Avril O’Neil of ONN Studio: “I think the future of design studios might be smaller and more open to collaboration”

Avril O’Neil is an alumna of our BA in Design who has now returned to Goldsmiths to teach on the course she graduated from herself. Together with her life and business partner John Nussey, she now runs her own design practice, ONN Studio. We interviewed Avril on her work and her relationship with Goldsmiths:


Q: Why did you first come to Goldsmiths?

A: I came from an open artistic background, after studying fine art at Central Saint Martins. I didn’t have much knowledge of design when I started and almost stumbled upon the course at Goldsmiths. It wasn’t until I talked to one of the tutors that I realised that the course was a perfect fit for me. I was trying to find a way of applying my creative practice at the time, which was a fine art practice, and I hadn’t found it- Goldsmiths seemed to be a perfect fit because I would be allowed creative freedom to do what I wanted.

Q: Starting this term you’ve been a visiting practitioner teaching on the first year BA Design at Goldsmiths. What are first year students like?

A: I think most of them are really enthusiastic, and it’s lovely to see some really talented designers in the making. I’m trying to put myself back into that position… Some of them are incredible thinkers, and the course is tailoring their thought processes to help them understand how they might practice design in the real world. They’re new and fresh to it, but it’s exciting.


Q: What would you tell them if they asked you for advice on how to start out in the real world?

A: Do everything! Take up any opportunity that you get. That’s how you get experience. As soon as you’re out of college, try to get a wide range of experience, so you can understand your own practice and how you want to frame it, whether you are a freelancer, have your own company or whether you want to work for a consultancy… Try everything out and don’t be afraid to approach people. Never be afraid to ask someone if you can come in and see their studio, if you can talk about their work. Anyone is flattered when someone appreciates their work. I think a lot of students are a bit embarrassed about that and are not sure about how to approach it!

Q: So how did you start out your career? What did you do after you finished studying?

A: After I graduated, I worked for Kin Design for 4 and a half years. I did a live project with them whilst I was studying at Goldsmiths and later an internship before going to work with them on a longer term basis. It was great, they are a collective of super talented designers and developers, and do a wide variety of interesting work. Recently I started my own business with my partner John Nussey: ONN Studio. We’re based in Somerset House in a collective workspace called Makerversity, it’s a space that effectively offers all of the tools and workshop facilities that you might have at university, but for small companies or individual professionals. It has workshops: woodworking workshops, digital workshops, etc, and desk space. We have our own studio that we share with our friends Common Works.


Q: What kind of work do you do?

A: We specialise in product development and experimental electronics, but we are a multidisciplinary design company. I come from quite an open background, and it’s something that I’ve intentionally tried to maintain in my career. I think a lot of people come out of school believing they need to specialise in order to find work, and I don’t think that’s essential. It’s a matter of finding where you fit or inventing a new space for you and your skills. There’s definitely space to accommodate for that in the industry.

Q: Can you give an example of a project you’re particularly proud of?

A: We founded the company in November, so we’re pretty fresh. But we’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of work. We have been working with Folk, who are primarily a clothing brand but have recently been interested in making some products as well. We’ve been working with them to produce a set of interior lamps. They’re cast from solid brass, and they’re a modular system: you can make any configuration out of them. It’s really interesting to see how a project develops from an idea and into a marketable product, through a process of testing, certifications, user testing and patents etc. It’s something that I’ve been gaining experience with only recently. At college you learn how to develop your ideas and consider how you make things, but making something into a business or to a retailer’s standards, takes some time and mistakes to understand.


Another project we’ve been working on is with SustainRCA, a commission from the Farming Agricultural Institute (FAI), at a farm in Oxford. They are interested in experimental farming, sustainable ways to produce food. This is more of a research project. We’ve been looking into the laying habits of hens. When you do work related to electronics, you’re often in a black room, in a black box, trying to fix some wires, so this was something refreshing, working outdoors. We are making bespoke hen coops to monitor laying habits. To do this, we essentially give the hens an Oyster card in a tag around their ankle. This allows us to know which hen is in which coop at what time and when they lay their eggs. We’re doing this because at the moment a lot of chickens are unnecessarily culled, so there is a huge amount of waste in the food industry. The project analyses which hens are productive egg-layers, which produce healthy eggs and then we’ll see what we can do with that data in the future.

We’ve been working with some really exciting people, and the range of clients is fantastic. It’s more about the people than the project, to be honest.

Q: A lot of our graduates start their own studio. Is that something that the course encourages?

A: Not directly, but maybe there’s something about it. If the way you work doesn’t fit into the structure of an existing company, or if you can’t find a place to do what you want to do, then perhaps that’s why a lot of Goldsmiths graduates have designed their own space within the industry.

Q: Was it hard to find the courage to start your own business?


A: Personally I wouldn’t start a company on my own, especially my first, it‘s a daunting task but really exciting. Having someone around with whom to share the experience not only helps get through any difficulties, but most importantly you have someone to celebrate the great things with.

Starting a business is quite a daunting task, but don’t be afraid of it. If you want to do it, then do it. If you’ve got the determination, there is no reason it can’t be successful! It’s very easy to start a business. To maintain it is the hard thing. If you have 200 quid and you register a company, you have a business. Making that work is the hard task, and making it trustworthy and lasting.

Q: Are you hoping to hire more people and expand beyond just you and John?

A: I’m of two minds on business expansion. On one hand, we obviously want to make the business better and more successful, but on the other hand, I wonder whether the large design studio is necessarily the best way to go. At the moment, we’re in a collaborative work space, and if we don’t have the skills in-house, there is always someone around who will have them and will want to collaborate. It works really well, but we are a small company. Expanding the business will happen as we go along, I think, and we’ll figure out if it’s necessary. But I think the future of the design studio might be smaller, more specialised, with people more open to collaborating with one another, rather than having just one isolated design unit. I think that creates better work as well, because we’ll all have different practices and different specialisms, and together we can do some really nice things.


Q: What does it mean to you to be a designer?

A: A designer is someone who can think stuff through! And that can apply to anything, that’s what’s so wonderful about Goldsmiths. I look at people who’ve studied in the same year as I did, some of them have gone into marketing, some have started their own businesses, one is a baker and another a cheese monger…they’re all still designers! Goldsmiths gives you the tools to home your design practice. Design can be many things. You can apply the way you think through a problem to any profession.

Images courtesy of Avril O’Neil.

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