Gradwatch 2022: Hanna Norberg-Williams, Camberwell Faculty of Arts

Inhabiting a mixture of absurdism, surrealism and existentialism, Hanna Norberg-Williams’ illustrations are instantly recognisable, thanks to their distinctive use of coloured and textured environments and characters.

The multi-disciplinary designer (who uses they/them pronouns) moved from Cardiff to London in 2019 to study illustration at Camberwell College of Arts. At the time, they had certain expectations of what studying in the capital would be like – but then the pandemic came along.

“Going to a big uni like UAL in London, you can’t expect the tight-knit community experience of a campus uni. It can be isolating at times, especially during a pandemic and especially if you are neurodivergent. It taught me to really be comfortable with just myself, which I am grateful for,” they tell CR.

One upside was that it gave them the time and space to throw themselves into their work without the distractions of everyday life. “During the lockdowns I often felt like I wasn’t really a student, it stripped a lot of the expectations I had of university and forced me to be just me,” they say. “It provided a stillness that allowed a lot of reflection and taught me to be a more resourceful creative.”

It was during this period that Norberg-Williams honed their distinctive aesthetic, which typically explores queer and neurodivergent experiences. “Many of my characters don’t really have a gender and spend a lot of time alone, which is something I’ve portrayed unconsciously since I was a kid. I hope by capturing both common and stigmatised feelings I can connect with and amuse people who feel similarly,” they say.

One piece of advice from a mentor also proved to be invaluable for their work. “My second year tutor George Mellor once said that as an illustrator, it’s important not to bend yourself too much to what you think a commissioner might want from you – that without being conscious of this, it can be easy to make assumptions about what they like about your work,” says the illustrator.

“This stuck with me and is something I often remind myself of. As an illustrator you are providing a very personal and distinctive style – and this is why people are interested in it! I’ve found that it is just as important to look internally as it is to look externally for guidance when making work for a brief.”

One of Norberg-Williams’ standout pieces of work so far was their final project animation, Eating Soup with a Fork, which was inspired by research into surrealist automatism. They’ve also got a number of commissioned projects under their belt, including beer label designs for Booth Hill Brewing and the album artwork for Fibr’s Readymade Travestise.

While their work already feels both coherent and accomplished, their goal going forward is to continue developing their practice as a multi-disciplinary creative, as well as maintaining a healthy sense of optimism in the current economic and political climate.

“It is hard not to feel anxious as a creative during the cost of living crisis and after Brexit, but I’m going to keep pushing myself to develop my skills in new directions indefinitely,” they say. “I think what is scary about going down a creative career path is the uncertainty that comes along with the field – there is no set career after art school, but that is also the exciting part.”