All posts by Hugh Elliott

The Freelance Series: Taking the “Home” out of “Home Office”

I recently asked on Twitter if anyone had any opinions on my next blog entry concerning freelance life and Joel Stransky wrote “I’d be interested to hear about disturbance agreements you have with your family.”. Therefore, Joel, this post’s for you.

Make a space
My situation is one where I staked out one room in my home for my office.

If you are able to remove yourself from the regular hustle and bustle of your home, much better for you.

I leave my door open because I want to accessible but in the end my space is my own*. In every sense of the phrase I have a “home office”. So what do I mean when I say “Take the home out of home office”? Think of it like this;

When you work at a company you get, at the very least, a desk. When you don’t see your family for the duration of a work day, most people have photos of said family. You know, to remind them of “better times.” Sorry.

When you work from home and you have a 4 month-old baby girl, a 5 and a 1/2 year-old boy and a wife on maternity leave, all you have are reminders of your family’s presence. Keep family photos out of your workspace. Keep all mementos of non-work out of your work space. That’s the function of the rest of your home.

So that’s Home Office. Let’s get into interruptions. You know when you’re sitting at your desk, diligently working away and a coworker comes up to you and asks a question, completely throwing off your flow/chi/balance/progress? Now imagine these are your coworkers:

That’s right, cuteness overload. However, when your wife is taking care of a fussy baby and your son yells upstairs “Daddy! I need help!” and he’s referring to some video game (which you know you’d rather be playing anyway) you have to restrain yourself from jumping up. Instead yell back, “Sorry buddy, Daddy’s working.” To be fair, that’s super hard to do. (See above picture). I have listened to my wife explain to my son that “You need to pretend that Daddy isn’t home.” This is not an easy concept for a 5 year-old to grasp. He is starting to come ’round, though. Slowly but surely.

The other thing my wife mentioned that would make the separation of home and office easier would be to close my door. I am considering it, but I do like being available in some instances.

So, I don’t know, Joel, if that answered your comment, but that’s the best I have at the moment.

* I need to point out that we are currently in the middle of moving rooms so my lovely little office is completely overrun. Such is life and I do my best to ignore it.

The Freelance Series: Work For the Job You Want

Up ’til now, I’ve written about practical matters; cost, taxes and time off.

I did a lot of Flash work in 2011 as I have done, historically, since I started in this industry. So I got to thinking of the kind of work I want for 2012 and beyond. Last year I collaborated with Displacer and made some live visualizations written in Processing. While my coder buddies look at it and think “I could do that.” when I run the app in front of a crowd itching to hear Displacer play, typically the reaction is less disaffected and more boisterous. And honestly, when doesn’t a coder look at code running and say “I could do that.”?

As 2012 hits its second month, I start charting my path and it got me thinking about the old adage Dress for the job you want. As a developer, that’s just not particularly applicable. And so I paraphrase to Work for the job you want. If it isn’t obvious what I mean, let’s take a quick look at how this might work.

End of last year, Adobe announced a bunch of crap that, frankly, freaked out some, made others go “woot, I was right! in your face!” and made people spending money go “oh wow, the holy grail?! you found it?!” *btw. no. they didn’t. Anyway, at that time, I was too busy working to spend any time worrying about it. Then I took December off. As January rolled on by without work, I started thinking “Shoot. Maybe I need to pay attention.” And that’s when I realized how woefully behind I was. Still, I need applicability and interest to learn something new. Most of the stuff I’m seeing is eye-candy. Eye-candy is fine, but I’m a practical guy for the most part. With that in mind, I started rejigging Moviesinhaiku. It’s a personal project and anything I want to do with it, I can. I figure I’ll mess with the base concept and information of it in whatever native format I choose. So look forward to some new developments on the Moviesinhaiku front. *and some new watches! If you want to take part in the new Moviesinhaiku, write a haiku. I have a beta version going.

To further my goals, I started seeking out new collaborations. The people at Meta-Tema caught my eye with all their super cool work and I contacted them about coming to their space for a visit. Drasko and Goran are top-notch guys and I hope we get something going together. I have a feeling I have a lot to learn from them. I met with my good friend, Ron Gervais, out of Township & Co. and spoke briefly about wanting to make a short film with him. We’ll see about that as well. I also have a buddy in animation and I really want to have a go at voice acting. “Why not?” I say. Then there’s this documentary I’ve been chipping away at.

One of the things Ron said to me this week, as I kvetched over the fact that I never think of things of which I am capable of executing on my own “Thinking outside your abilities is a good thing. Some people don’t have any ideas.” I gave that a lot of thought and agree. However, I think it’s important to execute ideas, too. Who knows?

With all that said, 2012 has the potential for a very cool year. Mind you, I have said I wanted to do things in the past that never came to fruition (anyone remember a certain tattoo site?) So if I set my sites on four collaborative and/or personal projects and I accomplish one, I will feel successful.

How does this apply to Work for the job you want? Every person I know doing cool work started out banging away on their keyboard working on stuff they were curious about and/or interested in. As they succeeded in their distractions, so too did offers to apply their research to paying gigs come. Another way to put it is to quote Field of Dreams If you build it, they will come.

2011 in Retrospect

I am Repetitive
In my two previous end of year posts, the first sentence tells that I had a strange year. Mostly due to the transition to freelance and all that entails. This year I was fully prepared for how weird freelancing is and was ready to rock and roll the highs and lows. So suffice it to say, I embrace the “strange”. 2011 was an amazing year!

Witches! …no… sorry… Watches!
Scott Wilk of Wilk Watchworks approached me at the tail end of 2010 about collaborating on some watches. In 2011, the two watches I’d designed came to reality!

On the left is the Tron-inspired watch and on the right, the Rounders-inspired watch. Available from Scott’s Cargoh shop.

Scott’s just ordered cases for my next three watches and I am super excited.

Working in Rarified AIR
At the beginning of the year I was asked by the superb folk at Invivo to build a desktop AIR application that could take communication from an iPad as a sales tool. The answer, of course, was “sure!” To be fair, I’d never built an AIR application before, nor communicated with an iOS device, but whatever, right? With a little finagling and a socket server, we did just that.

Invivo seemed to like the work because shortly after they asked me to make another desktop app. This time, it was a quiz show with two states; one on one moderated and team-play. Once again the ask was to communicate with iOS devices. This time the devices would be 7 iPod touches and an iPad. Using a socket server, the communication was one-sided (the iPods only broadcasting, not listening) Anyway, this was another challenging, super-cool project.

Making a Movie… ?
I spoke at the 10-year FiTC in Toronto. (The Influxis Voodoo Lounge, to be specific). I was announcing my intention of making a documentary about the roots of inspiration in the digital industry. I’d called it, brazenly, Influential – The Age of Digital

Seems that, once again, I think HUGE while having small capabilities. Here’re some observations as I mosey along, slowly.

  • I don’t know how to make a movie/documentary
  • I don’t have money to make a movie/documentary
  • I seriously misjudged my ability to pull contributions
  • In the meantime, check out this awesome doc released recently. AND IT’S FREE! PressPausePlay It’s worth the watch. I promise.

    I am NOT an Activist
    On July 16th, my 4 yr-old son (4 at that time) asked me to write a letter to the Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford, to tell him:

    The response was so overwhelmingly positive, I told my pal, John Breton, to register the URL, Dear Mayor Ford and work up a little database and form for people to write letters to the mayor. It took off from there. The super cool Amber MacArthur mentioned us in a Globe and Mail post and John was interviewed on CBC’s Metro Morning! There’s a facebook page with some lively discussion and you can still write a letter to the mayor. It appears he won’t read them although we’ve offered him access to write responses to his taxpaying residents.

    Whatever, it’s been an interesting experience.


    My friend, Michael Morton, is a musician who goes by the name Displacer. He approached me about doing live visuals for his performances. I’ve already blogged about it, but man, it’s been a trip. I cannot wait to do this again with Mike.

    A Ring for September

    I was approached by my good friend, Spencer Saunders, about helping his company, Juice Agency, out on a worthwhile cause: Septembering, an effort to raise funds for Trillium Childhood Cancer Support Center. The project is now offline, but it was a great project and allowed me to play with Box2D a little.

    AIRing out my differences

    My last major project for 2011 was an AIR application for MacLaren McCann and HP. An interactive screensaver that allowed users to get a pretty look at the new notebooks on offer from HP.

    I also renovated my kitchen this year (honestly it’s still in progress, embarrassingly, but it’s almost done.)

    Rhymes with Sleeve

    Most importantly, my wife, Libs gave birth to our beautiful daughter Niamh Ava on October 17th.

    There was a lot more work I did during the year, but I just have no energy to list it all. If you’re a client reading this, I love you. If you’re a potential client reading this, I want to love you. Wait… that sounded wrong… unless, you know, you’re into it… koff…

    The Freelance Series: Praycation

    Today I begin a month-long Praycation. What’s that? You’ve never heard of a Praycation? Maybe in some religious circles, a Praycation refers to something else entirely, but in freelance terms, a Praycation is what happens when you intentionally take time off. You spend that entire time worrying no work will follow it.

    I have been freelance for just over two years now. I take pretty much anything that crosses my desk. The first year was tough as I had extended periods of no work. As a freelancer, the term feast or famine is bandied about a lot. It refers to being extremely busy with a lot of work and then not being busy at all with no work whatsoever. My first year of freelancing was a lot like that. This year, however, I took a slightly different tack and prepared for famine better by saving more and budgeting more efficiently.

    I digress. I have been pummelled by work since May and have reached a breaking point psychologically. In that time, I also renovated my kitchen (with much help) and my wife had a baby! I took one day off (the birth of my daughter) and went right back to work. Needless to say, I am ready for time off. I even took my laptop to the cottage so I could work for the second year in a row.

    So I began not accepting any new work that extended into December. “I’m not available.” became my mantra. Lingering in the back of my head, every time I turned down a project is “Was that the last offer I get?”

    Now I am off, intentionally clearing my horizon. I can recharge, I can invest in my skills by learning some new stuff. I can work on a personal project or two and I can spend time with my family.

    Now I pray. I pray that after the countdown on New Year’s and I start extending the feelers for work that work can be found.

    Wish me luck.

    The Freelance Series: Do Your Work. Pay Your Taxes.

    Whenever I speak to someone with a full-time job and they get that wistful look on their face and say “I might try working from home”, I kind of smile.

    If they notice, I’m generally asked “What’s so funny?” I’ll respond with “Do your work. Pay your taxes.” Mostly they’ll wave their hand and give me a “pfffft.”

    Here are the two big problems* with working from home as opposed to being employed full-time:

    1. No-one tells you to go to work. Sure you get emails or phone calls from your client and their team, but you can successfully ignore them for days on end. I know this for a fact. When you’re in a crap mood and just want to play video games, watch movies, eat ice cream out of the container, there is literally no way anybody can cause you to do otherwise. However, this doesn’t get your job done and is remarkably harmful to your career. You become the unreliable guy.

    What’s the answer? Freelancing is your job. You find a location where you will work and that’s your office. Your work day needs to be just like when you go to an office. Wake up, make coffee, eat breakfast, wash up, go to work. Sit down at your desk and get your work day started. That’s what you do in an office. That’s what you do in your office. Do that all day. Stop for however many breaks you would take in an office environment. Smoker? Take your smoke break. Take a lunch break. Stand up, walk away, have lunch. But spend your work day as you would spend your work day in the presence of your coworkers. Do your job.

    2. Pay your taxes. When you work for a company full-time, they do your deductions for you. You get paid and that money is yours. You never have to think “Hmmm, I need to take one third of this money and set it aside for income tax. I need to take the HST off this and set it aside for my quarterly payout.”

    When you’re freelance, you look at a cheque and start immediately doing mental deductions. If you don’t, I’ll tell you what happens; You’ll do your taxes at the end of the year with your accountant, he’ll raise an eyebrow when you say, “Yeah, I didn’t pay any taxes yet.” Then he’ll (or she’ll) say “Ok, so you owe *insert amount anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000*” Now when that happened to me the first time, it was the last time. I had to work with the government and took a long time paying it off. In one of the conversations I had with a Revenue Canada employee, I asked “Can’t I set you up as a payee in online banking?” And he got quiet and said “Yes, possibly.” I was looking at my account online at the time and found Revenue Canada, added them and said “Can I just pay my income tax as it comes in?” and he replied, “I wish all self-employed individuals would.”

    Now, when I get paid, I deposit the cheque and immediately transfer my income tax payment. Maybe at the end of the year, I’ll owe a little money, possibly even get some back, but I know for a fact I have been paying my taxes.

    *There are plenty of problems and advantages to working from home, but these two? HUGE.

    The Freelance Series: Yeah, I know. I’m expensive.

    That does sound like a great project, for sure I’m interested. What’s the timeline? I can work with that. What your budget? What’s that? My hourly rate? It’s $90 an hour. Yeah, I know. I’m expensive. You can find developers in, like, 10 minutes that cost 30 or 40 bucks an hour? Hey, that’s awesome. I’ll talk with you later. What? No, sorry, I don’t negotiate my hourly rate. Why not? It’s complicated.

    No, you know what? It’s not complicated. I’ve been honing my craft for 11 years. I sat through the judgements of real developers who called me a flash weasel and flash in the pan because I used software to make objects dance around. Those same developers found their own skills slowly sliding into the background as more and more Flash was used. I clawed my way up the ranks on my own merits. I started as an animator in Flash. Exporting Flash 2 animations for streaming within a framework in Director. Flash couldn’t handle audio well enough at the time, you see.

    My last full time job was as Director of New Media. Sure it’s a trite title, but what’s yours? My title before that was Manager of Integrated Media. I was involved in new business pitches and helped win them for my employers. I managed teams of Flash developers. Making sure that they were treated fairly and that the expectations of my employers were met. The projects I worked on won awards. I liked my coworkers and they liked me. I’ve been successfully freelancing for over two years. That must mean something, no?

    I come up with ideas your current employees may not have on their own. Those ideas are free, by the way, they come with the developer, aka me. However, thanks to my extensive experience, those ideas are also well-vetted through looking and working in this medium. Seeing what works and what doesn’t.

    I have a sense for motion and code that, while they may not fit the norm for a top-notch coder, are pretty damn awesome. Again, 11 years. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

    I don’t ask questions if your creative comes back again and again with pixel-pushing minutiae. You know why? I’ve been in Creative. I know their pain. I don’t ask questions when the tech team wants me to recode to add their framework call into my piece. You know why? I’ve been in Technology, too.

    I don’t haggle for money on extra time after we’ve agreed to a deadline. I don’t add to my estimate even after you’ve extended your own deadline by a week. I work weekends, I work late, I work when your entire team doesn’t. I am committed to your project.

    I don’t point fingers arbitrarily. I will defend myself if someone tells me I’m at fault on something I’m not. But I am the first to acknowledge my mistakes. Again, 11 years.

    I am an award-winning developer with an extensive network of colleagues in the advertising world in Toronto. I have worked for nearly every major agency repeatedly. I have made errors in judgements with some and will never work for them again. However, I continue to get work and get requests for work. I have burned very few bridges for all my plain speech in 11 years. As far as I can tell, I’m well-liked.

    I’ve taught coworkers to open their eyes to new concepts. I’ve taught students how to code more efficiently. I’ve spoken at conferences on networking, coding, procrastination, video implementation and sound. Crowds don’t frighten me. I’ve spoken at schools on the very same things. On how to be a freelancer or how to be an employee.

    I don’t share my hourly rate because it’s a hindrance. It’s how I estimate my time and costs. What you think is an acceptable estimate from me is based on my hourly rate and how much time you want from me, by the way. I just didn’t say that I used my hourly rate and gave you a flat fee. Don’t get hung up on one number. It’s not important. What is important? I get your job done, I don’t generally get confused and I’m smart as hell.

    Yeah, I know. I’m expensive.


    Last year I was invited to make visuals for an old acquaintance, Michael Morton, who is a musician. Displacer is his stage name. Last year, I hemmed and hawed about helping and just couldn’t commit. As a freelancer (or contractor depending on your preference) it’s not a good idea to accept work (free or not) and not do it. It reflects poorly on you.

    Night Gallery Cover

    He was releasing his latest album, titled Night Gallery and re-contacted me about doing visuals for his performance. This time, I said absolutely and just put my head down and did it.

    Displacer and I had our first show on August 11th and were both really pleased with the result!

    I worked in Processing, using the Minim FFT library, Daniel Shiffman‘s Wander and Flocking classes and an OSC protocol for Processing, oscP5. Finally, the controller was an iPad running TouchOSC with a simple layout made to give me access to opacity and saving a print, etc.

    Mike has a show in Montréal in November I’d love to be at. Commence “Operation: Wear Wife Down”.

    In an effort to keep track of what I was doing and Mike abreast of my progress, I made several screencaps of the project.

    Kitchen Renovation

    We’ve been renovating our kitchen. It’s exhausting. When I have time, I will come back and add more to this post. In the meantime, if you intend to do a renovation yourself, here are some pieces of advice:

    1. It will take longer than you think
    2. It will cost more than you think
    3. Contracting tradespeople yourself saves you money, but compounds your headache
    4. There are things amateurs should not do themselves:
    4a. Drywall mud and taping
    4b. Electrical
    5. Don’t be too proud to ask for help, but be prepared to wait for your favours
    6. Having a licensed carpenter in the family is a great boon
    7. Get recommendations from your friends for tradespeople, but be ready to have to choose. Don’t take recommendations at face value.
    8. The Home Depot will become a second home.

    The inconvenience involved is minor compared to the long-term benefit of having a new room in the house (in this situation, a kitchen) Maintain that perspective and try to hold on to your patience for as long as you possibly can.

    Anyway, I would like to add to this when I’m finished, but here are some work-in-progress shots.

    Plus a little video I recorded for my wife as she and our son waited out our demo at her parents.

    FITC 2011 – The Aftermath

    A week later and I am still unable to fully use my voice for anything other than the occasional croak. FITC, you are a beautiful beast. Due to scheduling conflicts, the HotDOCS documentary film festival was also running, I did not attend as dutifully as I normally would.

    I was honoured to speak at FITC once again. Slightly different experience as I was an Influxis Voodoo lounge speaker and not a regular stage speaker. With a mere half hour to fill, the pressure was off and I took full advantage. In my session, Film Fan to Filmmaker, I covered self-direction and self-improvement, how to not accept dead-time in your work schedule by creating your own work and how that self-direction can create opportunities you’d never have expected. hey Hugh, run-on sentence much?

    There are too many people to mention and I was busy attempting to record submission for Influential – The Age of Digital to attend many sessions, but my highlight was seeing Planetary Robert Hodgin’s new endeavour with Bloom.

    I think what was lacking were the old guard speakers, unfortunately. There were some noticeable absences that would have made a 10 year celebration even better. Not to take away from the speakers that were there. Once again, the organizers picked the best and brightest and most inspirational people around. *ahem*

    Having sponsors’ row right behind some curtains beside the main stage made for distracting sessions at times as there was no control over people who figured the enormous curtains were also soundproof. However, once again Shawn Pucknell and his crew pulled off a great event in a challenging venue.

    Thank you, FITC, for allowing me to be a part of such a groundbreaking event for so long. I look forward to the next 10 years!

    Wilk Watchworks Collaboration

    During my FITC Influxis Voodoo Lounge session, I showed a couple of slides concerning my collaboration with Scott Wilk, a toronto-based silversmith and watchmaker. His shop is called Wilk Watchworks.

    I am incapable of doing justice to how impressed I am by Scott. He has shown an insane amount of patience for a non-watch designer. The process of dealing with me can be summed up in one sentence “Why not?” When he seemed reluctant to do something, he just shrugged and I could see it in his head “Why not?”. So kudos to you, Scott.

    Finishing these are some revisions and finishing comments both Scott and I have and will address in any sold watches. The prototypes I have in my possession are 95% what I want. The process Scott went through to make these watches at all was monumental. Truly an impressive feat.

    Cost while cost may be barrier for most, I want you to know something (and it took a very dear friend’s advice for me to realize this) if we could make these watches less expensive, we would. In fact, Scott has looked into alternatives to the casting and hand-finishing methods he is obliged to use to make these handcrafted objets d’art. Our intention would be to have cheaper, in the $300 range, production watches and these art handcrafted watches.

    Where where would I be able to order these fine, hand-crafted pieces, you ask? The Rounders watch is available here. Tron, here.

    WIP I was constantly amazed that Scott was willing to let me collaborate with him in the first place that I actually kept up a pretty good work-in-progress gallery on the Moviesinhaiku facebook page for both Rounders and Tron.

    To those of you that have seen the watches firsthand and liked them and said so, thank you so much. I can honestly say I was blown away by the positive reaction during FITC to Scott and my watches! Means a lot!