FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER

Elliot Ulm

APRIL 2020


All imagery is created and supplied by Elliot @elliotisacoolguy

I first stumbled upon Elliot’s work when another instagram account I follow featured his work ‘What Font are You’. As his personal branding suggests, Elliot didn’t complete a ‘traditional’ tertiary education path to pursue graphic design. He is a self taught graphic designer who started exploring Adobe programs back when he was still a student in high school. Regardless, Elliot has a refreshing perspective and has developed a cohesive style, often using real life frustrations we all experience while working in a creative field as his inspiration or point of interest.

Recently, we spoke more in depth about him being a self taught designer, what his biggest challenge has been thus far and the importance of having a creative community around you when you do feel a little lost in the industry.

To kick things off can you tell me what was your childhood like? Were you creative from a young age, or have creative influence from any family members?
I was really into drawing from a very young age. My Dad still has this sheet of paper filled with all these dumb characters of basic items I drew when I was 4 or 5 all aptly named after the object they resembled. I remember never drawing anything off the top of my head but always copying Pokemon cards or random drawings I saw on book covers. To this day I still cannot draw anything from scratch but I can copy things really well. My Nonna was also an art teacher so my family insists my artistic side is all genetics. 

You had quite an interesting introduction into graphic design—you didn’t go to university or design school, when were you first introduced to graphics and when did you first start making them?
In my Year 9 Visual Arts class we did a very basic introduction to Photoshop which included using the “Liquify” tool on images of rubber ducks and it was pretty much from then that I was hooked on learning as much as possible about the program. I downloaded the free trial on my family computer and would just sit there watching YouTube tutorials on how to create “Cool Vintage Wallpapers” and copy them step by step until I knew all the basics. My drama teacher a few years later asked me to design a poster for a school event and that’s when I started to take it seriously as a career.

In my own experience, I have found that different studios or companies prefer some universities/schools over one another mainly because of the way the courses are taught. Has there ever been a time where you felt you were over looked, or someone was doubting your capabilities because you didn’t take the ‘typical’ educational path? If so, how do you over come that?
I think it’s more of an issue with my confidence in my ability rather than someone else’s confidence in my skill as a self taught designer. I’ve definitely felt that since I have more unconventional ways of using design programs I might get told by an employer that I’m doing it wrong or something so I’ve kind of stuck to focusing on freelancing to get around that. I’m sure that’s an irrational fear and I do think there is a trend towards designers being judged on their portfolio over their design background but it still is something I think about a lot. Wouldn’t change a thing though. Being self taught has really brought out the fun in graphic design and my “style” wouldn’t be the same had I gone to school.
I think the first time I saw your work was when @graphique.feed reposted your ‘What Font are You’ post and from there I noticed that all of your work had quite a humorous, slightly sassy tone, but also could discuss super controversial topics in our industry. What is your process for coming up with the copy, and then turning it into a design? How long does one of your designs take from start to completion?
I have a huge list on my phone of ideas for copy that range from design trends I see a lot of to basic Photoshop problems I experience, and that list is constantly expanding. I started my page @elliotisacoolguy to post “Honest Graphic Design”, so all of the copy in my posts is made with the aim of revealing honest truths about the industry and what it’s like to be a graphic designer posting and observing on Instagram. I start making a post with either a strong design idea or a phrase I’m happy with, and then I experiment for however long I have free until I can settle on a design. One post takes from anywhere between 5 minutes to 3 hours. 

At the moment you are doing some freelance work, has your constant posting and consistent body of work helped you attract clients? And how do you really find freelancing? What has been a good and bad learning experience from doing it?
When I started my account my posts were getting a lot of traction because they were funny and unique but I couldn’t translate that into followers until I started posting daily. Once the followers started coming then my page started attracting clients to which I’ve had a range of experiences with. I think the main issue I’ve had so far is communication, considering a lot of people who get in contact with me are from overseas meaning timezones are completely out of whack. I’ve had a few high profile clients message me before but after weeks of trying to organise a call and waiting another few days to hear back it gets to the point where you just don’t want to do the job anymore. And that really sucks. I think I just have more fun posting on my page with my style and no pressure of trying to please anyone. Gotta pay the bills though am I right…

What has your biggest challenge to date been (in general) and how have you over come it?
Imposter Syndrome 100%. The amount of opportunities I have passed on simply because I felt under qualified is ridiculous and even now I still feel like I am. I definitely think I’m becoming more confident in my work as my page has continued to grow but I’m 21 years old with a portfolio that consists mainly of funny graphic design posts on Instagram. Overcoming imposter syndrome is obviously a long process but so far doing things like charging more for a project than you usually would and discussing design changes with a client rather than just saying yes to every change have been big helping hands.
Everyone has a collection of designers that they are inspired by. What type of designers catch your eye the most? And following on, what videos or designers did you watch when you were teaching and then refining your skills?
Designers who aren’t afraid to unashamedly be themselves and stick to that even when working with clients or when posting on a public platform. There was this one YouTube channel I would follow religiously called Ch-Ch-Check It who made those “Cool Vintage Wallpaper” tutorials, but I’m noticing just now that they posted a video a year ago called “Why We Left YouTube” and are now vlogging. At the moment I think two great YouTubers to watch are Kel Lauren and Zimri Mayfield who both have cool “redesign” projects and great communities.

What would you say to a younger designer who is struggling to find their niche or doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in their industry?
I would say to start with finding the thing about graphic design that brings you the most joy and then try and turn that into value for others. Also just put your work out there. Instagram and other social media platforms have a heap of really supportive and active members, and if you commit to posting consistently you’ll develop a community who will inspire and motivate you to design just as much as you will to them.

And finally, success or being successful is often spoken about in context of people getting jobs, getting awards or winning big clients/projects, but, how would you describe success or being successful in your practice?
Getting my work to reach more and more people and to help young designers feel more confident in their work. I think I started that page with the goal of getting more followers but I didn’t really expect to have this much fun building a community and meeting a whole bunch of brilliant and talented people.

Elliot clearly has a lot of fun with his work. You can follow him on instagram or contact him at elliotulm@hotmail.com

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