There’s no doubt that 2020 has been the year of the ‘solopreneur’. COVID has created a world where more and more people are experiencing the gig economy, side-hustling, and freelance living.
Elliot Ulm is a freelance graphic designer who caught our attention recently. He has amassed quite a following on Instagram (@elliotisacoolguy), by documenting the all-too-relatable struggles of freelance work in his distinctive style. One thing we love about Elliot is his open-source approach – lifting the veil on his design process by engaging his community of creatives on Twitch and Discord.
At Linktree we know the side hustle life all too well. So we partnered with Elliot on a collab you can see here. If you’re wondering, yes, he is as much of a cool guy as his handle suggests.
How’d you get your start in graphic design?
Elliot: “I was lucky enough to have a few lessons in Photoshop in my visual arts class when I was in year nine. We had to Photoshop this rubber duck nine different ways using the liquify tool – and all these random tools that Photoshop has. I had so much fun I ended up getting the free trial on my home computer.”
There was always potential to design memes really nicely - tying together graphic design and comedy.
“I continued doing it for a few years after school as a side hustle. I was doing mate’s rates for everyone, not really taking it too seriously. Then I saw these Instagram pages that had really blown up after a few months of posting quite consistently. There was always potential to design memes really nicely – tying together graphic design and comedy.”
“I started posting daily if you do that your skills develop quickly. Now I can proudly say I’m a freelance and Instagram-based designer (at least, that’s what I call myself).”
Which pages do you tend to go to for inspiration?
E: “There’s a page called @harry__vincent. He’s a UK based designer who’s worked for 30 Seconds To Mars and a whole bunch of other bands – a really cool illustrator and designer. He started using black with horror-themed daily posts. He would do it every single day and I saw him progress over 6 months. He went from 6K followers when I first saw him, to 25K. And I was like, ‘Wow.'”
“He gave me the best piece of advice that I’d ever received on the Instagram page, ‘Just make sure you’re being yourself all the way through.’ From there, I started doing whatever I thought was fun, and not caring about whether it was good enough. If I enjoyed making it, it was good enough to post. After that, the page just picked up. I can credit him with everything that I did.”
It seems like getting a big following on Instagram was always part of the plan.
E: “Look, I love attention, don’t get me wrong. I’m a drama and theater kid at heart, so I love a bit of validation. It started as a bit of fun, just to see how big I could get it. This time last year, I had 1500 followers.”
“I always thought it’s a great way to develop your skills as a graphic designer by posting on Instagram quite frequently, but while you’re doing that, you might as well have a growth strategy. But I didn’t really expect how much of a career I could make out of it.”
It’s the best kind of advertising!
How did you land on your specific style?
E: “I was experimenting a heap last year. Nothing really clicked ever, I didn’t look at my work and say I’m truly happy with this. There was always something missing. I went back to one of the first big posts that I made, which was a series of honest business cards. I loved the idea of the business card being the symbolic representation of a graphic designer. We all design a lot of them.”
Elliot’s successful early content touched on freelance culture.
E: “I thought it’d be great to go back to those business cards, and just use the 3.5 x 2 ratio. I went with it and I really liked how it all fit together in that nice rectangle format, more than I did with a poster. The reception was really good, so I asked my followers, “Do you want to see more of these?” And they did! The colors and fonts evolved over time.”
This style evolved into the type of content you see on his Instagram today.
What do you think attracts people to your content?
E: “I think it has a lot to do with honesty. When I was younger, and trying to set up a website for my old business I would search how to make an invoice and all this stuff, and there was hardly any info everywhere. No real and honest depictions of what it would be like. I had these client experiences that were really rough.”
“I figured that posting about it would help people, especially design students. I’ve got a huge following, with self-taught designers and design students just getting their foot into the industry, and just knowing that these experiences are universal helps a lot.”
As I got further into my career, people have started hiring me for my style. They want it done in the way that I want it done.
You’re taking on a lot of collabs, how is that different from client work?
E: “I’ve always loved the idea of designing but didn’t like the idea of designing for someone else. As I got further into my career, people have started hiring me for my style. They want it done in the way that I want it done. It makes it a lot easier when you have these experiences treated as collaborations, rather than just a set of instructions that you’re finishing.”
How important is diversifying your revenue stream these days?
E: “Hugely important, especially for graphic designers. A lot of the things that people post on Instagram are works of art, right? They’re posters that you’d want to put up on a wall, even if they were just a little personal project. There’s no harm in setting up these passive income streams where you can actually sell your work, even if you’re not getting too much from it. It means that you’re actually appreciating your own work as art. Knowing that people enjoy your work, it is wanted by other people and they want to put it up on their wall and stuff. It’s a really nice point of validation.”
“There will be good months and there will be bad months. It’s guaranteed. It all depends on how willing you are to take on a whole bunch of work. I’ve been focusing on setting up the Instagram page and turning down a lot of work. But I’ve had things like CASETiFY and the prints that have set up a solid passive income stream. It lets you relax a bit.”
You’ve built up a solid viewership on Twitch – and you don’t see a ton of graphic designers on there. What inspired the move?
E: “I’m a performer at heart. I mean, I used to do improv and I still love to act. Being behind a screen for so long and just using design as a way of communicating, it was fun for a while, but I realized “I’m going to be making these posts anyway, I might as well have people to talk to, and make some money back from it.” Instagram doesn’t pay you anything. Twitch is great for that.”
“There aren’t really any graphic design streams on Twitch, a lot of people do illustrations and there’s a big community of drawing and art. When it comes to actual graphic design, it’s not really something that is streamed. And I always had an issue with that, because when I was starting out, I would have loved to watch a graphic designer live stream to see all those techniques that they use, and to ask questions about the industry.”
“We get into a lot of discussions on my stream about how you should price your work, how you should treat your work, how you should talk to clients, all this stuff. Any question that people have, either I’ll answer it or someone else in the chat who’s much more experienced than me will be able to answer it. Through that, I’ve managed to set up a Discord – people ask questions and get criticism there. All this stuff allows my community of designers to actually be transparent about what they do.”
“It’s so much fun. I’ve always wanted to do YouTube, but it just takes so long to edit videos. On Twitch, I can do all my transitions, effects and cool stuff – all my little jokes. It feels like a live performance.”
No matter what client experiences you have, good or bad, always try to come back and remind yourself why you started in the first place.
Do you have any advice for people just starting out?
E: “I know free time is a luxury, especially when you’re just starting out. You’ve probably got a day job or something else, and freelance is never really a full-time job until you really get a few of those solid clients in. But take a little bit of time for yourself and go back to why you started out designing in the first place. Because it’s an interesting career, right? You don’t really end up as a graphic designer, you choose to be a graphic designer.”
“No matter what client experiences you have, good or bad, always try to come back and remind yourself why you started in the first place.”
“Also, charge more than you think you should be charged and get that money upfront.”
Do you have any advice for businesses that want to make sure they foster a healthy relationship with graphic artists?
E: “It’s all mindset. Treat the client and designer interaction as a collaboration. It should be a back and forth discussion. The worst briefs are the ones that are too specific. Even down to the font, colors, and everything like that. The designer goes away, completes a set of instructions, and comes back. It’s no fun.”
“It means the world when the client asks you, “What do you think of it? What are you happy with here?” Having that trust is so important, especially for the designer – and as a confidence thing as well. You don’t want your designer leaving the process, sending the invoice, getting that money, and being like, “I’m so glad that that’s done.””
What would be your ultimate collaboration?
E: “A freelance piece for Nike would be cool because it looks like Nike lets the designer do whatever they want.
CASETiFY was a huge one. I always thought making phone cases was a big, big thing. When I got that offer, I stood up for about five minutes and I just paced myself around a room, quietly celebrating to myself.
God bless message requests on Instagram. That’s where all the good stuff comes from.
A clothing company would be sick. I would love to do clothes of some sort. There’s a UK-based company called Lazy Oaf, and I’d be down to work with them.”
Tell us a little bit about how you use Linktree.
E: “I’ve used it for the last 3 or 4 months. I committed 100% to PRO, I was like, “I’ll use this.” I knew it’d be worth it in the end.
This is just when I started Twitch. It had gotten to the point where I had got prints and phone cases. As much as you can swipe up on a story, if you actually look at the stats of who swipes up and who goes to link in bio, the link in bio is the way to go.”
“It seems like that’s the central point of contact for a creator. I used to just have a Behance link. It drove a lot of traffic to my Behance page, sure, but now if people didn’t know that I have phone cases or prints, they see that straight away on the Linktree.
And I love that you can literally watch my Twitch channels through the Linktree without even opening Twitch! It’s right there.”
“As someone who can’t code, or has no idea how to build a website or anything like that (I’ve tried and failed many, many times and spent too much money on short courses that I could never complete). It’s nice that it’s so easy to set up and maintain.
And just on a design aspect as well – the little icons at the bottom? *chef’s kiss* Absolutely delicious, right? So nice, just having those all set up there.. It’s just exactly what I wanted in a link in bio.”
Elliot’s Linktree is definitely his central point of contact. It’s dolled up nicely with his personal branding, and has links to everything he holds dear. That includes all his revenue streams, like prints and phone cases. He live-streams regularly on Twitch (we highly recommend checking it out), and you can watch directly on his Linktree through Twitch links!
Elliot also uses his Linktree to link to causes he cares about, like Black Lives Matter US and AUS. We love to see it.
Now, seriously, go subscribe to him on Twitch! You might get a cheeky Linktree PRO coupon for doing so.