I created the site for our little record label and my own band’s site, and it all went from there.

It wasn’t long before I realised the limitations of Homestead and got a cracked copy of Dreamweaver. To be honest, though, HTML scared me and I focused all of my efforts on Flash. I started building Flash sites at uni and ended up creating the site for our degree show in 2004. By that point I’d built up a small portfolio full of sites for my friends’ bands, so when I graduated in May that year, I had a music- heavy portfolio that landed me the job of Junior Web designer at EMI Records. And that, I guess, was when my career ‘officially’ started.

5. Is there anyone in the industry who you look up to?

There are so many people I look up to, and it changes all the time. In general I’m a fan of anyone who does great work and tries to do something even vaguely original. My favourite web designer is Miguel Ripoll, who’s also a friend of mine: he has such a distinct style but his work isn’t like anyone else’s. He’s also extremely hard to emulate because he’s just so good. I could name a bunch of other people but it’ll just sound like a shout-out to my friends. It’s strange because a couple of years ago I was a total fan-boy when it came to speaking to ‘big name’ designers; now I find they’re my friends! But I still get nervous when speaking to some of my idols, even when I know them quite well.

6. What was a key factor in your professional growth and development?

Ooh, good question! Getting my first proper job (at EMI) was a big thing for me in many ways, but mainly because it allowed me to quickly build up a portfolio full of famous musical artists. I’ll always be extremely grateful of that fact.

When I left EMI after two years and went to Sanctuary Records, I worked on lower-profile sites but really got to hone my skills in XHTML and CSS; it was around that time that I really started to stop using Flash. The environment at Sanctuary was extremely relaxed compared to EMI, so it also allowed me to really take my time over things and invest a lot of that time into learning.

Near the end of my time at Sanctuary, in April 2007, I released the first ‘proper’ version of my personal site and it got featured on quite a few gallery sites. The visits to my site rocketed (from around 2 uniques a day to around 2,000) and it was just a snowball effect.

When Ryan got in touch and asked me if I wanted to work for Carsonified (then called Carson Systems), I was extremely chuffed, and this was another big step. My public profile was already growing, but the association with Carsonified help raise it even more. At around the same time I started writing for .Net magazine, and shortly after that I started speaking publicly.

In short, every change of job has been a key factor, although the biggest change really happened around mid 2007, when my work started to become ‘known’. When I left Carsonified in April this year to start my own business, that was a huge step, too. I think that ‘going solo’ helped solidify my own identity as an individual rather than simply being part of a company.

7. Where does your heart lie, with design, speaking engagements or even writing books? If you were paid for all? And why.

I love writing and I love doing speaking engagements, but my heart totally lies with design, and art in general. Like I said before, I come more from an illustration background than a design one (which is ironic, considering how little illustration work I do these days). If I ever started to write or speak more than I designed, I would consider myself a fake, because how can you be an authority on a subject when it’s not your main focus? I write about design and I speak about design, therefore I should always be designing.

8. Out of these 3, WordPress, Light CMS and Expression Engine, which do you like the most and why?

I probably don’t have the knowledge to answer this one with any real insight. I’ve heard great things about Expression Engine but have never used it. I’ve heard relatively good things about Light CMS, although from what I understand, it’s very basic. My CMS of choice is absolutely WordPress. I keep meaning to get into EE but I kind of like being able to see the PHP I’m dealing with. I actually know very little PHP, but I feel like I have more control if I can see it; I’m wary of the way EE hides it away outside of the template files. But I’m open to suggestion: if EE – or any CMS for that matter – can replicate the exact functionality I have in WordPress but in an easier way, or can expand upon that functionality – then I’m game.

9. What was it like working for Carsonified?

Great people, fun times, lots of travelling, some interesting challenges, and lots of exposure. Also, at times, very hard work!

10. What was the biggest project you worked on whilst working there?

The rebranding of Carson Systems to Carsonified was probably the biggest project. It also fed into the rebranding and redesigning of all the other sites, so it was kind of an ongoing process. Mike’s carried that forward in a new direction, and I really like what he’s done, especially with the new events sites.

11. What made you go freelance, were there any defining factors?

Without any offence intended for any of the companies I’ve worked at, when you’re an employee, you’re working towards the goals of your employer. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I wanted to work towards my own goals. I wanted the freedom to take on a variety of projects outside the standard job description of a ‘designer’, work from anywhere in the world, have control over my own timetable and workload, and work fewer hours. I wrote about working fewer hours quite recently: why being freelance does not mean you have to work more hours.

12. Throughout your entire career to date, is there any particular problem you’ve ran in to more than once? Clients, Jobs, Work, Family?

These are some very demanding questions, Gavin!   🙂

There’s always been a problem with balancing work time with home time, but I’m getting better at that and I can safely say that I have a better work- life balance now that I’m my own boss.

One problem I’ve consistently come up against since I started my career is that I’m never 100% happy with what I put out. That’s not me being a perfectionist; I just find that at the last moment in a project, some of the subtle niceties are lost and you don”t get to add that extra bit of TLC you were planning on. Often this is caused by tight deadlines, but also I’ve found that last-minute client changes or code bastardisation thanks to dodgy CMSs can knock your 100% good project down to 99% good. I’m not sure I have an answer to this dilemma, but I hope I find it eventually!

13. What do you consider to be the biggest contributing factor to your success?

Well that’s very kind of you to think that I’m successful! There are two factors that I see have helped me out a lot: firstly, exposure. By that I mean it helps immensely that you can find me all over the web, in magazines, etc. Some of that exposure has occurred because of the high-profile companies I’ve worked for; but most of it has occurred because I’ve got myself out there, calling up magazines, asking to speak at events, submitting my sites to endless galleries, etc. The second factor is client base. As I said before, I’m extremely grateful that my first job let me fill my portfolio with big-name musicians.

Ever since then I’ve worked with other big-name clients, whether it be more in the music industry or well-respected web-centric companies like WordPress and Blue Flavor.

14. Where do you get your inspiration from?

I think what I find most inspiring is the beauty of the natural world, as poncey as that sounds. I love the countryside, I love trees, and a beautiful landscape will never cease to amaze me. That said, I’m not sure that that’s the inspiration that ends up in most of my work. My favourite artist is Alfons Mucha from the Art Nouveau movement, but again, I’m not sure if his influence shows itself that much in my designs. I love comic books – particularly Mike Mignola’s stuff and the anime-tastic illustrations of Joe Madureira – and I hope that occasionally shows through.

Ironically I think it’s my influences from my early years of design that are still evident. Dave McKean was one of my favourite contemporary artists, although I think so many young artists and designers have been influenced by him that it’s almost pointless to say so. Also, the artwork for Nine Inch Nails’ CD releases around 1996 – 2000 were a profound influence on me (particularly the early work of Rob Sheridan and the textural stuff by Russel Mills); in fact they got me into computer-based artwork. The very first website I saw and loved was the old Juxt Interactive Flash site. I think some of that still comes through in my own style, and also probably explains why I love Miguel’s stuff so much.

15. As we all know you’re a mac man, what are your 3 favourite apps?

That’s a tough one! I don’t think there’s any way I can narrow it down to three. Besides the designer’s staple diet of Adobe Creative Suite apps, my must-have three would be TextMate (for web development), Linotype Font Explorer X (for font management), and Things (for task management). But I’d like to cheat and also recommend three unsung heroes of OSX: Scrivener (for long-form writing of books, articles, etc.), ExpanDrive (for Finder-based SFTP), and Photonic (for Flickr). I’m also really excited about three apps still in alpha: LittleSnapper (for screenshot inspiration management), Espresso (for web development), and a font management tool that I can’t remember, but which looks very cool indeed!

16. What are the benefits and negatives of being freelance?

This question deserves an article in itself! I’ll have to be brief.

Benefits: being your own boss, choosing what work to take on or turn down, working from home, rearranging your work schedule to suit your personal life and not the other way around, claiming back anything and everything as expenses, working on personal projects during ‘work’ hours, and generally earning more money. Negatives: having to be very strict with yourself and your schedule, dealing with lots of paperwork, bearing the sole responsibility for everything, managing outsourced help, and not having a guaranteed income. But give me the negatives any day: the benefits are worth it! For instance, I’ve decided to take December off to work on some new music – I’d never be able to do that if I had a regular job.

17. How do you balance your time between your designing, writing and speaking?

At the moment, because I’m writing a book, I’ve had to be very strict about scheduling writing time. When I was in full-time employment, I always had to do my article-writing (for .Net magazine) on the side, but as soon as I went freelance I had the freedom of being able to do that in ‘work’ time. Being freelance also allows me to do things like take a week out of my schedule to go and speak in another country (which I did a couple of weeks ago). Unfortunately, because speaking gigs invariably involve travel and the preparation of speeches, they can take up a lot of time. But this can all still be counted as ‘work’, especially as some are paid. And expenses are always covered, so I try and treat all speaking gigs like free mini-holidays! I’ll nearly always end up writing my presentations a few evenings before performing them, but I don’t mind putting in a few extra hours here and there. Designing / writing / speaking has yet to rear any real scheduling problems.

18. Where do you see the future being?

For me or for the industry?

In the not-too-distant future I’d like to spend a little more time focusing on personal projects. I have a few waiting in the wings that require some attention, such as a new album, a second book idea, and some printed schwag I intend to sell. At some point I’d love to write / illustrate / design / publish my own comic book.

As for the industry: I’m excited about the future of typography on the web, although the painfully slow adoption of new standards will probably still mean years of browser hacks yet.

19. You’re a well known designer, do you class yourself as famous?

I’d probably sound like an arrogant bastard if I referred to myself as ‘famous’, and although I appear to be relatively well known in the web design industry, I’m not getting invited to red-carpet movie premieres just yet!  😉  I’ve been recognised on the street before (and I freely admit that I love it when that happens) but it’s hardly fame. I’m just flattered, really. There is actually some unpleasantness associated with being well known (more people are there to watch you slip up or send you nasty emails), so I’m not sure I’d want to become that much ‘bigger’ anyway.

However, for work purposes, having a high profile in the industry is great. Since going freelance in April, I haven’t once had to look for new work! Let’s hope that continues…

20. Are you heading to any conferences over the next year?

Definitely. I always have so much fun at conferences, often because they’re the only chances we get to meet so many of our web-based friends in the flesh. I’m delivering one of the keynote speeches at Oxford Geek Night X in January, speaking – and teaching a workshop – at Web Directions North in Colorado in February, appearing as part of a panel at SXSW in March, and speaking at Twiist.be in Belgium in May.

I’m not sure what’s happening in the second half of the year yet, but I’ll definitely be attending dConstruct, which was my favourite event of this year.

21. If you had one goal to reach (anything) within 3 years, what would it be?

Top the achievements of the last three years!

22. If you had one piece of advice for anyone wanting to venture in to the your industry, what would it be?

Work ‘for the man’ before going freelance. The amount of experience and the ease with which you can build your portfolio is far superior for a first-time designer. I actually wrote about this recently: http://elliotjaystocks.com/blog/archive/2008/build-your-profile-to-get-more-freelance-work/

A massive thanks to Elliot for taking part in the interview. Look forward to chatting again in the future.

Elliot’s Blog: www.elliotjaystocks.com

Elliot’s Twitter: www.twitter.com/elliotjaystocks

The interview was originally posted at floobe.com on 24th November 2008.

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Head of Interaction and Service Design at DigitalDWP.

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