Representing the creative future

Bior Elliott: “There’s no accurate definition of an art director”

We spoke to Dazed’s art editor about working in fashion, starting a creative studio, and finding space for personal projects

There’s a degree for every job. As the labour market leans towards hyper-fragmentation manufacturing new roles and tasks to fit the needs of the industry, universities take action with ad hoc cutting-edge BA and MA courses. In 2015, London College of Communication launched the BA Design for Art Direction, the first of its kind. One would assume that, if there’s a course that teaches you how to be an art director, there should also be a clear idea of what the job entails. And yet, Dazed art editor and founder of the creative studio “s__.ein” Bior Elliott still can’t find a satisfactory definition of the role. “On my old course, we had a running joke that no one knew what an art director was. Then you get into the industry and it gets even more confusing,” he says.

After dropping out of philosophy, Bior enrolled at the LCC to study art direction. Then, in an unprecedented move for a London creative pursuing a career in fashion and the arts, he got an MA in “History of Design” at Oxford. By then, he had already worked at Love Magazine and MCQ/Alexander McQueen, respectively in the roles of junior designer and creative. At the end of the day, learning to conceptualise – to elaborate ideas that will eventually translate into images and designs – is as important as the graphic element itself.

Maybe it’s difficult to pin down the job of art directors because they work within the liminal space that unites the creative ideation of the project to its actualisation. They move swiftly from the research of the right style and photographer to the obsessively meticulous activity of renaming files on the server. Art direction, whatever we mean by that, seems to be about mastering both the practical and the creative sides, learning to find your way between commercial briefs and personal projects. It’s the latter, with their creative freedom, that Bior values the most – the only projects that allow you to evolve in your professional journey, to “show them what you really can do”. “Bodies” is his latest print publication created in collaboration with Kazeem Kuteyi. It encapsulates the works of great creatives – photographers, artists and designers – whom he met through previous jobs.

A fine example of what an art director can do.

Natassa: I just had a flick through your new magazine “Bodies”. It looks amazing! But let’s start from the beginning: I saw that you studied at the London College of Communication. How did you decide on that?

Bior: My journey with the LCC was a weird one. I first enrolled at the University of Manchester to study philosophy, only to drop out after two years. I was already into music and design at that point, so I decided to apply to the LCC. I picked “Design for Art Direction” because it was the broadest BA course and it would allow me to experiment with photography, video and most of all graphic design. Out of all the different disciplines, graphic design requires fewer resources and it’s more practical. Another reason why I chose this course is that the people I looked up to at the time, like Virgil, Samuel Ross, or even Issey Miyake had been graphic designers before being creative directors.

N: And then you did an MA in “History of Design” at Oxford, right?

B: Yes.

N: That is quite an unorthodox thing to do; people who are into graphic design or art direction go straight to art school afterwards. How come you chose to do this specific course at Oxford?

B: My BA studies were coming to an end and I remember wondering, like everyone else does in that situation, if I would get a job or be good enough for one. I remember my course leader wanted me to go to a more typical art school. The Royal College of Arts, for example, had an identical course. But the reason why I went to Oxford was because I applied for the highest master’s I could go for. Also, I had started off studying philosophy, so I have always been interested in theory and the ideas behind things – not just the practical elements.

N: Changing your environment broadens your mind as a creative. Especially in London, people who tend to go to the same university and spend time with the same tutors and each other, sometimes end up having the same references.

B: I think it was the right thing to do. I am from London, I studied and worked here. I didn’t need more of that. In Oxford, the people I was studying with came from different countries, age groups, and walks of life. They weren’t just the “young people in the arts”.

N: Now that you are looking at it more in retrospect, do you think going to art school or getting an education is necessary to have a career like yours? Or do you think graphic design, art direction and working with publications can be self-taught?

B: I think one shouldn’t exclude the other. Especially when it comes to disciplines like graphic design, there is a distinction to be made between the practical element of design and the element of creativity and conceptuality. You can teach yourself, and get very good at the practical side, but you need some sort of education or mentorship to help you navigate concepts and practice creativity. It’s easy to overlook this, but it’s a very important, invisible part of people’s careers. When you get to work closely with industry professionals, you start to analyse them to see what distinguishes them from everyone else. The truth is there’s no superpower. They can’t sew five times quicker or draw eight times better than anyone else –  they simply have a different way of thinking and dealing with things. They have probably inherited it from the university they went to or from a mentor they had.

N: For everyone who does not know exactly, what does being an art director entail?

B: Well, on my old course we had a running joke that no one knew what an art director was.  Then you get into the industry and – unfortunately, I don’t really have an answer for the kids because it gets even more confusing. Just like a job can change from company to company, so the role and the tasks of an art director vary depending on the industry. Film, advertising, fashion, you name it, you might even have an art director at a bank. Typically they come from graphic design, but there are also fully trained photographers, stylists and fashion designers. Anyway, I would say, being an art director is about creative project management. It comes down to becoming the main safeguard of a project, which usually involves starting it off from scratch with lots of decks and mood boards. Then you need to understand the composition and the layout and make sure that the branding and design element is perfected at the end of the process.

N: Going back to your career journey – did you start working in fashion straight after Oxford, or did you try different things?

B: I never expected to go straight into fashion, but I did. My master’s was part-time, so I got a job at Love Magazine as a junior designer for print. That was a really amazing introduction to fashion, because I was working at a magazine and I got to see some big names in the industry and how they do things.

N: I remember Love was a bit more creative when it came to graphics, compared to other print magazines.

B: Yeah, it was. It’s funny because Love had these really fun, feminine graphics, but when I got there I found out that several art directors who had worked for the magazine were straight white men. And so I realised it was all part of the big vision of Katie Grand. It was good to be able to see these male designers have to push themselves to make work that was a bit outside of the usual blocky, masculine styles that many of their peers might favour.

“Art directors are often male, white and straight – which means the profession is protected by the privileges of a western patriarchal society. Consequently, it’s true: you do usually get treated better than the people in the styling or even the writing department.” – Bior Elliott

N: And this was your very first job – how did you get it? Did you apply for it in a more traditional way or did someone tell you about it?

B: It was kind of both. I met a girl called Melissa during a coding course at LCC and we became friends. Then, while she was doing a placement at Love, she posted on Facebook the announcement for a junior designer position at the magazine. That actually makes me feel how long ago it was! Anyway, I gave her my CV and portfolio, I did an interview and got the job.

N: It seems you have been mainly working in fashion, right?

B: I did a small placement in advertising. But yes, apart from that it was all in fashion.

N: The publishing industry is notorious for being very toxic, especially the styling part of it, with junior roles being very much underpaid. Do you think the graphic design part is different? There is this impression that this toxic culture of fashion doesn’t really belong to sectors like design or art direction.

B: Maybe this has to do with the fact that most of the time, as was the case of Love Magazine (and many others), art directors are often male, white and straight – which means the profession is protected by the privileges of western patriarchal society. Consequently, it’s true: you do usually get treated better than the people in the styling or even the writing department. Also, another point of privilege graphic designers in the industry enjoy is the fact that our skill easily translates to other sectors. Because of the cross-disciplinary nature of graphic design, we are not “trapped” in the fashion industry the way people in styling or editorial might be. I could go work for an advertising agency and direct adverts about baked beans if I wanted to –  I’d probably get paid more.”

N: Because you feel confident that you have a range of skill sets, which you can move from one thing to the other. That is quite freeing. So after Love, you went to McQ the label within Alexander McQueen, which was more of a commercial job, in relation to working for a publication.

B: Yes, it was way more commercial. But it was also very conceptual because what we were trying to do at MCQ was one of the most ambitious projects ever carried out by Kering. They were using NFC technology to link content through clothing labels while also have the names of the main collaborators creating the garments inscribed on the garment. It was a huge shift both technically and in terms of attitudes. I joined as a creative, which is something between art direction and project management.

N: After that, you started working with Dazed and developing your own agency.

B: With my agency, it all started in my last year of university. My dissertation was an analysis of what a brand is, explained in a very graphic way. From this project, I founded a clothing brand – it was literally a brand about branding. Then eventually I stopped making clothes and turned the brand into a brand/agency, just like 032c is a brand/clothing brand, and Dazed has become a magazine/creative agency. This “slash” type of thing has always been in the back of my mind as a way to keep things going. I started to work for Dazed just after McQ a label within Alexander McQueen. I tried to move to the commercial side of the magazine, but that didn’t work out.

“Graphic design and art direction are maybe 50% creativity, with the other 50% being just organisation.” – Bior Elliott

N: When you say commercial side, do you mean advertising?

B: The advertising side of Dazed. They have their own creative agency with a studio and there was a creative role open. I applied but another person got the job. I was very sad about it, but then I got a LinkedIn message from Lynette Nylander, at the time editorial director, asking if I wanted to interview for the position of senior designer. She had heard about me through Ellie Grace Cummings, who worked with me at McQ /Alexander McQueen. I met with her and then with Jefferson Hack. Then, thankfully, I got the job. I have been working for them ever since their 30th anniversary issue. It was their biggest issue, a really crazy time to start.

N: It’s quite insane that that was your first project.

B: We redesigned everything. My friend Ester Mejibovski started at the same time as a designer. Now she is senior designer and I am art editor.

N: So now, what does your job at Dazed involve?

B: I work between the design and the production team. I help with the choice of the photographer for each shoot and I make some design decisions. I work in a lot of detail on special projects, which are the brands’ projects, to make sure the clients are happy. When needed I research ideas and concepts for shoots and make sure every team’s ideas match the theme of the issue. I keep the assets organised, colour-proof images and ensure all photography is being presented in the best way.

N: When we talk about design or creativity, not many people realise the managerial aspects of these kinds of jobs. You need to be a highly organised person and very good at communicating.

B: When I started working at Love, I realised that graphic design and art direction are maybe 50% creativity, with the other 50% being just organisation. At the magazine, it was fundamental that each file was renamed with an underscore and a dot so that it didn’t crash the server. That’s what really informed the visual language of my studio; the name reads like “sign” but it’s spelt “s__.ein”. I found it quite funny how organisation actually dominates the process. File types, crops, and credits are necessary to the collaborative process and yet you get to notice them only when they are not done properly because the whole thing just falls apart. Another important aspect of the job of an art director, that is often overlooked, is the research. Even though a lot of the work that you do in terms of ideation never really sees the light of the day.

“Freelancing is 100% stressful. Because you don’t have stability, you say yes to everything – especially when it sounds good.” – Bior Elliott

N: Have you ever taken freelance jobs on top of your steady ones?

B: I am actually freelance at Dazed, which was a choice that I made. I chose to freelance this whole time so that I have time to work on my studio. Ester and I, whilst doing freelance for Dazed have also juggled art direction and design jobs for Off-White, MM6 Margiela, Puma and Nike.

N: Especially post-pandemic, as the request of freelancers increased, it has become really stressful to find stability. You don’t have job security and constantly think “Will I have a job this time next month”? Is it the same for you?

B: It is 100% stressful. Because you don’t have stability, you say yes to everything – especially when it sounds good. There was a point where Ester and I were working simultaneously on several projects on top of our work at Dazed. I still feel a little burnt out from that period. Now that we have done all this work, we have worked with different big names, it is our time to hone the skill of saying no, which is something that you never do when you are younger.

“A lot of people underprice themselves: never do that. Always ask for the maximum that you think you can get; they will always try to negotiate down.” – Bior Elliott

N: With freelance jobs, how did you learn how to price yourself and define your day rate? For many people, especially when they are starting out, it is very hard to ask for money.

B: It is a hard dynamic to master. A lot of people underprice themselves: never do that. Always ask for the maximum that you think you can get; they will always try to negotiate down. But then also, it is your responsibility as a freelancer to know how much your day rate should be. If you’re not sure, ask your peers or mentors how much they would charge per day or what the maximum rate for a project is.

N: I’d love to know more about your new magazine project “Bodies” created in collaboration with New Currency.

B: New Currency is a publication founded by Kazeem Kuetyi in Canada. We started working together during the pandemic; Kazeem was just getting started with issue 1 of his magazine and asked me to do a layout for an article. The first issue turned out to be a success and he flew to London to meet some big names in the industry, some company owners, and some kids who had just graduated. For issue 2, I did an interview with Jack Self along with him. We had this great working relationship, so we decided we wanted to do something bigger; something where I could combine my knowledge of fashion, art direction, publishing and editing with his skill of bringing people together globally. “Bodies” was born as both a fashion and arts publication. My partner, Amelia White, helped us with the editorial direction and Ester worked on the design. Together, we managed to pull off this great 200-page magazine.

N: How did you select the creatives you wanted to involve in the magazine? Did you do that together or was it more Kazeem’s part?

B: We approached them very much together. Kazeem really gave me a lot of control over this project. A lot of the commissioning and design decisions were down to me. He would pull people he was really into, such as Deion Squires and Plantation, and from my side I brought in people I had worked with in the past. Some big decisions were made together and we really pushed to make them happen – like having Gabriel Moses shoot Mowalola’s archive. It was a group effort of commissioning.

“Print is more expensive and harder to work on, but it also gives a sense of security. It makes people take a project more seriously because they know there is going to be a definite end; they know what the product will look like.” – Bior Elliott

N: Was it important for you to have a printed publication? A tangible element?

B: That was really important to us. Publications have some restrictions but in the end, they give a crucial framework to each creator: they provide a space where you can make projects happen. If it had been just a personal project, I wouldn’t have been able to convince Gabriel to shoot Mowa’s clothes or to have her lend him her archive pieces. Print is more expensive and harder to work on, but it also gives a sense of security. It makes people take a project more seriously because they know there is going to be a definite end; they know what the product will look like.

N: And was there a time for you when it’s been particularly hard? I imagine when you have a very hectic workload of clients on top of your everyday job, it’s very hard for creatives to find the right balance. Personal projects end up being the ones people procrastinate on the most. How did you juggle between Dazed and the new publication?

B: “Bodies” was a completely self-managed project. I was so heavily involved with art direction and production, both financially and creatively, that I ended up procrastinating on other parts of the project like the editorial direction. So we came to a point where we had all the shoots but not all the words edited. One thing about print is that you have so many people giving their time to something, you don’t want to disappoint them. So to hold ourselves to the deadline, we had to deal with a 24-hour day. Thankfully, I brought Amelia in towards the end of the project and she saved our skin editorially.

N: Do you think that for creatives who follow your journey, these kinds of portfolio projects are important to find a job?

B: They are the most important. What you can bring to the table is based on what you have done before. Commercial jobs will never allow you to explore your full potential, so if you don’t do any self-initiated projects, you won’t be capable of showing them what you really can do. You won’t evolve in your creative and professional journey if you don’t keep on working on your personal projects. They take time and money though. One thing I understood from my editing work is that editorials aren’t always paid; photographers and stylists sometimes end up paying for them. They do it so that they will eventually shoot for brands like Gucci or Calvin Klein, who will pay them. It is a circular process.

“As an art director or designer, you constantly have to keep your eyes open – to look for new things and find an efficient way to store them.” – Bior Elliott

N: If you ever had one piece of advice, what would that be? Do you have any practical rules in your day-to-day job?

B: I would say, as an art director or designer, you constantly have to keep your eyes open – to look for new things and find an efficient way to store them. I believe that the moment you receive a brief for a new project shouldn’t be the moment you start your research. You should already have a library somewhere – whether it’s your saved posts on Instagram, your desktop, your brain… There should be an archive of people and styles that you have ready to reconfigure for your project. Be organised, that’s the only way you can find what you’re looking for and reference it again.


Get your copy of Bodies here