For independent designer, Elliot Jay Stocks, creativity has always been at the forefront. Over the course of his career, he’s worked with various brands and businesses including a role as Creative Director of Adobe Fonts and Creative Director of the coffee roaster, Colonna. He’s founded two magazines, one being industry renowned typography-turned-book 8 Faces and more recently, lifestyle magazine Lagom.
As a vocal advocate of pursuing creative passions, we were keen to explore the topic of creative career paths with Elliot.
Here Elliot Jay Stock chats to The Style Edit about side-hustle time management, productivity and safeguarding the leap from employee to freelancer.
What first drew you to the design industry?
As a kid, I was always drawing — it was the primary activity of my childhood without any doubt. I used to illustrate stuff for my schools such as open day pamphlets, or posters for drama productions, and with that came an element of design. So it started there in a way, although my Dad was also a graphic designer for most of his career.
Have you always been creative?
Definitely. And I can’t imagine not being creative. Over the years, it’s changed a fair bit, but generally speaking, I’ve been most creatively fulfilled when I’m indulged in various types of creativity. Recently, a big focus has been music-making: I’m signed to a techno label in Berlin, who’ve been really supportive.
How do you balance creative side hustles with the demands of your part-time work as Creative Director for ClearScore?
I’ve always had a number of side projects on the go, and most of the time it’s required some inventiveness with time management. There’s a conference talk I do called Now is Always the Wrong Time and it’s about there’ll never be a sensible time to dedicate time to your passion projects, so you should — when possible — move them into what most people consider ‘work’ time. And I did this with the magazines and with music, dedicating specific days of the week to those projects. These days, I have the least free time I’ve ever had in my life, due to having two young children, but somehow I’ve managed to squeeze more productivity out of those limited hours. It’s essential, I guess! But, to return to your question, I’m very fortunate with my current role at ClearScore in that it’s just 2.5 days a week, so there’s a very clear divide right now in terms of my ‘day job’ and all the other stuff.
How do you balance the feeling of independence brought by your own projects with your work at ClearScore?
Honestly, I think I’m at the point where I could never go back to being an employee in the traditional sense. I mean, I guess it would depend on the opportunity, but I’ve been working independently, or semi-independently on-and-off for so many years now, it’s hard to let go of that sense of freedom. Even with my last two full-time jobs, I was working remotely for US-based companies, so there was obviously quite a bit of freedom there.
What sparked your interest in typography, specifically?
It was a case of timing, I think. About 10 years ago, web design — the field I worked in exclusively at the time — was really starting to come of age, and the technology reached a point where we were able to take a lot of graphic design principles to the web, especially with
browsers started to support fonts beyond the old system defaults. At the same time, I was getting frustrated with the intangible nature of the web and wanted to experiment more with print design and create something with a bit more permanence. This led to me creating 8 Faces, which was a magazine about typography. I very much learned on-the-job in terms of print design, but also the subject matter of the interviews taught me a lot. Towards the end of the magazine’s run, I was totally immersed in the world of type and typography, and that was also when I took the job as Creative Director of Typekit at Adobe.
Was there a particular moment when you realised this was what you wanted to pursue as a career?
Not really, no. I’d say it happened fairly organically. In fact, although it’s a personal speciality, it’s not like I’m exclusively a typography guy. Generally, I still like to mix it up quite a bit.
Within your blog, you’ve written a few posts about productivity. As a creative, what are some of the best productivity hacks you’ve found work for you?
The whole dedicating-a-day-to-a-specific-project thing I mentioned earlier, although that’s not to say I always stick to it myself. In fact, I’m very easily distracted. A lot of these productivity blog posts exist as a way of nudging myself in the right direction more than anyone else! Another thing I’m terrible at is keeping email to a particular part of the day, but really I think we all know that that’s a surefire way of being more productive. Actually, one habit I’ve been getting into recently is applying a colour-coded label to emails as soon as they come in (coupled with some pretty ruthless archiving, usually on my phone); that way, when looking at your inevitably overflowing inbox, you can quickly and visually see which areas are the ones that need the most attention.
When you first decided to freelance full time, what prompted this decision?
It was something I’d always wanted to do, but like many people, I made the jump when the freelancing I was doing alongside my day job got too much to manage in just evenings and weekends. I was pretty sensible about it — which is funny because when I went independent for the second time (after leaving Typekit), I was really ill-prepared, and hardly had anything lined up. I was in a better financial position at that point, but that only lasted so long.
Looking back on this time when you first went freelance, is there anything you would have done differently?
No, the first time was successful — it was the second that was the challenge! It wasn’t just that I hadn’t lined up work, though; I was also doing very different work by that point, at a more senior level, and a lot of the time, senior folks are in a more difficult position. It’s much easier to get freelance gigs when you’re a junior designer who does a bit of everything. Plus, the industry had changed a lot. I’m still trying to work it out. Even though it was harder the second time around, I’m not sure there was much I could’ve done that differently, other than putting the word out more about being available.
What is the hardest part about freelancing and what advice would you give to those thinking of taking the plunge?
Talk about your work. Actually, maybe that’s the answer I was looking for in your last question! But I know that I used to talk a lot more about the work I was doing, and blog about it, and show it on Dribbble and what not, and that helped. I pretty much stopped doing that — mainly once we had kids — and it really did result in less work coming in. People would say, “oh, I thought you were still working at Adobe and you were unavailable,” years after I left. I should’ve been more vocal.
Within your speaking gigs you’ve spoken on topics including why passion should guide you, now is always the wrong time and most recently where we met, how we think about success. Why do you feel these are such important messages to share with fellow creatives?
I guess I touched on some of this earlier, but really it comes down that there’s never going to be a sensible time to pack in your salaried job and indulge in your unprofitable passion project, so if you wait for that time to come, it’s just not going to happen and you’re going to be on your death bed with a load of regrets about wasted opportunities. If you want to be creatively fulfilled, and your day job itself isn’t ticking all of those creative boxes for you, then you’ve got to find a way to work that creative output into your life. And if you’re creatively fulfilled in your job, then that’s great — good for you! Personally, I have a pretty short attention span and nothing really fulfils me, creatively, for long.
Within the aforementioned speaking gig in how we think about success, you mentioned Elle Luna’s essay on The Crossroads of Should and Must. How do you think we can balance should and must with the practical demands of everyday life?
Probably the most straightforward way of implementing this is to have a job that can comfortably be part-time, whether that’s a ‘proper’ job where you’re an employee, or as an independent or freelancing creative where you can set your own hours. Realistically, it’s going to be a challenge if you have a 9-to-5. But then you’ve just got to get creative about squeezing productivity out of your free time. Instead of heading out drinking, maybe you stay in and work on your side hustle. Maybe instead of binge-watching Netflix, you put a couple of hours into your passion project.
Which traits do you most admire in other creatives?
I think it might be those who find a way to achieve the above despite the pressures on them.
What’s the biggest misconception about your working life?
Mine personally? I’m not sure. Maybe that people think I work all the time? I mean, especially with what I’ve said in this interview, that would be a very logical conclusion to draw. But actually, I don’t work that many hours a day, at least in the traditional sense. But even the nighttime hours dedicated to my passion projects like the music-making don’t necessarily mean I’m always sat in the studio. One of my main priorities is spending time with my family. Unlike a lot of Dads, I’m very fortunate to be able to spend loads of time with my kids during the day.
If success was guaranteed, what would be your dream project to pursue?
This probably changes on a daily basis, but right now, if money was no object, I’d become a musician full-time. And then I’d probably be bored with that in six months, and return to design!