Creative Lives — Graphic designer and artist Steve Hockett on juggling multiple projects and living up to your own 12-year-old ambitions
When he was 12, Manchester-based graphic designer and artist Steve Hockett wrote himself a letter to say he wanted to design skateboard graphics. After sidestepping his creative ambitions to study physics, he returned to his destined path in 2007, completing an MA in design. A five-year stint with design agency United Creatives followed, and now Steve operates under his own terms as a freelancer, working out of collective space The Engine House alongside close friends and collaborators. Steve spoke to us about the joys of working in a shared environment, juggling multiple projects and finances, and living up to your own 12-year-old expectations.
Graphic Designer, Artist and Content Generator
Manual For Speed, Yonder Journal, Oi Polloi, Vans, Hades, London Short Film Festival, Q Junctions
Junior Designer and Senior Designer, United Creatives, 2008–2013
Design and Marketing Assistant, FutureEverything, 2008–2009
(I also have an extensive collection of hair nets and name tags)
BSc Physics, University of Leeds (2004–2007)
MA Design, University of Leeds (2007–2008)
Steve with Mark Edwards (DR.ME)
Inside The Engine House
How would you describe what you do?
I have a design practice and studio called Wonder Room – it’s quite broad and I try not to define my practice too much. Predominantly I work as a graphic designer, visual artist, image maker or art director, both for clients and self-initiated. At the moment I’m working on a couple of show posters and putting together, designing and printing a cycling zine.
It's a pretty DIY affair and has been running, in some form, for around 9 or 10 years. For a lot of that time I was working a job too, it's only in the last few years I've been able to do my own thing full time. I try to work for small and independent companies I believe in or do interesting things.
What does a typical working day look like?
I'm usually at the studio but I also work from home sometimes. I start around 10am, drink coffee and catch up on emails for an hour or so. The day tends to be juggled between a few projects. I don't have any set hours but I try to finish around 6 or 7pm at the studio. If I have a lot on I'll stay late.
I work a lot by hand, painting and drawing. Sometimes I might be binding a publication, which is all manual work, but I still spend a good portion of the day sat at my desk with the computer on. It’s important to get up a lot and stretch when you use it or you'll get a hunchback.
Even when it's quiet it's actually pretty hard to switch off – I kind of always feel like I'm working in some capacity. You get a guilty feeling because if you're not working, you're not making anything and you're not getting any holiday.
How does your work usually come about?
A lot of my clients, like Oi Polloi [a menswear brand and store] for example, are local and I've met them through being out and about or they've come across my work in Manchester. More and more people just find me online too.
It's also really important to reach out to people, finding who I'd like to work for and pitching projects at them. I'm a big cycling fan and I really wanted to design some cycling kit, so I got in touch with Manual For Speed and know I'm working with them regularly. I think my work has its own unique voice, so I want people to work with me because my work suits them.
“I like being in the studio with my friends, it's an amazing environment to be in.”
How collaborative is your work?
There's always an amount of collaboration with the client, some people like Manual For Speed, we bounce ideas around a lot which I really enjoy. I've always shared a space with DR.ME, so we collaborate and give each other critique and help which is great. We also have a studio ‘crit’ thread at the studio, here we can post work and get ideas from everyone.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I like being in the studio with my friends, it's an amazing environment to be in. The least enjoyable thing is business, quoting for stuff, invoicing. I tried to ignore it all for a long time.
Being freelance, I have a lot of freedom and can also work from different places. I did a residency in Barcelona a couple of years ago and I could do that whilst still working. Money is always a struggle though, so in that respect it can be pretty limiting, me and Eddy (DR.ME) lived off packet ramen for years. Not the healthiest diet!
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I got to do my first-ever cycling kit with Manual For Speed and Castelli (a bike-wear company) last year. They did a photo shoot with one of my favourite cyclists wearing it, which was a dream. I smiled for days on that! I worked with the Manual For Speed guys really closely, we were back and fourth with ideas before we decided on what the design would be based on, then Castelli were on the production. It was a really long and hard process, I've never designed kit before and technically it's quite a challenge.
What skills are essential to your job?
A sense of humour and a high tolerance to caffeine.
What tools do you use most for your work?
A Mac, Wacom graphics tablet, smart phone, digital camera, film camera, InDesign, Photoshop, illustrator, Final Cut, Instagram, Sharpies, Rotring Pens, A Moleskine. I also use paint, ink, collage, spray paint, anything I can get my hands on and experiment with really.
Steve’s The Coefficient of Drag zine
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I wanted to be in Led Zeppelin, make art or skate. Led Zeppelin was unachievable, and their weren't any talent spotters coming down to the local B&Q carpark, so I aimed for the art thing. I read a letter I wrote to myself when I was around 12 and I said I wanted to design skateboard graphics, so I'm pretty close. I think 12-year-old me would be pretty buzzed.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied physics…to be honest though my MA in Design is equally redundant.
What were your first jobs?
After uni I got to work for a really interesting arts and ideas festival in Manchester called FutureSonic (now FutureEverything). I was assisting the marketing team and got lots of design jobs which were pretty exciting, like doing a programme for a Phillip Glass show. Around the same time I got an internship at an agency called United Creatives, I worked there on and off for almost five years. I started as a junior designer and worked my way up. Stylistically it wasn't really suited to me but I learnt a hell of a lot about doing stuff 'properly' there. How to pitch, deal with clients and printers, and how to manage production of all kinds of things. We made stuff in stone and steel and vitreous enamel, I really got to understand how to design for different processes.
Was there anything in particular that helped at the start of your career?
I think meeting Mark Edwards [also Eddy, working as DR.ME]. We've grown up together over the last eight years or so, he's always been so supportive and encouraging. We got our first studio together and we've always shared space since. I'm pretty introverted, but he's always throwing opportunities at me. I got to go to NYC and show some work because he was curating a show there at [photographer] Mike Perry’s gallery WAW. Some of my work has just been published in the book he's put together (Cut That Out on Thames and Hudson). Eddy's my rock.
“I have a lot of freedom and can also work from different places. I did a residency in Barcelona a couple of years ago and I could do that whilst still working.”
Artwork for Stop Making Sense festival
Artwork for Stop Making Sense festival
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
My friends started a night whilst I was studying called Stop Making Sense, the first ever bit of work I got paid for was the flyer for that night (actually, technically the first thing I ever got paid for was a 'We're Moving' banner for a pound shop in Leeds!) My friend helped me print it, because I'd made it RGB red and he was like, “Why is it brown?!” Then I started doing all kinds of stuff through that, and people started seeing my work.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
I’m predominantly a print designer so I've learnt lots with that. But things are always changing, so I've also learnt all kinds of weird stuff, like editing sound, video and making animations.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
To be honest, it is. Maybe what I actually do is a bit broader and hazier than I thought, I never expected I'd be making posters or book covers or have a really focused practice.
Pica Post zine for Oi Polloi
Could you do this job forever?
I've always seen myself working until I die, but not in a depressing way – I mean I wouldn't want to stop doing this. I love being in the studio and I'd really like to make more art, more shows, do more self-initiated projects. I'm always getting hair-brain schemes, for example I just started a cycling zine, so running and publishing that is fun.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
It's going to be really hard. It's going to be a slog. It's going to suck sometimes. Don't stop, and try not to get too existential.
This article is part of our In the Studio With feature on The Engine House.