It’s hard to add warmth to a website, but Kingston graduate Olly Bromham has tapped his way into a more tangible side of digital design. A portfolio that unfolds like a stack of dropped paper, an online incense timer and a bookmarklet that turns website code into stories are just some of his playful digital experiments – all of which feel like a relief from the slew of slick, impersonal sites.
Having taught himself how to code before starting university, Bromham occupies the sweet spot between designer and developer, a place that feels increasingly valuable as companies invest in creative coding. Here he tells CR about what drew him to digital design and his interest in exploring how people interact with websites in the real world.
Creative Review: What made you choose digital design over traditional graphic design?
Olly Bromham: I had quite an interesting journey. I did a foundation course and a graphic design course at a different university and didn’t like it at all – it was very traditional. I knew I wanted to end up at Kingston but missed being able to apply for the following year, so I had a forced gap year. In that year, me and a friend of mine decided that we wanted to learn to make websites.
We spent most of a summer in the same room doing online courses and once we knew a bit we started making silly games – nothing serious, but it turned out to be really fun…. When I did end up going to Kingston the following year, I didn’t really do anything with websites. I took a step back, and the first one I made was for our end of first year show. That made me realise how useful my skills had been, bringing to life very interactive projects, and I suppose since then I’ve been exploring more of what a website can be. It’s not always just to display some content for a certain audience – it can maybe be a piece of art, or just something that engages people in a unique way.
CR: There’s a sense that you don’t take design too seriously – all your work is quite playful…
OB: I think one thing I struggled with a bit at university was that a lot of uni projects can be quite long, with a lot of research. I do enjoy that to an extent, but a lot more of my work is about making a lot of little ideas that can be made in a day. It’s that kind of play I like – having a simple idea and bringing it to life.
CR: Do you think the world of digital design needs a bit more of this kind of enjoyment injected into it?
OB: Definitely. I think it’s a weird time, in that anyone can learn to make a website, and the knowledge out there is easy to access now. At the same time, we’ve got a lot of tools like Squarespace and Cargo Collective. While they’re very useful in a sense, and people can put together an online portfolio really easily, I think you’re seeing different work in the same sort of frame over and over. There’s definitely room for much more out there. We weren’t taught any code on course but I ran a project during uni, because I thought I could share my skills a bit and teach people in a small amount of time what they could do with very little skills. Although a lot of the stuff being made they looked at and thought was quite silly, just the uniqueness of it was more interesting than what they would have made on Cargo Collective or something like that. There’s definitely room for it and people are willing to learn. I think there’s also a standard, especially if people are applying to a studio and need a professional website, but I think sometimes something a bit more playful stands out.
CR: Do you think your degree prepared you for the real world once you left?
OB: Like I said, I went to another course before Kingston. The thing that really brought me back to Kingston was about learning to develop ideas. There really isn’t much of a focus, especially in the beginning, on craft. Obviously they want stuff to look good, but we’re not taught that much [about] how to use InDesign or something like that. It’s very much about how to come up with an idea. I think if I went to Kingston and it was just how to do craft, I probably would have left because I’d developed my craft skills myself. I think what I really picked up is how to work with concepts, no matter how serious or silly they are.
In my opinion, that’s a reason to do a creative course, but I do agree it’s very easy now to build craft skills by self learning, and a lot of people are doing that. I’m not sure about the state of education generally. I’d say I was ready to leave education throughout the third year and do my own thing, but I definitely took a lot from it.
CR: How are you pitching yourself to possible employers – are you selling yourself as half designer, half developer?
OB: I’ve had a few people telling me that I need to do one or the other, but I’m trying to stay in the middle. There’s a broad spectrum for design, but the friends I have in development feel like it’s a bit of a struggle working with a designer who doesn’t know anything about how to make a website. And a designer working with a developer who doesn’t know anything about how to design. I’m quite happy with having the in-between, but there definitely doesn’t seem to be that many jobs out there…. I know there’s quite a few people out there now – most of the ones I know are freelancers – doing what people are starting to call creative coding. They seem to be very successful, but most of them are working for themselves, which is interesting.
CR: Are you going to freelance or look for something permanent?
OB: I’m doing a few freelance jobs…. Freelancing seems a bit scary straight out of uni but at the same time I’ve been getting quite a few enquiries for making websites, so I’m doing that at the moment. I think I’d learn quite a lot from working at a studio, so I need to do that at some point.
CR: Have you got any dream projects?
OB: I’ve always been interested in how websites exist in the physical world as well as the virtual world. So it’s not especially a dream project, but I’m interested in putting websites into a space and thinking more about interacting and seeing how people interact. The aim is to think more about how websites would exist in a space – and not just sites, but interactive technology-based work. Seeing that unfold is something I’m quite interested in.