What made you want to study Graphic Design at Manchester School of Art?
Coming into my degree straight from college, I was taken aback by Manchester School of Art’s facilities. On my introductory tour, I’d never even heard of the majority of processes they have in house, so the opportunity to experiment and explore new mediums through my work was a really exciting plus! The freedom and variation on the course was also incredibly appealing; students are encouraged to stray away from what is expected of them as typical designers, and instead tap into accompanying fields of interest to push their work beyond subject boundaries. At the time, this was an incredibly reassuring factor as I was torn between an Illustration and Graphic Design degree. In the end I think I made the best choice, the course has pushed me beyond what I ever envisioned myself as a designer and now I’m not just good at drawing, I’m a bit of a ‘Jack-of-all-trades!’
Where do you look for inspiration, and what or who inspires you?
Funnily enough, this idea was this basis for my dissertation. I’m intrigued by the notion of influence and how it seemingly characterises us as designers. Essentially, inspiration should join the dots in our work to enlighten an audience of its superior influences. I get this a lot with, “Your illustrations look like the Jacqueline Wilson books!” Whilst incredibly complimentary to be likened to a renowned illustrator, ideally you don’t want people to be reminded of anything when they look at your work, it should be a pure amalgamation of you! But, without writing yet another essay on the subject, I believe inspiration isn’t attributable, it’s a combination of everything we’re exposed to. I tend to seek immediate inspiration in the realms of Instagram, Pinterest and Behance; I’m constantly on the prowl for new, influential artists, so social media is a great source for the ‘now.’ Currently, I’m in love with the workings of Kate Moross, Owen Gildersleeve, and Anna Kovecses.
What projects have you completed on your course?
Over the last three years I’ve tackled an array of weird and wonderful briefs, from re-inventing death to protesting ‘pay to pee’ toilets and most recently a project that revolved solely around a paper black square. It’s certainly been eventful to say the least! But I’ve come to the realisation that my most interesting and experimental responses stem from weird subject matters. The black square for instance, its premise was so ridiculous that the whole year group was completely dumb-founded as to where to go with it. But as with anything, you have to start from somewhere and more often than not that’s the hardest part. First ideas can sound so bad in your head that you can’t even bring yourself to put pen to paper. Yet with this project, that stage of anxiety was completely eliminated, as there was no real need to feel embarrassed about initial ideas when the project’s theme was just a black square!
Is there a piece that you’re most proud of?
Cliché or not, I’m a strong believer that you’re only as good as your last piece of work. So naturally, the piece I’m proudest of is my latest children’s book project. On completion of the Penguin children’s cover brief to redesign ‘The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾,’ I decided to carry the project further. One of my cover designs touches upon the idea of double meaning; the jacket encompasses a series of floating circles which can be interpreted as either spots or boobs (or cherry bakewells). Spots and boobs, which while are common topics throughout Adrian’s diary, also equally represent his naivety and inevitable adult intrigue. I wanted to experiment with this notion further, so I extracted his adult, un-lawful experiments (sniffing glue from a paper airplane, shoplifting, drinking alcohol – all pretty dark stuff for a 13 ¾ -year-old!) and re-imagined these instances in the form of an interactive, paper-worked children’s book. The book has no words; therefore its content is completely open to interpretation! I loved working with these juxtaposed ideas and how the book could be read by both an adult and a child and communicate entirely different meanings.
What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a personal project, which is the first time I’ve been unleashed from a set brief. It’s an entirely different way of working in comparison to the methodical approach we take with most projects. Scary stuff, but equally, when am I going to have the opportunity to be let loose in a kitted out space, to make whatever I want, any other time soon? I’ve chosen to explore ‘The World of Trousers and Shoes,’ a re-imagined universe that exists from a child’s eye-level. I’ve had this concept knocking about for a while now and just haven’t known what to do with it. While the idea lends itself to a children’s book, I want to diverge away from its encased form to create something that exists and flourishes in a real-life environment. Therefore, I’m considering designing some form of set design, installation, shop window piece that visualises my world beyond the comfortable pages of a book. I’m very inspired by the workings of Lord Whitney, Paper Dandy and Owen Gildersleeve, so I’m excited to see where this project takes me.
“Generating strong concepts and attaching meaning to every choice I make in my working process has now become my primary concern. Even though making things look pretty remains necessary, I’ve realised that there needs to be a reason as to why people should engage with my work, Looking nice just isn’t enough anymore.”
Looking at your work, you seem to have produced designs in a wide variety of styles, but in your recent series ‘Wasted Hours’ and ‘Crowds’ it looks like you’ve developed a more defined illustrative style, with distinctive characters and line work. Tell us about this.
I tend to go through strong phases in my work. At the time of ‘Wasted Hours’ and ‘Crowds’ I had a desire to draw everything, I was obsessed with intricacy and couldn’t stray too far from my black fine line pen. I find a style I like and roll with it for a while, but sooner or later I get bored and move onto something new. I enjoy mixing up my processes so I’m not continually drawing, scanning, digitally enhancing and so on. Whilst illustration remains central to my practice, I don’t want to let it characterise me as a designer, I like doing too many things to just stick to one medium! And since I’m still in university, why not familiarise myself with everything it has to offer; be it laser cutting, screen-printing or metal work – I’m addicted to learning new ways of working so I can continually push my work into new, un-chartered territories to see what happens.
Do you think it’s more important to develop your own, recognizable visual style, or to be very diverse and able to create a range of styles in your work?
I think it all depends on where you want to go with your work. In regard to freelancing, yes! You’re employable because of your distinctive visual style, therefore recognition and individuality is everything. However, if becoming a member of a design studio is the dream, perhaps it’s better to keep your options open. By not gravitating towards a strong working style, you can apply yourself to whatever is thrown your way. Moreover, you can’t really be picky when it comes down to working in a team, as no one can have all the good jobs. Personally, I’m aiming for the studio job post-graduation; I’m certainly not ready to tackle freelancing anytime soon! So, throughout my final year in particular, I’ve tried to refrain from sticking to a very ‘niche style.’ I’ve still been making what I love to do and obviously there’s going to be a little bit of me injected into everything I produce, but rather than killing myself over aesthetic, I’m concentrating more on my work’s purpose in the world.
What do you want to achieve with graphic design? What do you want your work to say, and what kind of commissions do you want to work on?
Until very recently I liked to consider myself a ‘Maker of Nice Things,’ a haphazard title to avoid calling it what I do, graphic design. Whilst this mindset miraculously carried me through my first couple of years at University, third year has done the impossible and made a Graphic Designer-ish worker out of me! Generating strong concepts and attaching meaning to every choice I make in my working process has now become my primary concern. My ideologies regarding what I want my work to communicate has massively shifted. Even though making things look pretty remains necessary, I’ve realised that there needs to be a reason as to why people should engage with my work, Looking nice just isn’t enough anymore. As for commissions, I just want to dip my toes in as many creative waters I can!
What has been the most valuable thing you’ve learnt as a student?
Independence, common sense and some faith in my own abilities! Coming into my degree straight from college I had none of this, up until that point I had been truly babied by tutors whom guided me to good grades (no cheating involved, I promise!). Ultimately, you made what they wanted and in turn couldn’t go far wrong. There was a huge sense of reliance on their support, so its taken a good few years to learn to stand on my own two feet and shake off that horrid mind set. Don’t get me wrong, feedback and support remains integral to my work at university, but I can just get on with it now, I don’t have to ask anyone to move forward, I worryingly trust my own judgment in my work!
Do you have a dream project for the future?
Not necessarily a dream project, but a dream pathway would be shimmying my way into the BBC, particularly now they’re housed in Manchester. But I’d love to be able to celebrate success as a member of a team, big or small. I’ve compiled a list of dream studios I’m dying to work with, so right now I just want to get out there and engage in new, exciting projects. As of yet I have no desire to freelance, I just want to be a part of a project that amounts to something people can see and appreciate everywhere so I can say, “Yeah, I designed a bit of that!”
Click here to check out more of Isobel’s work.