the influential Web designer
who brought you Urban75
and Slap a Spice Girl
Picture: Stephen Lovell-Davies
& Spice Girl Hater
(transcript from Internet Magazine interview with Mike Slocombe/urban75 October 1997.)
Writer-musician-designer Mike Slocombe has found his natural home on the Web. He's the man behind activist site Urban75, and he created Snickers' Web presence. David Atkinson meets him in his kitsch loo
You can always tell a good designer by his bathroom, so sitting on the throne of the newly crowned übermensch of British Web design, you get the feeling Mike Slocombe is one of the best. Less a biological necessity than a round-the-world tour of computer kitsch from Japanese pop art posters to cans of Elvis dog food designed "for a laugh", a morning-after curry tummy would be a small price to pay for sampling this little boys' room's ambience.
The rest of the flat is pretty interesting as well. From the low hum of techno music emanating from the bedroom to the scattering of knick-knacks across the lounge carpet. It almost makes up for the feeling that you're entering Stalag 9 as you pass through the assorted hyper-secure pass doors and security coded entrances that constitute the fortress-like Lambeth estate from where Mike co-ordinates his climb to Web design infamy.
Having penetrated the inner sanctum, we arrive to find Mike kicking a football against the wall outside his flat like a small boy, clumps of dreadlocked hair flailing around him like tentacles.
"Right" he says, leading us up brightly-painted stairs to a lounge overlooking the splendour of Brixton's panoramic vistas - the scene of a stabbing a few days earlier, a disused squat that hosts techno parties, you get the picture. Tea? Or coffee?!"
Bedroom eco-anarchist, football fanzine scribe, former drummer with The Monochrome Set, 30-something Web design guru. You may not know the name Mike Slocombe, but you'll know his work. He's the man behind the Urban-75 political activism site.
He was also instrumental in setting up the Slap the Spice Girls site, It was originally meant as an act of protest against their endorsement of Mrs Thatcher, but it's now been hijacked as a kid's game.
Just think of it. Thousands of kiddies belting the Spices in the chops without even realising they're actually attacking their right-of-centre political allegiances. Very Mike Slocombe.
"Mike came in to see us looking like a bit of a hippie... no ego or bull about him," says Jill Carter, communications officer at Direct Connection. Mike recently revamped the ISP'S Web site. "He was very passionate; he told the truth and the directors liked that."
"He's not high and mighty. He's a success because of hard work and a great sense of humour, "says Lawrence Zeegan, course director BA (Hons) Graphic Design at the Camberwell College of Arts, from which Mike graduated with a first. "He's been brought up in the ethos of punk fanzines, moved with the times to teach himself Web site design and stayed true to tackling only issues that interest him."
Forming Football Fans Against the Criminal Justice Bill marked Mike's initiation into the ways of the Internet. He subsequently launched the Urban75 site, which became so popular, accruing over 100,000 hits per week, that erstwhile host Demon kicked him off its server for putting too much strain on its system.
Shortly after he landed a contract with Hyperinteractive authoring the new Snickers site and then promptly collected his first from art college, "We thought he was a talented illustrator with great enthusiasm to apply his talents to the Net," says Richard Mellor, creative director of Hyperinteractive. "When we brought him in to work on the Snickers site, his visual approach became the look of Snickers."
"As a student he was a bit of a pain in the arse, but we recognised his entrepreneurial spirit and enthusiasm," adds Zeegan. "He's part of the new generation of art students, ones who given cuts in arts education, find their own way."
Reclining on his sofa with a mug of tea, Mike comes across as someone with no pretensions or arrogance just a lust for life.
The offers may have started flooding in since his graduation, He's already turned some down, eschewing financial reward for social relevance.
"He doesn't come from a design background and as such has quite a refreshing irreverent approach," says Mellor. "This is his second career after music, That makes him older and wiser, and a good team player, despite his somewhat individual approach."
"lt's not fair to compare Mike to the big design names like Neville Brody, Fuel and Tomato," says his former instructor, Zeegan. Ask him what's important, he'd say it's more about content than style. He's got more in common with the work of Jamie Reid designing for the Sex Pistols."
"I wouldn't say he's going to be the new hip designer of the 90s," adds Zeegan. "He's just going to be the new Mike Slocombe."
What do you think of most of the Web sites you come across?
The way HTML came about meant that only technical people could cope with the fiddly code and hence most corporates got the guy who fixed the hard disks to build their sites. That's why you see so many sites with horrible technical gizmos like page curls and 3D animated GIF's. I mean, what's the point? No magazine I read is enhanced by something spinning in the corner.
What's your philosophy on Web site design?
Great Web design is about breaking the rules. I've got very little patience, so I like sites to be fast, immediate and fun. I can't be arsed to wait to download huge bloated files. It should be about keeping it light. Ease of navigation is a basic error of so many sites. Content is king. I'd rather see a poorly designed site with something to say than a super slick site full of vacuous nonsense.
Isn't it a bit ironic that you're best known for your Slap a Spice game?
We've had a lot of American corporations offering us money to have the game on their site, but it's not about money. It's a political statement against the Spice Girls being Tories.
So why is everyone now slapping Bill Gates?
Microsoft contacted me to put the IE3 endorsement icon on Urban75, I mailed them back agreeing on condition I got a huge pack of freebies - which duly arrived. But now next to the IE3 icon l get to put a 'smack Bill Gates in the face' Java applet.
How useful is the Net to you as a means of expressing your views?
The Net has given me a great release, I'm still as angry but 10,000 people now read my views every day. It's a great means of expression. It's like when punk happened people started putting out records without needing to understand the music business. Web design now has that immediacy. At the same time the Net reflects the best and worst of people. I think most governments are confused by that and afraid they can't control it. The very nature of the Internet means it's growing in all directions. I can't predict where it'll go next,
How do you reconcile corporate work with your political outlook?
Urban75 is still the most important thing to me, but I was lucky to be given a very open brief for both the Snickers and Direct Connection sites in terms of design. The Snickers site can laugh at itself, it still has a bit of attitude along the lines of Urban75. A lot of companies that don't understand the Net try to put elements of a corporate brochure on to their site. My work tries to show that Web design is more informal.
Will it be hard for you to retain your principles as the dosh rolls in?
I'm not chasing the dollar. The most important thing for me is taking on projects I'm interested in. I want to stay freelance. I wouldn't fit into an office environment. At the moment I'm having a lot of fun and finding it quite challenging. I don't want to be Mr. Number One designer. I don't want to live in a corporate world.
Is it true you were a pain-in-the-arse art student?
I suppose it's fair to say I was quite single-minded in what I was doing. As a result I didn't really fit in with the student life. I was too busy putting up political posters when everybody else was getting pissed. I do think that Camberwell let me do my own thing because there was a political edge to my work.
How do you see the future of site design evolving?
There'll always be a lot of really crap sites. People think they can become an artist overnight but graphic design for the Net is very different to traditional design. A lot of people are turning to Web projects without understanding graphics, and it shows.
Behind his back...
Jill Carter, Communications office, Direct Connection
He's got his first and he's very talented. He can now pick the projects he believes in, which means he won't have to sell his soul to the devil like the rest of us
Lawrence Zeegan, course director, BA (Hons) Graphic Design Camberwell College of Arts
He's technically very good, very creative as a designer and full of ideas. His Urban75 site confirms this. I think he'll go onto be a much better designer in years to come but he's always going to have that punk ethos.
Rlchard Mellor, creative director Hyperinteractive
I'll be curious to see how over the years he redefines himself. He's definitely someone to keep an eye on
Internet Magazine October 97
by David Atkinson ©Internet Magazine ©1997
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