11 Questions with: Samuel Cooke
Field Trip: Interview
I sent off 11 questions to designers in the early to mid stages of their careers, asking them a set of questions that help us get to know them a little bit. This week’s article features designer, Samuel Cooke.
Q1. To start, could you tell us who you are and where you work?
Hi! I'm Sam, a designer living and working in Exeter, in the beautiful South West of the UK.
Q2. Did you study design or are you self-taught? If you did study, how did you find it, do you think a degree is necessary these days?
I did study design; I was part of the MA at Falmouth University a few years back. But I came to it through a different route than the others, in that I wasn't a design undergraduate. So in that sense I suppose I'm self-taught – an old schoolteacher of mine gave me a (slightly dodgy!) copy of Photoshop and I spent many hours learning how to use it via trial and error. I had to learn about type, grids, layout etc. from videos and books, but that's normal these days anyway. I was very much figuring it out as I go.
I don't think a degree is particularly necessary, but it's undoubtedly going to give you a head start with current industry expectations. I'd imagine some agencies won't even consider you without one (which is a shame). After all, it's your portfolio that gets you hired in the freelance world; whether you can do the job well and be a pleasant experience to work with is all that matters. I would argue the degree experience teaches you to think more critically, and connects you with people far more quickly than starting from scratch, so there’s at least some benefit that isn’t technical. I’ve never shown any of my work from it. Some people don't like the idea of university either. It's very situational and my advice would be to go with your heart.
Q3. Is there anything you felt unprepared for going into work?
Mostly the business side of design. It's the part university doesn't prepare you for too well – or didn't in my case, anyway. Though I've heard the same thing from other design graduates. How to get work, manage jobs/clients, figure out rates and time, send invoices, that sort of thing. All the stuff that gets in the way of actually doing the project! (Adrian Shaughnessy's How to be a graphic designer… is an excellent book and deals with a lot of that.)
Q4. Do you work from home or go into the office? Do you like your situation or would you change it?
I work from home, and wouldn't change it just yet. I find being in a familiar environment, with all my belongings, references, and other material, lets me focus on a project rather than everything else around it. There is something to be said for unfamiliarity giving you a different perspective, or the feeling of a fresh start. That's helped me a number of times, but it could be as simple as changing up your studio space.
I'd like my own dedicated studio space someday, or if I ever wanted to move around a bit more I might try downsizing my setup to be more flexible.
Q5. How do you feel about freelancing/side projects, do you feel a pressure to do these?
Side projects are a huge part of my life, and I'll never fully understand how some designers go through their careers without the impulse to do them!
Even if I could have any client I wanted, I'd still want to create other stuff because I'm interested in too many different things and have too many ideas not to. Magazines, books, stories, art, websites, typefaces… whatever it might be. I love coming up with the concept for something then seeing it through to completion, and it's probably the reason I'm such a huge fan of other artists and creators who have their own authorial visions like that. The enjoyment and fulfilment value in side projects can be just as important as the financial aspect.
They can open doors as well, ones that you might never get the opportunity to open through freelancing alone. If you want to do work for a certain brand, company, or artist, start a personal project that's somehow related and show it to them. You never know.
It's scary, because if something doesn't work then the responsibility is yours entirely, from the idea right up to how it's executed. I try to ignore that pressure!
Q6. What are you working on right now?
Great follow-up question! I'm working on a few different side projects at the moment. A brand-new science-fiction magazine and publisher that I'm editing and designing myself, which is easily the biggest and most intimidating thing I've ever done. The amount of admin alone is a part-time job before you even start figuring out what it's going to be or look like. It'll be going up on Kickstarter later in the summer, so fingers crossed!
I'm also working on an archive website, a small design-themed book/zine and another, probably larger book – all on subjects I've been passionate about for most of my life. Then there are three typefaces I've had in the background for far too long. I really should try to release those….
Freelance-wise, I'm doing a couple of magazines, an album, plus a few logos/identities in the pipeline.
Q7. Do you listen to music when you work? If so, what do you listen to? (very welcome to drop a playlist)
Yes! Constantly. I hate being one of those people that says they listen to 'everything', but I really do. Today alone I've listened to a couple of progressive metal albums, an electropop one, a film score and a post-hardcore / rock band I just discovered. But the new Animals As Leaders record has been my staple for the last month or so. It's unbelievable, on my shortlist of favourite albums ever, and it's like they're playing different instruments to myself and everyone else. I must have listened to it close to a hundred times already; that's not even an exaggeration.
Music is very particular to whatever I'm working on, and I do have playlists of sorts in my head depending on the project. I definitely want to do playlists and/or mixes to accompany the sci-fi magazine I'm starting; it's something I haven't explored properly before but I'm excited to try. Your mini playlists have already inspired me a ton.
Q8. What have you been consuming lately?
I haven't been consuming enough as I'd like for the past few weeks, but it's usually nerdy things: anything sci-fi, other fiction, comics, games, art, with a good amount of non-fiction and documentaries mixed in. I love learning about whatever I can. Interviews and process videos are fascinating to me as well; seeing how other artists approach their work in case I can incorporate anything, no matter how small. I never got into podcasts much – I'll have to get your recommendations.
I did start watching Obi-Wan Kenobi though. (Spoiler: it's fantastic.)
Q9. What do you do in times when you don’t feel inspired or motivated?
That's a hard one, I struggle with that a lot. Inspiration and motivation must be chemical – everything is – but I've never found a reliable way to get into 'the zone', or out of a bad few days of literally zero drive to do anything work-related. Anxiety compounds that too, especially as your self-esteem can sometimes feel dependent on your creative output. I’m sure that’s common to most artists and it’s absolutely not healthy.
The cliché things help every now and then, like a change of scenery, looking at other people's work, consuming as much different media as possible, or trying to break large projects down into the smallest steps possible. Other than that I usually just wait, knowing inspiration and motivation will come back eventually. Right now I'm in a good place, and hoping it continues longer than the usual week or two! (I'll be reading the other responses you get to that question!)
Q10. Is there anyone you look up to or turn to for advice?
Friends and family mostly – my mum was the best at life advice and I've had a few brilliant teachers over the years. So I try to think about what they'd say then combine that with my own instinct, which I've learnt to put more trust in recently.
Q11. Finally, what are you most excited about as your career progresses, are there any particular goals you have?