Elliot Ulm is proof that design school don’t maketh the designer. The young Sydney creative—whose witty and unique work is filed under @elliotisacoolguy on Instagram—is self-taught in the most millennial sense of the word: YouTube. After giving uni a crack and deciding classrooms and student debt weren’t his cup of tea, Elliot looked to the internet’s wealth of online tutorials instead, turning his new-found skills into brutally honest, yet playful designs that confess, ‘I don’t have a degree I hope that’s ok’ and ‘Adobe Photoshop is not responding and neither are all the design studios you sent your portfolio to.’ Let’s meet the pixel-pushing, breath of fresh air.
First thing’s first: are you a cool guy?
I really hope so… I mean, I post graphic design jokes on Instagram, that’s the coolest thing ever surely?
Where did your love for design first stem from?
I remember this very clearly. I was in Year 9 Visual Arts class and we were learning Photoshop for the first time. We had to take this image of a rubber duck and make nine different versions of it, and I just had way too much fun. I went home and downloaded the Photoshop free trial on the home PC that night.
You’re self-taught from YouTube. What’s one of the most unexpected things you learnt inside the tangled web of online tutorials?
I recently learnt that my favourite tutorial channel I watched when I was in high school, Ch-Ch-Check It, have stopped uploading tutorials and are now into vlogging. That was a pretty rough day.
What was the last thing you Googled?
‘Elliotisacoolguy Net Worth.’
Who or what are you inspired by in the world of design?
I’m hugely inspired by the whole ‘poster on black background’ community that exists on Instagram, so much so that I think I may be stuck in a kind of Instagram bubble. But there really are some amazing designers on the platform who put in a crazy amount of effort for, at times, very little recognition. I just find it very exciting to see new styles and techniques emerge every day. I also love the work of Jessica Walsh and her studio, as well as some absurdly original designers like Kris Andrew Small and Bráulio Amado.
You’re refreshingly honest in a world where everyone’s trying to present their best self at all times. Is this a side of you that came out when you first started design work?
I attempted one year of an Arts degree in 2017 while doing a little bit of freelancing on the side and realised going to uni wasn’t really my thing. After that, I tossed up going to design school for a while and did the classic sending of emails to a heap of studios, seeing if I could get an internship or something, but heard nothing back. I kept asking myself whether I would be better off doing a three-year degree or spending those three years teaching myself and doing something like posting on Instagram, and I eventually went with the latter. The honesty came from the frustration around that choice… I never liked the sound of going to design school just so I could get a job on the other side… I never saw the point in that. So, I made the ‘I don’t have a degree I hope that’s okay’ business card series and went from there.
What’s one of your favourite things you’ve worked on recently?
I was asked to be in a charity exhibition the other month, which had never happened to me before, so I made this poster about how it felt to be asked to be in an exhibition, and I still love it… which I usually find quite difficult to do a month or so after a design has been made.
Your observations on being a freelance designer are both funny and relatable. What’s something you wish you could change about the world of freelance design?
I really wish it didn’t feel as competitive. When I was starting out, I was trying to get gigs on Fiverr and Airtasker and all that, and it could just be so disheartening seeing everyone else do so well while you’re stuck making a brochure for $20. Instagram feels like it’s encouraging competition. It’s too easy to forget why you design in the first place, and how much fun you can have doing it.
What’s something new you’ve learnt in isolation?
I’ve been teaching myself 3D design which is something I’ve wanted to do for a little while now. That’s a lot of fun, and hopefully I can slowly integrate it into my work. I’ve also been working on a few collaborative projects with some of my favourite designers—which I’ve never done before—so I’ve learnt a lot about that whole side of design. I have also learnt how to hack a Nintendo DS.
Trump’s campaign manager gets in touch to ask if you’ll help create slogan banners for his next run. Do you take the job, and if so, what’s the tagline?
If the budget is anything above $50, I’m hired, and I would take a page out of one of Joe Biden’s speeches and use the perfectly logical phrase, ‘Truth not Facts.’ That’s pretty funny, I reckon.