Lazy Oaf graphic designer Ben Eli on personal projects, poptimism and being passionate
Ben Eli knows what it’s like to get thrown in the deep end. Joining Depop straight after graduating from Teeside University, their responsibilities as the company’s sole graphic designer helped them quickly find their feet. Entering a predominantly white and cis-het industry, however, came with inevitable challenges: “Being a visibly queer, mixed Black designer, there have been so many times when I’m the “only” [person] in the room,” Ben tells us. Last Spring, Ben joined the team at iconically colourful fashion brand Lazy Oaf – an opportunity which they attribute to their ambition, drive and genuine passion for the company. Here, we chat to Ben about personal projects, pop music as inspiration and why you don’t need to know everything to be a great designer.
Midweight Graphic Designer, Lazy Oaf (2021–present)
Graphic Designer, Livity (2020–2021)
Graphic Designer, Depop (2017–2019)
Place of Study
BA Graphic Design, Teesside University (2014–2017)
What I do
How would you describe what you do? And specifically what you do at Lazy Oaf?
I’m a multidisciplinary designer, working across print, digital and sometimes motion. In my personal practice I’m also starting to explore more painting and analogous methods of making, too.
At Lazy Oaf I work in a team with two other designers, and we cover everything from branding and marketing, to digital design and in-store graphics. One of our main responsibilities is to create new identities for each new collection drop every few weeks, so it can be quite fast paced, but it’s definitely lots of fun because it’s constantly changing.
“[Working at Lazy Oaf] can be quite fast paced, but it’s definitely lots of fun because it’s constantly changing.”
As a graphic designer, what are the main influences and inspirations behind your work?
I’m really inspired by pop music, the internet, LGBTQ+ culture and basically the media that I’m consuming. There’s a lot of storytelling and world-building in pop music that I find a lot of inspiration in, so I always try to channel that into my work.
I’m also really inspired by fine artists and I obsessively listen to interviews or podcasts with the likes of Tracey Emin, Cecily Brown and Reginald Sylvester II. There’s a lot of layered meanings in their works, as well as being much more open for interpretation and I really want to move my personal practice in that direction, too.
What recent project at Lazy Oaf are you most proud of?
One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most so far in my short time at Lazy Oaf has been being able to get away from my computer and do something with my hands IRL. I’ve been able to work with our founder Gem on two takeovers of the downstairs of our Soho store using lots of spray paint and printed posters!
In my personal practice, I recently finished a hand-bound book of spray paints, which is something I wanted to do for the longest time. It took a while to finish but it was really rewarding to make something completely away from digital processes.
What kind of skills are needed to do your role? And would you say you need any specific training to do what you do?
I don’t necessarily believe you need to go to university to be a graphic designer. Some of the best designers I’ve met are self-taught, which I think shows ambition, willingness to learn and dedication – which is more important than anything.
However, I do think my course taught me so much about typography rules, grids and the importance of iterating and testing, which I would say has been pretty valuable.
What’s your favourite thing on your desk (above) right now?
I recently got an illustrated tarot deck by Gentle Thrills from Oaf which I’m really excited about. I’m really interested in spirituality and can’t wait to start learning how to use them. The colours and illustrations are really beautiful.
If you could pick one GIF to describe your job, what would it be and why?
(Below) Working at Oaf, things can get a little bit weird; really creative, but a lot of fun. We’re all going with the flow and taking things not too seriously. Immaculate vibes.
How I got here
How did you land the job?
I came across the job ad online and immediately knew I wanted to apply. It was quite a smooth process. I wrote a cover letter detailing why I wanted to work for Lazy Oaf and how I relate to the brand, as well as detailing the relevant experience I had that would make me a valuable asset to the team. I had two video call interviews because of the pandemic, so it was definitely weird not meeting anyone in person before starting!
My best advice is to show your passion and excitement to your interviewers – I was really candid about how excited I was at the possibility of working for Oaf, how much I love their past work and how much I wanted to learn from them. It’s really easy to get in your head during interviews which can come across as quite robotic, so I try to make sure I steer clear of that.
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
I was quite lucky that I managed to land my first job at Depop straight out of uni! I definitely had to find my feet as quickly as possible because I was also the only graphic designer at Depop for quite a while. I learnt a lot about the importance of time management and prioritising my workload myself, which has helped a lot in the long run and made me quite a logical thinker.
It was definitely a sink or swim situation, and my advice to anyone starting out would be to just dive in and take everything in your stride. It’s ok to not know how to do everything; you just need to be willing to give it a go or find solutions.
“It’s ok to not know how to do everything; you just need to be willing to give it a go or find solutions.”
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
The Candy Book of Transversal Creativity is a book looking at the history so far of Luis Venegas’ Candy Transversal magazine. The magazine celebrates transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary people as well as drag and androgyny through fashion, creativity and culture. I always keep it close by my desk so I can flick through and get inspired by this celebration of my community.
lgbt_history is an Instagram profile with lots of archival photos from queer history, such as protests, printed matter and culture. I often find myself going here not only to learn more about my community’s history, but take inspiration from the powerful photos and stories as well as the typography on the photos of protest signage and old print ephemera.
The book Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All by the founders of [design firm] IDEO, David M. Kelley and his brother Tom, is something I always find myself coming back to when I’m in a rut. It talks more generally about design thinking as problem-solving rather than graphic design, and how creativity goes far beyond just making something visual. I definitely recommend it.
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
I would definitely have to say imposter syndrome! Especially in roles where I was the only designer in the business and not having a team to throw ideas around with. Being a visibly queer, mixed Black designer in the creative industry, there have been so many times when I’m the “only” [person] in the room – and probably the most junior too, and I think that contributes a lot to that imposter syndrome, too. Thanks to some great mentors and managers, I’ve learnt more about navigating those spaces and the importance of not shrinking yourself.
“Thanks to some great mentors and managers, I’ve learnt more about the importance of not shrinking yourself.”
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
Knowing your worth is so important, and admittedly still a journey I am on myself. Especially as Black, POC and queer designers, it’s important to not sell yourself short or accept less.
I also think it’s really important to know how to manage your money. My first year of my full-time, salaried job I struggled with this, especially after moving to London for the first time and having lots of moving costs. too. It took some work but understanding the picture of your incoming earnings and your outgoings gave me a lot more peace of mind.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
“Don’t try to rush your career, enjoy the process.” I’ve definitely been very guilty of this which only caused me unnecessary burnout. During my first couple of years starting out, I was always putting pressure on myself to feel like I was hitting certain milestones and making certain career moves. While ambition is always good, you can end up forgetting to also just enjoy the journey you’re on!
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar role?
Never underestimate the importance and power of personal projects. I think they’re able to give others – especially potential employers – a truer insight to who you are and what you have to say. Don’t be afraid to create work around themes and topics that are truly important to you, rather than just another branding exercise.
Most of my most interesting conversations, portfolio reviews or job interviews have ended up revolving around the work I’ve done on my own time. I would probably chalk that down to people being able to see the passion come through when I talk about them.
Mention Ben Eli
Interview by Lyla Johnston