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Graduate Spotlight: Mark O'Neill, BA Graphic Design Communication

Images of food packaging
  • Written byMica Lawrence
  • Published date29 March 2021
Images of food packaging
Mark O'Neill, Food Shop by Mark O'Neill
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill

Designer Mark O’Neill graduated from BA Graphic Design Communication at Chelsea in 2020.

We spoke to him about his experiences of the course, how his style has developed and his role at the iconic design studio Accept & Proceed.

Images of items you would buy in a food shop
Mark O'Neill, Food Shop by Mark O'Neill
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill

Tell us about your style of work

In short, I’d characterise it as reductive, ordered and (hopefully) considered. As a graphic designer I’m trying to communicate with honesty and functionality in mind, so simplicity is how this often manifests – there’s a very thin line between creating visual clarity and visual clutter in design, I aim for the former otherwise I guess I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.

I find a lot of inspiration still from the work of earlier design pioneers like Josef Müller-Brockman, Margaret Calvert and Dieter Rams, they were able to strip everything back to such raw purpose that it totally encapsulates what it means to design, its always refreshing to be reminded of that.

What is your design process?

Whether it’s a logo, illustration or a poster, you’ll nearly always find me tangling with vectors on Adobe Illustrator: it’s what I’ve designed on from day 1 so I feel I can get ideas out of my head and onto the page most fluently there. The pencil will come out if I need to think any harder.

Laying out some sort of structure gives me a few rules to work within and content can then slot into that – the design process is usually kicked off this way for me, unless I’m experimenting first or just being lazy, in which case I’ll make a mess with different ideas and add in order afterwards. From there, with most individual projects, development happens alongside relentless tinkering until it becomes something I’m eager to share.

Images of food packaging
Mark O'Neill, Food Shop by Mark O'Neill
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill

What drew you to studying at Chelsea College of Arts?

Chelsea seemed to hit my criteria of something small but central, with a course of about 60 at the time, I knew I’d get an intimate experience here so that edged it over other universities and I wanted to be closer to the action that comes with being in the middle of the city. I had originally dreamed of doing my degree in New York and saw there was a possibility of exchanging a term over there through Chelsea, so that too was at the back of my mind.

At the start of second year, I was lucky or desperate enough to do the four months studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, sofa surfing for the first month and surviving off of dollar pizzas and Huel from August through to Christmas eve when I came home. A hectic timetable of mostly night classes and living with two others in a studio for one made for a raw few months, an amazing time nonetheless but I was glad to return to Chelsea.

I came back with a much stronger sense of myself as a designer, and whilst it was a totally encouraging atmosphere in college, hearing critical feedback at the right times in projects was pivotal to pushing my practice. From the industry talks to tutor contact, I’m confident Chelsea was the right place for me, those that I graduated alongside were great and deserved to have a proper show for the quality of work produced but were unable to due to Covid-19. I really feel for current students too who’ve lost out because of the pandemic.

Share with us some projects you recently worked on

Starting with the least recent, to my final major project in second year, Food Shop was a brief I set myself about looking to eliminate plastic packaging of food in supermarkets through easy and simple sustainable swaps of material. I designed it with a heavy focus on reduction, restraint and coherence.

The flowchart sets out how each supermarket product should be packaged and printed. To use, you would think of a grocery item, then filter down the chart for an appropriate packaging solution.

Flow chart showing food shop process and the packaging involved
Mark O'Neill, Food Shop by Mark O'Neill
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill

I originally wanted to design a national identity for the UK’s railway system as my Final Major Project (FMP) in third year but I didn’t feel like that was solving any problems or even highlighting the problems I had read about describing a fractured network.

I instead set about designing a research report investigating into the failures of the UK’s privatised rail network. The 50-page report revealed and explained a corrupt system of monopolies, tax evasion, deception and exploitation.

 Flowchart and chartsdepicting failures UK’s privatised rail network
Mark O'Neill, Extract from Mark's 50 page report exploring the failures of the UK’s privatised rail network
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill
 Flowchart and charts depicting failures UK’s privatised rail network
Mark O'Neill, Extract from Mark's 50 page report exploring the failures of the UK’s privatised rail network
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill

With this last one, I teamed up with my good friend Felix Townsend to tackle the D&AD New Blood brief which was to brand a bike hire scheme for any chosen city. ‘Breeze’ was the name of ours: it aimed to make people fully embrace Edinburgh’s assumably hostile elements by showcasing them as an integral part of experiencing the city.

The scheme normalises cycling through these conditions as the most intimate way of travelling the city, doing so with an identity that forms a civic sense of belonging by becoming one with Edinburgh's visual environment. To pick up a D&AD yellow pencil for this was a nice moment where the long hours in the library working, and whirlwind trip up to Edinburgh all felt worth it.

3 poster designs showing landmarks in Edingburgh
Mark O'Neill, Breeze by Mark O'Neill and Felix Townsend
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill
Images from Breeze project including bike and map
Mark O'Neill, Breeze by Mark O'Neill and Felix Townsend
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill

Have you created your own font?

Back in second year, we were set a brief by college to design 26 characters of our own typeface. I continued to develop mine throughout the year and eventually stopped when I couldn’t stomach starting Cyrillic letters. I’m still yet to release it as I want to get round to designing it in multiple weights, but this is it in medium weight – the name I gave it is ‘Hugo’.

Example of Mark's own font
Mark O'Neill, Hugo font by Mark O'Neill
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill
Black background with white hugo text
Mark O'Neill, Hugo font by Mark O'Neill
BA (Hons) Graphic Design Communication, Chelsea College of Arts, UAL | Photograph: Mark O'Neill

Tell us about your internship at Accept & Proceed?

I remember looking up at the animated type running through Nike’s House of Innovation store in New York while on my exchange semester over there and recall being in between awe and intimidation at how cool the graphics were: that was my first interaction with the work of Accept & Proceed (A&P) - at the time I didn’t know they were behind it.

Fast-forward to around the time of graduating; they were the agency at the top of my list, so when I saw they were looking for an intern, I wanted little else. I had microphone issues for ten out of the thirty-minute zoom interview and thought that was it. Staying in London rested on me getting a placement within the week so it was a massive relief when I got the good news.

I couldn’t have asked for a better experience so far, I’ve been made to feel really valued and welcome by the whole team from day 1. Not only are they great people, but a hugely talented bunch – I regularly feel out of my depth, but in a good way where I feel like I’m learning all the time. Going into the studio around the autumn definitely helped in getting to know people bit by bit, it was nice also to see a familiar face from Chelsea - Alistair Ramage from the year above me is also working at A&P.

I feel very fortunate to have worked with all members of the team on different projects from local to global, even more so under an agency with its ethics in the right place.

What’s next for you?

More of the same hopefully! Right now I’m loving my time at A&P and absorbing all I can. I'd be more than happy to stay on there. I can imagine when the studio’s full it’s a great space to work.

At the moment I’m content with just going with the flow. There are a few directions things can always go so I’ll be treating whatever’s next as an opportunity. The temptation to travel is always there too.

In terms of projects, I think it’s about time I got back to finally finishing my typeface Hugo. What gets made after that could be additions to my rail project or Food Shop but whatever I do, it won’t be another typeface!

Find out more about BA Graphic Design Communication at Chelsea

Find out more about Mark's work