“I'm a designer of all sorts,” says Tom Collins of Solarflare Studio. Not being a professional-sounding job title, the UK creative technology studio has cleverly styled his role as ‘integrated designer’. Over the past six years, Tom’s worked across branding, experiential, illustration, animation, and video editing. “A bit of a Swiss army knife of design. “
Leaving university with an interesting but not obviously applicable fine art knowledge, Tom wanted to find a field where he could explore “a bunch of different ways to create things and give them life and stories,” but not compromise on what he loved in design. “I get my kicks by finding human and heartfelt ways to aesthetically astound and delight to a professional standard - but of course getting ridiculously excited when everything comes together.”
After fine art, Tom dropped into a graphic design course at university with “absolutely zero clue what I was about to get into”. He only installed a legitimate version of Photoshop a week before he started. “It was a big switch up to say the least, as it was nothing like what I knew before, but I’m stubborn when it comes to figuring things out, so I happily dove into it.” He took it upon himself to catch up, investigating techniques, going to galleries, watching lots of films and tutorials on YouTube, and “just letting myself get lost in design-world rabbit holes, to feel confident to tackle any project.”
Technically, his first job was designing in a law firm but then he swiftly moved onto a jewellery company working in UK design/marketing, before moving into their global creative team. Tom then went to experiential events, to branding, to freelance, to tech and to entertainment. “I’d definitely encourage young designers to hop about and explore a lot to really find what they love,” he says. “For me, it was a lot of ‘try on the fly’. I definitely work better with a clear need and end goal. If we need a 3D floor plan done, I’ll figure out SketchUp. Some slick animation or need to illustrate something to make it clear? Tutorials and testing all the way.”
An early project that helped shape him was for a hotel brand, doing bespoke illustrations and designs for a few select hotels. “I loved it because it was using my painting skills and bringing it into ‘graphic’ design, which at the time felt like separate things,” he says. “It definitely gave me this new lease of perspective. Not only could I combine mediums to make something beautiful, but I could basically forge my career however I wanted. It showed, and I stayed freelancing with the company for a few months while at uni, because the hotel brand loved my illustrations so much that they wanted more.”
This all set Tom on a career that would see him progress to the leading integrated designer on Solarflare Studio projects. Tom oversees the design process from conception to final design. He works on a wide range of design elements such as illustrations, animations, UX/UI, and game/experience design, with each project being “largely unique,” he says. For example, the studio’s recent MOL Group Visitor Centre project involved creating a range of tech-led experiences that catered to all age groups and showed visitors the future thinking of the company. From bringing a model of the building to life through user-controlled robotic arms with AR screens, to a whole child-focused gamified world of energy characters. Additionally, Tom has creatively directed and led a team of devs and designers to create a Wimbledon Metaverse experience for two years in a row, which involved developing concepts, games, mechanics, avatar and world designs, and plenty more.
The Wimbledon Virtual Hill 2021/22 is a highlight for Tom. “We've made some awesome ground-breaking stuff there, by creating a world that feels so alive and exciting for all those that couldn’t attend, and the awards we’ve won for this speak for themselves!”
He also loves getting to work on simply beautiful concepts and executions like ASICS ‘Mind Race’, and LEGO ‘Technic’ and ‘Lamborghini’. Other brands he’s worked with have been Disney+ and Disney, Universal, Pokémon, Warner Bros., Google, Amazon and more.
Tom knows that if you ask any of his friends, family or teachers you’ll hear over and over again about the reason he’s ended up where he is: “I did not shut up, and to be honest that hasn’t changed much at all. But this has always been for the same reason: I just get excited and caught up so easily when I get a train of creative thought, thinking of all the crazy possibilities that can be, and I’m glad I never changed. Creative brings people together but you need to get people there in the first place, and having that excitement definitely helps.”
Growing up, Tom thought of himself as “a pretty simple, nerdy kid” albeit with that energy and excitement he still carries. With a love of art and music, he would always “blast” his Gorillaz, Eminem and Linkin Park CDs and “lock in”, drawing or painting for hours on end. Now he has headphones I can’t live without. He’s also taken on a few more hobbies, “Gaming definitely helps me craft some of the intricate fun tech experiences we produce, just knowing the nuances that make people tick. But getting out and about too, as cliché as it sounds, made me appreciate things around me and how people interact in spaces, which has definitely been translated into my experiential works.”
“I didn’t come from any mad wealth, nor have I been handed anything at all, but I’m fully aware of the privilege I’ve had in being able to explore myself to the lengths I‘ve been able to,” he reflects. He has worked non-stop thanks to his love of creativity - “mainly because I don’t switch off,” he says. “But I definitely had to ignore a lot of distractions to go into something more conventional or ‘safe’, going with my gut in knowing that ‘experienced’ people around you won’t always know the right thing for you. I think it’s a difficult thing to realise for anything in general - work, life, whatever. I didn’t have many creative role models around me while growing up, but the few that were there clearly made a big impact, and I want to be able to do the same for young creatives and to generate that same sense of giddiness that I get listening to others talk about art and design.”
Tom’s description of his character makes it easy to understand his value in a creative industry: “I basically feel that it takes waaay more time to be stressed and annoyed at something than to just get on with it. My rule is to get it all out in the first 10% of however long it’s going to take. Got a problem that’s going to take an hour? Spend a couple of minutes having a meltdown, then crack on. And do it with some damn good positivity. It makes such a difference when you get a bunch of people with spirits lifted to pull something crazy incredible out of the bag, rather than a room full of panic.”
As a result of getting on with it, he’s learned to be confident in the decisions and concepts he’s made. “Whether they’re used or not doesn’t mean it’s ‘bad’, and don’t make a self reflection based on that. And hit Ctrl+S constantly.”
Tom loves getting people excited about things just as much as he is. “If I can hook someone with an idea and make them get caught up in giving their ideas and get lost in the madness of creative thinking, then I’m happy. Even if we can’t do it, it’s still good to throw things like that out there, because maybe we can? Maybe we can find some crazily convoluted way to figure it out, but you’ve got to let that kid energy take over and shoot for the moon. Of course, the challenge is always getting people there, for them to let go and have some positive push for things that seem ‘out there’, and not just settle for ‘it works’.”
As much as Tom loves producing cool pieces of work he has a broader passion to teach more and to get more people to experience what he’s experienced – “to get the feeling,” as he puts it. “I want to inspire other people to push the boundaries of design.”
To make sure Tom and his colleagues at Solarflare keep doing that too, ‘Sparks Sessions’ allow the company to come together to discuss, debate, and think creatively about the latest within the industry. Tom likes how it’s there “to make sure we are relevant and always on the ball… [On] both conceptual and technological aspects of new trends and provide us with a space to go on to test the latest tech discoveries.”
Being in a tech-focused industry there are lots of trends that come and go, and it is important to make sure that people have the right understanding and know how best to approach doing something tech-based, Tom believes. “Sometimes people get caught up in things rather than thinking about what is new and what they can do.”
He loves seeing young creatives doing something different, and also observing brands that are “on the ball” in understanding how to tackle some of these new experiences. “I admire the ones that have really put time and effort in thinking about the storyline, then looking at the tech to amplify it beyond a standard campaign,” he says.
Like so many, Tom finds it frustrating when people don’t understand how long things take to achieve and the amount of work that goes into it. “Sometimes you lose the chance to give something its full potential if people don't understand the time constraints,” he says.
He’d also love to see improvement in accessibility and making sure that experiences are given to all. “Art should be the easiest thing to make accessible to all and tech should also be accessible for all walks of life.”
Reflecting on the creative directors he’s worked with and watched Jamie Davies stands out for Tom. “Seeing him flick between different teams and sharing his well-thought-out experiences, and he’s worked on some amazing things such as the Green Planet David Attenborough AR experience.”
Beyond work, there’s plenty to stoke Tom’s creative engines, from the gym which he’s found “does absolute wonders for my mental health.” He usually goes during lunch to give himself “a second wind for the day” and to get a breath of fresh air.
Aside from that he’s still an “art fiend,” voracious podcast consumer and lover of music videos and videography. “I love the way you can tell a story within a few minutes in a song - it’s so impressive,” he says. “I will always remember Sia’s music video for ‘Elastic Heart’ directed by Daniel Askill. It gave me lots of insights into how to structure a storyline and make things have purpose, as well as just a beautiful design.”
Outside of design, Tom’s currently learning to speak Spanish and visiting Latin America often. “I’m a big fan of the culture out there and find myself connecting with people and lifestyle a lot, and the music is a chef's kiss for me,” he says. “It also gets me closer and closer to finally learning how to dance properly (like tango) rather than my questionable moves at the moment.”
That’s enough to keep him busy, but he also does a lot of illustration and animation work with drinks brands beyond his day job - Monkey Shoulder and Monin have been notable clients. The integrated designer also tries to keep himself up with ‘physical’ artwork so as not to “get lost in digital”, and makes sure he can still draw, paint and sew. He even embroiders clothes for fun.
All of this is a lifestyle Tom wants for as many people as possible. “It is about wanting to inspire people to pursue a creative career without fear, but also to tell them that they need to have the push to go for it. It is not an easy job, but it’s so rewarding, and we need more creatives to ensure the industry is more understood by showing how much it takes to truly make something great.”