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An Interview With Elliot Jay Stocks

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Elliot Jay Stocks is a well known designer whose client list includes Wordpress, Blue Flavor, The Beatles, EMI Records, and Carsonified. His work is frequently featured in online and offline publications, showcased on various ‘inspiration’ websites, and used as an example to design students around the world of how accessible web design can still look beautiful. He writes regularly for industry-leading publications such as .Net magazine, and speaks at conferences and events across the globe.

1. Welcome to Nettuts+! Most of us here probably know who you are but for those who don't, could you please introduce yourself?

My name's Elliot. I'm 27 years old and live with my girlfriend in the heart of the English countryside. I'm an independent designer and also do a fair amount of illustrating, speaking, writing, and music-making.

2. Tell us, how are things going with your life and work lately?

Very well, thanks! I get fewer work requests now that the recessions has properly set in, but it's not a problem, as the requests I do get tend to be more genuine. I have some great clients and very exciting projects on at the moment.

3. Thousands of questions I could ask you, where to begin? Ok, what is the first website you visit when you open a browser and why?

My Mint stats, because

  • a) I like to see how my site's traffic is doing, and
  • b) Mint — like everything Shaun Inman designs — is wonderful to use and beautiful to look at.

4. You left your full time job recently. Being your own boss, setting deadlines, having freedom to work when you want are all pros of being a freelance designer. Are there any negatives?

Occasionally work can creep into your personal life. I've had some overrunning projects recently, which has meant I've had to work a few nights. It's not usually too bad — like maybe just an hour or two after dinner — but it's not a good idea to make a habit of it!

5. What do you think about design contests in general? Would you suggest that young designers start this way?

I think contests are a good way for young designers to get some practice and recognition, although I don't think you should do too many of them, unless you genuinely feel that you're still getting something out of each one. Competitions are different to spec work but personally I keep free work of any kind to a minimum.

6. Did you study design in college, and do you think formal education is necessary to become a great designer?

Not necessarily. My university degree (I have a BA in Contemporary Media Practice) helped me focus my interests, but only a small part of the course had anything to do with the web, and really it was my own self-initiated projects which gave me the experience and portfolio I needed to get my first job. That, and I've been designing and illustrating since I was a kid, doing stuff for school plays and stuff like that. My Dad taught me a lot about art and design at a very young age, and I think that stayed with me. Education is important, but it's no substitute for constant practice and a desire to keep challenging yourself.

Editor's Note: Learn what your fellow readers think about formal education for web development.

7. Things are moving fast in this industry. New frameworks, CMS's, Plugins, Mobile, Software etc. What would you suggest to someone who is just getting into this industry? Focus on something specific?

When I first started out, I was very worried, because I thought I needed to know everything, and I had no idea how I'd do that. Over time, though, I've come to realise that it's best to dabble in several areas but focus your skillset on specifics. For instance, I don't ever delve too deep into back-end code: I know just enough PHP to muddle by with WordPress customisations. Similarly, I don't get too involved with Javascript: my front-end skills are much more focused on HTML and CSS. However, my main thing is actual design, and if you want that to be your focus, then go for it. Just make sure you maintain a basic working knowledge of other things as well.

8. Being a designer and hobby musician seems like a common thing today, at least I see it a lot. Does one art inspire the other?

Well, the first pieces of proper design I really did were CD covers and websites for my band, so in a way it was music that made me realise how much I wanted to be a designer. I still love designing around my musical output. I have some exciting things planned for the album release later this year. :)

9. Design, Articles, Speaking, Travel, Books, Music. Time, time, time. Where do you find it?

Often, I don't! It's a real challenge. Fortunately, I'm very comfortable working on the road, so although travel and speaking can interrupt the schedule, it's not too bad. I can often be found working from cafes and trains while away.

10. I've noticed that your tweets lately are primarily questions about WordPress. It seems as if your digging into it big time. How often do you use WordPress?

I don't intend to become a 'master' of WordPress, per se, because I'm not interested enough in back-end code to really get to that level. However, I'm happy with the kind of customisations I do and I'm always excited about learning more. In every single site that's required a CMS over the last two years, I've used WordPress. Hacking it to do what I want can be tricky sometimes, but I usually get there in the end.

11. What are the biggest challenges that you face in web design currently?

Staying ahead of the game and constantly trying to do better. It's so easy to slip back into a comfort zone.

12. In your opinion, what are the most important things to watch out for when designing a website?

Designing and developing for multiple scenarios. There are so many occasions when a certain solution will solve the problem but create other problems for different parts of the site, or for different users, or for different browsers.

13. After you receive a brief from a client, what's the next step?

Usually I'll discuss it with them over Skype, do a little basic research, and then work up some kind of spec document. If we both decide to go ahead with the project, then — once I've got a deposit payment — I'll start a proper phase of research and idea development before moving into more in-depth planning like sitemaps and wireframes.

14. Do you constantly work on expanding your knowledge and skills in Photoshop, Illustrator or any other tool of choice?

I try, although it's hard sometimes. Right now, because I'm starting to do more print and illustrative stuff, I'm frustrated by my knowledge of InDesign and Illustrator, which is much narrower than my knowledge of Photoshop. So I'm thinking of investing in a short course or two sometime soon. And, as you've probably gathered from my answers above, I'm much more interested in expanding that side of my skillset than doing something like a PHP or Actionscript course. I enjoy code to a certain level and then it just becomes a chore. Design, however, will never be a chore.

15. Your brief thoughts about HTML5 and CSS3?

I've yet to experiment with HTML5, although I'm excited by what it promises, and the canvas element is particularly attractive from a multimedia point of view. I use a lot of CSS3 in my work anyway so really I just want to see a more widespread adoption. Firefox 3.5 has been a big step forward in terms of getting close to what Safari has been able to do for ages.

16. Fonts as a service? Read about it recently?

I think there will be a few competing services, yes. Ultimately it's going to depend on foundry support, because people will go with the service that provides the greatest variety of typefaces.

17. Quick Answers:

  • IE - Hate it.
  • Google - Doing great things. Ugly as sin, though.
  • Spirituality - Yes, but not in a religious sense. More in an 'appreciation of nature' sense. I'm happier with science.
  • Mac - 100%.
  • Passive Income - Great if you can get it without exploiting others.
  • Kids - One day.
  • Twitter - Too often.
  • FOWD - See you there!
  • War - What is it good for?
  • Love - Probably the single most important thing in my life.

18. You've achieved so many great things in your life so far as a designer. Do you consider yourself a lucky guy, a smart and careful guy or both?

Thanks! I'm probably just a lucky guy who's made some smart and careful decisions. ;)

19. What are your plans for 2010?

I haven't made any formal goals for next year yet, although so far I'm hoping to buy a house, cut back on the speaking gigs, and go traveling again for a while. Maybe write another (but very different) book, too.

20. How do you see the web in ten years?

Augmenting reality more than it already does.

21. Do you have any secret websites or projects you would like to reveal to our readers?

Do I have secret projects? Yes. Am I allowed to reveal them? No. Sorry guys!

22. Thanks again for providing Nettuts+ with this opportunity to interview you. Any final thoughts for our readers?

Only to say thanks very much for interviewing me, and (to the readers) thanks for taking the time to read it! :)


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