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Elliot Jay Stocks

Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, illustrator, speaker, and author based in Bristol, England. He's also the founder and editor of 8 Faces, a bi-annual printed magazine dedicated to typographic design, and one half of Viewport Industries, a company who will be releasing a whole load of amazing stuff in 2012.

Elliot writes on his website and tweets as @elliotjaystocks.

Published Thoughts

Do you ever hear a song that takes you back to a particular moment in time? Opening notes or chords so deeply ingrained in your subconscious that you can almost ‘become’ a past version of yourself in an instant? I can think of a few songs that have that effect on me and most are seasonal. This time of year, December specifically, there’s a song that’s been playing in my head since I was 15. That song is ‘Thirty-Three’ by The Smashing Pumpkins (SpotifyRdio / YouTube).

So I’m 15 again. Christmas 1996 is approaching. On my Christmas list is ‘Melon Collie and The Infinite Sadness’, the Pumpkins’ epic landmark two-disc album. ‘Thirty-Three’ is a song on disc two, but at this point I’ve yet to hear it — I have to wait until Christmas Day for that. But here I am on a cold Saturday morning, thumbing through CDs in a small independent (and ultimately doomed) record store in my hometown of Orpington, Kent, about to hear the song for the first time. In the ‘singles’ section, ‘Thirty-Three’ is a new release. There are two versions available, each with different b-sides. I buy the version that includes ‘The Last Song’ — an absolutely beautiful track that features a guitar solo from Billy Corgan’s father — ‘The Aeroplane Flies High (Turns Left, Looks Right)’, and ‘Transformer’.

Of the days that followed that purchase, I have no specific memory. I assume I played the single a lot — especially the first two songs — in the run-up to Christmas, and I know that I did indeed receive the full album on Christmas Day. But the specifics are irrelevant: the residual feeling is what mattered (to me, at least).

At that time in my life, I’d recently broken up with my first girlfriend and, being a rather emotional and — let’s face it — somewhat pathetic fifteen year-old (long before the term ‘emo’ was coined, of course), life was filled with a sense of bittersweet melancholy, fueled by the discovery of music that remains poignant to this day. Life also had an air of innocence: I lived at home with my parents, I was mid-way through high school, and I’d yet to start my first job. The web had just started to turn into ‘a thing’, but I wasn’t aware of it.

This little bout of reminiscing has no point. There’s no deeper meaning hidden behind the story of me buying ‘Thirty-Three’ just over half my life ago. The number is not even relevant to my age (I won’t be thirty-three for another couple of years yet). It’s simply that I’ve been asked to provide a thought for December, and this is what’s in my head. ‘Thirty-Three’ is playing on perpetual internal repeat because it’s cold and it’s December and Christmas is approaching. And all of those factors combined offer me a gateway back to 1996.

That’s been the case every year since I first heard that song. I wonder if that’ll always be the case?

Last week Keir and I spoke at HD Live in Hull, England. After the event, the film crew asked us, ‘what do you hope the audience takes away from your talk?’ We’d spoken about the logistics of turning a side project into a legitimate business — a subject very close to my heart — and I replied by saying that I hoped at least one person in the theatre felt motivated enough to go out and try it; to take an idea that they’d previously thought of as a pipe dream and make moves to give it more prominence in their lives — to do more of it, to have more fun, and to make money from doing it.

We all have ideas. Many of us — in our industry, at least — have side projects. But so few of us actually take those ideas beyond the conceptual realm and try them out in the real world. Perhaps it’s a fear of failure or a lack of security, but I truly believe that the risks are far smaller than commonly perceived. It’s not all-or-nothing. You can build up your side projects slowly, you can approach the right people for a bit of financial backing, and selling products — rather than building countless revenue-less start-ups — is one of the oldest, most successful — still successful! — tricks in the book.

I hope that one person reading this decides to take the same plunge.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience a fair few product launches and there is absolutely nothing like the adrenaline rush that comes with the occasion: pouring over something for months on end to finally unveil it to the world, nervously wondering if anyone will like what you’ve created. And then, when they do, and the orders start coming in, the adrenaline rush begins anew. Oh my god! People are actually buying it! This is what happened to us on Wednesday 19th September at 4pm when we finally released Insites: The Book.

With that second rush of adrenaline, though, comes a rush of a different kind: gratitude. Humbled, honoured gratitude. Because suddenly people are parting with their hard-earned cash to buy something you’ve made, and that is just an incredible feeling. This book is not an essential item. No-one needs this book. But here they are, paying for something they believe in. And that’s really why it’s so humbling: each and every purchase is a person saying: I believe in what you’re doing and I want to support it.

And, wow, we are so, so grateful for that. Thank you.

Just like buses, which arrive all at once when you’ve been waiting for ages, this last month or so has seen the launch of several apps / networks offering a new take on web-based discourse: App.Net, an open, user-funded alternative to Twitter; Branch, an attempt to engage users in real-life-like, long-form discussion; and Medium, Obvious Corporation’s bold — very bold — re-imagining of online publishing.

Does the arrival of these services herald a new age for discussion / publishing / connectivity? Perhaps. Either way, I would urge you to read Daniel Howells’ thoughts on ‘the problem and the fragmentation of content and communication’. These are exciting times.

Go outside, take a walk, enjoy the sunshine, step away from your computer for a change.

Music has been an important part of my life since my teenage years; first as a listener, then as a creator (a hobby I still entertain for a few weeks a year), and then as an insider within the music industry: my first ‘proper’ job was Junior Designer for EMI Records and after two years with the company I moved to indie label Sanctuary Records, again as an in-house web designer. So I like to think that I’m able to watch the industry develop from virtually every standpoint without too much bias for any one side: listener, creator, publisher.

Given the developments in digital music distribution in recent years, my interest in the industry also blends with my appreciation for the web and cloud-based apps. I was an early user of Spotify and jumped onto Rdio when it finally found its way to the UK a couple of months ago. However, my eagerness to embrace this new method of consumption is somehow at odds with my more traditional desire to ‘own’ music. That desire most definitely comes from my designer’s mind: the part of me that loves elaborately packaged box-sets, well-designed inlay booklets, and the simple pleasure of looking at music on a shelf and thinking, ‘this is my music. This is who I am.’ That’s what caused me to convert to digital pretty late in the game and it’s why I still hang on to a relatively large collection of unplayed CDs in a box under my desk.

This ownership conundrum — and it is very much a conundrum when you appreciate digital’s negative effects for artists and labels — is something that’s plagued many music fans, but it is of course something that can be overcome. Just as we became accustomed to playing digital files through iTunes, we can now come round to the idea that renting — rather then owning — music actually makes a lot more sense in the vast majority of scenarios. Finally, I’m listening to most of my new finds via Spotify or Rdio, rather than downloading them to keep.

But there’s still a problem in this equation. Still something that doesn’t quite sit right. Because although our habits might move towards streaming media as we decide that renting isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the concept of ownership isn’t just about desire; sometimes it’s about need.

There are two scenarios that brought me to this conclusion.

The first is my own taste: I like a lot of obscure electronic music on small labels that simply don’t have a presence on streaming services like Spotify or Rdio, whether that’s by choice (because they see such meagre revenue from those models) or by exclusion (for operating in such a niche market). So for the majority of the stuff that gets pushed by the excellent Boomkat in their weekly newsletter, I’ll buy it directly from them and own the downloadable files (as much as anyone can own anything digital, of course). As a consumer I don’t particularly mind where my money goes — ownership or rental — but the key thing is that in many cases, there’s simply no choice. I buy it because it’s the only way I can hear it. (Note, even illegal acquisition of these files would result in ownership.)

The second scenario is the ‘personal’ music I have in my collection. Some of my friends are signed to small labels that aren’t on the streaming services (see above), but more importantly I own digital files of their music that will never be on those services. Some are old recordings taken from self-released CDRs; some are songs from bands who have long since disbanded to get proper jobs; some are my own songs. So if I want to throw some demos for my new EP on my iPod to see how they sound in a different environment, I need an app such as iTunes to handle those files — the streaming services will never, ever enter into that scenario.

And this, I realised the other day, is why we can never completely move over to Spotify or Rdio or Pandora or whatever. Perhaps iTunes Match is a step towards something more unified — because at least I can upload my obscure MP3s to the cloud — but the whole service is still based around the concept of ownership, and that seems like having one foot in the past.

What we need is something in between.

Quite some time ago, Spotify tried to kill off our iTunes dependency by integrating ‘local files’ into the app. In my opinion, the implementation was poor, but the idea itself was solid: use the UI to merge the user’s ‘owned’ local files the service’s ‘rented’ streaming files. Having already experimented with the idea once, they’re well placed to make a more refined attempt; perhaps better placed than Rdio, who have yet to touch on local files. But the company with the most potential to do something in this arena is Apple. Rumours have bubbled up — and then fizzed away — about a potential streaming service from Apple, and although it’s widely regarded to seem unlikely, it would make perfect sense: Apple’s relationships with the labels are tight; iTunes Match is already an attempt (although buggy) to represent local files in the cloud; and iTunes itself — in desperate need of a makeover — is the familiar face users trust. That trust is waning as the app shows its age and the likes of Spotify and Rdio gain users, but if Apple acts soon, a new iTunes — or more specifically, a new model — could very well change the way we simultaneously own and rent music.

[These are thoughts I’ve spewed out over half an hour. I expect I’ll refine them and re-publish on my blog soon.]

I'm seeing an increasing rise in people blogging and tweeting in opposition to responsive web design. Some are intelligent discussions about the challenges it poses, but sadly most are simply knee-jerk reactions from frustrated designers and developers who don't get the concept and are angered at the extra time required to work in this new way.

Fixed-widths were always a hack; always a temporary measure. As Andy Clarke said, responsive web design is web design. Attempting to remain in a world of fixed-width layouts is futile, so — please — let's stop trying to come up with half-baked arguments against it.

Somehow, I keep managing to forget the benefit of switching off. Not checking email. Letting that iPad stay on the table. Every time I do switch off for a while—perhaps even just a weekend—I feel so much better prepared to go back into work. I feel rested. And yet I'll forget this feeling, go back to being connected nearly all the time, and suddenly be reminded of how great disconnection is once I try it the next time. This is a reminder to myself and to others to switch off way more often than we do. I'm going to try and not touch email at weekends from now on.

I keep coming back to the idea that there must be a better way to handle email. No matter what I do, and even with the aid of TextExpander for faster replies, it just eats into so much of my day. Even two hours of emailing per day equates to ten hours per week, which is more than a whole day of actual work. Something has to change. It's ridiculous.

So in the next couple of weeks I'm going to move all of my email to Gmail (finally) and go to town with creating a few intelligent rules that can — to a point — send out canned responses that take the onus off me. Will it work? Will it come across as impersonal? Possibly. But email is taking over my life and I just can't stand it anymore.

I have a relatively low attention span when it comes to design, in that something I'm proud of one week I'm ashamed of the next. It's a terrible trait when working on large projects, because either my enthusiasm dwindles and / or I'm eager to work on the next version of a design almost as soon as the previous one is signed off.

Instead of trying to fight this urge, I've decided to embrace it this year. Last year I stripped back my site so it would be a relatively blank canvas upon which I could build. I'm doing the same to the new Viewport Industries site we're about to launch. Build up, tear down, but leave the foundations.

Perfect for those of us always keen to move on to the next thing.

Having just returned from New Adventures in Web Design 2012, in Nottingham, England, I find myself reminded once again of the good friends I have in this industry. Kind, intelligent, funny, and inspiring friends who originally came together over our shared love of the web and design in general. Every time we meet it's like the conversation carries on from the previous event. The presence of friends at conferences makes each new city feel like home; each new speaker session a shared learning experience of furthering our collective craft. What other industry has this? This sense of camaraderie, this bind of community?

I was once asked, in a room full of such friends, at the .Net Awards three years ago, 'aren't you guys all competitors?' Technically, yes, but I don't think any of us see our industry like that. There's enough work to go around. Collaboration, not competition, is the driving force behind what we do.

At events like New Adventures, I'm reminded of just how fortunate we are to work as web designers. What an amazing community. What a Great Bunch Of Lads.

The start of a new year is always a good time to re-evaluate everything we do. How can we use the coming months to make things better? Better for us individually. Better for the wider web community. Better for end users.

In our lovely, friendly industry, a lot is said about the latter two, but not so much about the former... and it's a shame. Why shouldn't we put effort into improving things for ourselves, so that we're happier? Not to the detriment of others, of course, but there's no harm in wanting to enjoy ones work.

For me personally, I've had a great 2011, but it still came with its fair share of stress, good-projects-gone-bad, difficult clients, and relatively frequent late nights. My goal for 2012, then, is to right those wrongs; to prevent those scenarios from ever occurring, and learning to deal with them more effectively if they do. I've written about my plans on my blog and the gist is that I'm temporarily giving up client work to focus on making my own products. This comes from a desire to be happier. Again, it's okay to have this desire, as long as it's not at the expense of others.

This process of re-evaluation will continue throughout the next year, as products are released, and in one year's time, I'll be looking back to see if my '2012 experiment' did indeed bring me more pleasure. If not, it'll be time to re-evaluate once again. And that's okay.