I went to Glasgow School of Art (GSA) and did a BA in Visual Communication. On that course you specialise in graphics, illustration or photography. I initially chose photography, switched to graphics and then settled in illustration, so I kind of bridged all three subjects in the end. You’re going into these unknown specialisms, so you have to go with your gut feeling. Before GSA, I did a degree at the University of Glasgow in Film and Theatre, which was all theory based. So I was taking the jump from theory to making without very much preparation.
After GSA, I worked freelance for about two years, doing lots of graphics work. The kind of projects meant I could put my own spin on things, and be quite free, despite always working to a brief for a client. It was great because it gave me a lot of space to develop loads of different approaches and not be confined to a traditional graphic designer context.
Building all that up then allowed me to think about what I wanted to do next. At the end of my BA, I’d been moving towards more in-depth projects, but that wasn’t really possible when I was freelancing. I applied to the Royal College of Art because I wanted to step away from making things to order, and to develop projects with a real solid foundation of thought. I was also keen to move away from illustration and to move into more making and sound and writing.
Within Visual Communication, they encourage you to expand your understanding of the discipline. A lot of people come with their grounding in graphics or illustration, but the programme really pushes the idea of visual communication as an approach. My aim was to do something very different to what I’d done before, building on things that I’d been working on in Glasgow, and pushing them into new mediums. There’s a lot of support at the RCA for that, if you choose to step outside the box. And that’s the great thing about visual communication – it’s a kind of umbrella that supports a lot of different approaches, but with that underlying desire to make something accessible and communicative, and also curious, I guess.
Going into the RCA, you’re very much aware of the fact that it’s a space for you to do something at a very high level – you know you’re going to have to push yourself. To me, that entails moving away from what you might originally have done, and go beyond what you thought you were capable of. In first year, I spent a lot of time falling into old patterns but trying to move away from that. It was just at the end of first year when I did a project with no illustration, just writing and objects in a kind of installation. That was the moment that really changed my approach to my work. Suddenly it was completely off the page, in three dimensions, with a real focus on writing.
In the second year, I continued to try to not fall back on old patterns but also to really push the element of writing, which I’d developed in that project and really enjoyed. I wanted to take that, along with research, as the core of my work, and to build those up and see what came out of it, as opposed to having a strict visual style and working around that. It was freeing, but also scary.
I’m planning to stay in London and see what comes up. I think it’ll be an interesting challenge to exist in this city without the foundation of the RCA. I’m going to apply to some residencies and try to develop writing and research; for me, the great thing that’s come out of this experience is discovering that those are the things I really value and that the visual expression is the final solidifying aspect of the process.
If I had to offer some advice to someone starting out, I’d probably say: play around in first-year and enjoy that space when the ‘giant eye’ isn’t really on you yet! And take some time off in the summer before the second year, because it’s pretty hard going and you just have to brace yourself for it. There’s a lot of pressure, and you have all these insane deadlines – the dissertation, the work-in-progress show, the final show – and in the first week of the year it seems ridiculous to even suggest that it will all happen. But the great thing is that they come and go, and everything is fine in the end. It’ll all be fine! And it’s a great place to be.
"I applied to the Royal College of Art because I wanted to step away from making things to order, and to develop projects with a real solid foundation of thought."Oona Brown