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Creator Spotlight: Alex Cottles from The Routine Creative

Alex Cottles (The Routine Creative on Creative Market) is the kind of person you find yourself liking before you even know why. He has strong opinions on design and branding, but he is humble and soft-spoken. Learn more about him in this interview.

Joshua Carroll September 2, 2021 · 11 min read
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This post is part of the Decoding Creativity series from Creative Market. Follow me on Medium or subscribe to the Creative Market blog, and join the discussion by commenting with your questions and thoughts.
First things first: Alex Cottles (The Routine Creative on Creative Market) is the kind of person you find yourself liking before you even know why. He’s cool, laid-back, and approachable. He has strong opinions on design and branding, but he is humble and soft-spoken. And he’s a great listener, even when he’s the one being interviewed. Alex Cottles, The Routine Creative Alex was kind enough to sit down with me last week at Lockwood Distilling Company, a hip new restaurant, and bar near Dallas. Alex just happens to have created their brand. As we chatted, one of the venue’s owners dropped by to say hi to Alex and to sing his praises to me. She was right to hire him. His work is excellent. Branding elements for Lockwood Distilling Co.

Fonts and Branding

I first discovered Alex through his Creative Market shop. He offers a lot of really great products there. Our senior brand designer, Liz Meyer, is a huge fan of Hula Hoop, and you may recognize his font, Fox & Bower, from the popular wedding planning and registry site, Zola. But his most popular font is called Quirk, and I was itching to ask him about it. His response:
“Quirk changed my life.”
In 2017, Creative Market put together an Instagram Makeover Challenge, and Alex participated. Creative Market posted a shout out to him on the day he launched Quirk, and the floodgates opened. “It sold like crazy,” he said, and to this day, this delightful font is his top seller.
 
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Alex is a successful, full time, self-employed creator. He sells beautiful fonts, graphics, and templates on Creative Market, offers his services as a brand designer, and recently launched a brand new website, Brand Mentor, where he offers a coaching subscription to aspiring designers. As you may have noticed, Alex is passionate about brand design. In fact, he believes in it so much that he won’t allow a client to hire him to design so much as a website until they have first walked through his branding process together: a questionnaire designed to get the client’s perspective on their business followed by a phone call filled with intentionally open-ended questions.
“I want to make sure I’m actually being a solution to their problem.”
Alex genuinely enjoys client work, and he has never “fired” a paying customer, even when they turned out to be difficult or contrary. “It’s a job,” he told me, “and the longer you do it, the thicker your skin gets.” But he has become very good at identifying clients that aren’t going to be a good fit upfront. He is committed to pursuing strong client relationships, working together, giving and taking feedback, and pushing to create something that is, in the end, better than anything he would have created on his own. “The more I collaborate with a client, the better. That’s really helped my sanity.” The priority Alex puts on defining a brand identity at the beginning lays a good foundation for the rest of the journey. It establishes not only the look and feel, but also the personality and direction of future projects, serving as an anchor for all future conversations. And this passion for branding is actually what led him to font making in the first place. “I was designing brand elements, and I figured out that I could spend all this time looking for the perfect font, or I could just make it.” And the beauty of creating a custom font, of course, is that he can continue to sell it on Creative Market long after the project for which it was originally designed has ended. “Typography and fonts are a world of their own,” Alex says. He credits another successful Creative Market font creator, Sam Parrett, for helping him get started and for introducing him to his font-making tool of choice: FontSelf.

Creative Process

If the path to creative success is an iterative process of thinking, doing, and sharing, Alex says that, at least when doing client work, he spends about 45% of his work time thinking, 45% doing, and only 10% sharing. This ratio surprised me—so much current popular wisdom focuses on perfecting your craft and pushing out tons of content to build a massive audience—so I asked him to explain.

Thinking

Alex says that, like many of us, a lot of his best ideas come to him in the shower. I asked how he keeps track of those ideas, and he says that he’s able to mentally compartmentalize his thoughts until he can sit down at his desk, and then he likes to make lists on paper. When working with a client, Alex puts a lot of effort into research and planning. As I mentioned before, he has designed a questionnaire that every prospective client must complete, and then he has a long phone conversation in which he gets to know the client’s vision, personality, customer base, and dreams for the future. He also works through mood board exercises and takes notes with pen and paper while sketching out rough illustration ideas that he can then show to the client to gain early feedback. By the time he gets ready to work on the actual design, he has a clear picture of what will best address the client’s needs.

Doing

When it’s time to make the thing, Alex says he works hard to “discipline my brain to focus on one thing at a time.” He turns on some music or a podcast, opens Adobe Illustrator (his go-to app, even if he knows he’ll end up in InDesign or Photoshop later), and devotes his entire attention to the task at hand.

Sharing

While it is true that Alex spends relatively little time marketing himself, that does not mean that he isn’t putting regular effort into making himself known. He just does it differently. Alex doesn’t pay for a ton of ads, he doesn’t hustle to create loads of social media content, and he doesn’t think much about SEO. Instead, his focus is on developing quality relationships and diversifying his income streams. By regularly adding great new products to his Creative Market shop, Alex is able to realize meaningful passive income with little to no time spent on advertising. The new subscription-based mentorship service he offers is, of course, a way to diversify. And then there’s Alex’s client work, which is largely comprised of retainers. He also takes on some subcontracting work, which he enjoys because it allows him to skip a lot of the legwork and dive straight into execution. And while Alex’s Instagram feed is far from stagnant, he doesn’t worry about posting every five minutes or even on a regular schedule. Instead, he doubles down on having quality conversations on the platform and building those digital relationships. New clients, for the most part, come his way via those relationships and through referrals from existing clients and contacts.

The upside of a background in retail

This focus on building quality relationships with a few people (as opposed to having thousands of meaningless interactions with faceless followers) also informs the approach Alex takes to networking events and meetups, which he attends regularly. What is interesting to me about this is that Alex is, like me, an introvert. Professional networking is just not my jam, and Alex assured me that it isn’t his either. He’s naturally a homebody. A perfect night for Alex might involve playing guitar or video games, watching movies or reality TV, and hanging out at home with his partner. It does not involve going out and being social. I get that. Even those client phone calls he makes as part of his branding process were uncomfortable for him at first. I get that too. But, as Alex told me repeatedly during our conversation:
“You’ve got to put yourself out there.”
Alex was Adobe Certified in high school. He knew from a young age that he wanted to be a graphic designer. But when, after having worked in retail for several years, he finally landed his first real design job, he hated it. The boss was a jerk. The work was menial. Eventually, he quit and went back to retail. And this, he says, is one of the best things he ever did. His new employer was Apple retail. With the job came a diverse group of coworkers and a boss supported his growth and his dreams. He made enough money and had enough free time to pursue design freely in his off hours without needing that work to pay the bills right away. He took some pro bono gigs. He honed his skills and built a reputation. But he also made a lot of meaningful connections. People who work and shop in Apple stores are often there because they are using Apple products to make things, pursue side hustles, and build small businesses. In other words, they are exactly the sorts of people who need (or know somebody who needs) help with design. And, fortunately for Alex, it was his job to talk to these people and to understand those needs. Whenever he met somebody who wanted a new logo or brand design, he offered his services. “Retail taught me to communicate,” Alex told me. It taught him the value of building real relationships and working to understand client goals. After a couple of years of this, Alex was making enough money between his freelance work and the passive income his Creative Market shop was generating that he was able to walk away from retail for good and go into business for himself, full time. Alex now applies the lessons he learned in retail to his professional networking strategy. “The thing most people don’t realize,” he told me, “is that when you walk into the room at a networking event, you’ve already done half of the work. There are all these people there who are hunting their next client, and if you act like them, it can make you stop paying attention to the person you’re talking to because you’re already thinking about who you’re going to go and talk to next. But you don’t have to worry about that. Just let the other people come to you.” Alex recommends making it your goal at any meetup to simply connect with one new person. Just one. “If you do that,” he said, “you’ve already done more than the 90% of designers who didn’t even show up.” After that, the goal should be to follow up with anybody with whom you’ve made a connection. “I look at it like dating,” he said. “You’re connecting with a person. The goal should be to set up the next meeting, maybe just to grab coffee or something. Then you can have a real conversation away from the networking event.” In a best case, this can turn into a great client relationship or partnership. And even if that doesn’t happen, it can lead to referrals. Alex’s fonts are exceptional. His design work speaks for itself. His commitment to ironing out the fundamentals of branding before diving into any other client work allows him to uphold a high bar.
A sample of Alex’s fonts, available for sale at https://creativemarket.com/theroutinecreative He spends what might seem to others like an exorbitant amount of time thinking, researching, and planning before he even sits down at his computer because he wants to make sure that what he produces will create real value for his clients. He spends relatively little time promoting himself, opting instead to focus on building meaningful relationships with the people who will hire him or refer him to others. Perhaps the secret to Alex’s continued creative success is his preoccupation with quality and focus in all that he does.

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Joshua Carroll

Senior Engineering Manager at Creative Market. Creativity addict. Author. Dad/foster dad.

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